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The Sheltering Sky

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In this classic work of psychological terror, Paul Bowles examines the ways in which Americans apprehend an alien culture--and the ways in which their incomprehension destroys them. The story of three American travelers adrift in the cities and deserts of North Africa, The Sheltering Sky is at once merciless and heartbreaking in its compassion. It etches the limits of human reason and intelligence--perhaps even the limits of human life --when they touch the unfathomable emptiness and impassive cruelty of the desert.

342 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1949

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About the author

Paul Bowles

187 books736 followers
Paul Bowles grew up in New York, and attended college at the University of Virginia before traveling to Paris, where became a part of Gertrude Stein's literary and artistic circle. Following her advice, he took his first trip to Tangiers in 1931 with his friend, composer Aaron Copeland.

In 1938 he married author and playwright Jane Auer (see: Jane Bowles). He moved to Tangiers permanently in 1947, with Auer following him there in 1948. There they became fixtures of the American and European expatriate scene, their visitors including Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. Bowles continued to live in Tangiers after the death of his wife in 1973.

Bowles died of heart failure in Tangier on November 18, 1999. His ashes were interred near the graves of his parents and grandparents in Lakemont, New York.

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Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 2 books247k followers
March 17, 2019
"He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas a tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another."

Before meeting Port Moresby, I always thought of myself as a traveler, but after one particular late night discussion accompanied by inebriation, interrupted by a frolic in an exotic bordello conveniently located nearby, and then reconvened over tankards of yet more alcoholic concoctions, he managed to convince me that I was merely a tourist.

I was at a disadvantage, you see. I was not independently wealthy. I was still building a living for myself. I had three women I was seeing, all interviewing for a more permanent position as my wife. So yes, I was never able to linger while traveling, due to the fact that I always had a pressing need to return to my life, to shore up my business interests, and to keep my social relationships growing. I was, without a doubt, a tourist. Shamefully so.

Despite knowing this about me, Port did stop in one evening to ask me if I wanted to go with them to North Africa. I was disappointed that his wife Kit was not with him. I guess I might as well confess this now. I was in love with Kit. It was quite awkward actually. A psychologist might make a case that my inability to pick one companion from the available women in my life actually stems from a deep seated belief that eventually Kit would come to her senses, divorce Port, and fling herself into my arms.

”The head is like the sky. Always turning around and around inside. But very slowly. When you think, you make it go too fast. Then it aches.”

I don’t really know how it happened. I thought I had the inside track. I grew up with her. I watched the moth morph into a beautiful butterfly. We exchanged books and thoughts about those books. We hung out together to the detriment of our individual studies. We occasionally kissed with something more than friendly affection. I was on the verge of asking her to marry me when she abruptly disappeared on a whirlwind tour of the world. She came back with Port.

It didn’t take me long to discover that my ship had sailed and Port’s had docked.

I was always watching (analysing) him whenever I was around him, trying to discover what exactly it was about him that had so quickly convinced Kit that he was the one for her. I was more shattered than I could ever reveal. It was only later that I realized that my life or at least the thought of a life with me was something she would have found horribly confining. Port’s attraction was his shiftlessness. His lack of roots. His avoidance of responsibilities. Anytime anything became TOO REAL. He moved on to somewhere else. His money was a buffer between himself and dealing with any of the tedious expectations that others may have for him.

He was free. I was burdened.

I was still considering the North Africa trip. It would have been a perfect opportunity to spend some time with Kit because invariably Port would disappear on some side trip in search of greater meaning. I didn’t say yes right away. I’d assumed I’d have more than a few minutes to give Port an answer, but as usual I underestimated his impulsive nature. They left with a fellow named Tunner.

I had met Tunner, only in the most casual sense. We’d once occupied the same space at a party of mutual friends. I’d logged his presence only because of the way he looked at Kit. It was probably much the same way as I looked at her as well.

I only received one letter from Kit while they were in North Africa.

"She was content to watch the soft unvaried landscape going by. To be sure several times it occurred to her that they were not really moving at all, that the dune along whose sharp rim they were now traveling was the same dune they had left behind earlier, that there was no question of going anywhere since they were nowhere. And when these sensations came to her they started a slight stirring of a thought ‘Am I Dead?’"

Needless to say the letter was disconcerting to me. It reeked of disassociation and had me wondering if those vast endless horizons of the African desert were beginning to inspire some form of mental illness.

My worst fears, as it turned out, were mere childish angst compared to the trials and tribulations she actually suffered. I blame Port, of course, but I also can’t help but blame her as well. After all, she chose the wrong man.

The family, Kit’s kin, came to me and asked me to go fetch her in North Africa. They didn’t know anyone else with the connections to Kit or anyone possessing the wherewithal to make the journey. I guess a part of me thought this was finally my chance to be with her, but seeing the way she looked at me when I reached out to greet her was distressing. It was as if I were just part of the background of her life...a chair for instance that doesn’t exist until she has the need to sit. ”she tried to break away from him. In another minute life would be painful. The words were coming back, and inside the wrappings of the words there would be thoughts lying there. The hot sun would shrivel them; they must be kept inside in the dark.”

She told me everything on the journey home. The death of Port. The rape and worse, the acceptance of rape. She allowed herself to become a possession, a man’s plaything. For a while she even enjoyed it because she didn’t have to make decisions about anything. She traded sex for some semblance of peace. She tried a couple of times to crawl into my bunk on the way home, but I would only hold her against me, trapping her hands when they ventured near my groin. She found that particular solace with one of the young sailors or maybe more than one.

I went through all the stages of grief: fear, anger, depression, but by the time we arrived in New York I’d finally reached some level of acceptance.

The last I heard Kit was in New Mexico, but by the time a letter would reach her, she’d be somewhere else. I often wondered, late at night, with a warm snifter of cognac in my hand and a good book close to hand, whether if I’d agreed to go on the trip, would Port still be alive, and would Kit be a less fractured version of herself.

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
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Profile Image for Jim Fonseca.
1,078 reviews6,883 followers
December 26, 2022
[Revised 12/26/22, typos]

“On the Road” in North Africa, published eight years before Kerouac’s classic. A 30-ish American married couple and a male friend are traveling in the French colonies right after the end of World War II at a time when the US State Department advised people NOT to travel there because of rampant disease and the disintegration of social conditions and of law and order.

The first half of the book focuses on the husband; the second half on the wife. He is so obsessed with immersing himself in the travel experience that one night he slides down a hillside used as the local dump and sits there taking in the sights and smells of the garbage and filth.

Generally he’s an Ugly American par excellence. His wife knows that he wanders off at night to go to prostitutes. He drunkenly demands tea, flashing his money, when his Arab host has told him the women are asleep.


Somehow his wife loves him. She puts up with all his nonsense while she fends off advances from his male friend and traveling companion who is in love with her. She thinks of the friend as a jerk and a bore…but... Later in the book she travels alone, literally in the desert.

There’s a lot of local color from what was then a far edge of the earth. They are not staying at Club Med or even a Motel 6 in an abandoned strip mall. These American travelers apparently don’t mind mosquitos, lice, bed bugs, and eating next to trash cans. Perhaps they are trying to repair or reinvigorate their more-than-ten-year marriage. We are told it’s a novel of alienation and existential despair. I’ll vouch for that.

It’s a good story and quite fascinating. I wish we had more psychological background about how these folks ended up this way. What drove them to this almost masochist desire for such a down-to-earth travel experience? We assume the lead character is wealthy because he has the time and the money to travel. The title apparently comes from Gnosticism where the stars are holes in a solid sky – and you don’t want to know what is on the other side.

I read this book because I noticed that so many friends on GR had rated it highly and had given it good reviews. And in fact the book is considered by many a modern classic. It is on a couple of top-100 lists of contemporary novels.


The author (1910-1999) was a fascinating character. He was born in New York and attended the University of Virginia but basically spent the rest of his life as an ex-pat. He was a composer as well as a novelist. At first he lived in Paris, where he was part of Gertrude Stein’s crowd. Even though he was a gay man (he had a long affair with composer Aaron Copland), he was married to a woman (who was a lesbian). But their relationship was more than a marriage of convenience or for show. They genuinely cared for each other all their lives.

