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The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
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The Sheltering Sky (1949)

by Paul Bowles (Author)

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English (51)  Spanish (2)  Dutch (1)  Hebrew (1)  All languages (55)
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One of Time magazine's 20th Century bests? Oh, please. It is so contrived and would have been better left to some 50's man's magazine. Set in North Africa, these two charmless, dim-witted characters try to rekindle the romance in their marriage. Of course, they wander off in separate, unknown directions, get lost, nearly killed, the wife nearly enslaved... Oh, and this is supposed to show alienation of America from the rest of the world. Who thought that crap up? Not a good read. I've noticed that the selections by Time often stress the deviant (whether authors or subjects of novels) as being somehow more virtuous than quality fiction. Absurd. ( )
  JVioland | Jul 14, 2014 |
I think this is one of those books that are open to wide interpretation. Apart from eloquent description of the Sahara desert and its culture, it's a daring and exploratory trip into human psyche.

On the surface of it - a young American couple (even though in name only, for the moment), moderately seasoned by travel up to this point, with another friend by their side, escape to travel in North Africa, away from Europe, ravaged by Second World War. That's one thing. But dig deeper, and there is more to it. The two main characters agonizingly struggle with their feelings and intentions, revealing them (in their own minds) with brutal honesty that brings forth painful, raw emotions. Kit is fighting a feeling of constant doom that sometimes totally paralyzes her, leaving her deeply unhappy and disturbed; Port is dealing with issues of rekindling their relationship (if only she could think "his way"...) and seemingly cannot escape from the "cage he had built long ago to save himself from love". Both agree that Sahara can somehow be a magic remedy for them; and for both, as Port declares, the following is true: "We've never managed, either of us, to get all the way into life. We're hanging onto the outside for all we're worth, convinced we are going to fall off at the next bump."

The third companion plays the part only to the extent of being a pawn - they resort to him when needed and then they avoid him. Not that he doesn't deserve such treatment - for he has his own selfish motives that brought him on this journey.

The first part of the book is mostly this kind of pensive mental struggle, in the second one - the struggle becomes physical, brought on by the alien to them climate and culture and by other trials. From this point it becomes more than just painful philosophical ruminations on life and their place in it. Struggle for survival ensues. For one of them the end is ambiguous.

A local man observes to Kit: "Here we say that life is a cliff, and you must never turn around and look back when you are climbing". But even a statement like that, close to the end of the book, could not lift the oppressively heavy feeling I had after reading it. The book wore me out. Emotionally. Plus, one thing that I thought lacking - the history of the couple's relationship leading up to this extraordinary and tragic trip through North Africa (the meager hints of that didn't seem to be enough). ( )
1 vote Clara53 | Jun 6, 2014 |
Vivid and heartbreaking, rich with limpid metaphor, and some of the travel-brochurier bits about North Africa were fun ("being a traveller and not a tourist," I'm gonna go ahead and give Bowles the credit to assume, not the cliche then that it is.) But occasionally grimy-feeling, and I'm not sure about the psychological reality of the characters. Of the main trifecta, Tunner seems a caricature. Kit suffers from being forced to serve as the vessel within which some very unreconstructed mid-twentieth-century conceptions of what a woman is play themselves out; I found her twisted journey of rape and insanity in the last third of the book perhaps more compelling than risible on balance, but I'm not sure I liked myself much for being compelled. And Port was superficially appealing, wandering the paths of the earth in search of a clean soul, but on balance I think that he spoke less to certain parts of me than to certain parts of how I'd like to see myself. (Bruce Chatwin would do the same character better in his writings starring himself.) The minor characters were better. I see other reviewers have made similar comments. ( )
  MeditationesMartini | Apr 16, 2014 |
When I started reading thison Dec 4, 1951, I said: "This is a new novel published by New Directions. I vaguely remember reading an account of some writing by Paul Bowles that interested me muchly but I don't know if this is the book discussed. At all events, what with having read A Long Day's Dying and now this book I may be reading some rather ephemeral stuff and adding nothing to my sum total of reading. However one must keep up to date with the more significant stuff as well as seek to read the immortal old stuff. I'd like to find some new obscure writer I really like--like Truman Capote--if I find another I like as well as I like him, I'd feel rewarded. Buechner I did not like, despite some interest in phases of him. There is a lot of stuff in the library here (I was at the the naval base at Norfolk) I want to read.." On the day I finished the book I said: "'Twas New Directiony okay, powerful in a shocking sort of way, ending in a blaze of push. Much of the early part, with Kit and Port Moresby traveling in north Africa was good writing but the locale combined with the basic inaction to endullenize it for me. Everything was hot, dusty and dirty and jolting, and so I couldn't understnd how the characters were so active and moving. It didn't make sense to me. The closing parts, after Port's death, I did not find necessary to find understandaable and so i followed the story of Kit's running away with interest and admiration for the power of the account." ( )
1 vote Schmerguls | Aug 5, 2013 |
I read this when I was 22 or 23 and didn't get it at all. It seemed vaguely important, but also boring and plotless. Re-reading it as I near 30 has been eye-opening. It's a haunting story narrated beautifully.

