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The Sheltering Sky
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79 of 83 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 1997
Paul Bowles' classic novel of the Sahara, "The Sheltering Sky", is perhaps the closest to perfect a book can attain. The characters are absolutely real, and Bowles digs so deep into the American psyche with them the effect is, at times, horrifying. In this book of three American travelers who journey through North Africa, Bowles shows us, with gripping yet subtle tones, how rigid is our comprehension of foreign culture, and how incomplete is our knowledge of ourselves. It is a novel for the mind. As the journeyers separate, first from each other then from their own sanity, we undestand how delicate our grip on reality is, especially when faced with the awesome spectacle of untouched nature. As dialogue and plot imperceptibly give way to long, lush interior landscapes, Bowles charts a course to the heart of human evil for us, much as Conrad did in "Heart of Darkness", but this time with more depth and more passion. There is no mistaking this book or a potboiler, and it is not an easy read, but once begun it is not easily ended, even when the last page is read. It echoes. It will echo one hundred years from now. Pick it up and begin a journey into yourself you will never forget
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45 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on June 21, 2000
The Sheltering Sky is a book that has everything--passion, love, disillusionment, pathos--you name and it's there. I hate to use the word, "masterpiece," but in this case, it applies. Bowles has done a perfect job in showing us the psychological depths of people who are deeply in love, yet lose their connections to and need for each other. The power of their plight is only reinforced by the unrelenting bleakness of the vast Sahara. It is a dark and often depressing book but one that is more than satisfying and memorable.
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75 of 83 people found the following review helpful
on November 19, 1999
With the death of Paul Bowles the world has lost one of its great authors. This book allows us to hold on to some of that greatness. As a rumination on the existential impact of place and space, the book opens up horizons of thought one may have never considered. When Port tells Kit his thoughts on the 'sheltering sky' one is asked to consider the implications of realizing - always and ceaselessly knowing - that the "sky" is a fiction that protects us from our very insignificance. In one short passage, Bowles has ripped the lid off our world as surely as he casts Kit into the desert, another grain of sand among countless others. This book is about more than an encounter with the Sahara, it is about - and is itself - an encounter with human existence.
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336 of 396 people found the following review helpful
on July 11, 2000
In Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky, three still-young Americans travel to the post WWII North African desert in search of themselves and new experiences.
Port and Kit Moresby, in the tenth year of marriage, have become both sexually and emotionally estranged, and Port hopes their sojourn into the desert will bring them closer together and restore the love they once shared. Kit, not so keen on either the desert or Port, has nevertheless agreed to Port's wishes, albeit reluctantly. The third person in their party, their friend, George Tunner, accompanies them more on a whim than anything else.
Seeking the exotic, the trio really doesn't know what to do with it when they find it. The sun is too bright, the labyrinth of city streets too dark, the excess of sensual delights a surfeit that imprisons rather than frees.
Becoming more and more dissatisfied with both themselves and with those around them, they decide to leave the restrictiveness of the city behind and venture farther south, into the wild, harsh, dazzling beauty of the Sahara. They meet the Lyles, ostensibly mother and son, who claim to be writing a travel book but whose real business appears to be far more sinister, much like the duo's own obsessive Freudian tangles.
Port, who at first, found himself drawn inexorably to the beauty and remoteness of the Sahara, soon becomes violently ill and dies, and Kit, grateful to be rescued by a passing, enigmatic Arab, finds that things are not always as they seem. Her rescuer becomes her imprisoner, and as the sun grows ever brighter, the shadows grow deeper. The bizarre eventually becomes so real that Kit gradually and terrifyingly loses what fragile grip on reality she once possessed.
Although The Sheltering Sky may, on the surface, seem like a lurid and melodramatic tale, it is anything but. A masterpiece of understatement, plot is always secondary to theme in Bowles' writing; the real changes take place in the minds of the characters who must face an immensity of experience they cannot even hope to understand much less prepare themselves for.
The indifference of nature and the unforgiving quality of the desert also play a huge part in this story. The book could be a metaphor for the meaninglessness of most 20th century relationships. Port and Kit's journey into the heart of the Sahara mirrors our own journey into the depths of the soul and we either come back altered forever (Kit) or we don't come back at all (Port). It is significant that Tunner, more superficial in both his outlook and psychological makeup, fails to make the journey into the depths of the desert and, as such, he remains untouched by it. He emerges essentially the same as he was when the story began.
