Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky and the issue of near-greatness

To paraphrase the philosopher, to be near-great may be to be misunderstood…

This essay will no doubt illuminate some of my idiosyncrasies as a reader and writer.

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Anyone who has devoted him/herself to reading and writing, whether as vocation (as I and some others have) or as avocation (as many more others have), occasionally has those times of reflection when we look back over our pursuits and spot occasional gaps in our literary educations. You know what I mean: we look over one or another of those lists of “greatest books” or “books everyone with a functioning brain should read” and note a work that makes us say, “How have I overlooked that book?” If you’re like me (and I hope your neuroses don’t extend, as mine do, to thinking you should have read every writer mentioned in, say, The Norton Anthology series), you then find yourself scrambling to address your perceived gaps in your literary education. Such, such is the nature of a certain kind of literary OCD.

It’s in that spirit that I added the book which is the subject of this essay to the 2014 reading list. Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky is one of those books that gets quoted often, and referred to oftener by its admirers. And it is a book with some memorable quotes. At least one deserves inclusion here. Here’s the most famous:

Because we don’t know when we will die, 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 is 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.

It certainly is an affecting quote. And for some readers, I suspect, it encapsulates – and excuses – the existential angst that is this novel. Because The Sheltering Sky is nothing if not a meditation (the characters spend a LOT of time meditating) on the angst that is – well, life. The Sahara Desert, which dominates the landscape (both outside and inside the characters) of this novel is, of course, a character itself, much like the heath in Hardy’s The Return of the Native or the river in Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And Bowles takes full advantage of the idea of how we misunderstand the vastness within through his presentation of the vastness without. The native tale of “tea in the Sahara” is a warning, a cautionary tale, that the main character, Port Moresby, fails to heed at his peril.

But The Sheltering Sky really isn’t about the quotes or the metaphors or the apostrophied Sahara. It’s really a book about selfishness – and what selfishness does to people. The unhappy couple at the center of the book, Kit and Port Moresby, care about each other, but only in terms of what Kit gives Port or Port gives Kit. Their destruction comes as a result of 1) in the case of Port, disregard of even his own health in his selfish quest for the new, the novel, the unusual; 2) in the case of Kit, inability to see past her own selfish grief and sense of loss. These are not nice people, they are not likable people, they are not in any way admirable people. They are what we term in the vernacular, fuck-ups. That Bowles can keep us interested in such dreadful asses is a tribute to his skill as a prose stylist.

But that’s not enough, really.

Which brings me to the title issue of this essay. The great and near-great. A recent ranking put The Sheltering Sky on a list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. Does the book deserve such a lofty position?

In a word – maybe. In two words – maybe not.

And here we come to my own little idiosyncratic method of assessment of works that have, in one way or another, been candidates for my literary canon (and let’s all calm down and be reassured that the canon is an organic thing and that lots more books are in my canon than in any traditional canon and that your canon and mine may differ and that that differing is A-OK).

The evaluation system I use is “great/near-great/etc.” It’s a useful system for comparing not just one author’s work to another’s but works within a specific author’s oeuvre. For example: if I look at, say, the Pulitzer finalists of 1930, I rate them as follows: The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner – great; A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway – near-great; Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe – oh-so-close to great; Laughing Boy, Oliver LaFarge (the actual Pulitzer winner) – good but not even in the discussion of great.

To specify further, let’s look at an author’s oeuvre. How about my guy Hemingway, an always arguable titan of 20th century American literature. I’d rate the most famous novels this way: The Sun Also Rises – great; A Farewell to Arms – near-great; For Whom the Bell Tolls – good; The Old Man and the Sea – good.

So what I’m saying is that I try to be aware that even my most esteemed authors have their limitations. I’ve noted this about even my beloved Jane Austen.

What I’m trying to get at here is this: The Sheltering Sky, at least in my canonical estimation, is not a great novel. I’m still debating whether I think it’s a near-great novel or only a very good novel. The characters, while at times engaging, are often off-putting. Off-putting behavior is fine for ancillary characters like the Lyles (a creepy mother and son who show up at various times in the book). But in the novel’s main characters being so off-putting sets up a wall between reader and (the assumed) protagonists.

