Friday, 6 September 2019

The Sheltering Sky

Thoughts on the book by Paul Bowles

"And in the same fashion, the strange languor in the centre of her consciousness, those vaporous ideas which kept appearing, as though independently of her will, were mere tentative fragments of her own presence, looming against the nothingness of a sleep not yet cold. A sleep still powerful enough to return and take her in its arms. But she remained awake; the nascent light invading her eyes, and still no corresponding aliveness awoke within her; she had no feeling of being anywhere, or being anyone."

Several years ago I saw Bernardo Bertolucci's 1990 film version of the book in question and found it rather forgettable. The film version felt like the story of a bourgeois couple who venture off the beaten track in search of new experiences and pay the price for their xenophobic entitlement. It was all surface, with none of the deeper nuances or illusory tone that Bowles captures so brilliantly in his book. Here, the connection with the female protagonist, Kit Moresby, is so absolute, that it becomes impossible to view the book as anything less than the story of a woman seeking liberation against the imprisoning factors that attempt to define and dominate her throughout. Feelings of guilt and grief circle about the thoughts of this character like the encroaching sandstorms that drift across the book's arid North African deserts, as Kit finds herself incarcerated repeatedly by systems and circumstances, and finally by the landscape itself.

 The Sheltering Sky [Bernardo Bertolucci, 1990]:

I saw the Bertolucci film for the first time in October 2012. At the time I wrote the following: "Like its characters, the film is in too much of a hurry to get from one location to the next; rarely capturing the atmosphere or the colour of a place before we're off again, onto the next misadventure. Bertolucci seems to view North Africa with a cynical suspicion. The landscapes may be striking but the people are seen as shady, even untrustworthy. The closing lines are beautiful (and beautifully delivered by the author himself) but offer only a vague hint to the reflective and possibly even poetic film that might have existed before it collapsed into melodramatic excess."

The Sheltering Sky [Paul Bowles, 1949]:

Needless to say, I found the book remarkable. Not least in its storytelling, but in its moments of evocation and surrealism. Passages where the language becomes so heightened and atmospheric that it passes through the influences of observation and the "travelogue" to become charged with something altogether more figurative and revealing. Images that are stark and entirely unforgettable in their illustration, but also in what they communicate, imparting upon the narrative something richer, more psychological and suggestive. Without wishing to spoil anything for the uninitiated, the final part of the book in particular maintains an odd, dreamlike tone, becoming more than just a continuation of the character's journey but an effort to distil the narrative of the first two parts into a figurative, psycho-dramatic, psychosexual expression of Kit's inner consciousness.

I took my copy of the book with me on a recent Scottish excursion and as such it's now pretty beat up. However, the bends and tears that mark its cover and the water damage seeped into its yellowing pages each bear the memories of that great trip, which of course feels fitting for a book about travel, and about the lure of losing oneself completely in a culture that isn't your own. I may return to the Bertolucci film at some point in the near future to see if a familiarity with the book deepens or enriches the adaptation, but in all honesty I think the subconscious film that was constructed in my own mind during the reading of Bowles's evocative and illusory text remains more powerful and certainly more transportive.