‘The Sheltering Sky’ – Paul Bowles

jacketPaul Bowles seems destined more for celebrity fame than a literary legacy. There is little contemporary discussion of his 1949 debut novel The Sheltering Sky — but here’s a video of his meeting with the Rolling Stones in Morocco(starts at 5:30). In 1990, also, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci adapted the novel for the screen. Yet why is this Moroccan expat and follower of Gertrude Stein’s words not mentioned with his then contemporaries?

Bowles opens Sheltering Sky in a style similar to Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night: An unhappy American couple, Port and Kit, are traveling in a foreign land after the second world war. In this case, the land is North Africa. Tension is added to this already ailing couple by their friend Tunner, who neither remember inviting. The love triangle in Part I manages to raises our intrigue better than average late 40’s melodrama. In Part II, though, conventional narrative is replaced with a metaphysical shift in tone, which sets the stage for the outright surreal Part III. And like British writer Lawrence Durrell’s Middle East in the Alexandria Quartet, Bowles’ narrative and voice is rife with the erosion of Colonialism in Africa.

This perception of the rapidly changing Africa is evident in atmospheric exposition. Bowles’ achieves this by maintaining a conscience and then contemporary narrative while exploring a relatively untouched location. The setting of the novel is certainly mysterious to the untraveled Western reader, but the personalities of Kit, Port, and Tunner are not. This style allows for lucid storytelling of the narrative as well as an illustrative portrait of the post-war continent:

“‘The war has certainly left its mark here.’ Small, with blonde hair and an olive complexion, she was saved from prettiness by her gaze. Once one had seen her eyes, the rest of the face grew vague, and when one tried to recall her image afterwards, only the piercing, questioning violence of the wide eyes remained.”

Less than a decade after Sheltering Sky was published, Franz Fanon would publish his anti-colonial work Black Skin, White Masks. Bowles’ observes in the novel that this movement for liberation was on the march, and fast. As mentioned before, in 1957 Durrell would invoke a similar structure for his ‘Alexandria’, except with World War II looming on the horizon. These interim works allow for an intimate view into the aftereffects of conflict – and what the future portends:

“‘In Lagos I bought a command car and drove it through to Casamance. We were the only whites ever to have penetrated that region. They wanted me to be cameraman for one expedition, but there was no one in Cape Town I could trust to keep the studios running properly, and we were making four films at the time.’ Port began to resent his not knowing better how far to go with his listener,  but he let it all pass, and was delighted with the ghoulish pleasure the young man took in describing the dead bodies in the river at Douala, the murders in Takoradi, the self-immolating madman in the market at Gao. Finally the talker leaned back, signaled to the barman to bring him another liqueur, and said: ‘Ah yes, Africa’s a great place. I wouldn’t live anywhere else these days.'”

By Part III, Sheltering Sky has disregarded many of the conventions of popular fiction and drifted into coherent surrealism. While the existential label is certainly deserved, the novel was not only admired by cult followers. The novel spent eleven weeks on the NYT Best Seller list, and found praise from writers such as Tennessee Williams. The appeal, in this writer’s opinion, is largely due to Bowles’ ability to conceive pop and pensive entertainment. While the author does question unanswerable metaphysics, readers can also delight in surface level insights:

“They engaged in three smelly rooms, all giving out onto a small court whose wall were right blue. In the center of the court was a dead fig tree with masses of barbed wire looped from its branches. As Kit peered from the windows a hungry-looking cat with a tiny head and huge ears walked carefully across the court. She sat down on the great brass bed, which besides the jackal skin on the floor by it, was the only furnishing in the room. She could scarcely blame Tuner for having refused at first even to look at the rooms. But, as Port said, one always ends by getting used to anything, and although at the moment Tunner was inclined to be a little unpleasant about it, by night he would probably have grown accustomed to the whole gamut of incredible odors.”



