Paul Bowles: ‘Here’s My Message. Everything Gets Worse’
Paul Theroux on the Existentialism of The Sheltering Sky
The Sheltering Sky was Paul Bowles’s first novel, and although he honed his art almost to his dying day—novels, poems, stories, translations, as well as musical scores—it was this strange, uneven, and somewhat hallucinatory novel, and a handful of disturbing short stories written around the same time, that seemed to locate his fictional vision for good in the minds of his readers. So at the age of 38 he was defined, and that definition dogged him for the rest of his life. Even in his eighties he was pestered about details in the novel. I know this to be true because I was one of the people pestering him when he was that great age.
I found him sitting on the floor of a back room in a large chilly apartment in a gray building on a back street in Tangier. It was October and clammy cold. To drive the dampness away Bowles had a sort of superior blowtorch going, a fizzing blue flame heating the curtained-off cubicle, where he was seated like a hawker in a bazaar, on a mat, back straight, legs out, because of a leg infection. Around him was a litter of small objects: notebooks, pens, medicine bottles—everything within reach—a teapot, a cup, spoons, matches, and shelves with books and papers, some of them musical scores. A metronome sat on a low table nearby, among bottles of capsules and tubes of ointment, and cassette tapes and a tin of Nesquik and cough drops and a partly eaten candy bar and a note folded and jammed into an envelope scribbled
With a pad in his hand, he was translating a novel from Spanish. His illness and his age gave him a strangely sculpted and skeletal dignity. He seemed sure of himself, and (as a chronic vacillator myself) I admired him for being uncompromising.
Because I did not want to inhibit his talk by taking notes of our conversation, I stopped in a café, the Negresco, on the way back to my hotel and described this meeting in my notebook. I wanted to make it an episode for the end of my Mediterranean journey, the book I was to call The Pillars of Hercules. I wrote, He seems to me a man who masks all feelings; he has a glittering eye but a cold gaze. He seems at once preoccupied, knowledgeable, worldly, remote, detached, vain, skeptical, eccentric, self-sufficient, indestructible, fragile, egomaniacal, frank, and hospitable to praise. He is like almost every other writer I have known in my life.
“Everyone is always leaving tomorrow,” Bowles had said to me when I told him I was taking the ferry back to Spain the next day.
But Bowles never left. His was the classic case of the person who detaches himself and swims away from the mainstream, to go far away to pursue anonymity—no phone, no name on the house—and discovers that the world beats a path to his door, making him conspicuous. (B. Traven in Mexico and J.D. Salinger in New Hampshire are two other examples of this paradox.) It could be said that Bowles unwittingly popularized Tangier as a louche and literary destination—certainly Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsburg, and many others went to Tangier because Bowles had gotten there first. Bowles saw them come and go; he went on living there, with forays to Ceylon and Spain. Bowles had first visited Tangier with Aaron Copeland at the bidding of (so he told me) Gertrude Stein. Copeland went home, Bowles found the place to his liking, and there he thrived, part ascetic, part snob (as he seemed to me), and in his way distinctly rebellious, going against the grain, because the dampness and his rigorous living conditions and the decay of Tangier all seemed to be life-shorteners. But unlike all those others, he was a resident and a traveler, not a tourist.
“I felt strongly then about my not being a tourist as my protagonist Port did in the novel I eventually wrote,
Bowles started the novel in Fez, Morocco, late in 1948, and after writing 150 pages went to Oran, in Algeria, and traveled south, manuscript in hand, to Oujda, to Colombe-Béchar, a French garrison, then Taghit, a day’s journey by truck, then Béni Abbès and Timimoun, and finally back to Fez. Novelists can be extremely misleading about their methods and motives (Bowles claimed that this book came to him when he was riding a bus up Fifth Avenue), but it seems certain, as he said, that he wrote the book and gathered these details on his trip through Algeria, as he later explained, “a combination of memory writing and minute description of whatever place I was in at that moment.”
“His was the classic case of the person who detaches himself and swims away from the mainstream, to go far away to pursue anonymity—no phone, no name on the house—and discovers that the world beats a path to his door, making him conspicuous.”