Bowles made this a kind of anti-novel. It still doesn't really have a plot, but that doesn't bother me as much anymore. It's more an exercise in existentialism, nihilism, and the ennui of Western civilization's bourgeois youth.

Along the way, Bowles displays a penetrating insight into the psychology of a married couple on the outs. Through dialogue and occasional omniscient-narrator comments, he captures the frustrating disconnect and alienation they suffer, mostly through a tragic lack of clear communication. An example from the beginning: "It seems as though there might be some place in the world they could have left alone," said the girl. This was to please her husband, because she regretted having felt annoyed with him about the maps a moment ago. Recognizing the gesture, but not understanding why she was making it, he paid no attention to it. p.7
The entire book is filled with such subtleties. One of my favorite lines is his characterization of Kit, the wife, early on:She was no more disturbed by other people as such, than the marble statue is by the flies that crawl on it. . .p.39 This is just awesome. Bowles doesn't have to directly tell you that she is cold, condescending and unfeeling. He just compares her to a friggin statue.

The level of detail in the book is truly mesmerizing. Bowles is one of the only authors I've ever read who can transport you to a setting just through his flowery descriptions. He remembers details that nobody else does, and they make the scene come alive. Perhaps my favorite such moment:From a grilled window over his head came hard female voices and the metallic sound of kitchen activities, amplified by the stone walls and tile floors. This room, even more than the others, reminded him of a dungeon. The electric bell of the cinema was audible above all the other noises, a constant, nerveracking background. He went to the writing tables, lifted the blotters, opened the drawers, searching for stationery; there was none. Then he shook the inkwells; they were dry. A violent argument had broken out in the kitchen. Scratching the fleshy parts of his hands, where the mosquitoes had just bitten him, he walked slowly out of the room through the foyer, along the corridor into the bar. Even here the light was weak and distant, but the array of bottles behind the bar formed a focal point of interest for the eyes. p.51I could see people arguing that this passage is completely irrelevant, having nothing to do with plot development or even characterization, and they'd probably have a point, although that doesn't make it any less AWESOME. Who can't relate to this guy stuck in a sweaty hotel room with mosquitos biting him? You know EXACTLY what Bowles is talking about, yet how many other authors have shown the attention to detail to put it down? Like I said, he transports you there. You empathize completely, and it's all a part of the lingering hypnotic effect that Bowles weaves around you from the outset.

##SPOILERS## It's not a perfect book, and it mostly has to do with Bowles' non-traditional story telling. There is no real beginning-middle-end, and there's no true plot. It's just a study of characters dealing with the phenomenon of existential angst. It's most noticeable when the main character, Port, dies a little more than halfway through. Until then he has been the most compelling character in the book, so his absence leaves the reader without any real anchor in the story. This makes the nightmarish finale much less gripping than it maybe should have been.

Other than that, I love this book. I guess I just can't recommend it to a lot of people because most of those outside of the literary crowd probably wouldn't get it, just like I didn't the first time around.

( )
  blake.rosser | Jul 28, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 51 (next | show all)
There is a curiously double level to this novel. The surface is enthralling as narrative. It is impressive as writing. But above that surface is the aura that I spoke of, intangible and powerful, bringing to mind one of those clouds that you have seen in summer, close to the horizon and dark in color and now and then silently pulsing with interior flashes of fire. And that is the surface of the novel that has filled me with such excitement.
 
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Epigraph
[Book One]

"Each man's destiny is personal only insofar as it may happen to resemble what is already in his memory."

--Eduardo Mallea
[Book Two]

"'Good-bye,' says the dying man to the mirror they hold in front of him. 'We won't be seeing each other any more.'"

--Valery
[Book Three]

"From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached."

--Kafka
Dedication
To Jane
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He awoke, opened his eyes.
Si svegliò, aprì gli occhi. La stanza gli diceva poco o niente, profondamente immerso com'era nel non-essere da cui era appena affiorato. Se l'energia di accertare la propria collocazione nel tempo e nello spazio gli mancava, gliene mancava anche il desiderio. Sapeva soltanto di esistere, d'avere attraversato vaste regioni per ritornare dal nulla; c'era, al centro della sua coscienza, la certezza di una tristezza infinita e al tempo stesso rassicurante, perché era la sola ad essergli familiare.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 006083482X, Paperback)

American novelist and short-story writer, poet, translator, classical music composer, and filmscorer Paul Bowles has lived as an expatriate for more than 40 years in the North African nation of Morocco, a country that reaches into the vast and inhospitable Sahara Desert. The desert is itself a character in The Sheltering Sky, the most famous of Bowles' books, which is about three young Americans of the postwar generation who go on a walkabout into Northern Africa's own arid heart of darkness. In the process, the veneer of their lives is peeled back under the author's psychological inquiry.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:38:56 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

A beautiful, yet disturbing, tale of two people traveling into the Sahara. Although the couple apear to be smart, independent travelers, they are not equipped to travel into the desert. Thus, each time hardship strikes, pieces of their comfortable lives and the identities they had constructed seem to peel away. The shifting sands and unforgiving sun are metaphors for the shocking and vulgar circumstances that befall them.… (more)

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Penguin Australia

Three editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141023422, 0141187778, 0141195134

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