Bowles and his wife set up their own literary salon in Tangier in Morocco where guests included folks like Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal.

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Profile Image for Michael.
Author 2 books1,331 followers
September 11, 2018
Hypnotic, searing, terrifying, I first read this when I too was living in North Africa--in Egypt, to be precise--and it utterly shattered me. I recognized something of myself and my fellow expats in the thoughtfully self-centered and naive travelers depicted here, and something of the merciless cruelty of the desert I was never far from. The prose style isn't elaborate, but it isn't stark either, and the best I can describe it is to say that it weaves quite a spell, opening a slight yet horrifying window onto the sort of existential dread we all tend to keep at bay.

September 2018: I'm re-reading this now and finding it just as mesmerizing. There's a certainly brooding, almost philosophical quality to the prose that perfectly matches the impersonal landscape.

Then there's the sky. What lies beyond? What blackness resides just on the other side? The novel explores this theme relentlessly. On the one hand, the "sheltering sky" is the thin veneer of civilization that Westerners have used to convince themselves of the orderliness of human affairs, not to mention their own superiority. On the other hand, the "sheltering sky" is every self-delusion humans employ to keep themselves from the horrors of an indifferent universe. The book gradually strips away these veneers, these self-delusions, until the raw facts of existence themselves are exposed. It's not pretty, but it's quite a cathartic journey into the abyss.

In a way this book reminds me (perhaps strangely) of Moby Dick, where Melville also explores the theme of self-delusion--how necessary self-delusion is to our basic sanity, but how horribly it can lead us astray.
Profile Image for Guille.
738 reviews1,443 followers
June 4, 2020
“Alguien le había dicho alguna vez que el cielo esconde detrás la noche; que protege al que está debajo del horror de lo que hay arriba.
— ¿De lo que hay detrás?
— Sí.
— ¿Pero qué hay detrás? —preguntó Kit con un hilo de voz.
— Nada, supongo. Solamente oscuridad. La noche absoluta.”
Una novela terrible y hermosa, una historia triste cargada de escenas atroces, una funesta búsqueda existencial, un viaje al infierno de uno mismo dentro de un brutal choque de culturas.
“Creo que los dos tenemos miedo de lo mismo. Y por una misma razón. Nunca hemos conseguido, ninguno de los dos, entrar en la vida. Estamos colgando del lado de afuera, por mucho que hagamos, convencidos de que nos vamos a caer en el próximo tumbo.”
Port y Kit, un matrimonio en horas bajas lo suficientemente ricos como para permitirse el lujo de ser viajeros, esos afortunados seres que parten sin definir previamente los sitios por los que pasarán ni decidir el momento en el que volverán a casa, llegan al Sahara con el fin de encontrar o de encontrarse o descubrir algo que ni ellos son capaces de precisar. Él tenía una débil esperanza de que aquellas culturas milenarias, todavía no contaminadas por la civilización occidental, pudieran proporcionarle respuestas, aunque no estuviera muy seguro de cuáles eran las preguntas. Ella estaba convencida de que él necesitaba que ambos compartieran “la soledad y la cercanía de las cosas infinitas”, que solo participando de la misma esperanza podrían volver a amarse y, por ende, salvarse. Dos personas que se necesitan sabiendo en el fondo que ninguno podrá proporcionar al otro lo que quiere y precisa y de que toda posibilidad de amor desapareció hace mucho tiempo.
“… a pesar de estar dispuesta a llegar a ser lo que él quisiera, había algo que Kit no podía cambiar: el terror estaba siempre dentro de ella, dispuesto a asumir el mando. Era inútil pretender lo contrario. Y así como ella era incapaz de sacudirse el miedo de encima, él era incapaz de romper la jaula que había construido mucho tiempo atrás para salvarse del amor.”
Pero no está al alcance de todos encontrar lo que se busca. Es una gran ilusión creer que estamos al mando, que podemos ser y conducirnos de la forma que queramos y deseemos, qué ilusión es creer que somos libres. Nadie elige sentir el vacío de Port, nadie desea el espanto de querer penetrar en el interior de algo y asumir que no hay nada donde se pueda penetrar (“la diferencia entre algo y nada es nada”), nadie desea ese infierno al que, sin embargo, se aferra desesperadamente porque es lo único que tiene. Como se dice en un momento de la novela:
“Aunque esa glacial ausencia de vida era la base de su infelicidad, se aferraría siempre a ella porque era también el centro mismo de su ser, en torno al cual se había construido.”
Como tampoco Kit quiere ser dominada por los terrores que anidan en su interior, unos terrores que la obligan a establecer categorías de presagios que la permitan hacer frente, aun de forma precaria, a las circunstancias de la vida diaria. Unos terrores que la llevarán a pagar un precio altísimo por conseguir evitar el angustioso sentimiento de responsabilidad, por conseguir que de ella desaparezca toda posibilidad de esperanza, por sentir la seguridad de que el futuro no será otra cosa que una inacabable continuación del presente, que…
“ningún acto que uno cumpliera o dejara de cumplir podía cambiar en lo más mínimo el resultado; que era imposible de todos modos cometer un error y, por lo tanto, imposible lamentarlo o, sobre todo, sentirse culpable”.

Quiero terminar con un párrafo que me impactó, unos pensamientos de Kit que sacados de su contexto puede que no les digan nada y que incluso piensen lo que no es. Pero, si llegan a leer el libro, estoy seguro de que experimentarán el espanto que a mí me produjeron.
“Cuando él subía los peldaños del estrado, abría las cortinas, entraba y se recostaba a su lado para iniciar el lento ritual de desvestirla, las horas que había pasado sin hacer nada cobraban todo su significado. Y cuando él se iba, el delicioso estado de agotamiento y plenitud le duraba mucho tiempo: permanecía despierta, bañada en un aura de felicidad despreocupada, estado que rápidamente llegó a considerar natural y que, como una droga, se le volvió indispensable.”
Y no será el único momento de horror con el que tendrán que vérselas. Lean, lean.
Profile Image for Steven Godin.
2,313 reviews2,190 followers
July 20, 2017
This has destroyed me!, an utterly devastating work of immense power where the frailties of life both physically and emotionally are pushed to the very limits in a hostile, dangerous and unforgiving land.
Having settled in Tangier in the late 40's Paul Bowles uses his knowledge and experiences of French North Africa to startling effect. American couple Kit and Port Moresby have a marriage that is disintegrating and feel a trip abroad could help repair their relationship, so to avoid a ravaged Europe following the second world war decide to travel through Algeria with their friend Tunner in tow, who clearly has some strong feelings for the beautiful Kit, things were never going to work out as hoped. There are Train journeys and bus rides through stunning but harsh landscapes with deserts, valleys, and rugged terrain where the unrelenting heat of the sun is a constant factor during the days, but it's when staying in the small towns where the reel problems start to arise, with general bickering, kit's uncomfortable mood towards their surrounding taking hold and Port disappearing into the night, as couples go it only seems likely they will drift further apart with no signs of happiness on the horizon. Slowly an uneasiness starts to creep in, with figures lurking in the shadow's of dark passageways, strange looks from locals they can never be certain about, with fly's buzzing, dogs barking, small children crying, there is a building paranoia, and Paul Bowles does make everything out in a stark, desolate, but realistic way similar to say Cormac Mcarthy, so if your looking for joy it does not exist here, as there were a few passages of writing in particular quite early on of such bleakness I had to go over them again as just couldn't believe my eyes, so he does not exactly portray a place where one would wish to hang around for too long. While the first half reads like a travel novel this would only go on to set the scene for when events take a turn into something of almost unbearable tensions that has quite frankly left me shattered.

Profile Image for Candi.
607 reviews4,582 followers
April 11, 2021
“The coming of day promises a change; it is only when the day has fully arrived that the watcher suspects it is the same day returned once again- the same day he has been living for a long time, over and over, still blindingly bright and untarnished by time.”