The Sheltering Sky could have been a character study, but Bowles wisely eschews this venue. Although we gain flashes of insight into each character, we really don't get to know them in-depth. An existential novel, the characters in The Sheltering Sky are more symbolic than fully-formed, fleshed-out people. In a highly thematic book, however, this is exactly as it should be, and Bowles never fails to manipulate his characters with anything less than sheer perfection.
The inner emptiness of the characters is emphasized by the incompleteness of their emotional experiences. Every time Port or Kit seem to be on the verge of discovering a deeper connection, to themselves or to each other, Bowles pulls the chair out from under the reader. The scene that best typifies this lack of depth is Kit's as she spends her final moments with Port following his death: "Softly she laid her cheek on the pillow and stroked his hair. No tears flowed, it was a silent leave-taking. A strangely intense buzzing in front of her made her open her eyes. She watched fascinated while two flies made their brief, frantic love on his lower lip."
Although The Sheltering Sky is, for the most part, written in beautifully understated prose (the vivid place descriptions are the exception), there is nothing subtle about its message. And, while one emerges from this strange and complex novel as if from a dream, a little reflection makes it clear that our dreams can so easily become our nightmares.
The real setting of The Sheltering Sky is not the vast, uncharted Sahara, but the vast, uncharted reaches of the modern soul. Like Bowles' characters, we won't find the journey to the depths an easy one, but if we are going to do more than live on the periphery of life we should, however, find the journey necessary.
Polished to perfection in every way, The Sheltering Sky is the strangest, and most strangely familiar, book I've read in a long, long time.
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121 of 140 people found the following review helpful
on January 4, 2000
For Kerouac and the Beats, frenetic, directionless travel was proof of life - could even be held to "create" life. Bowles, in this slyly subversive book, reverses that. The three Americans who start out on this largely pointless journey into the North African desert, hope the mere fact of movement will resolve their deep spiritual lethargy - or at least delay their having to face it. They imagine themselves sophisticated, wearing their cynicism as a talisman in a cultural landscape of troubling strangeness. But they are simply unaware. Faced with an elemental vastness that cares nothing for their conceits, they dis-integrate. Only one survives and she is so utterly changed - physically and in spirit - that she can no longer recognise herself, nor see a future for herself in the world she formally inhabited. Although the prime characters are fundamentally unpleasant - at least for most of the book - the lasting impression is of an eerie, spectral beauty. It is a quiet masterpiece; I know of few books that are more subtly teasing - that more wisely poke at our arrogance in imagining that we know anything.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on April 29, 2002
Shortly after Paul Bowles arrived in Morocco in July, 1947, he began writing "The Sheltering Sky" in the stuffy air of a claustrophobic hotel room in Fez. "The first page had to be part of the airless little hotel room where I was lying." From this inauspicious, but atmospheric, beginning, Bowles created one of the most profound works of Twentieth Century American literature, a deeply disturbing exploration of interiority and the world, of the relationship between mind and culture.
"The Sheltering Sky" tells the story of three Americans traveling in the Sahara following the Second World War. Port and Kit Moresby, husband and wife, and their friend, Tunner, are "travelers," not "tourists," as Port says early in the narrative. "The difference is partly one of time . . . 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." Like travelers, Port, Kit and Tunner seem to have little in the way of an itinerary, their days languourously slipping by, one day into the next, without purpose, marked only by a palpable psychic discomfort.
But there is another important difference between the tourist and the traveler. As Port relates, "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." In doing this, however, the traveler runs the risk, if the degree of cultural separation is too great, if the foreign culture is too extreme, that he will become completely untethered from reality. As Bowles once said in a 1981 Paris Review interview: "Everyone is isolated from everyone else. The concept of society is like a cushion to protect us from the knowledge of that isolation. A fiction that serves as an anaesthetic."
It is, ultimately, the removal of this anaesthetic, the removal of societal and cultural moorings, which drives the narrative of "The Sheltering Sky"and determines the fate of Port and Kit and Tunner. One does not survive; another will never be the same again. Disturbances of the interior landscape, the landscape of the psyche, become the catalyst of this psychologically discomforting novel. And this stunning mingling of interior landscape with the landscape of the Sahara-the sands, the sky, the maze-like passages of the cities, the alien culture-brilliantly unfies and completes the narrative of "The Sheltering Sky", marking it as a profound and compelling work of genius.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on January 5, 2006
My introduction to this novel is kind of strange: One rainy day, many years ago, I went to the cinema to see what was on and there was this movie called 'The Sheltering Sky'. I walked out a few hours later, liking it alot, but kind of feeling alot went unexplained and so I immediately got hold of the novel...

