Forgot how much I loved this book. Love it. The richness of the character portraits, relationships, and existential themes; as well as the startling detail of the images are highlighted even more by knowing the ending.
Back with more ... heading into Part II.12/28/08:
A piece of writing by Donald Powell [link now dead-sorry!:] caused me to think about this book, and my very different response to it from when I first read it in my early 20s to 20 years later, when I am--ahem--not in my early 20s.
Back then, the existential theme was all-important: I believe I may have read the entire book for its symbolism, more than its story or characters, which I pointed out as important above but which I don't even recall thinking about back then. Then, I was all head and very little heart (unusual for a 20-yr-old, I know) and now--forgive me if I become too autobiographical--with loves, lives and deaths having been personally and deeply experienced as opposed to merely read of and superficially dallied with, I am the reverse. Mostly all heart--slightly damaged and battered but all the more resilient for it--and much less head (or a head filled with shades of gray that cause me, or allow me depending on your POV, to see depths and angles that I was unable to see as a young'un).
These are the benefits of age, and this book is a shining example of what I was trying to say in my brief review of Donald's partial defense of Henry Miller: the ability of a writer and a story to have an impact on one's life in very different ways at different times marks the author as a prodigious talent, and says something too about our capacity for growth and change as human beings (because, of course, what we bring to the story is as or more important than what the story brings to us).
In other words, this book stands up well to the test of time.
On my second reading, I turned down just about every page of this book for quotations, character interactions and images of startling beauty and angst. I've now loaned my copy out, so can't reproduce any of these here--you'll just have to trust me. But, three reasons you should read this book, if you haven't:
1) If you are an existential atheist, like me: There is no more compelling argument than in the stories of Port and Kit Moresby for how we must create meaning in our lives absent any particular spiritual or religious faith grounding us in the universe. Bowles uses every tactic possible to strip each of these characters from their time, place, culture and--finally--each other, so that they can simply "be" in the world (looking up at the sheltering--but empty--sky, natch), and confront the fullness of what that means. Not that it turns out at all well for either of them, but it packs a wallop of a moral for the reader.
2) If you are a diehard romantic, like me: These characters yearn, and squirm, and sigh, and strive, and flail, and grasp for but never reach anything they desire. Not answers to any of the very big questions they are asking, and not each other. I recall my focus being on Port in my 20s; in my more recent reading, I was far more interested in Kit. And I was fascinated by the portrait of this very unique marriage: Bowles does an astonishing job of shifting the POV from Port to Kit as they try to communicate but end up talking around each other and missing completely the connection they so desperately seek (there again is the symbolism interacting with the personal stories). Port and Kit are each portraits of inner conflict and turmoil--so much so that I would forgive those who might scoff that they become caricatures of the angst-ridden, post-war hero and heroine who embody "All That Is Wrong With Modern Society." No matter, put it aside: yes, the novel is slightly dated but only insofar as it is set so specifically in that time and place. The setting is required, and particularly apt, to explore the deeper themes. Rather than characters, Kit and Port are to me archetypes: a couple that need each other desperately but, because they are so isolated in body, spirit and mind, they cannot be together. This is a deeply romantic and bleakly existential tale of what it means to be irredeemably alone in the universe: timeless, not time-stamped.
3) If you are both, like me: The Sheltering Sky
is an existential thought experiment, but although it takes its philosophy very seriously, it never sacrifices the story for it. Credit Bowles' mastery of images and dialogue--his knack for introducing a subtly gruesome piece of horror (usually found floating in the soup) or a startling, stumbled-upon scene (like a naked man bathing in the desert). These invariably have deep symbolic importance, but even if you choose not to pause and reflect on what that might be, their effects will be felt. The story becomes mirage-like and hallucinatory, like a malaria-induced fever. Or should that be typhoid? I leave it to you to find out.
Two more things:
DO have a listen to the Sting song, Tea in the Sahara
, taken from a particularly poignant (and of course oh-so-symbolic) digression in the book.
DO NOT, at all costs, even think
about renting the appalling movie. And if you have seen it, burn it from your memory and go read this book despite the damage it may already have done you.