Keeping a story like this at arm’s length is really the best prescription for me right now. Otherwise, I could fall down ‘the meaning of life’ rabbit hole and perhaps never resurface. If I had been searching for answers, I wouldn’t have found them here anyway – at least not the sort of answers I would wish to find. Nope, just like the protagonists of this masterfully crafted novel, what I found here was something bleak and terrifying.

“The people of each country get more like the people of every other country. They have no character, no beauty, no ideals, no culture – nothing, nothing.”

For all their intellectual airs and their philosophical discussions about the search for meaning, these are some damnable, shallow characters! I should have guessed it from the first. Port and Kit Moresby’s marriage is on the rocks. So they decide to take a trip to North Africa where they hope to repair the fissures in their relationship and perhaps grasp the answers to the big questions in the process. They decide to bring their pal Tunner along for the ride. Umm, that sounds like a setup for failure right from the get-go. Nothing like needing the third wheel to create a buffer of sorts if things don’t go quite as planned when you’re trying to straighten out a marriage. It could also be a recipe for disaster.

“He felt a sudden shudder of self pity that was almost pleasurable, it was such a complete expression of his mood. It was a physical shudder; he was alone, abandoned, lost, hopeless, cold. Cold especially – a deep interior cold nothing could change. Although it was the basis of his unhappiness, this glacial deadness, he would cling to it always, because it was also the core of his being, he had built the being around it.”

There’s a lot of navel-gazing here with little or no regard for anyone outside their own orbit. The poverty of the environs puts them off; the native persons are regarded with suspicion and fear. They are outwardly rude and disrespectful to everyone else. But they are so fervent in their desire to find MEANING! It’s a bit like a crash course in the Existentialism of Self-Centered Persons. These aren’t the kind of characters you can find much sympathy for – even if you dig deep, which I honestly tried to do. I began to draw comparisons to W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, a book that in retrospect left me with a little bit of hope for the redemption of a shallow life. That didn’t happen here, but I believe that was the whole point. Sometimes one really does pay the price for the way one lives his or her life. But where did it all go wrong? There isn’t really much of a background story for Kit or Port so I can’t really answer the question even now, after reading the final pages. It’s as if they knew they were lacking something in their lives, but they just didn’t know how to get to the heart of the matter. They were too self-focused to realize that it’s not really all about “me”.

“You know, the sky here’s very strange. I often have the sensation when I look at it that it’s a solid thing up there, protecting us from what’s behind.”

Just as the title suggests, the sky features quite heavily and thematically throughout. The blue sky, the blinding sun, and the stark whiteness of the architecture which is made even more dazzling by the relentless brilliance - all these images constantly plague the characters. What lies just beyond the ‘sheltering sky’? What is it sheltering one from? You really can’t run quite far enough to ever escape your own inner turmoil.

With stunning imagery, Paul Bowles draws the landscape of the towns and desert with such clarity. The reader gets sucked in by the tension, the heightened awareness, and the increasing psychological terror. If you’re not trapped under the intense gaze of the sun and sky, then there’s nowhere else to go but inside, where a sense of claustrophobia seizes hold. There’s such a surreal feeling to this novel, particularly in the last section. I confess this is where the author lost me just a smidge. To explain why would be roaming into spoiler territory, so I’ll leave it at that. The writing is sensuous and the tone is haunting. Bowles shines when it comes to atmosphere and the crescendo to the peak of terror. From there it’s a quick descent towards isolation and insanity.

“She sat there, frozen inside her skin, knowing all at once that she did not know anything – neither where nor what she was; there was a slight, impossible step that must be taken toward one side or the other before she could be back in focus.”
Profile Image for Julie G .
868 reviews2,678 followers
August 21, 2017
The story opens with a young married couple and an attractive male companion, on an adventurous rendezvous in Northern Africa.

Oooooh, how scintillating. . . how very, very scintillating. Starry skies, the soft curves of the sensuous desert in the backdrop. . .

Within just a few pages I had cast the movie. My film version of this story was going to star Ralph Fiennes-as-English Patient, Joseph Fiennes-as-Shakespeare and, well. . . naturally, me. I had already decided that, if one of the Fiennes brothers wasn't available, Colin Firth-as-Darcy or Viggo Mortensen-as-Aragorn would serve as adequate replacements. Better yet, let's just add them to the plot.

But, even though this story takes place in French Africa, and there is a fantastic French word available to describe these complicated gatherings of three. . . I have gotten myself into potential hot water with my husband all over nothing in this review. Nothing.

Because ain't NOTHING scintillating happening here!

And, not only is nothing scintillating happening, a whole lot of sinister is.

Sinister. . . and sick. . . and stressful, oh so stressful.

And, what else? Let's see. . . a potentially incestuous, criminal mother-son team. Lice, bedbugs, thieves. A writer who refers to all women in his story as girls, and characters who I honestly hate.

Let me repeat that last part. Characters who I honestly hate. Characters who talk like this:

Wife: What's the unit of exchange in this different world of yours?
Husband: The tear.
Wife: It isn't fair, some people have to work very hard for a tear! Others can have them just for the thinking.
Husband: What system of exchange is fair? . . . You think the quantity of pleasure, the degree of suffering is constant among all men? It somehow all comes out in the end? You think that? If it comes out even, it's only because the final sum is zero.

Oh, wah, wah, wah. You poor babies. You poor, spoiled babies. I could not stomach the husband's relentless fear of death and penchant for whining, nor the wife's lack of color or passion for anything.

These characters are so damned spoiled, so quintessentially the “ugly Americans,” they can't even see past their own noses that they live the most enchanted and fantastical lives. As a reader, it is hard to suffer with or relate to any of them, especially when they feel damned whenever their cocktails arrive without ice (ahem, in the desert).

I swear to you. . . I hated every character in this book. Mon dieu! I HATED them all. I wanted every one of them to die slow and painful deaths out on the white sand and then have their eyes pecked clean by vultures. I also did not enjoy reading this. It was not a pleasurable read for me.

So, why would I give it five stars?

Because, seriously, the writing is FANTASTIC.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,667 followers
December 21, 2015
“How fragile we are under the sheltering sky. Behind the sheltering sky is a vast dark universe, and we're just so small.”
― Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky


Paul Bowles masterpiece reminds me of some alternate, trippy, version of Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, but instead we see the other side of the Mediterranean. Tangier and the deserts of North Africa take the place of the South of France. A different love triangle exposes different forms of loneliness, madness, love, and existential expats.

The thing I love about Bowles is he brings a composer's mind to writing. His novel isn't propelled forward by a strong plot (although it has plot) or attractive characters (none of the characters are very attractive), but the music of his language alone pushes and pulls, tugs and compels the reader page after page. It felt very much like I was floating limp and languid in Bowles prose as his hypnotic sentences washed over me and drifted me slowly toward the inevitable end.

Most days, I don't feel a real need to read a book twice. I might need to make an exception for 'The Sheltering Sky'.
Profile Image for Vessey.
30 reviews266 followers
January 16, 2018

“Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. 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 world is filled with sorrow and adventures. When home, we long to be somewhere else. When we are somewhere else, we long to be home. But what about those who have no home, who belong everywhere and nowhere? Port Morseby is such a man. He is a man of many lands. He doesn’t stay faithful to any place, not even to his wife. Nor does she stay faithful to him. We see their marriage laid bare before us, a fragile thing that, strangely, in the end falls apart not because of the distance between them and all the third parties involved, but because his life is cut short by a disease. It is not his passion for other women that unties the knot, but his passion for the world. Port Morseby is a traveler.

"He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas a tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another."

It is books like this one that make you realize how vast and how small at the same time the world is. Our troubles follow us wherever we go. And there is always more. I read once in a book that our problems are like naughty children. Let them out and they inevitably come back with friends. He moves from one place to another with the ease a chameleon changes its colours, but his soul is transfixed.

