Fun with Paul & Jane: The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Paul (born 1910) and Jane (born 1917) Bowles led an eventful life including creativity in music and writing, the theatre (he as a composer, she as a playwright) literary frustration, depression, same-sex affairs, travel – Europe, Ceylon, and North Africa, drugs, and famous friends which included Jean Cocteau, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas, Jean Rhys, Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood – who would give Paul’s surname to his famous character, Sally, in Goodbye to Berlin, Aaron Copland – who gave Paul music composition lessons, Max Ernst, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Alan Ginsberg, and Peggy Guggenheim and they shared a house for a time in Brooklyn with W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Virgil Thomson, and Gypsy Rose Lee. I would’ve loved to be at that breakfast table!

Although Paul wrote crime stories and painted in his youth he received his initial fame as a Broadway composer for, mainly, the works of Tennessee Williams: The Glass Menagerie, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, and Summer and Smoke. He also wrote incidental music for his wife’s play In the Summer House for its Washington season before a short stint on Broadway in 1954.

Jane with her Morrocan partner, Cherifa
Jane with her Moroccan partner, Cherifa

Jane’s only novel Two Serious Ladies was published in 1943 to mediocre reviews although Tennessee Williams loved it and called Jane “the most important writer of prose fiction in modern American letters.” When I read that line in his memoir I was shocked that I had never heard of her. I soon remedied that and have been collecting her work ever since; that isn’t difficult, her output is small.

Two Serious Ladies began as Three Serious Ladies, she dropped one of them but from her early drafts featuring the third lady Paul edited various short pieces and submitted them whenever an editor or publisher wanted something from Jane.  She was completely indifferent to it all: she considered herself a failure as a writer.

Paul turned to serious writing and his first, and most famous novel, The Sheltering Sky came out in 1948 and by 1950 was in the New York Times best-seller list. There is a taste here of a potential Joe Orton/Kenneth Halliwell literary rivalry but there were no murderous consequences. Jane was more interested in her female lovers and pre-occupied with her declining health. The Bowles’ latter years were spent in North Africa.

Jane died, after several strokes and breakdowns in 1973; Paul died from a heart attack in 1999.

The Sheltering Sky.


Port and Kit are a married American couple, financially independent, and crave to visit the centre of the Sahara Desert. What they really mean is to go as far as they can as long as the degree of ‘desert-ness’ increases. The moment the desert-ness begins to weaken they turn back. They want to be lost. They encouraged another American, Tunner, to be their traveling companion, although by the opening of the story they want to be rid of him; and finally succeed. They also meet the mother and son team Mrs Lyle and her lay-about off-spring, Eric. The mother has got to be one of the more odious characters in 20th century literature and together with Eric, and Tunner, who has his heart set on seducing Kit, form a trio embodying everything the couple hate in the civilized world; giving them the reason they need for running away.

Getting lost in the desert is akin to going to bed, and waiting in an airport for a flight to begin: they abrogate life’s responsibilities especially if you believe those responsibilities are crushing you or causing you grief. At an airport life stops until you get where you’re supposed to be; going to bed forces everything to leave you alone so you can sleep; and getting lost in a desert leaves your life on hold while you find your way back to it.

Kit Moresby is obviously modeled on Jane. “Ambivalence was her natural element: a decision filled her with anguish. The possibilities for an ‘about face’ had to be kept open” writes Paul Bowles in a biographical piece for the collection of Jane’s work, Everything is Nice published by Sort Of Books in 2012. Kit’s psychological problem relates to her obsession with omens and the ever-possibility of doom: all decisions about unfolding days depend on events that may or may not happen. For Kit

“… the feel of doom was so strong that it became a hostile consciousness just behind or beside her, foreseeing her attempts to avoid flying in the face of the evil omens, and thus all too able to set traps her her.”

Doom does catch up with her and when it does Kit is almost relieved that she was right and takes to her appalling circumstances with an energy and satisfaction at not having to be Kit Moresby any more. The more abhorrent her circumstances the more she gives in to them. Her plight includes, thirst, near starvation, kidnapping, daily rape, imprisonment dressed as a boy, and a beating by three angry wives; but what terrifies her more is what she will have to do and say when she is rescued by the civilisation she is running away from.

