Lara Messersmith-Glavin's Reviews > The Sheltering Sky

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
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it was amazing
bookshelves: desert, life-changing, heart-breaking

"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?"
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Quotes Lara Liked

Paul Bowles
“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.”
Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

Reading Progress

Started Reading
January 1, 1995 – Finished Reading
March 30, 2008 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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Nathan Timoteo what a beautiful description of a book that had left me reeling. your journey to Morocco is... wonderful for me to imagine, so thank you for sharing that here.

"i did strange things because of this book."


message 2: by Duc (new) - rated it 5 stars

Duc I'm amazed at your courage. This book I shared with my brother and he liked it. He usually doesn't take to my suggestions.

message 3: by knig (new)

knig Fascinating. I was also propelled to Morocco because of this book (just like Anchee Min’s ‘Empress Orchid’ made me head East to see the Forbidden City and Isadora Duncan’s ‘My Life’ sent me to Paris in the footsteps of Bohemian artists).

The supreme irony is, of course, that the desert sky is anything but ‘sheltering’. If anything, it consumes: and that really is the central theme of this book for me. Port and Kit began their ‘heart of darkness’ odyssey in NY where they effectively surrendered their mental and spiritual engagement with Life. The journey through the desert is a continuation through the dolorous realms, a section of purgatory where they finally also have to surrender their mortal coil as well and the final, and physical consummation occurs. Bleak. But haunting book.

message 4: by Jim (new) - rated it 2 stars

Jim Puskas OMG what a review! Even if I don't end up loving the book, just reading your review of it will have taken me to a place I'd never been. That's what poetry can do to you, screw up your expectations, jar your equilibrium ....

Lara Messersmith-Glavin Thanks for this, Jim. I'm glad you liked the review--I look forward to hearing your reaction to the book.

Cathy Cheek The movie was intriguing enough for me to read the book.

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