“If he had not the energy to ascertain his position in time and space, he also lacked the desire. He was somewhere, he had come back through vast regions from nowhere; there was the certitude of an infinite sadness at the core of his consciousness, but the sadness was reassuring, because it alone was familiar"

"There’s no reason to be afraid, but I am. Sometimes I’m not here. Then I’m far away and all alone. No one could ever get there. It’s too far. And there I’m alone. So alone I can’t even remember the idea of not being alone. I can’t even think what it would be like for there to be someone else in the world. When I’m there I can’t remember being here; I’m just afraid. But here I can remember being there."

No world is vast enough to heal a restless soul. The world is only as big as we let it be. There is no sheltering sky.

"The landscape was there, and more than ever he felt he could not reach it. The rocks and the sky were everywhere, ready to absolve him, but as always he carried the obstacle within him. He would have said that as he looked at them, they ceased being themselves, that in the act of passing into his consciousness, they became impure. It was slight consolation to be able to say to himself: “I am stronger than they.”

Port’s wife, Kit, albeit lacking her husband’s adventurous spirit, to me is an even more vivid and memorable character, albeit as tragic. Wherever her husband goes, she follows, but only out of sense of loyalty. A loyalty she preserves even in her moments of intimacy with their mutual friend Tunner. It is her soul’s desire to please him and find a path to him. Maybe part of her failure to do so is due to the fact that she does not know where she comes from. Not only that she lacks her husband’s impetuousness, but she struggles to preserve even a relative amount of self-confidence. She is afraid to be herself, she is afraid to take responsibility, to make a choice, to be alive.

"She once had thought that if he should die before she did, she would not really believe he was dead, but rather that he had gone back inside himself, and that he never would be conscious of her again; that it would be she who would have ceased to exist. She would be the one who had entered partially into the realm of death, while he would go on, an anguish inside her, a door left unopened, a chance irretrievably lost"

Unfortunately, her prediction comes true. She is captured physically and emotionally. She accepts what comes to her afterwars, she even manages to persuade herself that she enjoys it. As I told a GR friend recently, sometimes we tend to accept something, persuade ourselves that it is natural, that we love it, because it is easier than accepting the status of a victim, the reality of who or what we have become. Here is what I told my friend Jeffrey as soon as I finished the book: “We all long for the comfort of not having to deal with responsibility and guilt, not to have to worry and constantly think things through and make choices. But what happens to her shows the price we sometimes pay for such “freedom”. And even if we do happen to luck out and turn out into the hands of a reliable person, who wouldn’t take advantage of us, it would still not be right laying all the responsibility on someone else. It might be hard to constantly make choices, but it is those choices that make us who we are.”

The passage I open my review with, the fact that Port realizes that Kit is the most important thing for him only on his deathbed, the fact that she sees his death as "chance irretrievably lost" and Tunner's realization that Port had been his best friend only when he is already gone make me think about the often repeated saying that we tend to take things and people for granted and we realize their true value only when it's already too late. I had always thought "So what? I need to spend every waking minute being on the edge? Why should my just enjoying what I've got, without thinking all the time of everything that might go wrong and the end of it all, mean that I don't appreciate it?" It was only after reading this book that dawned on me that it is not about that. It is about making sure that you treat yourself and those around you the right way, that you end up with as little regrest as possible. Because, as Port says, "how many more times will you watch the full moon rise?"

Despite my use of the words adventure and adventurous, this isn’t an adventure book, it isn’t even really about travelling. It is a book about two people being pushed to their limits. They fail. The journey does not have a happy ending. Kit faces challenges she cannot overcome. She is broken and defeated. But she is alive. And as long as there is life, there is hope.

Read count: 1
Profile Image for Lara Messersmith-Glavin.
Author 3 books62 followers
April 1, 2008
"Each man's destiny is personal only inso as it may resemble what is already in his memory."

This quote is from Eduardo Mallea, and it begins The Sheltering Sky with that strange act of framing that so many authors employ, using the words of others to summarize or introduce the feelings that they are about to try to invoke in their readers. Above this quote is another phrase: "Tea in the Sahara," a chapter title, now-familiar but difficult to place. This was taken by none other than the band The Police, to introduce their own work, a song of the same name that recreates a story from The Sheltering Sky. It's an interesting little web - and indicative, I think, of the kind of impact that this book seems to have on people, or at least on those who love it.

I did strange things because of this book. I bought leather-bound antique tomes written by T.E. Lawrence, and read them to a friend while wrapped in blankets and candlelight, hiding from a snowstorm, which we both pretended was sand and not ice. I became obsessed with the notions of breath and spirit that are espoused by the Touareg people of the Sahara desert. I planned films. I devoured the works of Isabelle Eberhardt, an early pioneer of female-gender-bending and exotic adventure. And finally, I bought a one-way ticket to Morocco to see Mr. Bowles, himself.

What happened after that is a long story, and a large part of my psychic history. Bowles died three days before I arrived, although Fate did land me at his wake, and I became friends with many of his, most notably the famous Moroccan novelist, Mohammed Choukri. I also ended up living in North Africa for about two years, and spending a good deal of time in the desert, undergoing indeed what Bowles translates as the baptism of solitude.

This is a long-winded way of saying that there is something special in this book, something that has the ability to get into you and never let you go. It makes you do things, it shakes you up and reminds you of emotions and fears that you had forgotten to give names to. And as the Mallea quote suggests, this book does nothing to you that you haven't already in some way done to yourself, or brings out nothing that wasn't already there, some other, wilder experience, some other collision with the real, and the you that you have forgotten or think you have lost.

For those who have watched or loved the film adaptation, I cannot speak to it as I've never been able to bring myself to see it. I am not a big fan of Bertolucci's work, although he does do some interesting things with silence. Bowles' comment on the film was something to the effect of, "How can you make a movie when all the action takes place inside people's heads?"
Profile Image for Perry.
631 reviews502 followers
February 14, 2021
The Only Book that overwhelmingly Entranced Me
“How fragile we are under the sheltering sky. Behind [it] is a vast dark universe, and we're just so small.”

I felt genuinely hypnotized by Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky, a lush and lyrical novel following a married couple and their male friend (they're "travelers," they say, not "tourists") as they wonder aimlessly through the desolation and harshness of the cities and deserts of North Africa shortly after WW II.

Within the novel is an affecting allegorical tale of 3 sisters who waited for a prince to join them for tea in the Sahara. This meta-tale has itself inspired numerous artworks, including the song "Tea in the Sahara" by The Police.
My sisters and I | Have this wish before we die.
And it may sound strange | As if our minds are deranged.
Please don't ask us why | Beneath the sheltering sky
We have this strange obsession
You have the means in your possession.
We want our tea in the Sahara ... with you.
[G. "Sting" Sumner, Tea in the Sahara, 1983]

The tale concludes:
“Many days later another caravan was passing and a man saw something on top of the highest dune... And when they went up..., they found the [girls]... there, lying the same way as when they had gone to sleep. And all three of the glasses,' he held up his own little tea glass, 'were full of sand. That was how they had their tea in the Sahara.”

On February 14, 2021, I am about to read this novel again solely for the hypnotic journey. Seriously. It's that good.