Being born out of the mid 20th century’s romance with expressionism it’s not surprising that there are adsurdist and Kafkaeque elements in the writing. The pleasure is not just the exotic locations but also the waiting for what torment will fall on her next but Kit’s acceptence of all that keeps you applauding her resilience while at the same time wondering where will it all end. It is Bowles’ plotting skills, only seemingly haphazard, that keep the revelation of the point of it all to the very last paragraph.

Bernardo Bertolucci filmed it in 1990 with John Malkovitch, Debra Winger, and Campbell Scott. That I’ve got to see. The excellent short stories of both Paul and Jane are readily available. Give them a go first.

My ‘To Read’ pile to begin 2015

My 'to read' pile. The other book is Colm Toibin's essays on Henry James. Toibin is never far away.
My ‘to read’ pile. The other book is Colm Toibin’s essays on Henry James. Toibin is never far away.

Happy New Year and welcome to 2015: another year of reading and writing; but first the reading. As you can see from the picture my reading for 2015 begins with rather an eclectic batch. This was not planned, well, not all of it was planned. Here’s a little run-down on the list – to be read in no particular order – gleaned from the covers, a little Google search and information I’ve acquired through osmosis.

The Dinner by Herman Koch


I have a dear friend, an Irishman living in Brussels, who visits the island where I live twice a year and being a book-worm himself he brings me novels I wouldn’t otherwise have heard about. My to-read list contains several of his gifts, and The Dinner is one of them. I like to think of him as my Book Fairy. Herman Koch is a Dutch writer and actor and his sixth novel, The Dinner (2009), is his most successful, having been translated into 21 languages; it came out in English in 2012. Two couples meet at a stylish restaurant in Amsterdam for dinner. Each has a teenage son who, together, have committed a horrific act, caught on camera and beamed into living rooms all over the country. The New York Times reviewer called it “a clever, dark confection, like some elegant dessert fashioned out of entrails.” Australia’s Christos Tsiolkas, who, by the way, is doing very well in Europe since the great success of The Slap, is quoted on the jacket, “A riveting, compelling and deliciously uncomfortable read… This novel is both a punch in the guts and also a tonic. It clears the air. A wonderful book.” Can’t wait!

Home by Frank Ronan

Frank Ronan

Another from the Book Fairy, but this time from an Irish author, Frank Ronan who also writes a monthly column for the magazine Gardens Illustrated; Home is his 7th book and came out in 2002. “Born into a cabbage-growing, peace-loving 1960s commune, Coorg is declared, courtesy of a favourable reading of the I Ching, to be the new Messiah… startling and often hilarious,” says the blurb on the back courtesy of the Irish Times.

The Long Prospect by Elizabeth Harrower

Elizabeth Harrower

I was shocked when a recent New Yorker edition arrived, and as usual, I checked out the “Books” section first, and I saw my favourite literary critic, James Woods, devoting a whole article to the re-release of the five novels of an Australian writer called Elizabeth Harrower, who, according to Woods, was alive and well and living in Sydney. She’s 84. I had never heard of her! The very next day I found The Long Prospect in my local second-hand book shop and in the new re-released edition by Text Publishing. Apparently she thinks of her fiction as something abandoned long ago and now can’t be bothered with writing. She wrote 5 novels between 1957 and 1971 but withdrew the last, In Certain Circles, some months before publication, lodged the manuscript with the National Library of Australia and washed her hands of the whole writing thing; until, Michael Heyward, of Text, came along and persuaded her to let him re-publish the lot in 2012. All five are about female characters trapped in tempestuous relationships with a charismatic bully; all male except for this one where the bully is female, the hateful Lillian Hulm.

The Cast Iron Shore by Linda Grant

Linda Grant

Linda Grant is a British novelist and journalist and her first novel. The Cast Iron Shore (another from the Book Fairy) was her first, published in 1995. She has won numerous prizes (The Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000 for When I lived in Modern Times) and was on the long-list for the Man-Booker Prize in 2002 for her third novel Still Here and short listed for the same prize for her fourth The Clothes on Their Backs in 2008. Again, I’m ashamed to say, her name was new to me when the book landed in my hands only recently. It looks historical with a female protagonist who is raised ‘as an empty-headed fashion plate’ but a secret revealed during the Liverpool blitz of the Second World War changes her life and leads her to ‘a seedy hotel room in Hanoi’ and ‘a potato-chip factory in the prairies’, among many other locations, and ultimately to ‘a final choice’.

