Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Sheltering Sky

The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles
1949, 335 pp.

When I began mentally composing this review, it was going to be "appreciative" and "positive," though well short of "glowing," but now that I'm sitting down to physically write it, having now finished the book and had time to think about it, I must admit I've quite changed my mind.

The Sheltering Sky involves an unhappily married American couple unfortunately named “Port” and “Kit” (fun fact: the guy’s full name is “Port Moresby,” which is the same name as the capital of Papua New Guinea!) as they and sometimes their friend Tunner travel aimlessly around North Africa shortly after the Second World War. They frequently encounter the Lyles, a pair of despicable and disreputable Brits also meandering around the fringes of the Sahara. None of them are particularly appealing characters: Port, who gets the majority of the third-person subjective narrative attention, alternates between vague, moody, pseudo-mystical drifting and cynical manipulation. If he isn't sitting around staring profoundly at the desert, he's probably wandering off to some encounter involving a prostitute. Kit is a solipsist hypochondriac, which may be redundant but is unfortunately accurate, who spends a lot of time whining and fretting. She is obsessed with omens. She seems pretty clearly manic-depressive, and is (for reasons to be shortly explained) the book's unredeemable flaw. Tunner is a bit of a dunce and is easily manipulated, and early on manages to get Kit drunk on a train and has sex with her. Now, I am all in favor of amoral, complicated, conflicted, or otherwise interesting characters. I do not by any means demand that characters be good people, and indeed of the various elements in fiction, character might be the one which interests me least. But I didn't believe any of these people. The minor characters are excellently drawn, and the environment is clear and lovely. But the center of the book does not hold.

There is hardly any plot to speak of, aside from the basic, primal, Campbellian "journey away from civilization." I assimilated this theme gladly, and for the first two thirds of the book was perfectly happy with it. I processed the idea that Port was stripping away the accoutrements of modern life, and in doing so was stripping away the pieces of the self, and was negligently destroying his wife in the process. So far so good, a sort of Thoreau/ St. Simeon Stylites, but with a modern recognition of the torment of interpersonal relations. It is never established where this drive for self-destruction comes from, but I was willing to take it as given, even in spite of his pensive moping and silly behavior. Recognizing the context of post-war, existential, French-influenced, Beat-era gestalt, I was content to run with the unexplained, slightly archetypal despair and flight from civilization. The motif of the Sahara as a vast, morally nihilist, unfeeling, uncaring, but pure and natural counterpoint to the moral and aesthetic horrors of civilization worked perfectly well. But then at the end of Part II, he gets typhoid and dies in a fit of delirium, mainly because he can't really be bothered to get better. Kit, sought by the local police, escapes alone into the desert. All right, I thought, he's managed to destroy himself, and now she's picking it up and pushing on with her own journey. This, I decided, will be the real test of the novel.

And then the whole damn thing goes right off the rails. Kit gets picked up by a caravan of Arabs, one of whom shortly thereafter (in a fit of vague, flowery, slightly delirious prose) rapes her and then shares her with another nomad. She rather likes this, and becomes his regular concubine. When they reach his home, he dresses her as an Arab boy and keeps her locked in a room as a sort of drugged sex slave. Then his wives find out and they whip her until he rescues her and then (I think) decides to kill her via slow poisoning. She escapes and wanders aimlessly in a market until she gets picked up by an apparently beautiful black guy, who she promptly has sex with in a hotel he finds. She wakes up to discover him and the hotelier stealing her money. Finally people from the embassy track her down and send her (struggling, unwilling) back to Tangier. Tunner turns up to meet her, but she disappears into the city. End of book.

Does that last paragraph make the slightest bit of sense to you? Does it fit with the previous ones? Does it sound like I made it up? More importantly, do you think any human being at all ever anywhere would behave that way?

