The Sheltering Sky
I like mid-20th-century American novels. I appreciate the concision, grammatical simplicity, and occasional syntactic bouquet. I also find the characters that arise from the interplay between masculinity and fragility interesting and the postwar existential critique of European culture rings true to me. I have never grown out of my high school preoccupation of trying to see and describe the world honestly, which, while no longer fashionable, was shared by many of the postwar writers. So I ought to have liked Paul Bowles’ Sheltering Sky and indeed I did enjoy the first two-thirds of the book.
However, I found it impossible to read this book without considering contemporary theory, which generally I hate to do. I did not find the postcolonial setting distracting even though clearly the Arabs and North Africans were Other in the narrator's eyes. Reflecting on my own experiences of being a traveller and foreigner, natives are experienced this way, at least those not intimately involved in globalised mass backpacker tourism. It is not right but it is real.
I did not find Bowles depictions of Kit’s sexual assault real and so I wish I had not read the book at all. Powles’ perspective is genuine until Port dies and perhaps for a few further pages. I have confidence in the author’s personal though universalist perspective when the hero is alive. But Powles’ inability to create a psychologically realistic view when the narrative shifts to the feminine belies the weakness in the modernist project. The author’s (dominating) “objectivity” is lost when he tries to adopt the Other’s vantage.
Perhaps this is why so much rich white male writing is now either self-referential, comic or narcissistic. I like to write because I enjoy aiming to step from the personal to considering more general conditions. If this is impossible, then yes the humanist project is doomed (if it doesn’t work for one group of people, it won’t work for any other group), but for a writer, I am left wondering why I bother. There is enough vanity in the world already.
As a reader, I wonder should I confine myself to method fiction where the writer lives and writes without experimentation? This would ensure authenticity but comes at the cost of less imaginative art.
Perhaps too a better artist could have bridged the divide more compelling or, at least, recognised when to end the story.