Synopses & Reviews
Note to teachers Note to teachers Paul Bowles was born in New York City in 1910 but very quickly found himself drawn away from America, an impulse that was to govern much of his life. At the age of 18 he ran away to Paris where he worked briefly as a switchboard operator at the "Herald Tribune and met Gertrude Stein, who discouraged him in his attempts to write poetry, telling him that he was not a poet at all. For some time afterwards, Bowles s aspirations were chiefly musical, and in this he was more successful. He studied with Aaron Copland and composed brilliantly for ballet, theater, and films. He also wrote several orchestral pieces which are still produced today, an opera, as well as scores for many plays, including several for his friend Tennessee Williams. In 1938 Bowles married the novelist and playwright Jane Auel, and in 1947 the couple moved to Morocco, where he wrote his most celebrated book, "The Sheltering Sky and where he lived most of the rest of his life. Bowles died in Tangiers in 1999. Set in the aftermath of WWII and infused post-war existential angst, "The Sheltering Sky (1949) tells a story of three Americans whose lives come unraveled in the harsh and unforgiving desert of North Africa. The manuscript was initially rejected Doubleday, which claimed it was not a novel. And indeed the story and its characters look unconventional even today, more than fifty years after its original publication. While students may be attracted to the novel s exotic desert setting and intrigued by the daring lifestyle of its two protagonists, Port and Kit, they may also be baffled by "The Sheltering Sky s larger meaning, if itmay be said to have one. Within the novel itself, Kit and Port represent two poles of meaning, or the impulse to find or create meaning in their experience. For Kit, the world is suffused with significance, which reveals itself to her in signs and omens, and she tries to order her life according to her interpretation of these omens. For Port, the world has been drained of meaning. He sees the sky as sheltering, protecting them from what lies behind it, but when Kit asks him what does lie behind it, he replies: Nothing. Just darkness. For Port, there is no God in the sky and no revelation lurking beneath the surface of things. Readers of the book are thus given two examples of interpretive strategies: to find meaning in everything or in nothing. Bowles has often asserted, in interviews and prefaces, his interest in the unconscious and in the irrational, compulsive nature of human behavior. And many of Port and Kit s actions appear to governed by irrational impulse rather than a meaningful or consistent plan. Port s dangerous encounters with prostitutes, his feverish desire to take a bus to En Ga a, which proves to be a fatal mistake, Kit s affair with Tunner, and her spontaneous decision to abandon Port s body after he dies and join an Arab caravan, all have the feel of unconscious compunction. Set loose in a world where the rules of western civilization are faint at best, the characters" The Sheltering Sky find themselves driven to irrational and ultimately self-destructive behavior. But whatever meaning one finds or ascribes to" The Sheltering Sky, it is easy to see why readers have responded so powerfully to whatBowles s brought to the 20th century novel: unflinching honesty, keen psychological insight, deep awareness of other cultures, and a steadfast refusal to sentimentalize his characters emotional lives. Questions for class discussion 1. In his Preface, Paul Bowles writes that "The Sheltering Sky had a difficult time getting published. Commissioned by Doubleday, it was immediately refused by them for not being a novel. Why would the publisher have rejected it on these grounds? In what ways does "The Sheltering Sky violate some of the conventions of the novel form? 2. "The Sheltering Sky is preceded by an epigraph from the Argentinean writer and diplomat Eduardo Mallea: Each man s destiny is personal only insofar as it may happen to resemble what is already in his memory. What does this quote suggest about the relationship between what we have done and what we will do? How does it illuminate the behavior of the main characters, Port and Kit, in the novel? 3. Port considers himself a traveler rather than a tourist. What, in his view, is the difference? How does the traveler regard his home and his own civilization? Why is Port drawn to North Africa? 4. In what ways is the setting of "The Sheltering Sky significant, a
When The Sheltering Sky
was first published in 1949, it established Paul Bowles as one of the most singular and promising writers of the postwar generation. Its startlingly original vision has withstood the test of time and confirmed Tennessee Williams's early estimation: "The Sheltering Sky
alone of the books that I have . . . read by American authors appears to bear the spiritual imprint of recent history in the western world." In this classic work of psychological terror, Bowles examines the ways in which Americans apprehend an alien culture and the ways in which their incomprehension destroys them.
The story of three worldly young travelers Port Moresby, his wife, Kit, and their friend, Tunner--adrift in the cities and deserts of North Africa after World War II, The Sheltering Sky is merciless in its evocation of the emotional dislocation induced by a foreign setting. As the Americans embark on an ill-fated journey through desolate terrain, they are pushed to the limits of human reason and intelligence by the unfathomable emptiness and impassive cruelty of the desert. Along the way, they encounter a host of enigmatic characters whose inarticulate strangeness seals the travelers off even more completely from the culture in which they are traveling, causing their fierce attachments to one another to unravel.
This special fiftieth anniversary commemorative edition of Bowles's unforgettable first novel includes the original New York Times review by Tennessee Williams and a preface the author wrote for his first novel before he died in 1999.
About the Author
Paul Bowles was born in Queens, New York, in 1910. He began his travels as a teenager, setting off for Paris, telling no one of his plans. In 1930 he visited Morocco for the first time, with Aaron Copland, with whom he was studying music. His early reputation was as a composer and he wrote the scores for several Tennessee Williams plays. Bowles married the writer Jane Auer in 1938, and after the war the couple settled in Tangier. In Morocco Bowles turned principally to fiction. The Sheltering Sky—inspired by his travels in the Sahara—was a New York Times bestseller in 1950, and has gone on to sell more than 250,000 copies. It was followed by three further novels, numerous short stories, nonfiction, and translations. Bowles died in Tangier in 1999.