The Sheltering Sky is the apotheosis of hypnotic transference, by its poetic language so puissant, into a strange and foreign destination, of utter alienation but not without hope.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,159 reviews1,919 followers
January 12, 2020
“A novel of alienation and existential despair” written just after the Second World War. I think I was supposed to like this: I didn’t.
It is essentially about three Americans wandering around North Africa and the Sahara just after the war. Kit and Port Moresby are the centre of the book, a married couple travelling; their friend Tunner is with them for part of the journey. Bowles is very caught up with the difference between a tourist and a traveller, he spent his later life living in North Africa:
“He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home. Before the war it had been Europe and the Near East, during the war the West Indies and South America”
There is a very early indication that the whole is not going to be a cheerful travel romp or a clear-sighted cultural analysis or even a critique of colonialism when Port talks about “infinite sadness at the core of his consciousness”. Yep, we’re going to be navel-gazing and reflecting on how tragic we travellers are. To give Bowles his due, there is no sense of romance about the travel, it’s all pretty grim.
There is a sort of love triangle between Port, Kit and Tunner which is partially hinted at (especially between Port and Tunner).
One of the problems with this is attitude towards the general population. Bowles in his writings shares his feelings about Moroccans, “The Moroccan, educated or otherwise, simply does not believe in germs”. There is an underlying racism. There are plenty of colonialist clichés. Even some of the minor western characters have interior lives, the French colonial soldiers and administrators. The Moroccans are not given that privilege.
As for the attitude to women; Kit is a collection of stereotypes based on some rather disturbing male fantasies (spoilers ahead). The rape scene is an example: Kit immediately falls in love with her rapist (cue tropes about handsome “dusky” males and no really means yes). So in love is she that she allows some other bloke to rape her as long as the first bloke is there. I’m probably missing some irony here, but this was just awful.
Bowles was frequently derogatory about his adopted country, “thought is not a word one can use in connection with Morocco”. He frequently uses words like “purely predatory”, “essentially barbarous” and “childlike”. He also was very influenced by the “Hamitic hypothesis” that everything of value in Africa came from the Hamites, a Caucasian race who were superior to all the races to the south (nothing to do with skin colour of course!!!). These sort of ideas permeate this book.
I haven’t even touched on the attitudes to mental health! How does this stuff become so revered?
Profile Image for Robin.
475 reviews2,547 followers
April 16, 2017
Sensual Existentialism in the Sahara

4.5 stars

Someone once had said to her that the sky hides the night behind it, shelters the person beneath from the horror that lies above.

Married couple Port and Kit Moresby, in a physically and emotionally distant relationship, are traveling through northern Africa with their friend Tunner. Rejecting America and Europe in post WWII disgust, these "travellers" (not tourists, Port is adamant about the difference) hope to find meaning in the mystery of the Sahara.

It doesn't take long for something of a love triangle to form (or a love rectangle, if we're going to count Port's nightly wanderings). It also doesn't take long for the mood of the inscrutable desert to permeate the travellers. It shows how weak the bonds of marriage, friendship and sanity are, as the swirling dunes undo these societal ties with their mesmerizing magic. The descent leaves each person to their own limited devices, an internal struggle and terrifying defeat.

Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don't know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It's that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don't know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well.

The characters struggle with their connections with each other, fighting an urge to repair love with an equal urge to keep at arm's length. Truly separate, desolately alone, blind attempts at physical closeness punctuate the book, lending it a sensuality, with an edge.

Now that he owned her completely, there was a new savageness, a kind of angry abandon in his manner. The bed was a wild sea, she lay at the mercy of its violence and chaos as the heavy waves toppled upon her from above. Why, at the height of the storm, did two drowning hands press themselves tighter and tighter about her throat? Tighter, until even the huge grey music of the sea was covered by a greater, darker noise - the roar of nothingness the spirit hears as it approaches the abyss and leans over.

This wouldn't be a complete review if I didn't use the descriptor 'hypnotic' when referring to Paul Bowles' writing. While the plot isn't particularly strong, the mood and atmosphere is engulfing and drenches every word, every buzzing fly, every bewildered expression, every stolen kiss. He spins his readers around and pulls us helplessly along on this existential journey in the desert.

You're never humanity; you're only your own poor hopelessly isolated self.
Profile Image for Whitaker.
294 reviews495 followers
February 9, 2010
Like a sweet-talking charmer, Bowles seduced me with his crystalline prose. His sentences whispered in my ear and nibbled my nape, erasing thought from my haze-addled brain.

Later, many days later, I came to with a throbbing headache and a sour taste in my mouth. The crystal turned out to be crystal meth and it had severely eroded my judgement. What I had taken to be beautiful and enticing was just a jaded street hustler peddling the same old weary goods that had been around the block just too many times: naive privileged Westerners seek the purity of the savage wilderness, only to be destroyed by the horror, the horror of the eternal Om.

Yes, I get it. The bleak landscape of the Saharan desert substitutes here for the bleak desert of the American suburban landscape (see, for example, American Beauty). Protective veneers are stripped away to reveal the isolation and alienation at the heart of Kit, Port and their relationship. I can even get why people might love it.

But what gets me is the notion that in this Bowles was somehow being hard-nosed, rejecting romanticism. It may perhaps be a rejection of a particular romantic notion that salvation via the Essential and the Real are to be found outside civilization (see, for example, Kerouac). But this view of the Other as that blind unfeeling un-West that shreds the corrupt deracinated white man is just disguised romanticism, a precious existentialist reading of civilization by someone who can afford to pooh-pooh it, who is not going to have to dodge murdering soldiers to get water or till a parched field to feed his family.

Make no mistake, I'm no apologist for the ills of rampant capitalist consumerism nor some fool lover of the anomie that is corporate life. But life is what it is. If you're going to go to Africa and not get your shots, you're a damn fool. And you'd be just as much a fool if you'd tried scaling the north-face of the Matterhorn in the nude, notwithstanding it's proximity to consumerist, luxury-stuffed St Moritz.

(Three stars: -2 stars for story, +5 for writing.)
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,860 reviews1,899 followers
May 25, 2013
Rating: A craven, self-preservationistic 2* of five

BkC8: Tedious twaddle.

When I'm right, I'm right.

The Book Report: Kit and Port Moresby (get the Australia/New Guinea colonial joke, huh? huh? How clever is Paul Bowles, right?) are not gonna make it as a couple. They just aren't. So, in time-honored rich-couple-in-over-relationship fashion, they Travel. They don't take a trip, or a vacation, oh perish forbid, they Travel. North Africa, they think, no one we know will be there so we won't have to confront how little is left of what was a marriage.

So, this being midcentury fiction, while they Travel, they pick up a guy named Tunner who is also Traveling with his Mama. (Code of the day for "he's a fag.") I would say "hijinks ensue," but they really, really don't.

My Review: Tunner and Kit. Tunner and Port. Port and Kit. Find me some sexual heat in any of these variations. G'wan g'wan double-dog dare ya.

Arab as Wily Native. Murrikin as Rich Rube. Okay, been there done that, even in 1949...sixty-three years ago this wasn't an under-used trope, and by now it's a dreary cliche when used without irony or other meta-element to waft away its corpse-like odor.

Books told in dialogue. Really now. Robert Pinget did it better.

So "tedious twaddle" remains my judgment. Gay rights have swept away the shock, shock! of Port and Tunner's implied affair. Kit's a dreary stereotype of the Bored White Woman Seeking Dusky Lover. Whatever value the book still has, it's in the language, which I myownself found very close to intolerably dull and lifeless.

I suppose I have to give this Ambien-between-covers two stars because there will be lynch mobs of admirers outside my door anyway, but if I gave it the 1/2 star I think it actually deserves, there'd be snipers and Inquisitionists too. But god, I feel hypocritical doing it.

Run Away! Run Away! Don't even accept a copy as a gift!

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Profile Image for Raul.
276 reviews200 followers
July 24, 2021
When books come recommended to us by people whose taste we highly respect, even before we read the very first word, they already take a life of their own molded by our expectations. At times, we're lucky and the book does meet and even surpasses what we expected from it, and at times such as now, it is a disappointment.

This story follows three American travellers trotting around North Africa at a period after the Second World War. This book was written (and is also set) before decolonization began and before the Civil Rights Movement in the United States began getting attention, so perhaps it comes as no surprise that some of the characters are deeply anti-semitic and racist, especially the character Mrs. Lyle. Arabs are treated with suspicion and condescending, Jews with contempt and Negroes with slur words. Interesting also is what Africa seems to represent in the story:

"Outside in the dust was the disorder of Africa, but for the first time without any visible sign of European influence, so that the scene had a purity which had been lacking in the other towns, an unexpected quality of being complete which dissipated the feeling of chaos."

Of course a trope of the colonial period and the literature written by Western writers at the time (and in some incidents even to this date), is African disorder, a thing inexpressible, dangerous but alluring, which in this case is required to rid the protagonists of the moral crises they are facing and which in turn leads to destruction.

That aside, I think this book failed in its attempt at analysis into human nature and moral stagnation of post Second World War American expatriates; Maugham's The Razor's Edge and Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, I believe expressed this better. What I think was aimed to be philosophical sounded trite and unconvincing. Bowles however, writes of North African terrain and skies with incredible colourful description, and that I felt, was among the few good things about the book.