It was Gertrude Stein who “advised” Bowles at 37 to ship off to North Africa, specifically Morocco. He would stay on the continent for the remaining 52 years of his life. The Sheltering Sky was not the only portrait the author would make of Africa, or of a couple embroiled in domestic conflict. Let It Come Down and The Spider’s House share the same setting, while Up Above the World follows a couple in, you guessed it, the foreign landscape of South America.

So why is Paul Bowles a mystery man in the literary community? He isn’t really. I came across the author through the 2012 documentary The Cage Door is Always Open. The film includes interviews with Gore Vidal, John Waters, and Bertolucci. In William Burroughs novel Naked Lunch, too, there is a quasi-fictionalized encounter with Bowles and his wife Jane(another story, completely). These mentions, though, focus primarily on the man – while we should focus on his seminal and highly recommended debut The Sheltering Sky.


Upcoming Penguin Releases: ‘The Mathematician’s Shiva’ – Stuart Rojstaczer

51OkbSOn0kL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I can’t tell whether popular fiction or mainstream audience have encourage the appetite for the pseudo-autobiographical ‘novel’. This, obviously, is not a new trend: Burroughs, Kerouac, Miller, and so on. These exaggerated true tales are popular, I suppose, because one writer’s self-discovery and enlightenment can be vicariously enjoyed by the reader. Thus, the consumer market is born. Stuart Rojstaczer’s The Mathematician’s Shiva is the newest member to this genre. The question is: how and where does the novel fit in?

The Mathematician’s Shiva follows a Russian-emigrated Jewish family in the Midwest who gather to sit the seven days of shiva- Talmudic mourning-  after the Matriarch’s death.  As the title reveals, Rachel Karnokovitch was a mathematician, and quite  a notable one. Despite recognition from President Clinton and her contemporaries, adequate fame seemed to allude Rachela. That is until Sasha Czerninski, her son (and the novel’s guiding voice) discovers his mother’s memoir. The pages construct and comment on Rachela’s tumultuous early life in the anti-Semitic Soviet Union and her greatest struggle: The Navier-Stokes equation. Meanwhile, Sasha and his Father scramble to discipline  family members and hordes of admiring mathematicians attending Rachela’s funeral – as well as some unexpected guest from the past. As expected, the week long event breeds more controversy and comedy that any family member ever expected.

Within the first chapter, the reader is aware that character Sasha and author Stuart speak Hebrew. Correction: they do not only speak Hebrew, their lives are inundated with it. Assimilated throughout the novel are these Judaic inspired phrases, as well as some Polish(where the other part of Sasha’s family derives), to better explain the Karnokovitch and Czerninski experience. Many eye-opening moments occur using this device. Yet, the reader’s pleasure is coupled with pain when the foreign tongues are used to describe banal happenings.


‘The Hasidic Jews have a word, ‘dveykus’, for me who always possess the spirit of God inside them. My mother, unlike my grandfather, did not believe in such things literally, but when it came to understanding mathematics, she knew that she possessed the equivalent of dveykus. Like a rebbe with acolyte who feel blessed just to be around someone whose goodness and spirituality are always present, my mother had her followers. I had been been with them all of my childhood. They sought me out for my secondhand dveykus even as an adult. Now they would come (to the funeral) and I would have to be their gracious host for seven days, the days of shiva that are a traditional part of Jewish mourning. My uncle called them the ‘szalency’, the crazy people. Yet he would supply the vodka, and soothe them in his own way.”


“My mother had what in Yiddish are called ‘bzikes’ – it comes from the Polish word ‘bziki’ and ‘issues’ I guess is the closet translation – and she had so many of them that some might have viewed her as a possible walking tic. My father, when they were together, off and on accommodated, no, more like celebrated, every one of these bzikes. I think I know exactly why. Her craziness was happily wed to her intellect. There are no reasonably geniuses in this world, I am convinced.”

