Monday, March 17, 2008

Reading group: The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Trevor suggested this novel which concerns a young married but sexually estranged couple, Port and Kit Morseby, who escape the aftermath of the Second World War by travelling to North Africa and later into the Sahara, only to find themselves divided further.

Trevor said he thought the novel would raise some really interesting issues, but as it happened no one else was fired enough by it to discuss it with much passion. Two people said that they couldn't even finish it, Jenny because she simply found it boring and Ann because, having lived in that area of the world, she found it unrealistic.

Trevor found this hard to believe. He said he thought it was great: didn't we all think it was dead exciting and vivid, for instance, when Port went off on his dangerous sexual adventure at the beginning of the novel? And weren't the larger-than-life mother and son, the Lyles, whom they meet along the way - with the hint of their incest - fascinating? And what about that amazing scene when the dogs are running around in one of the towns with pieces of the body of an abandoned baby?

People seemed a bit nonplussed by Trevor's reaction. Sure, these things were vivid, they said, as were the striking descriptions of the North African towns and the Sahara, but what about the central characters? They just weren't at all likeable and you couldn't care about their story.

I said that you don't need to like the characters to like a novel - though Jenny said she did need to like at least one - but I did agree that you do need to have some emotional investment in their fate. I wondered if the reason we didn't is that although we are treated by the omniscient narrator to very detailed accounts of their feelings and motives, those accounts are very clinical and so those feelings and motives remain at a distance to us.

The book is in three parts and, for reasons I won't reveal here, in part three Kit has an adventure alone, joining a merchant camel train in the desert, and in this part the book undergoes a pretty radical change of style. John said he said he found this third part the best, in fact he really only liked this part, at least things start happening and the pace of the prose hots up - and Trevor quickly agreed. Doug and I cried that we much preferred the first two parts, in fact we hated the last part, not finding it believable in the slightest. Trevor said, But Kit had no choice but to join the caravan, and she had no choice but to succumb to whatever the merchants then demanded of her. I said, that's not the point: I can well imagine in theory that this would be the case, but the novel doesn't convince me, ie the way it's told, and Clare said, You mean the writing, and Trevor said sardonically, Oh, the writing!

I insisted. I said it is the prose in part three which is unconvincing - rushed and staccato. Clare said, but rushed and staccato prose can be appropriate, after all Kit's in a state of turmoil. I said, Yes, it can - for instance I thought the rushed (though fluid) prose replicating Port's typhoid delirium is beautifully done and this is one of the points in the book I find psychologically and emotionally involving - but in part three the prose rhythms and the sentence constructions seem rushed to me in the sense of being unconsidered, even lazy.

John said that what he liked about this last part was that in focussing on Kit it made the book about women and the condition of women, and most of the men agreed. I said that I didn't actually think that this was a specific intention on Bowles' part, as not only are parts one and two more about Port than Kit, I had read in Michael Hofmann's introduction to the new Penguin Classic that when Bowles had got to the end of part two he had decided to use a different writing method for the rest of the book: automatic writing (which eschews thought or conscious 'art') - which would also explain not only the change in style but the nature of the prose here.

In other words, I felt that by loosening the reins of his artistic consciousness, Bowles had merely reproduced here an unconvincing male fantasy about a woman, a fact which showed up in the prose.

At which Trevor insisted once more that this was how Kit would have behaved.

Ann said that she wasn't even convinced by Kit's behaviour in the first two parts, which was why she had stopped reading before then. Also, she had found the book unremittingly colonial in its perspective, and that it colluded too far with Port's racist view of Arabs as 'monkeys'. (How on earth could they have made a film out of it at that rate? I asked, and Clare, who had seen the film, said that they had excised all the racism and romanticised it all, especially part three, and indeed bleached it of the real theme - the emotional and existential barrenness of the characters - so that in fact it had been like watching paint dry.) Some people quibbled with Ann's point, saying that there were some sympathetic Arabs in the book, that the author is not necessarily to be identified with Port, and that even Port despises the anti-semitism of the Lyles. But as Ann said, the perspective of no Arab is ever represented (although she guessed that was par for the course at the time of the novel's writing), and it's all relative.

And then Trevor said how much he'd enjoyed the exciting bit towards the end and Kit's imprisonment and escape, and explained to us doubters why she would have acted exactly as she did.

Next time, we're discussing Ann's choice, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - by the skin of our teeth, as Jenny said that she didn't like novels with parallel narratives.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.


Carmen (La Maestra) said...

Actually, Kit's behavior is not so unusual. We're quite a sheltered people, so we may not be familiar with the way stress, grief, and trauma can effect people, especially when they are already culturally dislocated. On top of that, Kit was naive and marginal to begin with.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hi Carmen, thanks for commenting. I do agree in theory, but as I say above I don't find Bowles' representation of her behaviour convincing - ie the writing.