I expected something illuminatory given the praise I had heard for the book but was left feeling as though I had missed something, and perhaps I have, although I do not think so.
Profile Image for Kinga.
476 reviews2,153 followers
October 22, 2017
Jane Bowles, Paul Bowles’ wife, used to call him (among other things) “Gloompot”. I wonder how she got that; he seemed like such a cheerful guy.

“The Sheltering Sky” is a story of two (sometimes three) American drifters, who consider themselves “travellers” (rather than primitive tourists, you know), in search of something in North Africa – themselves? The meaning of it all? But end up, of course, losing themselves completely for they didn’t realise they are just a sum of social conventions, beliefs and rituals. And once the sun dries it up, all of it flakes away and “the sheltering sky” cannot shelter them from the emptiness inside them.

The main couple, Port and Kit, in their sexless but not entirely loveless marriage, resemble somewhat Paul and Jane’s unorthodox marriage (they only tried sex for about 1.5 year, after which she went on to sleep with women, he mostly with men, but they remained devoted to each other). And of course, Paul Bowles knows Sahara because he lived in its vicinity most of his life and infected his characters with the yearning for the desert. Personally, the endless sandy dunes never held much appeal to me but reading this beautifully written book almost convinced me that there was some value in the solitude of Sahara.

Like the characters in the meta-story ‘Tea in Sahara’, told to Port by a prostitute, Kit and Port keep looking for some illusive thing, that unspecified perfection that might be behind the next dune. What really propels Port forward is the fact he finds himself in constant psychological discomfort in every single place he is, so he tries to outrun himself. Kit, on the other hand, tags along hunted (and haunted) by bad omens she sees everywhere (you can tell the old girl is about to lose it).

As I mentioned, the writing is generally beautiful, and the characterization is also wonderful, but that doesn’t mean Bowles isn’t occasionally prone to bombastic, existentialist phrases such as “humanity is everyone but yourself” or something in that vein – I haven’t noted the exact quote. However, I do have a soft spot for such borderline pretentious existentialism. And Bowles is good at pacing. He was a composer first and the pacing of this book reminds me of a classical piece that start lazily and gently, gets a little intense in the middle and ends with chaotic cacophony.

I liked it much better than any Hemingway I’ve read but I appreciate it might not be for everyone. If the book isn’t for everyone, the moral of it is: get your travel vaccinations, kids. It might be that the entire cohesion of your being hinges on that.
Profile Image for Jessica.
Author 1 book195 followers
October 28, 2018
I rarely don't finish a book. This is a personal tendency (obsessiveness) which cemented itself during forays into such tomes as Les Miserables (5th grade) and Tess of the D'Urbervilles (10th grade) in which the endeavor seemed like it would be fruitless, and then, ahoy! A beautiful gem on the sparkling sea surfaces, a hundred or so pages in, and I was rewarded for my patience...
So it pains me to report that not even the chance of such a obscured jewel could keep me interested in A Sheltering Sky, which struck me as a poor man's Hemingway...make that a starving baby's Hemingway...in which the racism and misogyny are never once eclipsed by original prose. Nor did there seem to be much of a story...or if there was one, I couldn't give less of a shit about it. As Virginia Woolf once wrote, "All old men have their India." I'm going to leave this one to the old men.
Profile Image for Annet.
570 reviews714 followers
September 28, 2019
Every once in a while you come across a book which is beyond 5 stars. For me it hasn't happened that much. But this is one of them for me. the last one I rated this way was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. This book is mysterious, intriguing, dark, dangerous, exceptional , loving.... and I have to read it again soon to fully take in all of this beautiful story. It made a deep impression.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,391 reviews2,372 followers
May 16, 2020
Before her eyes was the violent blue sky - nothing else. For an endless moment she looked into it. Like a great overpowering sound it destroyed everything in her mind, paralysed her. Someone has once said to her that the sky hides the night behind it, shelters the person beneath from the horror that lies above. Unblinking, she fixed the solid emptiness, and the anguish began to move in her. At any moment the rip can occur, the edges fly back, and the giant maw will be revealed.

This is like a trippy version of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, where the Sahara desert takes the place of the Congo river, where both Port and Kit are faced with the existential crisis of Kurtz, and where there is no Marlow to bear witness to the ravages of a pitiless universe when 'the sheltering sky' is pierced.

Bowles' prose is hallucinogenic and luscious, his barbs sharp, especially when it comes to Mrs Lyle whose ignorance is only matched by her loud-mouthed proclamations of it. The scenes where Kit is faced with her ultimate human helplessness, where she can do nothing but submit, even play-act that she has some choice, some pleasure, some agency are couched in a way that feels uncomfortably masculine () but, then, this was published in 1949.

Bowles succeeds in creating a atmosphere of haunting alienation that is figured through the travels of this New York couple into French North Africa but really their destination is far more amorphous and terrifying as they are faced with what is left when the sheltering sky - of culture, of identity, of self-hood is torn away.
Profile Image for Sarah.
Author 11 books330 followers
July 17, 2011
This is an ambitious novel about alienation, isolation and despair. The story revolves around the character of Port Moresby, who, in disillusioned response to WWII, rejects America and Europe, leaving NY for Africa with his wife Kit as well as an acquaintance named Tunner, whom they both dislike.

Port feels Africa is less marred by war, and aims to spend a long period of time there. It’s not that he would fit in, he just wants to escape, or disappear. He may hope to flee his emptiness, but unfortunately it’s a very clingy travelling companion. While his grudge against his culture propels him abroad, removing whatever external irritations Port might find in New York, the desert confronts him with his own inner emptiness. Port seems to relish wallowing there, while dragging his wife along. She isn’t one to protest – despite her unhappy state Kit seems devoted to Port, she bends to him, she bites her tongue and she packs her bags and comes.

Other than facing the landscape’s reflection of one’s inner desolation, you can’t help but wonder what appeal Africa holds. Port, Kit and Tunner find mostly squalor – ferocious flies, pink hairless dogs, wailing babies covered in sores, garbage in hotels, and cafés that smell of urine. But Port doesn’t care about sight-seeing or how many stars a hotel has: he’s a “traveller,” not a “tourist.” And he is the engine for the whole unfortunate story, even though he does manage to take his leave midway through the book.

At the end of Book 1, Port visits a teahouse, where he gets the hots for a blind prostitute/dancer. Her expressionless face while dancing says to him, “A dance is being done. I do not dance because I am not here. But it is my dance.” That peace is very much what Port seems to want. He is also attracted to this particular dancer because her blindness means she cannot see him. She erases him.

It all goes downhill from there.

In general, I thought the writing of The Sheltering Sky was good and the themes were interesting and important and are generally themes I like. I would have taken a philosophical point of view if the offensive handling of Kit as a woman hadn’t pushed my feminist button so hard it still hasn't popped back out.

First off, I realize the book was written in that late 1940s, but the use of the word “girl” to describe Kit grated on me immediately. I could have chalked it up to the times and shrugged it off. Even her attachment to clothes and wearing lipstick didn’t seem to me unrealistic. And ... here comes the SPOILER so stop here if you don’t want to know more about the plot... When Port dies, Kit’s own “sheltering sky” collapses and she is confronted with herself pure and unmitigated. Again here I’d be inclined to read this as an existential story if it weren’t for what Kit turns out to be. I found it too much to take that after Port’s death she waves down a caravan to save her and goes on to enjoy being raped by two men, soon becoming a contented sex slave to one of them. Coming to her senses briefly, she escapes that fate too, only to screw the next available guy. I don’t like the message here – woman as neurotic, male-defined nymphomaniac. I disliked the double standard throughout the book, e.g. after Port stumbles home from sleeping with a prostitute he’s outraged when he suspects Kit slept with Tunner. I could rave on and on about this, but suffice it to say at this point, as a woman I was offended.
Profile Image for trivialchemy.
77 reviews457 followers
February 17, 2008
In my younger days, I sensed that this was a rudely under-appreciated book that, merely acclaimed, deserved inclusion within the canon of the Gods themselves (Hemingway, Melville, Joyce, McCarthy). More recently, I have realized that not the book qua narrative, but its singular intimacy with my person colored the profoundness of my love-affair with this novel. As a result, my review must be peculiarly subjective for someone so accustomed to the pretense of objectivity.