Another character needs mention, the third member of the triangle that is the “Moresby problem” of the book, the “friend” Tunner, is straight out of Fitzgerald – he’s sort of a weird cross between Dexter Green from “Winter Dreams” and Anson Hunter from “The Rich Boy” with a little of Nick Carraway thrown in as saving grace. Now if you know those stories and The Great Gatsby you know that all of those characters are rather pitiable – even Nick is a version of Coleridge’s “sadder but wiser” wedding guest by the close of Gatsby. And if the character that readers are left to hang onto at the end of a book about the search for self is merely pitiable, you’re putting many readers in a tough position – they will try to find some saving grace in someone somewhere. Complicate that, as Bowles does, with the rather negligible treatment of Tunner in the last quarter of the book (he’s talked about but appears only briefly and ineffectually) – and you risk losing readers’ trust – even the trust of those who realize you’re trying to make a profound statement about self and the search for self – as I believe Bowles is. If you make your only possible outlet for an insight a cipher like Tunner, a kind of unintentionally professed nihilism may trump your message about looking too deeply into the well of one’s soul. If no one seems to learn anything, what are readers to learn?

Worse yet, the figures we’re haunted by at the novel’s close – the dead Port and the insane Kit – are not like, say, Jay Gatsby. Their destruction is not the failed quest of a quixotic, likable dreamer like Gatsby. Their destruction is purely the result of self-absorption and selfishness – they lie to each other, cheat on each other, and excuse their behavior by claiming that such self-destructive nihilism is merely a matter of each misunderstanding him/herself  as well as each other – even though such self-delusion leads one to death and the other to madness.

All the breathtaking scenery described and psychological insight propounded in the novel can’t overcome that sordid, repellent truth, though it may be expressed in a profound and darkly beautiful way:

How fragile we are under the sheltering sky. Behind the sheltering sky is a vast dark universe, and we’re just so small.

One is reminded of Stephen Crane and his insistence that the universe has no interest in our well-being. What Bowles doesn’t quite achieve, that Crane achieves so brilliantly in a work like “The Open Boat,” is the clear articulation of why Port Moresby risks everything – and loses everything. And why Kit Moresby self-destructs when Port dies. Instead of heroism we get self-indulgence; instead of insight we get self-delusion. Ultimately, despite Bowles’ best efforts, this is unsatisfying. It is one thing to lose; it is another altogether to throw away. The Moresbys, unlike Gatsby, are not reaching for some lost star; they are merely indulging their whims as they come. And they respond to the consequences of those whims in hedonistic, self-destructive ways.

As I’ve said, the novel is beautifully written – prose-poetry at times, as the above quotes suggest. That is why evaluating The Sheltering Sky is problematic. Its language is that of a great book; its themes are, while I believe well-intentioned, unsuccessfully articulated. What is meant as a critique of an attitude toward life bordering on the dilletantish is too easy to misinterpret as, in a strange way, a celebration of nihilistic impulse. That the central characters end badly may be lesson enough for some. One wishes, though, that Bowles had brought us back to some image or moment or insight that crystallizes that critique – as the sand filled teacups in the story mentioned above make clear the danger of underestimating the power of nature.

That he doesn’t give us that image/moment/insight makes The Sheltering Sky, instead of a great novel, only a near-great one at best, only a very good one at worst.

Categories: Arts/Literature, ArtSunday

12 replies »

  1. I think I may have a point to argue, although maybe not. Still mulling it over.

    You appear at one point to assert that unlikeable characters build a wall between book and reader that precludes greatness. But … I think sometimes alienating the audience is important for great art. In music, for instance, I’ve always argued that as wholly unsatisfying as U2’s Pop was for the audience (including myself here, too), it was in fact a wonderful statement on consumer culture and media. Not sure you could reflect the cold, calculating alienation of the industry without producing a cold, calculating alienating album.

    So, how can you get at the truth about cold, irredeemable assholes without depicting them in a way that alienates the audience?

