Sara-Maria's Reviews > The Sheltering Sky

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
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May 30, 2008

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** spoiler alert ** update: very helpful article for sorting out my reactions to this book-Edwards, Brian T. "Sheltering Screens: Paul Bowles and Foreign Relations" American Literary History - Volume 17, Number 2, Summer 2005, pp. 307-33. Can be found in Project Muse database.

this book is highly praised, and I entered into the reading enthusiastically. The enthusiasm quickly tapered off into disinterest, wavering sometimes into disgust, sometimes into intrigue, but I feel like in my dismissiveness I missed a lot. Now I find myself unable to shake the story and even shelled out a few bucks to rent the Bertolucci film.

The disgust first: North Africa figures in mainly as a hazy but alluring backdrop for the existential crisis of Port and Kit--the jaded married couple, self-proclaimed 'travelers' rather than 'tourists', lured to unknown places for unknown reasons--and most readers I suspect, will come away with an exoticized picture, if any picture at all, of their location. I have yet to read critical commentary on the novel, but I'm guessing, especially with Said at one's disposal, that this book has gotten some shit, rightly so perhaps, for its orientalism. Although Port and Kit are set apart (as more critical, and less…American) from their companion Tunner and other Westerners they met on the trip, such as the Lyles, they and the author, insofar as there is a distinction, reproduce time and time again the blind arrogance of power and privilege. That being said, there is, if you can make it to the third section, a substantive meditation on cultural encounters, meaning, disintegration, time and the like to be found here, evoked by the vastness of the desert and sky in its glory and its horror--although I have the feeling that the depth of this can and has often been missed (perhaps even by Bowles himself. To the extent that I want to be generous to Bowles, the blatant eurocentrism in its blatantess (the Arabic of locals, mainly hotel workers, wasn’t translated, for example--such characters presumably having nothing to add in way of narrative propulsion outside of room key wielding and a little native color) was a deliberate technique, structured so as to reveal the readers' complicity too with such a gaze, for it is how they (and we through their interactions) see and don't see the place and themselves (and ourselves) that leads to their (and our) ruin. Port and Kit's self-absorption and self-alienation--and placed as protagonists we readers too are drawn to be absorbed and alienated by them, with them, in their little obsessions and hang-ups--is at the lonely exclusion of much else, and their unwieldy attempts to the contrary are futile at best, positively disastrous at worst, marred as they must be by travel's painful half-acknowledged impossibilities. Such centering, the strategy of spotlighting the powerful once again, I have come to think is an absolutely crucial project (if only perhaps to give me purpose) but, and maybe I am just wanting Bowles to do my work for me, the exposition of the encounter was so…one-sided, even if deliberately, so as to clothe the political brunt behind rather tepid philosophizing and decontexualized romance, the dullness of which being precisely what fiction, in its amenability to creative encounters, can led us away from. In compiling a comparative sketch of first/third-world relations, which I can’t help but want to do, this had nothing of the suggestive tone and aching search of works such as Heart of Darkness or the Pickup that so capture my attention.
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message 1: by Naeem (new)

Naeem Quite the review. Thanks. I haven't read the book -- what would you advise? I have seen the film. Let me know what you think.

How would you compare it to Unexpected Light?


Sara-Maria eh, i'm obviously not a huge fan but i'd surely be curious to know what you think about it--rarely do books leave me so ambivalently engaged. the key seems to be in the narrative technqiues which i didn't pay much attention to until the third section, kit's breakdown (which i had quite the viseral response to, it'd be interesting to see how your response differed there). because of this, i'm not sure how to compare it to unexpected light. even if eliot and the characters in the sheltering sky had similar motivations for travel, the literary difference in approach, in the expression of perspective, guarantees the reader too has different relations to the story and the land. while i'm still not sure what bowles was going for, i trust elliot's earnestness.

do you know anything about this bowles guy? and what'd you think of the film?


message 3: by Naeem (new)

Naeem All I know is that Bowles is famous as is this book.

I did like the film. But I am mostly an uncritical fan of Bertolucci.


message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

I tend to concur on the Bertolucci part. As his direction is something I find uniquely sublime.

The book, which I read in 1994 had a singular effect on me. Again, since it was so long ago all i recall is its feeling of being out of time, and taking me with it.

I did not read it critically, but was attracted to the cover and the title. But it delivered for me in poetic ways that are hard to articulate.




message 5: by Mike (new)

Mike Huffman Hello Sara-Maria Sorentino,
I don't recall all the languages in the book, but I do recall some French that went untranslated.


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