The Sheltering Sky (Modern Library #97)

(This is the fourth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Postman Always Rings Twice)

When I first discovered the names Kit, Port, and Tunner, my mind instantly concluded that these must be debauched head honchos for some baleful corporate defense firm. This was then followed by a few inescapable jokes that I delivered to walls of books when nobody was around: Tunner getting Kit’s kit off, Port in a storm, and so forth. I am sad to report that the tomes offered no laughs or kind titters in return. Neither, for that matter, did my copy of The Sheltering Sky: a grim and largely humorless volume that did an impressive job filling about six hours of my life with a stupendous sense of dread. (I feel dreadful just remembering the experience of reading this book, even though I simultaneously recognize the book’s virtues and now see just how much Dan Simmons was channeling Bowles with his excellent debut novel, Song of Kali.)

It was especially interesting to see sundry uprisings break out in Africa shortly after I reached the end. It was almost as if world events were responding to my reading decisions! I suppose such a sentiment, however fleeting or half-formed, makes me a smug and clueless First World type. And I apologize to the Libyans, the Egyptians, and the Algerians for this. I cannot help the way my mind careens down certain paths. But then, unlike Kit, Port, and Tunner, I would never venture into unknown territory without bona-fide curiosity, a genuine sense of adventure, and, most importantly, a sense of collective inclusion. At least that’s what I’d like to think.

If you’re unfamiliar with The Sheltering Sky, it follows Port and Kit Moresby (impossible not to smile at the blunt accumulative connotation of this surname, eh? especially with the vapid type of American who, failing to see the magic within the “mundane,” mews out “More!” when asked about future plans and wonders years later why she’s so lonely and unfulfilled), a married couple who, presented with ravaged postwar home turf (both New York and Europe by natural extension), set out to Africa — in large part because they hope to find terrain untouched by global conflict. They are accompanied by Tunner, who isn’t quite as smart as the Moresbys. (“A bore, a bore, a bore!” whispers Port under his breath to Kit when Tunner is in the other room.) But one wonders if Kit and Port are really all that smart to begin with. At one point, when Port is remembering his reasons for the initial hegira, he compares himself to a pioneer: “he felt more closely identified with his great-grandparents, when he was rolling along out here in the desert than he did sitting at home looking out over the reservoir in Central Park.” A grand patriarchal tradition? Even so, Port is willing to travel to a rotting hotel in Ain Krorfa, and his initial check-in features some of the most remarkable putrescence I am likely to read in this Modern Library Reading Challenge:

The fountain which at one time had risen from the basin in the center of the patio was gone, but the basin remained. In it reposed a small mountain of reeking garbage, and reclining on the sides of the mountain were three screaming, naked infants, their soft formless bodies troubled with busting sores. They looked human there in their helpless misery, but somehow not quite so human as the two pink dogs lying on the tiles nearby — pink because long ago they had lost all their hair, and their raw aged skin lay indecently exposed to the kisses of the flies and the sun.

Now I don’t know about you. But my instinct when presented with such a scene — especially if I had a wife carrying all manner of trinkets and dresses, who was not exactly fond of the long-standing pilgrimage — would be to get the hell out of there. Yet Kit and Port stay. Two pages later, they’re eating soup with weevils, “sitting over coffee and waving away flies.” Kit himself pines for the sun. Never mind that he’s just seen what the flies and the sun do to these poor dogs. Not long after that, Port asks Kit the preposterous question, “Do you think you can be happy here?” After some pressing, Kit replies, “How can I tell? It’s impossible to get into their lives, and know what they’re actually thinking.”

Yet it’s very possible for us to get inside the Moresby heads and know what they’re actually thinking. Journeying for them is almost a hollow religion, one stumbled upon because there is little else to do. In the book’s early pages, Kit says, “The people of each country get more like the people of every country. They have no character, no beauty, no ideals, no culture — nothing, nothing.” With kvetching like that, one wonders the conversational industry it would it take to get these folks exploring Lake Victoria in a canoe.

In other words, these characters are selfish jerks who, unlike Sebastian Dangerfield or George Minafer, don’t invite further curiosity into their motivations. “You’re never humanity,” snaps Port to Kit at one point, “you’re only your poor hopelessly isolated self.” Yet Port considers himself to be clued in. And if that means heading down a dicey staircase to partake of a courtesan or rudely ringing for tea at an ungodly hour, that’s what he’ll do to get into the lives of others. Only a few pages into the book, Bowles tells us that Port considers himself a traveler rather than a tourist, with the distinction “moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another.” But slowing down in life doesn’t necessarily make you any more receptive than some caffeinated jackal flitting through on a bus (or, in the case of Kit and Port later, using their privileged positions to flee by bus and evade responsibility). The other important distinction, Bowles reports, is that, while the tourist accepts his own civilization without question, the traveler “compares [the new civilization] with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.” And yet Port’s “comparison” involves the same superiority practiced by a tourist, such as the moment when he tells a lie about his wife being very sick to buy two bus seats:

He watched the Arab’s face closely, to see if he were capable of believing such an obvious lie. Apparently here it was as logical for an ailing person to go away from civilization and medical care as to go in the direction of it, for the Arab’s expression slowly changed to one of understanding and sympathy.