    • One simple solution, Sam – you give the reader a character to identify with who “learns” from the experiences of the more problematic characters. In the case of THE SHELTERING SKY Bowles had one at hand – Tunner – a character who is “taken in” by Port and Kit Moresby, as, say, Nick Carraway is by both the Buchanans (Tom and Daisy) and by Jay Gatsby. Through Nick’s reactions to both Tom and Daisy’s casual destruction of Gatsby (they, after all, set in motion the events that lead to his murder, then absolve themselves of any responsibility) and to Gatsby himself (a gangster motivated by idealism – foolish as it might have been) give readers a guide for comparing/contrasting their own responses to the behaviors of both sides. Readers may, like Nick, have some ambivalence (Tom, Daisy, and Gatsby are not admirable people), but they can see difference between the two camps – and reach their own conclusions.

      In point of fact, halfway through the novel I felt sure that’s what Bowles would do – it would give him a way to manage his depiction of the Moresbys’ nihilistic hedonism while giving readers enough distance to reflect upon that nihilism without having it presented as if the Moresbys are possible role models. That he didn’t seems to me a failing too big to ignore in one’s consideration of the novel’s importance.

      I also understand what you are saying re: art as act of confrontation/alienation – but I disagree with you for a couple of reasons.

      1) Art that tests boundaries, yes, will alienate the audiences – and I’m fine with that. Will it stand the test of time and become classic? I think that is another question – for example the famous Marcel Duchamps “signed urinal” – testing boundaries and opening an important discussion about what could/could not be art? Absolutely. But the work itself as a classic of modern art? Less convinced of that. Would say the same about Finnegan’s Wake as a work of literary art – an even better, more relevant example. Powerful statement of the modernist alienation by language statement? Absolutely. But you notice it appears on NO lists of “novels an educated person should read,” even from the most intellectually precious sources. Alienates the average educated reader too much, methinks.

      And my criticism/reviewing is always trying to think of the average educated reader as audience. Not a bunch of PhD totin’ theory quotin’ yahoos like the crowd in the Hunger Games discussion. 🙂

      2) As I say, this is my idiosyncratic read – but I’d remind you that my position has always been that even literary art is first and foremost an act of communication. And what is communicated is, of course, paramount. The problem for me with THE SHELTERING SKY is that Bowles, to paraphrase Hemingway, left something out that HE didn’t realize he’d left out. And that, for me, makes the novel fall short. A novel/poem/song/whatever can’t be great if there’s a hole in it.

      Do I make sense?

      • Hmmm. There’s a hell of a standard in here. It can be great art if it alienates, so long as it communicates. But alienation and communication are … well, one is signal and the other is noise, albeit intentional, communicative noise.

        Jesus, I think I just became Barthes.

        No, I get your point. I think. There has to be a place of realization (enlightenment, actualization, whatever) for the reader in order for the text to work. Now, a work of art that is wholly alienating requires me to find my actualizing moment OUTSIDE the work of art. I see it, it drives me away, but I reflect and reach conclusions. The actualizing space is external to the work. The point you seem to be making, I think, is that a great work – an enduring great work – provides the space for actualization WITHIN the text.

        Am I close?

        • Sam wrote: “The point you seem to be making, I think, is that a great work – an enduring great work – provides the space for actualization WITHIN the text. Am I close?”

          Spot on, I’d say. In fact, brilliant.

          Now I’m sure another famous Frenchman is spinning in his grave that I may be perverting his ideas about this. In other words, arguing what this text is in terms of explaining what it isn’t. Sign, sign, nowhere is there a sign…perhaps THE sign….

          Of course, we must understand that signs are sometimes signs and sometimes they are signs for signs…but if a sign fails to signify (think about my description of Tunner – a failed sign for the reader), the text may fail in conveying the message intended…

          Hi, Roland, let me introduce you to my friend Jacques….

  2. What happened to my latest comment? It actually tells you something about the book, unlike
    a couple of the comments that appear above. Don’t you want to know what the book is about?
    Port is heroic in The Sheltering Sky. Many readers miss that, Jim.

  3. It seems to me that it would be normal to spend time meditating on life shortly after the second of two immensely destructive wars in thirty years — wars started by nations
    considered to be the advanced civilizations on earth. Port does more than meditate.