Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Sheltering Sky

This novel is a feast of rich, thought-laden prose, but the problem I have with it is that the Moresbys are just so un-likeable. You quickly find yourself willing them on over the edge - and out of view - as quickly as possible.

Bowles was possibly aware of this defect as he appears to compensate for it by shadowing his jaded American couple with the Lyles, an exaggeratedly loathsome Anglo-Australian mother and son duo, that Port himself acknowledges are little more than living caricatures.

Whilst Port does retain some interest as a representative of a certain post-war intellectual type, his close-to-estranged wife Kit was never pyschologically convincing for me. I guess I lost interest in her the moment Bowles mishandles the establishment of her persona with a passge revealing her curious obsession with omens.

The way Kit's subsequently gets in touch with her primitive nature appears altogether too contrived to support Bowles' stated intention of telling the story of two parallel journeys here, one into the abrasive Sahara of swirling sand, the other into the abrasive Sahara of the civilised mind.

One other criticism I'd have to level would be that there seem to be only so many ways to describe the comings and goings of the sun and moon and in north Africa. It occurred to me last week that in Blood Meridian Cormac McCarthy handles the interposition of atmospheric effects in the desert rather better than Bowles did, but a hundred or so pages further on and I am starting to mutter "get on with it" to myself as I work my way through that densely-packed narrative too. Bowles captures much of what he has to say in terms of the educated man's encounter with the insidious landscape and its exotic culture early on when Port is led to Marhnia's tent. After that the set-piece explorations of the main theme tend to feel a bit repetitive.

When the novel was first published Tennessee Williams found he also had to use weather-based similies to pinpoint the way it manifests its deeper meanings: "Above that surface is the aura that I spoke of, intangible and powerful, bringing to mind one of those clouds that you have seen in summer, close to the horizon and dark in color and now and then silently pulsing with interior flashes of fire."

Doubleday look more than a bit foolish now to have turned down Bowles' work as "not a novel," but I can see what they might have been getting at. There's really a work of non-fiction at the heart of this particular onion, and it is that underlying aspect of its discourse that most distinguishes it in my view. I find it hard to agree with Williams that this is a "startling adventure", but then in the last half century mainstream culture has become altogether more startling.

Two of the more interesting themes in the novel are that of the difference between tourists and travelers, and the (clearly autobiographical) conundrum surrounding the restlessness of the creative consciousness in the desert. Port reports finding it very hard to get into right sort of reflective mood out there. His earlier assertion that travelers, unlike tourists, don't need to go home, shows how he is already underestimating the force that is irresistibly pulling him and Kit further and further away from 'home'. Seeking one kind of liberation they are swallowed up by another kind altogether.

I have been meaning to read this author-composer's fiction for some time after learning how he took the (very good) Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosas under his wing in Tangier. Bowles had visited Guatemala in the 50s and set his last novel, Above the World, in an unnamed Central American country. It too features a doomed American couple.

And so onto the film...

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