Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: The Sheltering Sky (#9)

The Sheltering Sky.

#9: THE SHELTERING SKY, by Paul Bowles.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

I hesitate to put this book on this list, because then you might read it and think I’m a psychopath. (This is a similar fear to writing rave reviews of Nabokov, with the danger being that you might think I was a pervert.) This brings up the distinction between the “morality” of art and one’s separate consumption of it, but that’s another theoretical discussion for another time.

This is a very, very dark book. (In fact, it is on a Goodreads list titled “The Darkest Books of All Time.”) My best guess is that 75 percent of you would hate it, so I am not going to use the word “recommend” here, but I am going to tell you why I liked it and why I thought it was worth a damn.

The Sheltering Sky is the debut novel by American expatriate Paul Bowles, who lived in Morocco, where this story is set. American couple Port and Kit Moresby travel through the Sahara, accompanied by their friend, Tunner. On the surface, the book seems like it would be just another Hemingway-esque tale of blundering, drinking, profligate American tourists (a la The Sun Also Rises) bumbling their way through a vast and complex foreign land. But that would be too easy for Bowles. This novel is like a much darker and more lyrical Hemingway, but I don’t even know if that’s a fair comparison. It is more like someone dropped Hemingway characters into the middle of a Moroccan nightmare and left them there to die.

As the group’s travel plans begin to fall apart, the characters and the narrative also begin to unravel. The darkness of the book comes over one suddenly, as a great shadow. “It all started off so well and even funny!” you think, naively, as you continue to read. “Surely things will turn out in the end.” But things do not turn out in the end. Sunny resolution is for children’s novels, apparently, because Bowles has written a story that somehow plumbs the depths of the human condition and the hopelessness of escape.

Sounds fun, right? And yet it was an incredible book. It is difficult for me to explain this. Thankfully, I don’t have to hunt for the right words, because the brilliant Tennessee Williams already did. He published a short review of The Sheltering Sky in the New York Times on 4 December 1949, the year the novel came out, “An Allegory of Man and His Sahara.” In it, he expresses what I have vainly tried to express about the deep, eternal appeal of this dark book:

There is a curiously double level to this novel. The surface is enthralling as narrative. It is impressive as writing. But above that surface is the aura that I spoke of, intangible and powerful, bringing to mind one of those clouds that you have seen in summer, close to the horizon and dark in color and now and then silently pulsing with interior flashes of fire. And that is the surface of the novel that has filled me with such excitement.

It is exciting to read and it is frightening at the same time. Williams has many delightful and encouraging things to say about Bowles as an artist and as a writer. Then he ends his review with this bomb, which I find to be as fitting a way as any to end my own:

I suspect that a good many people will read this book and be enthralled by it without once suspecting that it contains a mirror of what is most terrifying and cryptic within the Sahara of moral nihilism, into which the race of man now seems to be wandering blindly.

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4 thoughts on “Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: The Sheltering Sky (#9)

  1. I love your disclaimer, and want to hear the theoretical discussion about the “morality” of art.

    But, seriously, could you stop reviewing books in a way that makes them seem so appealing? Even though I know I will probably hate it, I WANT TO READ IT ANYWAY! You have a gift, my friend.

  2. The 1990 movie based on Bowles’ book, starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich is both extremely beautiful and psychotically depressing. A great combo for any film!

  3. Why, in your opinion, do the Moresbys go to Africa? What is the reader to take away from the parable of the three
    African girls who want to have tea in the Sahara?

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