Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran
The Sheltering Sky
Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky (#97 on the Modern Library’s list) is his most famous work. He is known for his own travels as well as his travel writing, and this is, on its surface, a story of adventurous traveling. A couple, Port and Kit, take themselves to North Africa, unmooring themselves from their familiar world. They encounter a culture quite in contrast to their own in all moral and aesthetic values. They throw themselves into danger from which they cannot, and do not, extract themselves.
Bowles is a masterful writer. He does not provide a context for this story, as in “this is how we do things, and this is how they do things.” Instead, this is an instant immersion, like going to live with a foreign family and having to learn everything about the family—their habits, their version of normal, their history, their private unexplained expectations—and learn language comprehension at the same time. It is like throwing yourself into a dark deep sea in order to learn how to swim. You may learn to comprehend, you may learn to swim. You could instead lose your self and lose your life. In the meantime you see things you never imagined seeing.
This story is a travel story; it is also an existential treatise. It’s a commentary on culture clash, imperialism, human violence, xenophobia, Western arrogance. It depicts a culture rebelliously impervious to the expectations of “us.” It covers love and marriage, the vulnerability of femaleness, ego-insecurity. It is nihilistic, it is beautiful: the world is beautiful but we humans are tiny, we are brutalized.
The book was written in the aftermath of the Second World War, a time when the world had seemingly lost its foundation and any notion of moralism had cracked apart, shattered into pieces impossible to put back together again. War has done this over and over, especially war based on one defined people against another defined people, when the definitions must become simplified and the nuances of humanity, the commonalities, must be ignored and negated so that the struggle can achieve its own life and grow epic. For the war to exist, the players must decide to turn away from learning about one another. The Sheltering Sky is not about World War II. It is about what it is about: two people who for their own reasons accept within themselves the fate they’ve set in motion and make themselves victims of a situation they could easily have avoided by staying home.
The writer’s great poetic sense and deep intellect are evident in every sentence, making this a novel to be read again and again, if you can stand it. It has pungency. It is dark and exultant. It is a multilayered sensory experience with countless indelible images. The woman of the couple is taken essentially as a slave and (being female) used sexually in most horrendous ways. The men who take her have mythic habitus, huge and black-clad in flowing robes against a relentlessly barren-looking landscape that hides teeming life. We understand that this couple has agreed, as most travelers do not, to leave behind their set of norms and instead to experience—in the most profound understanding of “experience”—what this new environment will subject them to. They do not turn away. As part of their agreement, however, they also do not judge, when judgment might be valuable.
It does not end well. There is no redemption in this story. Unless, as redemption, you count the prose itself. A sublime satisfaction is gained at the same time that an unbearable unsettled feeling is delivered.
There are many ways to read this novel—as story, as allegory, as philosophy—which is what makes it a great novel, of which there are many but also too few.
Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.