Whether its effect on my life resulted from the epoch in which I read it (adolescence) or a nascent affinity I can not know. Either way, the very themes over which Bowles obsesses are the same which motivate the several pathologies of myself as man and human being.

It's true that The Sheltering Sky is primarily a love story, yet one in which the desert itself -- its hajji, its pathogens, its sterile expanse -- serves as antagonist as much as the tension of refractory lovers. Bowles' position is thus one of the experientialist: that meaning derives from the experience, and without experience the life stands bereft of meaning.

But there is much more to be said. For though Port and Kit's love is brought into this world as a burden, the promise is that the very foreignness of the land is what will bring it to resolution. This is not the myth of the expatriate (that the foreign place will cure all domestic malaise) but a more general principle: that the longer one can not find that which one seeks within the familiar, the more likely it lies in some place strange and horrible.

And indeed they do find resolution, but not the one they knew themselves to be searching for. Instead, a resolution which leaves the reader as much as Bowles' protagonists haunted by the heaviness of love and chaos of the exotic.

Perhaps what drew me most into this world and its ethos is Bowles' style itself, which matches with unnerving certainty the psychology of his characters to their external circumstance. In this way, a breathtaking comprehensiveness is stitched by prose at once robust and feminine, Möbius in its intention, Attic in its certainty.

This correspondence between psychology and circumstance provides a veritable well of affect, both for the characters and the reader. As a consequence, The Sheltering Sky has not only inspired the sole piece of complete writing I ever authored, but assisted in authoring the much more sincere trajectory of my own experience.

Profile Image for Brian.
Author 1 book964 followers
March 23, 2016
I think I have a reasonable amount of time separating me from September of last year when I read this book for a second time. My wife and I were on a 10 day trip to Morocco and I suggested that we read The Sheltering Sky in tandem. Bowles tale of existential dread and Western culture collision with the desert and denizens of North Africa was supposed to be a fictional journey to parallel our actual one. It wasn’t.

Bowles’ now relatively famous distinction between a traveler and a tourist is an artifice. It is part of the genius of this novel in that the Reader takes Bowles position on traveler/tourist and then watches to see how the three American characters behave according to Bowles’ rules, all the while reflecting on how differently I would behave. Another important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking. How quaint a notion, offered so early in the novel. Read to see how American civilization frays at the edges beneath that sheltering sky; watch what happens when the so called “traveler” rejects elements not to his liking.

We finished reading the novel and discussed it over dinner. The next morning we would leave for three days in the Atlas mountains with the Berbers. Our conversation weaved between our thoughts on Kit, Moresby and Tunner and our excitement of the impending unknown spending time with another culture, completely off the grid and out of our comfort zone. Life held a different plan for us, however, and the next morning we were frantically trying to find a western hospital with a medical emergency that was no joke. Within minutes our Western Bubble was pierced – we were no longer in the beautiful hotel with room service and candlelight dinners, we were in a taxi with a driver that spoke no English rushing to a Marrakesh hospital in a place no tourist nor traveler would ever choose to be. This day also happened to be the Eid al-Fitr celebration, so the hospital had minimum staff and a waiting room filled to capacity. Nobody spoke English, my monoglotism shaming me yet again. My wife needed immediate medical attention, French and Arabic were only spoken at the intake desk, and all these Marrakeshians also trying to get admittance are looking at me like I’m from another planet. I was losing my patience, I was frightened, I realized that in that moment there was nothing that any part of my Western civilization could offer me to help. I was experiencing a brutal intersection with Bowles’ narrative; I was the clueless American in North Africa, the fifty year span between Bowles’ characters and me might as well have been the same day experience. For I had done as Kit did attempting to build a pathetic little fortress of Western culture in the middle of the wilderness.

Moresby asks himself if any American can truthfully accept a definition of life which makes it synonymous with suffering. I don’t know whether to call myself a traveler or a tourist, but as I continue to visit other places on the planet and meet people from other cultures I attempt to brook my life filters to learn from them. I don’t know suffering, not the way that most people that have lived – are living – have. The Sheltering Sky is a fine introduction to the beginning of that conversation, especially for Americans that travel.

Kit mentions in Book Three that someone once told her that the sky hides the night behind it, that it shelters the person beneath from the horror that lies above.

What is going to shelter us from everything beneath the sky?
Profile Image for Edita.
1,292 reviews373 followers
June 11, 2020
He did not look up because he knew how senseless the landscape would appear. It takes energy to invest life with meaning, and at present this energy was lacking. He knew how things could stand bare, their essence having retreated on all sides to beyond the horizon, as if impelled by a sinister centrifugal force. He did not want to face the intense sky, too blue to be real, above his head, the ribbed pink canyon walls that lay on all sides in the distance, the pyramidal town itself on its rocks, or the dark spots of oasis below. They were there, and they should have pleased his eye, but he did not have the strength to relate them, either to each other or to himself, he could not bring them into any focus beyond the visual. So he would not look at them.

The landscape was there, and more than ever he felt he could not reach it. The rocks and the sky were everywhere, ready to absolve him, but as always he carried the obstacle within him. He would have said that as he looked at them, the rocks and the sky ceased being themselves, that in the act of passing into his consciousness, they became impure. It was slight consolation to be able to say to himself: "I am stronger than they." As he turned back into the room, something bright drew his eye to the mirror on the open door of the wardrobe. It was the new moon shining in through the other window. He sat down on the bed and began to laugh.

She looked out at the windswept emptiness. The new moon had slipped behind the earth's sharp edge. Here in the desert, even more than at sea, she had the impression that she was on the top of a great table, that the horizon was the brink of space. She imagined a cubeshaped planet somewhere above the earth, between it and the moon, to which somehow they had been transported. The light would be hard and unreal as it was here, the air would be of the same taut dryness, the contours of the landscape would lack the comforting terrestrial curves, just as they did all through this vast region. And the silence would be of the ultimate degree, leaving room only for the sound of the air as it moved past. She touched the windowpane; it was ice cold. The bus bumped and swayed as it continued upward across the plateau.
Before her eyes was the violent blue sky-nothing else. For an endless moment she looked into it. Like a great overpowering sound it destroyed everything in her mind, paralyzed her. Someone once had said to her that the sky hides the night behind it, shelters the person beneath from the horror that lies above. Unblinking, she fixed the solid emptiness, and the anguish began to move in her. At any moment the rip can occur, the edges fly back, and the giant maw will be revealed.
Profile Image for Alma.
616 reviews
January 2, 2022
“A paisagem do deserto é sempre mais bela na semiclaridade da aurora ou do crepúsculo. Não existe o sentido da distância: uma crista próxima pode ser a de uma montanha ao longe, cada pormenor, por mais pequeno que seja, pode adquirir a importância de uma variante maior sobre o repetitivo tema do campo. A chegada do dia promete uma mudança; só quando o dia se abre completamente é que o observador suspeita que é o mesmo dia que regressa uma vez mais – o mesmo dia que há muito se vive, sempre e sempre, a mesma luz ofuscante e purificada pelo tempo. Kit respirou profundamente, olhou à volta para a linha suave das pequenas dunas, para a vasta e pura luz que se elevava atrás da orla mineral do hammada, para a floresta de palmeiras ainda imersa na noite, e soube que não era o mesmo dia. Mesmo quando se abriu completamente de luz, mesmo quando o sol imenso se ergueu e a areia, as árvores e o céu adquiriram gradualmente o seu aspecto habitual do dia, não teve dúvidas de que apesar de tudo isso, ali estava um novo dia, absolutamente único.”