Now I have no problem with depressing books. I like to be moved to tears as much as I enjoy a few laughs. But when I read about Port, a spoiled American who absconds with common sense when a passport has been lost, and Kit, a spoiled American who commits adultery while her husband is traveling with two insufferable imperialists (the Lyles), and when she ventures into a fourth-class carriage, only to “shake violently” upon her return, and when none of these people can be straight about their feelings (Bowles often has his characters, especially Kit, “talking” in thoughts and words), I have zero sympathy. Still, I suppose it’s somewhat useful to be reminded that passive-aggressive deceit flourished just as much in 1949 as it does in 2011.

As I became more acquainted with this pampered ternion while turning the pages of Paul Bowles’s alleged masterpiece (“It stands head and shoulders above most other novels published in English since World War II,” reports The New Republic on my edition; it’s good for long stretches, but I beg to differ with this hyperbole), I found myself greatly pining for their deaths so that Bowles could continue his indefatigable duties describing the grand North African tableau, with its slanting landscapes and microscopic tents seen through grimy windows. Even the work of Frederic Prokosch, a now regrettably forgotten writer who was working the same beat (see The Seven Who Fled and The Asiatics) and who, like Bowles, favored ornate prose over dimensional character, speaks more on the subject of behavioral nuance.

My initial interest in Bowles’s characters flagged considerably by the time I had reached the second part, especially since Bowles shifted such supporting figures as the Bou Noura lieutenant d’Armagnac — a man who appeared to have more adamantine problems than these three entitled nincompoops:

During the third night of of her imprisonment a gray scorpion, on its way along the earthen floor of her cell, discovered an unexpected and welcome warmth in one corner, and took refuge there. When Yamnia stirred in her sleep, the inevitable occurred. The sting entered the nape of her neck; she never recovered consciousness. The news of her death quickly spread around the town, with the detail of the scorpion missing from the telling of it, so that the final and, as it were, official native version was that the girl had been assaulted by the entire garrison, including the lieutenant, and thereafter conveniently murdered.

Perhaps that passage is a wry reflection upon how difficult it is to convey an apparently exotic experience through narrative. Inevitably, your sense of a place or a person is bound to be vitiated and/or embroidered in the telling.

It’s probably worth pointing out that Bowles — in a letter to his wife Jane (a great writer in her own right) contained in the epistolary collection, In Touch — had planned to kill off Port halfway through the book: “He lingers on in agony instead of dying. But I’ll get rid of him yet, I assure you. Once he’s gone there’ll be only the heroine left to keep things going, and that won’t be easy. Still, it’s got to be that way; there’s no other possible design for it.”

On the other hand, the novel’s obvious conclusive crack about “the end of the line” — belaboring the distinction between “tourist” and “traveler” — made me feel more than a bit conned.

Still, I’m relieved that my understanding of Paul Bowles has become more sophisticated, if only because, up till now, I carried around a superficial understanding. Before The Sheltering Sky, I had not read Bowles. And I had long associated Bowles’s work with the glorious tuft of Debra Winger’s muff. That revelation may earn me a few detractors, but I must be candid. The truth is the truth. I like muffs. And I like Debra Winger (though certainly not just for her muff). You see, Bernardo Bertolucci tried to film the unfilmable back in 1990. And in a largely unsuccessful effort to spice things up, he gave us Ms. Winger’s delightful fur, Amina Annabi’s flesh, and John Malkovich’s hilarious hair. Other than these moments, the film is quite soporific. Even Bowles, in the introduction to a paperback edition, confessed that the film was “a fatal mess.” (Bowles, who also appeared in Bertolucci’s film, may have been sour because, according to a very bad hagiography* written by Virginia Spencer Carr, Bowles didn’t see a dime in royalties beyond the original $5,000 he received for selling the movie rights in 1952. Hurray for Hollywood! Perhaps this explains his appearance in the film. On the other hand, in an October 9, 1989 letter to Regina Weinreich, Bowles writes, “I like all three of the leads, and particularly Debra Winger, whom I go to visit often at her house on the Mountain.”)

That gossip may not accentuate your reading experience, but it does suggest very highly that, unlike Bowles’s fictional trio, Debra Winger is more of a traveler than a tourist.

Next Up: William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice!

Related Link: A Million Grains of Sand — a helpful index to The Sheltering Sky created by Frances McConihe.

* — How bad is Carr’s Paul Bowles: A Life? Very bad. Try this: “Bowles’s insistence that he never made plans and that his actions depended unfailingly upon who came along confirms his reluctance to be an initiator of anything, regardless of the act in question.” No skepticism whatsoever? No effort to confirm Bowles’s statements against other sources? The back flap of the hardcover I checked out from the library features a smiling Carr hunched on her elbow with a decidedly unhale Bowles in bed. The message here, undoubtedly subconscious, couldn’t be any clearer.