Bowles, Paul, (1949). The Sheltering Sky. New York: Harper Perennial.
This classic novel is set in the Sahara of North Africa during WW II, about 1940. A young, American married couple, Port and Kit, travel with their male friend, Tunner, from village to village, in Algeria, mostly. They are footloose adventurers, not tourists. They have no return date, and might expect to wander for years. They also have no agenda, no motivation, no interest in the local people, customs, languages, food, geography, history – nothing. They walk around like zombies, going nowhere, for no reason. The “action” in the book rarely rises above eating, drinking, smoking, sleeping, walking and driving around.
Port and Kit might have loved each other once, but even that is not clear. Now, there is little affection between them. What keeps them together is egocentric insistence by Port that they continue the nomadic life, for no particular reason, and Kit’s pathologically passive acquiescence. The characters are barely described, more like translucent ghosts than people.
Tunner is even more of a cipher. Throughout the novel there are occasional languid declarations of love, or at least mild longing, slight suggestions of residual affection, some faint implications of jealousy and envy among the trio of characters, but melodrama, this isn’t.
There is no plot, no character arcs, and nothing happens for over three hundred pages. There is no point to it, and that is the point. This is all about the mood of meaninglessness, emptiness, and nihilism. The characters are mere punctuation for the enveloping mood. As Port muses in one scene, the difference between something and nothing is nothing. Even the title of the book is despairing: the sky does not, after all, shelter anyone from anything; it is the opposite of shelter. There is no shelter.
For Bowles, as for Camus, Beckett, and many other existentialist writers of the time, the mood was the message. After the war, when Sheltering Sky was written, many intellectuals, stunned and disoriented by the monumental and senseless destruction, carnage, brutality, and irrationality they had just lived through, concluded that the very foundations of civilization had been exposed as delusions. The war patently demonstrated that no ideals can withstand barbarism; there is no purpose to anything, no future to hope for. Nothing was worth anything and nothing meant anything. The vast, alien, and inhospitable Sahara is the perfect setting for a meaningless, featureless life, and the characters stumble through it like the post-war rag dolls many people felt like at that time.
Bowles’ narrative skill is superlative. How could anyone write 300 pages of nothing and make it interesting? He does that through the sheer force of his artistry, and that’s what keeps the pages turning. Some samples:
[Beginning of chapter 1:] “He awoke, opened his eyes. The room meant very little to him; he was too deeply immersed in the non-being from which he had just come. If he had not the energy to ascertain his position in time and space, he also lacked the desire. He was somewhere, he had come back through vast regions from nowhere; there was the certitude of an infinite sadness at the core of his consciousness, but the sadness was reassuring, because it alone was familiar.”
“’Before I was twenty, I mean, I used to think that life was a thing that kept gaining impetus. It would get richer and deeper each year. You kept learning more, getting wiser, having more insight, going further into the truth–’ she hesitated.
Port laughed abruptly. ‘And now you know it’s not like that. Right? It’s more like smoking a cigarette. The first few puffs it tastes wonderful, and you don’t even think of its ever being used up. Then you begin taking it for granted. Suddenly you realize its nearly burned down to the end. And then’s when you’re conscious of the bitter taste.’” (p.159)