That novel seriously changed my life. I was in my young twenties and desperately trying to find some meaning to life at the time. Well, to make a long story short, Bowles confronted me with all those sweet & scarey existential things about life that I had suspected. Life at the time seemed amazing and full of joy and promise, but also really terrifying and tragic, too. I guess I become a bone fide signed up member to Existentialism because of this book.

I am now in my mid thirties and whilst my rabid Existenitalism is now tempered by practical realities. The Sheltering Sky has become something of a bible of sorts to me. Here is why:

First of all, it's style of writing. Cold and clinical. It looks at the psychologies of these people like they are ants under a microscope (and in a sense they are, three people in a huge empty wide space (the desert = the world) under a, not so much merciless, but rather a 'benignly indifferent' (to borrow from Camus) 'Sheltering Sky. To me, these people in a strange land are really a metaphor/analogy for our place in the universe: How we are 'thrown' into existence with no objective reference. How we almost find ourselves in the world (surely a strange place at the best of times) and how we desperately try to connect with others (sometimes successful, sometimes not).

Anyway, it is a book that I read atleast once a year.

These are merely my subjective feelings - I'm certainly not going to say 'it is the best book ever', or something to that effect. But it is certainly my favourite book. Mostly because it demonstrated to me how another humans artistic endeavour can inform and help someone else to find their own answers. And because of that we are never really alone.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on March 30, 2008
I just finished reading this book for the second time. The first was nearly thirty years ago when I was in my impressionable twenties. At that time I considered it extremely powerful and I, as an addictive maker of lists, thenceforth ranked it as my favorite book. Now, a thousand experiences later, including a ten-day venture to Morocco (I currently am an ex-pat living in Spain), I decided to get the book off the shelf and read it again. Would the book live up to my own rapturous opinion of it?

The answer, quite simply, is yes. Bowles creates a story as gripping as any I've known and had me hanging on every word. The bizarre relationship between Port and Kit, the depiction of the Arab world, the caravan crossing the desert, everything is painted in masterful strokes while leaving much food for thought. For instance: Why do some people, like myself, feel so alienated from American culture that we go to great lengths to distance ourselves from it? Bowles offers a clear answer while showing the consequences of fleeing that culture and pitching ourselves headlong into another more exotic one. A more emotional reading experience would be hard for me to imagine.
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41 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on September 18, 2000
Shortly after Paul Bowles arrived in Morocco in July, 1947, he began writing "The Sheltering Sky" in the stuffy air of a claustrophobic hotel room in Fez. "The first page had to be part of the airless little hotel room where I was lying." From this inauspicious, but atmospheric, beginning, Bowles created one of the most profound works of Twentieth Century American literature, a deeply disturbing exploration of interiority and the world, of the relationship between mind and culture.
"The Sheltering Sky" tells the story of three Americans traveling in the Sahara following the Second World War. Port and Kit Moresby, husband and wife, and their friend, Tunner, are "travelers," not "tourists," as Port says early in the narrative. "The difference is partly one of time . . . 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." Like travelers, Port, Kit and Tunner seem to have little in the way of an itinerary, their days languourously slipping by, one day into the next, without purpose, marked only by a palpable psychic discomfort.
But there is another important difference between the tourist and the traveler. As Port relates, "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." In doing this, however, the traveler runs the risk, if the degree of cultural separation is too great, if the foreign culture is too extreme, that he will become completely untethered from reality. As Bowles once said in a 1981 Paris Review interview: "Everyone is isolated from everyone else. The concept of society is like a cushion to protect us from the knowledge of that isolation. A fiction that serves as an anaesthetic."
It is, ultimately, the removal of this anaesthetic, the removal of societal and cultural moorings, which drives the narrative of "The Sheltering Sky"and determines the fate of Port and Kit and Tunner. One does not survive; another will never be the same again. Disturbances of the interior landscape, the landscape of the psyche, become the catalyst of this psychologically discomforting novel. And this stunning mingling of interior landscape with the landscape of the Sahara-the sands, the sky, the maze-like passages of the cities, the alien culture-brilliantly unfies and completes the narrative of "The Sheltering Sky", marking it as a profound and compelling work of genius.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on October 14, 2004
It's hard to add more to the thoughtful things said here about *The Sheltering Sky*, but I am surprised to see no one compared this book to Malcolm Lowry's *Under the Volcano*. Some elements are quite similar: both detail the interpersonal connections among a triangle of protagonists consisting of two men and one woman, who is married to one of the men. Both tell of the horrifying last days of an expatriate in an alien civilization: the consulate Firman in UTV, and Port Moresby in TSS.

Both books describe the effects of the lack of, or the loss of, spiritualism on the protagonists as they make their way in a strange environment with a bewildering culture. UTV focuses more on Firman's personal inadequacy as the cause for his undoing while TSS focuses more on universal reasons, which is why the book is usually referred to as a work of existentialist fiction.

One reviewer noted an odd sense of humor in TSS. I would agree that some of the situations that the protagonists find themselves in are so alien to their own cultural experience that humor emerges out of the sheer incongruency. For example, I couldn't help but chuckle at the image of Port running like a scared boy from his first encounter with the Arab prostitute Marhnia. Still, instances of humor in TSS are rare, and usually the incongruency between the protagonists and the culture they find themselves in produces a sense of horror or discomfort. Another element of humor is the portrayal of the Lyles. The book reaches for and achieves a subtle satire of this travelling couple, but ultimately there is little to laugh at even there. There is something mysterious and menacing in the character of Eric Lyle that cuts one's laughter short. At best it's a nervous laughter

Much has been written about TSS as a seminal work of beat literature. I find it more philosophical and more profound than beat lit usually achieves. It has more in common with the novels of Camus than with Kerouac's. War ravaged Europe produced Camus, Sartre, and Becket. America produced Kerouac, Mailer, and Bellow. If TSS is any example, Bowles had more in common with the Europeans.

I give TSS a five-star rating because it's a coherent piece of work, with all the symbols working together to produce feelings of alienation, confusion, and discomfort. The main symbolic motif, that of the burning white light of the sky, gets an unusual treatment. Light, when used as a metaphor, usually suggests knowledge or spiritual enlightenment. But in TSS, the light is used symbolically to the contrary: it is oppressive, torturing, and relentless, suggesting that what enlightenment is possible will be painful and the darkness is preferable to light.
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