"E Port dissera: «A morte vem sempre a caminho mas o facto de não sabermos quando chegará parece afastar a natureza finita da vida. É essa terrível precisão que odiamos tanto. Mas, como não sabemos, pensamos que a vida é um poço inesgotável. No entanto, tudo acontece apenas um certo número de vezes, na verdade um número muito reduzido. Quantas vezes mais recordarás uma certa tarde da tua infância, uma tarde que é, tão profundamente, uma parte do teu ser que nem podes conceber a tua vida sem ela? Talvez mais quatro ou cinco vezes. Talvez nem tanto. Quantas vezes mais contemplarás a lua cheia a erguer-se? Talvez vinte. E, no entanto, tudo parece ilimitado.»"

“How fragile we are under the sheltering sky. Behind the sheltering sky is a vast dark universe, and we're just so small.”

“When I was young” … “Before I was twenty, I mean, I used to think that life was a thing that kept gaining impetus, it would get richer and deeper each year. You kept learning more, getting wiser, having more insight, going further into the truth” – she hesitated.
Port laughed abruptly. – “And now you know it’s not like that. Right? It’s more like smoking a cigarette. The first few puffs it tasted wonderful, and you don’t even think of its ever being used up. Then you begin taking it for granted. Suddenly you realize it’s nearly burned down to the end. And then’s when you’re conscious of the bitter taste.”

Profile Image for Chip.
69 reviews11 followers
October 4, 2008
Oh man oh man. Someday I will have to revisit this, as I seem to mention it to anyone or anything who is willing to listen. Has probably become my favorite book of all time: simultaneously capturing the utter loneliness of existence, and the strange beauty of the desert/and/or the foreign. Makes me want to travel, makes me want to stay home and hide under the covers...it's that good.

I've read almost all of Bowles' other stuff, and some of it comes close to this (especially Let it Come Down), but what comes off as simply cruel in the other work here becomes sublime.

I remember someone reminding me that Bowles started out as a composer, and it really shows in the writing. Everything is considered and in its right place on the page to create credible characters and situations. I can't think of any other writer aside from Henry James who captures the strange feeling of being an American in a foreign land.

I'm going to have to read it again this summer.

As of October 08: read it again recently. Time does strange things to one's reviews.

So the Paul Bowles character (the man-I don't remember his name now) is friggin' annoying and deserves what he gets. The Jane character however-it really is all about her and what she does. What my 20-something brain latched onto and what my 30-something brain latches onto are two totally different things. It's all about Kit: Kit's assimilation (or lack thereof), Kit's hopes, fears, desires to change, to metamorph-osize (metamorph? metamorphose?). The other characters are just vehicles and supports to get her to that last page. Everything else falls away. The husband's wanderings, his pontifications-blather. I am with Kit now.
Profile Image for Ken.
Author 3 books901 followers
December 12, 2015
When you remember reading a book long ago and you remember liking it, trust your instincts. Read it again. I did and, in the case of The Sheltering Sky, didn't regret a thing. I loved the exotic, North African setting. And the always slightly off-balancing love triangle of Port, Kit, and Tunner (what weirdly wonderful names).

Some stop-me sentences, too. I love stop-me sentences. I never run them. Not even a roll-through. In fact, if no one's behind me, I often back up and fail to run them again. Ah! The beauty of writer's writers' writing!

So yes: some plot, much characterization, tons of mood, and -- somehow -- sand in your shoes after each reading. The ending after the ending is a feat, too. Poor Kit. Lucky reader. Which can only mean Reading Resolution #1 of 2016 will be to read another Bowles. The Spider's House, maybe?

Cinco stars never came so easy...
Profile Image for Maria Roxana.
515 reviews
August 4, 2021
Katherine, Portman și Tunner caută un sens al vieții în nemărginirea deșertului, însă viața îi prinde din urmă. Un roman despre alegerile-bune, ori proaste- care ne compun viața. O alegere care a fost etichetată ca fiind ”proastă” a luat forma unei vinovății care s-a transformat în frică materializată mai apoi în fugă. Nu putem fugi de noi și de alegerile pe care le-am făcut la un moment dat. Acceptarea -a ceea ce a fost și a ceea ce este-ne oferă forța de a merge mai departe.

“-Înainte să fi împlinit douăzeci de ani, adică, îmi închipuiam că viața era ceva care își lua continuu avânt, cu fiecare clipă. Că devenea mai bogată și mai profundă în fiecare an. Puteai să înveți tot mai multe, să devii tot mai înțelept, să ai mai multă intuiție, să mergi mai adânc spre adevăr…

Păru să ezite.

Port izbucni în râs.

-Și acum îți dai seama că nu e așa, nu? Seamănă mai degrabă cu fumatul unei țigări. Când tragi primele fumuri, are un gust minunat și nici nu-ți trece prin cap că o să se termine. Apoi începi să o iei ca atare, bună sau rea. Și dintr-odată descoperi că ai fumat-o până aproape de filtru. Abia atunci devii conștient de gustul ei amar.”


“-Știi, îi spuse Port, iar vocea lui păru ireală, cum sunt vocile după o pauză lungă de rostire, cerul aici e foarte ciudat. Am adesea senzația, când îl privesc, că e ceva solid acolo sus, care ne protejează de ce e dincolo.

-Știi ceva? zise el cu mare încredere. Cred că amândoi ne temem de același lucru. Și din același motiv. Nici unul dintre noi n-a reușit vreodată să intre cu totul în viață. Atârnăm în afară, de buni ce suntem, convinși că vom cădea la următoarea lovitură.”

“O capodoperă stranie și hipnotică”, spune David Lodge despre Ceai în Sahara, iar eu înclin să spun că se apropie de ceea ce am simțit lecturând-o.
Profile Image for Mariel.
667 reviews1,047 followers
September 28, 2014
The desert- its very silence was like a tacit admission of the half-conscious presence it harbored.

The dog's dead eye twitches like nails and hair curling on a grave. Ancient symbols of trickster rabbits depict that stolen cereal tastes better. I have a long stick to prod the poor doggy for some answers. He's the only creature in sight with a memory of life. Wrestling with the strange inhabitants sound closer to where you could go.

My sister told me that I was unfair complaining that some books shrink me to the couch and talk the walk. I think she said something like I knew in the first place what I knew from books. I know that I could make my world bigger by going between the lives in stories and discovering their rhymes in my own. My recognition of suspicions and patterns had to have walked the Bambi in pages. Sometimes taken out back and put out of their misery. I don't think she's wrong, exactly. So I've been thinking about this in the back of my mind as a bone. Paul Bowles could out-walk the run of death drums of too much psych weight by the background noise. The music that lives this. The people could try and hold your body in front of theirs to ward off the meaningless. I would sit there and pray to something I can't make for myself out of myself alone to please put down the sticks to poke me with. Please kick your infinitesimal sands somewhere else. I know his roosters crowing in some far away dream. Everything but the sun and all of the hungry faces that flew too close to the nothing clean of too light. The sense of self that fades away in presence of lives continuing without you. The unfairness of it. But I don't want to kill it to stick it under a glass, you know? To run away from a pattern of self to sit back and preserve in jelly these grand ideas about them and us. The poor Saharans, the hunger. The savagery of stomping the wings into the dirt heat denied in pressing the person next to you into absolving you. Big questions in the sky, is any of it fair? I know and could talk myself into the writerly decisions. It's just Port and Kit, true to them and their man made walls. It makes sense that Kit philosophical backseats her destiny with them between her legs because Bowles told me all along that she did this. He led me to where there was no door to Port's being. But I don't want to talk myself into believing it. Bowles has done more than this. I freaking loved The Spider's House. He could have made them the carcass buzzing with flies more than the vampiric let me in voice. I think these days I would do anything to avoid that. I know that when Port has to ravel in his reveling solitudes. I can hear the silence and there are voices that speak to me. I don't want to give the answers. Melody and then the lyrics like in 101 Dalmatians. I don't know, I know Paul Bowles can be the desert more than the buzzing of the already dead. I don't know. I feel I need to look at something bigger than let Port and Kit shut up.

Someone once had said to her that the sky hides the night behind it, shelters the person beneath from the horror that lies above.
Profile Image for Mary.
423 reviews770 followers
March 16, 2014
“Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don't know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It's that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don't know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. 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. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
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