Book review, Literary criticism, Literary theory

Fun with Paul & Jane: The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Paul (born 1910) and Jane (born 1917) Bowles led an eventful life including creativity in music and writing, the theatre (he as a composer, she as a playwright) literary frustration, depression, same-sex affairs, travel – Europe, Ceylon, and North Africa, drugs, and famous friends which included Jean Cocteau, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas, Jean Rhys, Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood – who would give Paul’s surname to his famous character, Sally, in Goodbye to Berlin, Aaron Copland – who gave Paul music composition lessons, Max Ernst, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Alan Ginsberg, and Peggy Guggenheim and they shared a house for a time in Brooklyn with W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Virgil Thomson, and Gypsy Rose Lee. I would’ve loved to be at that breakfast table!

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Although Paul wrote crime stories and painted in his youth he received his initial fame as a Broadway composer for, mainly, the works of Tennessee Williams: The Glass Menagerie, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, and Summer and Smoke. He also wrote incidental music for his wife’s play In the Summer House for its Washington season before a short stint on Broadway in 1954.

Jane with her Morrocan partner, Cherifa

Jane with her Moroccan partner, Cherifa

Jane’s only novel Two Serious Ladies was published in 1943 to mediocre reviews although Tennessee Williams loved it and called Jane “the most important writer of prose fiction in modern American letters.” When I read that line in his memoir I was shocked that I had never heard of her. I soon remedied that and have been collecting her work ever since; that isn’t difficult, her output is small.

Two Serious Ladies began as Three Serious Ladies, she dropped one of them but from her early drafts featuring the third lady Paul edited various short pieces and submitted them whenever an editor or publisher wanted something from Jane.  She was completely indifferent to it all: she considered herself a failure as a writer.

Paul turned to serious writing and his first, and most famous novel, The Sheltering Sky came out in 1948 and by 1950 was in the New York Times best-seller list. There is a taste here of a potential Joe Orton/Kenneth Halliwell literary rivalry but there were no murderous consequences. Jane was more interested in her female lovers and pre-occupied with her declining health. The Bowles’ latter years were spent in North Africa.

Jane died, after several strokes and breakdowns in 1973; Paul died from a heart attack in 1999.

The Sheltering Sky.

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Port and Kit are a married American couple, financially independent, and crave to visit the centre of the Sahara Desert. What they really mean is to go as far as they can as long as the degree of ‘desert-ness’ increases. The moment the desert-ness begins to weaken they turn back. They want to be lost. They encouraged another American, Tunner, to be their traveling companion, although by the opening of the story they want to be rid of him; and finally succeed. They also meet the mother and son team Mrs Lyle and her lay-about off-spring, Eric. The mother has got to be one of the more odious characters in 20th century literature and together with Eric, and Tunner, who has his heart set on seducing Kit, form a trio embodying everything the couple hate in the civilized world; giving them the reason they need for running away.

Getting lost in the desert is akin to going to bed, and waiting in an airport for a flight to begin: they abrogate life’s responsibilities especially if you believe those responsibilities are crushing you or causing you grief. At an airport life stops until you get where you’re supposed to be; going to bed forces everything to leave you alone so you can sleep; and getting lost in a desert leaves your life on hold while you find your way back to it.

Kit Moresby is obviously modeled on Jane. “Ambivalence was her natural element: a decision filled her with anguish. The possibilities for an ‘about face’ had to be kept open” writes Paul Bowles in a biographical piece for the collection of Jane’s work, Everything is Nice published by Sort Of Books in 2012. Kit’s psychological problem relates to her obsession with omens and the ever-possibility of doom: all decisions about unfolding days depend on events that may or may not happen. For Kit

“… the feel of doom was so strong that it became a hostile consciousness just behind or beside her, foreseeing her attempts to avoid flying in the face of the evil omens, and thus all too able to set traps her her.”

Doom does catch up with her and when it does Kit is almost relieved that she was right and takes to her appalling circumstances with an energy and satisfaction at not having to be Kit Moresby any more. The more abhorrent her circumstances the more she gives in to them. Her plight includes, thirst, near starvation, kidnapping, daily rape, imprisonment dressed as a boy, and a beating by three angry wives; but what terrifies her more is what she will have to do and say when she is rescued by the civilisation she is running away from.

Being born out of the mid 20th century’s romance with expressionism it’s not surprising that there are adsurdist and Kafkaeque elements in the writing. The pleasure is not just the exotic locations but also the waiting for what torment will fall on her next but Kit’s acceptence of all that keeps you applauding her resilience while at the same time wondering where will it all end. It is Bowles’ plotting skills, only seemingly haphazard, that keep the revelation of the point of it all to the very last paragraph.

Bernardo Bertolucci filmed it in 1990 with John Malkovitch, Debra Winger, and Campbell Scott. That I’ve got to see. The excellent short stories of both Paul and Jane are readily available. Give them a go first.

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