The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles


Jill's take on The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

It took me a while to get into The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. The subject matter was quite topical and timely since we were in Tangier but somehow that didn't even help me get into it. It took me until nearly the end to become interested enough and then I just devoured the last pages of the book. Now, I'm not saying that I need to feel like I want to devour a book to like it, but, I was just sort of 'meh' the bulk of the time I was reading this.

So, I assume by now you all know about Bowles and know him to essentially be the patron saint of writing in Tangier and the rest of Morocco. So we thought it was only proper that when we saw this book at our inn in Fes that we pick it up. I was super excited to read Bowles for the first time, having heard so much about his existence and seeing his books everywhere here in Morocco. But that excitement turned to disappointment as I worked my way through the book.

To say that I found the characters in The Sheltering Sky to be completely unworthy of any sort of empathy or sympathy is an understatement. They all struck me as privileged winers who thought they would be really something if they went to an 'exotic' and challenging place like Morocco. To be sure it can be a challenging place, even still, but these people brought nothing to the table in terms of bringing any feeling to this place. The characters do go through some trying circumstances, but not one of them seems interested in actively living their lives. There's this sense of living only by other forces choosing the route for you. They just sort of end up in one circumstance or another not of their own volition but of whatever influence is blowing through at that time.

Aside from the characters themselves, some of Bowles language and descriptions of people made me cringe. I know this was of a different time but the book at times seems a bit racist, anti-semitic and misogynistic. I found myself wondering if Bowles really had these views or if he was just using them as an illustration for how people of the time felt about others. Whatever the impetus and reason for these views being included in the book, it put me off. I especially disliked the treatment of the female character in the book.

The saving grace for the book comes in Bowles's use of language and ability to paint a scene. At times it's poetic and others spare. The plot itself is interesting and compelling. It's just the damn people that got in the way for me. I wanted to like one of them. Any of them. But I just couldn't and I found myself enjoying the lyricism of the words and writing while trying to ignore the characters. I think I would have liked this book more had it been more of an ode to Morocco and not a normal novel. 

That being said I did enjoy it, though won't read it again. I will definitely think twice about reading another Bowles book in the future.

Zac's take on The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

The radio station was taking suggestions for artists that were deemed influential but they (the listener) found abhorrent. This was a great topic and well executed on many levels. It got people fired up and passionate about what they hate, and people love to talk about their dislikes. On the flip side engaged people who love those rock influencers. Because people love defending what they love. Some brief examples before I move on: Neil Young, Kate Bush, Bob Dylan, Bjork, The Replacements.

I bring this up because Paul Bowles is purported to be an amazing travel writer and is beloved in Morocco for the simple fact of having written so eloquently and beautifully about the scenery and the people.  While he did portray Morocco beautifully, he was, like many of his contemporaries, completely sexist and racist.

He lived in Morocco for years and was part of a fluid group of expats from Europe and America who “discovered” Morocco after WWII. His life was really pretty interesting on a whole and if you know anything about Fitzgerald and Hemingway in Paris, you are getting close to the idea, except artists in Morocco were living differently and experiencing a culture much different from European culture.

While reading the novel, I was attempting to parse out those racist and sexist parts. I was thinking things like, well, everybody was like that then. Or I was trying to separate the author from the written character. I got through the novel on the sheer power of his wonderful passages and descriptions but was haunted with how to write this review because it brings up much larger questions for me. Questions like – can we forgive the awful behaviors of the past? Can we do so and still prevent them from repeating?

There are artists who are brilliant at what they do. Politicians who are brilliant at what they do. I firmly believe that what they do outside the office or screen or basketball court doesn’t detract from the talents they possess. Full stop. If it is suddenly uncovered that Michael Jordan was a serial killer, does that make him less of an iconic basketball player? Nope. Does it make him a psychopath? Yes. His reputation would be tarnished forever going forward with a little asterisk that said world’s greatest basketball player and serial killer. His talent and wealth doesn’t absolve him, but may have enabled his behavior.

But there is something slightly different about a writer, I think. The work is so infused and intertwined with daily experiences and beliefs that I don’t think they can be separated without detracting from either the work or the experience.

Paul Bowles wrote beautifully about Morocco because he loved the country and was enchanted by it. He wrote female characters who were feeble and male characters who abused them because this is how he viewed gender roles. The same goes for his European views of needing to civilize Africa. He saw Africans as lazy barbarians and so depicted them that way in this novel. And by doing so, he reinforced popular beliefs of the time while also perpetuating them.