Oh, how heroically I struggled to drag a meaningful theme out of this book! Perhaps, I reasoned, this book is about sheltered Europe coming face-to-face with The Other. Here Africa kills a white man and has sex with a white woman. Quelle horreur! But the last third fits so poorly with the rest that genuinely I expected to turn every page and find that it was all just a dream. Since it obviously involves Kit losing her mind, how much of it actually happened? How much did she imagine or hallucinate, aided by the third-person subjective narrative choice? Alas, it all appears to be quite literal. Maybe, I thought, it's about the inability of the West to appreciate, understand, and eventually survive their encounter with Blackest Africa: sort of an "East is East, West is West, and never the twain shall meet" idea. The frail, man-made "truths" of the West meet the ancient, indifferent actuality of the natural world, right? But symbolism only goes so far. A character must still be a recognizable human being and must behave according to some semblance of internal logic. A character is the medium for a sort of relationship between the reader and the author in which the reader gives attention and hopefully emotional and/or intellectual engagement, and the author promises not to betray the reader's trust. It is a great paradox of fiction that despite being nothing but lies, it must also scrupulously tell the truth. And I didn't believe anything the last third: it breaks the reader-author relation established in the first two sections.

I wanted some explanation, so I turned to the film, made in 1990 by Bernardo Bertolucci, that rather self-indulgent poet of sensual images, lonely sex, and loss. Most of the film is quite literally shot-by-shot, word-for-word from the book, but without the third-person subjective narration. I found the sumptuous cinematography by Vittorio Storaro a pleasure to watch, but with the absence of the novel's inner reflection, the dialogue is stilted and the interpersonal action a bit abrupt and poorly fleshed out. This absence of internal narrative both taketh and giveth back: on the one hand, we miss the emotions and obsessions which (slightly) explain the characters' peculiar or otherwise unmotivated behavior. Without this, they occasionally just appear to be behaving stupidly for no reason at all. On the other hand, we are also spared some of the rambling delusional passages, which helps. Without the narrative demonstration of Kit's apparent descent into lunacy, the last third in particular seems rather ridiculous, for the very good reason that it is rather ridiculous. Some of the more sensational bits, especially towards the end, are toned down for the film. Apparently Bertolucci actually spoke with some North Africans while filming and discovered that it isn’t precisely common behavior to appropriate a bewildered white woman as a sex slave, so the sexual experiences at the end are softened and made slightly more logical. Bowles was apparently infuriated by this, and said later in an interview “it should never have been filmed. The ending is idiotic and the rest is pretty bad.”

As in the novel, the supporting characters are the strong point. The actors who play the Lyles are slimy and deplorable almost to the point of caricature. Their appearances and some of the interplay between Kit and Port which in the novel seemed to be expressions of listless, existential ennui instead accelerate into the realm of comedy. As ever, I quite disliked John Malkovich. He does some strong acting here, but not even that can disguise his faintly crossed eyes and peculiarly affected voice.

In the film, the central characters appear more as wealthy Gatsby-ish dilettantes, whereas in the novel, they seemed more like slightly scruffy permanent expats. This suggests that the barrier which separates the travelers from their surroundings is less their skin color and origin and more their wealth. Partially since there is no major African character, and the narration given to Tunner and the occasional French officer is missing in the film, so there is no counterpoint to emphasize their Otherness. Instead we just see them floating through crowds of impoverished, fly-covered children, tossing money around. The story seems much more like "spoiled rich people encounter realities of poverty and go crazy or die" instead of "in search of meaning, pointless people encounter indifference of the world and go crazy or die," which is what I choose to believe I got from the novel. The film is in general a more presentable, restrained piece, and in my estimation works better than the novel, but the end is still a mess.

In an interesting touch, Paul Bowles himself turns up as the narrator: an elderly, well-dressed fellow, sitting at the back of cafes, watching the main characters. Unfortunately, Mr. Bowles' diction is slurred and muddy. He is an interesting presence, but at 79 years old, not an ideal narrator. The Sheltering Sky was his first novel, written when he was 38 and was forming the focal point of the weird expatriate artist community in Tangier which would shortly include William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, and Tennessee Williams. I like the work of his contemporaries and generally trust their recommendations; indeed, Bowles is generally highly regarded, but it must be by those who either started this book and did not finish it, or who were blessed with the ability to forget how it ends.

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