9. Paul Bowles – The Sheltering Sky (1949)

We return to Burroughs’ contemporaries this week. Paul Bowles’ first novel, The Sheltering Sky, came out in 1949. Burroughs’ cited his second, Let it Come Down (1952), as one of the inspirations that led him Tangiers.

Burroughs befriended Bowles in Tangiers and read his second novel while living there. He mentions it positively in a number of places, attributing both Paul and his wife Jane Bowles with a masterful approach to the sentence: “sentences I couldn’t write in a million years”.

I’ve not yet read Let it Come Down, but as a book to draw you to North Africa, The Sheltering Sky is an odd one. It depicts the slow disintegration of a young America couple who, in choosing North Africa over Europe for their travels, consider themselves special and unique.

They “prefer to think of themselves as travellers, rather than tourists”. Experts, don’t you know!

Well, soon enough the husband, Port, is dying of typhoid and his wife, Kit, is sleeping with their travelling companion Tunner, getting kidnapped by Arabic traders, and slowly going mad.

The desert is portrayed not as a place of ecstatic mystical revelation, but existential horror.

The “sheltering sky” of the title describes a vision of Port’s, later shared by Kim, of the sky being merely a blue napkin placed over Earth to hide from us the horrifying, monstrous, infinite emptiness beyond.

The natives are either contemptuous of the travellers, or else over-familiar. The over-familiarity always foreshadows crime.

The colonial civil servants, in this case French, are made in the Conrad mode. They hold on to their duty in the face of total indifference. The glories of European civilisation ringing ever more hollow in the midst of silent desert.

The desert brings on alienation, but then so do the days themselves. It’s very difficult to tell what time it is during the novel. The day is too hot and the nights are freezing, and so everyone seems to be in a constant state of either getting into or out of bed.

Add to this the hangovers and hashish binges, the procurement of Arab girls in the early hours and the official siestas, and soon you, as a reader, feel as disoriented as the characters.

If the characters are polishing off a bottle of champagne with soup and bread, you might assume it’s lunch. But, oh no wait, they’re going to bed – it must have been evening meal. They pull closed the curtains as the daylight’s too bright, fall asleep and wake up at lunch. Oh, so it was breakfast that they were having then?

The sentences are wonderfully slow and languorous. They gentle hypnotise the reader, carrying them along in the somnambulistic rhythm of the desert.

Burroughs read a lot of post-war “exotic” novels. The English novels of this time were focused largely on the Empire (and specifically the peculiar melancholy of its ending). They therefore tend towards civil servant protagonists; men who work, who have duties to fulfil, even if they resent them.

By contrast, Bowles’ writing moves to a rhythm that Burroughs himself would recognise. The lazy wandering of an American at leisure. The inevitable dissipation of a puritanical, hardworking people suddenly made prosperous.

It also captures the curious mix of longing and resentment non-Americans so often feel towards Americans. A duality that Burroughs blows up to huge satirical proportions in his own Interzone routines.

So what else then, besides tone?

Well Bowles clearly has the same ear for urban legends as Burroughs has. We hear about the centipedes that, chopped into slices, can still walk around, each segment independent of the others.

We hear about the djinn, and how even the most rational of Frenchmen see them, although they are obliged to write them off as optical illusions.

The novel overall depicts the desert as a site of confrontation. Civilised, city-dwelling man meets the Big Vacant. It has been the site of mystical spiritual encounters since the times of Zoroaster and St Anthony, and now it represents the great conflict between the fragile world of modern, polite society, and the existential chaos that lies beneath.

It’s an important theme, and a recurrent one. Bowles does not appear to understand Islam and Arabic culture the way that Burroughs does, however. And those “masterful” sentences that Burroughs so loves to read, never inspired him to write that way.

We shall return to Bowles anyway, with Let it Come Down, but for now we’ll consider the influence to be middling-to-minor.