Sasha and Stuart’s heritage is not simply a view on Rachela’s past. Much of Mathematician’s Shiva is concerned with the contemporary Jewish family, specifically the one brought together by funeral. As expected, the characters that arrive at the Czerninski house are not without comically and/or dramatically checkered histories. Some of their topics include Kabbalah, Judeo-Christian intermarriage, and reconnection with a estranged child. All of these instances are expected in entertainment of this sort; many in Mathematician’s Shiva are intriguing enough:

“‘No one could have predicted that Catherine (Ed: Sasha’s first wife) would go to the other side of the earth.’ I could have pointed out that no Slav or Eastern European Jew could have predicted this. We expect and demand people to maintain bonds with family. It doesn’t matter wether you love or hate your relatives, even ones you’ve legally divorced. As long as there are children involved, you stick together. Of course, my mother didn’t follow this rule when it came to me, but there were extenuating circumstances (read: Soviet) circumstances.”

Being unversed in the world of mathematics, The Mathematician’s Shiva was occasionally an unstoppable read. This was also helped by Stuart’s laconic expression an prose. However, and perhaps I have been inhabiting the bottom side of a rock, but does this non-fiction narrative sound similar to Jonathan Tropper’s book – and recently released film – This is Where I Leave You? That story follows a fellow shiva sitting family who is begrudgingly brought together at the behest of the late father. Thus, recalling the autobiographical fiction genre, there is now a subsection: the post-mortem Jewish memoir. Or maybe the similarity between the ‘novels’ is simply a coincidence. Either way, The Mathematician’s Shiva is a subtly entertaining read about mathematics and Jewish emigre life in Midwestern American — but be weary, you may have heard this story before.

Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle – Vladimir Nabokov

ada fawcett crest ted coconisI find it essential to take a break from favorite authors. A nice interim to relish or forget their previous work. Inevitably, tidbits of information will bubble up and thus, a temptation to examine further literary arises. This is especially true with Vladimir Nabokov. Like many, his works Pale Fire and Lolita wowed my senses; Pnin, however, tested my patience. Ada, the author’s longest novel, has been occupying space on my shelf for some time. And lo and behold, after some recent articles on the author, the mood to indulge was again at hand.

Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle is the story of Ada and Van Veen. Lovers. No – cousins. Actually: siblings. Over a summer in the late 1800’s, young Van Veen met young Ada at Ladore, Estoy, Antiterra. It was love at first sight. To convey their unmentioned affection, the two engaged in childhood games, much to the dismay of Ada’s younger sister and fellow Van lover, Lucette. Eventually, the games evolved into sexual foreplay, and so on and so forth. This romance lasted for a few summers, until Van was privy to a rumor of Ada’s infidelity. He vowed to avenge his honor, as well as never to speak to his former lover again. This proved to be a difficult dogma to uphold. Thus unfolds the nearly century spanning chronicle of lovers — and siblings — Van & Ada Veen.

Split into five sections, Ada sees the Veen’s from budding pubescence to elderly blossom. Each section is half the length of it’s predecessor, with Part One being nearly a full novel, while Part Five only fills a few pages. Nabokov’s intention, according to the Wikipedia analysis, is to evoke a feeling of  recollection on his readers, with childhood ‘feeling’ epically long while latter years pass with haste.

Carrying us through the lifetime are Ada, Van, and an omnipresent Nabokovian narrator. It is easy to find fault in this tripartite voice. Being his longest novel, Nabokov must have been overly pleased with the words appearing on the page. This type of vanity, even when readers are in the hands of an estimable author, is overbearing. This foible does not mean Ada is not poetic, entertaining, or admirable. Rather the 560 pages occasionally read as if that number had been doubled:

“Two fallacies should be dealt with before we go any further. The first is the confusion of temporal elements with spatial ones. Space, the impostor, has been already denounced in these notes (which are now being set down during half a day’s break in a crucial journey); his trial will take place at a later stage of our investigation. The second dismissal is that of an immemorial habit of speech. We regard Time as a kind of stream, having little to do with an actual mountain torrent showing white against a black cliff or a dull-colored great rive in a windy valley, but running invariably through out chronological landscapes. We are so used to that mythical spectacle, so keen upon liquefying every lap of life, that we end up by being unable to speak of Time without speaking of physical motion. Actually, of course, the sense of its motion is derived from many natural, or at least familiar, sources – the body’s innate awareness of its own bloodstream, the ancient vertigo caused by rising stars, and, of course, our methods of measurement, such as the creeping shadow line of a gnomon, the trickle of an hourglass, the trot of a second hand – and here we are back at Space. Note the frames, the receptacles. The idea that Time ‘flows’ as naturally as an apple thuds down on a garden table implies that it flows in and through something else and if we take that ‘something’ to be Space then we have only a metaphor flowing along a yardstick.”*

Also coming into our purview is the extensive use of Russian and French. Nabokov fans are undoubtedly surprised at this. Devotee scholar Alfred Appel Jr. – who does exist, contrary to Gore Vidal’s claim – notes in his New York Times review “…faithful to verisimilitude, Nabokov includes some Russian and French. The former is transintegrated and usually translated, the latter is not.” Out of the now four Nabokov novels I have enjoyed, Ada ranks highest on the list of multilingual integration. This does not necessarily deter any enjoyment, but may give rise to a headache:

“Maidenhair. Idiot! Percy boy might have been buried by now! Maidenhair. Thus named because of the huge spreading Chinese tree at the end of the platform. Once, vaguely, confused with the Venus’-hair fern. She walked to the end of the platform in Tolstoy’s novel. First exponent of the inner monologue, later exploited by the French and Irish. N’est vert, n’est vert, n’est vert. L’arbe aux quarante ecus d’or, or at least in the fall. Never, never shall I hear again her ‘botanical’ voice fall at biloba, ‘sorry, my Latin is showing.’ Ginkgo, gingko, ink, inkog. Known also as Salisbury’s adiantofolia, Ada’s infolio, poor Salisburia: sunk; poor Stream of Consciousness, maree noire  by now. Who wants Ardis Hall!

Published two weeks after his 70th birthday in 1969,  Nabokov’s Ada seems a challenge to those same moral judges that condemned Lolita. Many of the poetic scenes between young Van and young Ada are more sultry than Henry Miller. Effectively, these moments put the ‘p-o’ in poetry and pornography. Observing Ada in this manner paints Nabokov as a literary ‘shock-jock’. He is. Yet, the fanciful phrases, complexity and innovative style are also a product of such a controversy-driven iconoclast.


So, what drove me back into the Nabokov universe? A few articles recently appeared detailing the author’s politics as well as his opinion on female writers. Both views were surprising. Apparently Nabokov was an ardent supporter of the Vietnam war effort, even penning a letter to post-gall bladder surgery President Johnson wishing him a speedy recover as to continue “the admirable work you are accomplishing [in Vietnam]”.  Hungarian writer Stephen Vizinczey has some choice words on the author’s pro-war stance. In a strange, similar vein, Nabokov held a “prejudice” against women writers, going so far as to sequester them away into a “different class”. Jane Austen received the harshest criticism. Though after reading Mansfield Park, thanks to the urging of Edmund Wilson, Nabokov would “capitulate” and use the novel in his class ‘Masters of European Fiction’ at Cornell.

Much here has been said about Ada, much has been missed; Van’s literary career, Ada’s botanical obsession, etc.. Dedicated readers — which an endeavor like Ada certainly requires — will enjoy these difficulties that Nabokov conjures up. Due to the oscillating narrator and trilingual nature, however, it is unlikely adequate appreciation can be achieved in one reading. Ultimately, Ada stands as a high quality failure – but nonetheless, a recommended read.


*This is taken from the overly metaphysical Part Four. This was a slog to get through, but as Alfred Appel notes, “the entire book can be said to spiral out of Part Four.”