On his ramble through Algeria, he was writing each morning, elaborating details of places he’d seen. He was also experimenting with drugs, notably hashish and majoun (“cannabis jam”); he claimed that some of the novel was written under the influence. In every respect, this was quite the opposite of the romantic idea of emotion recollected in tranquility, much more the insertion of raw experience onto the page, the traveling author creating a picaresque narrative by adding detail to the story line from his peregrinations: the hot nights, the long rides, the wrong turns, the unreliable locals, the hideous tourists—here the Lyles, mother and son.
And the seedy hotels and the bad food. The Grand Hotel in Aïn Krorfa in this novel takes the cake as one of the worst hotels in fiction: the fountain at its entrance contained “a small mountain of reeking garbage” as well as some human infants, naked, their “soft formless bodies troubled with bursting sores . . . pink hairless dogs,” and inside, the “predominating odor was the latrine.” Here the travelers “engaged three smelly rooms,” and one of the rooms has “a jackal skin on the floor . . . the only furnishing.”
The meals in this hotel and elsewhere on the trip are so bad as to be almost comical. Weevils in the soup at the Grand, and later Kit “found patches of fur in her rabbit stew” and, in the kitchen, a knife stuck into the table and “under the point was a cockroach, its legs still feebly kicking.” In El Ga‘a “the meat consisted of various unidentifiable inner organs fried in deep fat,” and in Sba the shopkeeper Daoud Zozeph’s wife serves up “amorphous lumps of dough fried in deep fat and served cold . . . pieces of cartilaginous meat . . . soggy bread.” At Belquassim’s, where Kit is captive, “some of the dishes seemed to consist principally of lumps of half-cooked lamb fat.” I think we can be assured that Bowles transferred these meals from the table to his work in progress, and that he analyzed it as he ate, or merely gloated over its horror.
The note of fascinated disgust that echoes through the novel is struck at the outset with the three travelers in a seedy café in Oran, studying their maps. The Arabs sit outside, the Americans inside, “cooler but without movement, and it smelled of stale wine and urine.”
This motif of grotesquerie occurs so frequently that it becomes a dark version of comic awfulness, causing the reader to think, What next! And this reminds us that the greatest terror in fiction is often achieved by way of black comedy. Bowles was possessed by the notion of extremes, dramatized in the mounting persecution of the professor in “A Distant Episode,” surely one of the most terrifying short stories in any language. Bowles claimed
The structure of the novel is episodic and seemingly random. Three Americans set off, going south from Oran. They have distinctly different personalities. Port Moresby’s name is an intentional joke by Bowles: Port Moresby is of course the capital of Papua New Guinea, named in 1873 by Captain John Moresby after his father, Admiral Sir Fairfax Moresby. The Port of the novel is thin, “with a slightly wry, distraught face” and a sense of nonattachment. His wife, Kit, is a high-strung socialite with a trunk full of evening gowns and makeup—we even see her in a desert outpost wearing a backless number of pale blue satin, for no apparent reason. The third member of this ménage à trois—as it turns out to be—is Tunner, an opportunist, who cuckolds Port and is surprised at one point that it doesn’t rain much in the Sahara.
They are wanderers. The Second World War has ended, and they are now free to travel. They know almost nothing about North Africa and are ambivalent about it from the outset, so why have they chosen this destination? “It was one of the few places they could get boat passage” from New York.
The Lyles are Australian, offering farcical comedy of a shrieking racist mother and her creepy son. For long stretches, as much as 170 pages, they drop out of the story. They add very little to the narrative, but they are presented with such gusto they seem to have a point. Tennessee Williams was an early admirer (and reviewer) of the novel, and this mother and son seem like stock figures from his cast of characters.
The Americans move south. Many of the places can be found on a modern map: Messad, Tadjmout, El Ga‘a, Sba, Adrar, and distant Tessalit, over the Algerian border in Mali.
It is in Port’s nature to nose around, uncomprehending yet undeterred. He is a searcher—but for what? I suppose, the wish to go to extremes. Yet he is chronically restless. When he finds a willing local woman, Marnhia, the whole affair lasts “not more than a quarter of an hour.” Later, there are quarrels, misunderstandings; the food gets worse, the weather hotter. “The room was malignant” is one description, and dawn itself is tainted: “the pale infected light of daybreak.”
Port’s inwardness and sense of self-destruction are intensified. His illness seems to be an illumination, but then—long before the novel ends—he dies. His biographer: Bowles “told Jane [his writer wife] that he meant to kill off his hero halfway through the book. ‘He lingers in an agony instead of dying. But I’ll get rid of him yet. Once he’s gone there’ll be only the heroine left to keep things going, and that won’t be easy either.
