The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles
Bowles is one of my favorite writers. His prose is stark yet rich, with a darkness so lush it draws you in no matter how unsettling the image. So when Bowles writes a love story, you can expect it’s bound to be double-edged, and perhaps not the kind you’d ever want to live out. As we’re soon told,“The soul is the weariest part of the body.”
The husband and wife at the center of Bowles’ novel are Port and Kit Moresby. They leave the U.S. during wartime in 1939, and arrive in north Africa to take up a peripatetic existence with a third wheel, an American friend, Tunner.
Port and Kit have hit a rough spot in their marriage, but the triad never takes hold, since Tunner doesn’t have the power to permeate Kit’s detachment, or Port’s ego. Though with the arrival of the Lyles, a
questionable English couple—well, a mother and son—the inciting event occurs, and the group is drawn further into the Sahara. The journey that takes place, to the center of a world and a soul, is as much interior as it is exterior.
“How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
The Sheltering Sky is listed as number #97 in the Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels, and 2019 marked the seventieth year since its publication—which in 1949 became a bestseller and brought Bowles fame and financial security. Edward Said famously dismissed the American ex-pat, who first arrived in Tangiers in 1931 and settled there in 1947, for the Orientalist tropes that populate his stories, reliant as they are on the exotic, the barbaric, and idealized otherworldly, and defined Morocco from the stance of an outsider.
Author Hisham Aidi (Tangier: Orientalism, Nostalgia and the Road to Oppression) wrote, “Although [Bowles] was well aware of the violence of French imperialism, he enjoyed its amenities—’the old, easygoing, openly colonial life of Morocco’—and as early as the 1950s, Bowles began to lament the loss of ‘colonial Tangier.’”
Despite those flaws, Bowles has an undeniable place, however unreliable, in Western literature. Even if you haven’t read the novel, some lines are likely familiar—as this one, “How fragile we are under the sheltering sky,” which became the source of one of Sting’s trademark ballads—and if you’ve yet to read any of Bowles’ celebrated short stories, you have a discovery in store. Bowles’ spare and cruelly beautiful prose, his sense of place, his tempered way with terror and delirium—all can be relished in this novel. But if it’s a love story you’re after, The Sheltering Sky is about a place far more remote and unfathomable than love.