Paul 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.