After Dark by Haruki Murikami

Haruki Murakami

I’ve always been a little afraid of Murikami. I don’t read fantasy or science fiction – I’m a literary realist, I think – but I’ve always been drawn to him, curious, as well – he’s on everyone’s lips – but his books are so big. This one isn’t: I’m putting my toe in the water. It’s his 11th and came out in 2004. “A sleek, gripping novel of encounters set in Tokyo during the spooky hours between midnight and dawn.

My Dream of You by Nuala O’Faolain

Nuala O'Faolain
I’ve just read Nuala O’Faolain’s (Noo la O fway lorn) famous memoir Are You Somebody? and fell in love with her way with words. This is a novel which came out in 2001 after her memoir and is about an Irish travel writer who leaves all that she has behind and returns to Ireland to write a book based on an old scandal of the mid-nineteenth century: an affair between the wife of an English landlord and her Irish servant, but what she really wants to understand is passion itself. I’m curious to read her fiction having only experienced her memoir.

The Moon of Jupiter by Alice Munro

Alice Munro
Although I write short stories occasionally I don’t read them very often but when Alice Munro, a Canadian, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013 I thought it’s time: she is a prolific short story writer, mainly because, as she explains in her introduction to the Vintage edition of her Selected Stories, “When you are responsible for running a house and taking care of small children … it’s hard to arrange for large chunks of time … so I got into the habit of writing short stories.” I’ve read several since BF brought me this collection of her work, and she is not so much interested in the interior life of her female characters but more in the heady and extravagant thoughts around that interior life. One of her characters, Lydia, in a story called Dulse is forever judging, pitting, herself against pleasing the men in her life. Every man she meets she thinks in terms of what would it be like to be with that man; and then she meets a man who is nothing like any other, who is so self-contained ‘alone’ is all he can be. She envies him. “What a lovely durable shelter he has made for himself.” And yet another man, one she has fantasised about, gives her a parting gift “Yet look how this present slyly warmed her, from a distance.” The gift? Eatable seaweed: dulse.

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Paul Bowles

When my partner and I left Australia in 2010 we shipped 25 boxes of books, this one included, and not much else, but lost the lot so it’s good to get another copy to take its place. Thank you BF. I came to Paul Bowles via his extraordinary wife, Jane Bowles, whom Tennessee Williams called the ‘greatest writer of the English language’. Paul started out as a serious composer – studying with Aaron Copland – in New York in the 1940s (I’m playing his music as I write this) and this, his first novel, and most successful, came out in 1949. He died in Tangiers in 1999 aged 88. A story about three American travellers in the deserts and cities of North Africa after World War II, but it is really about how the American incomprehension of alien cultures ultimately destroys such cultures. It was filmed by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1990 starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich, and in which Bowles appears. Looking forward to revisiting this one.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggars

Dave Eggers

Every since Dave Eggars, an American writer, began his career with his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in 2000, I believed the title. He’s a writer, publisher, screenwriter, editor, designer, philanthropist, journalist … Smarty Pants! He looms large. His books are so dense, heavy – in weight I mean, important, significant, worthy. Anyway, this one is non-fiction about a Syrian-American, a Muslim, who rides out Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. The theme is similar, I’m led to believe as Bowles’, The Sheltering Sky: the inability of white Americans to mentally process ‘the other’.

The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton

Hugo Hamilton
Hugo Hamilton is another Irish writer and this is a memoir that came out in 2003 but apparently free of the Catholic victim-hood, poverty and misery of the Irish memoir popularised by the likes of Frank McCourt of Angela’s Ashes fame, and as Hermione Lee says in The Guardian, “it’s shaped like a fiction, told, as if naively, in the language of a child.” “To read The Speckled People is to remember why great writing matters,” adds Joseph O’Connor in the Daily Mail.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver

I’ve always wanted to read this book but have never got around to it. I would always pick it up in book shops, hold it, flick through it. An American, she began publishing in 1988 and this one came out in 1998, her eighth work and, I think, her most famous. I mentioned to a friend that I had seen it in the local bookshop. “Get it,” she said. “It’s great.” So I did. That’s all it took. I was primed. Another book about a white American NOT dealing with ‘the foreign’ but as told through the eyes of the women in the family of a stubborn missionary in West Africa in the 1950s.