“As a traveler, as a writer, I have learned from Bowles’s habit of observation, his love of extreme situations, his curiosity about cultures, his love of solitude, and most of all his patience.”
In its randomness and especially the exoticism of its setting, the novel was distinctly modern, written for a postwar reading public that was still shockable, and presented by a young man who, though he disdained any idea of a message, could be at times sententious: “The bar was . . . full of the sadness inherent in all deracinated things,” and “Humanity is everyone but oneself,” and “The soul is the weariest part of the body,” and “A walk through the countryside was a sort of epitome of the passage through life itself.”
These don’t work for me, they hardly even ring true, but there are insights that stay in the mind. After Port’s unexpected death, Kit remembers a particular day at home when, seeing an approaching storm, “death had become the topic.”
“Death is always on the way,” Port had said, “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 novel moves from observation to observation, rather than from incident to incident. The image of the sheltering sky is enlarged in the unfolding narrative, and of course calls attention to itself. “The sky here’s very strange,” Port says to Kit. “I often have the sensation when I look up at it that it’s a solid thing up there, protecting us from what’s behind.” And he explains, “Nothing, I suppose. Just darkness. Absolute night.”
Ambiguity is menace for him, leading to death, and when Port dies, the darkness behind the sheltering sky is revealed: “A black star appears, a point of darkness in the night sky’s clarity. Point of darkness and gateway to repose. Reach out, pierce the fine fabric of the sheltering sky, take repose.”
Port’s death, “seen from the inside,” as Bowles wanted it, is a form of passion. None of the sex or lovemaking in the book—Port and Mahrnia, Tunner and Kit, Kit and her numerous lovers—is described with anything like the power that Bowles gives to this lingering death.
What are we to make of it all? These people are trespassers, not only going too far, but in the wrong place. The desert is described as lifeless, and Bowles writes in one of his grimmer passages, “Now there was a gray, insect-like vegetation everywhere, a tortured scrub of hard shells and stiff hairy spines that covered the earth like an excrescence of hatred.” But is it really grim, or is it overegged horror writing, something out of H.P. Lovecraft? I think it is both.
Kit’s ordeal, not erotic in any conventional sense, is sexual sadism—written coldly, rather than (as much erotica is written) in a mood of excitement, the writer getting into the spirit of it. For many readers this pitiless and painful woman’s journey is the heart of the book, the pretty New York socialite in the desert, rather foolish and ultimately unbalanced, passed from one tribesman to another, subjected to sexual barbarities and ending up in Mali, in far-off Tessalit. It is she, not Port, who is a version of the abused Professor in “A Distant Episode.”
Bowles was a poet as well as a novelist and short story writer, and this novel especially highlights his poetic gift. Of course it is the story of three naïve Americans lost in the stereotypical alien and forbidding land. And there is a lip-smacking love for harrowing detail—of horrible meals, filthy hotels, foreign habits, and arid landscapes. As for its unspiritual essence, it was written at a time when the word “existentialism” explained a great deal of fiction. It is perhaps one of the important existential texts, many of its effects achieved through ambiguity and vagueness, contrasted with the harsh concreteness of physical description. In this sense it represents a bitter view of life, but it is no more a tragedy than Camus’s Outsider is a tragedy.
Yet this book matters, particularly for me. It and others helped direct my writing and my traveling life. I was still a student when I read it and Bowles’s other novels, Up Above the World, The Spider’s House, Let It Come Down, and many of the stories. As a traveler, as a writer, I have learned from Bowles’s habit of observation, his love of extreme situations, his curiosity about cultures, his love of solitude, and most of all his patience. I am not sure what this novel adds up to—a meditation on death? A warning to the curious? It is a willful adventure story with all the elements of an ordeal. The desert is fatal to strangers. Bowles said he had no message, or rather, “Here’s my message. Everything gets worse.” But it is obvious that he wanted to give the desert a face and a mood—or moods; he often depicts a landscape in anatomical terms, and he could only do that by describing people somewhat like ourselves crawling around it and becoming its victims.
From Figures in a Landscape: People and Places. Used with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Copyright © 2018 by Paul Theroux.