Sheltering Sky

Sheltering Sky

by Paul Bowles


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A landmark of twentieth-century literature. Paul Bowles examines the ways in which Americans' incomprehension of alien cultures leads to the ultimate destruction of those cultures.

A story about three American travelers adrift in the cities and deserts of North Africa after World War II, The Sheltering Sky explores the limits of humanity when it touches the unfathomable emptiness and impassive cruelty of the desert.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062351487
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/09/2014
Edition description: Anniversary
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 147,736
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.98(d)

About the Author

Paul Bowles was born in 1910 and studied music with composer Aaron Copland before moving to Tangier, Morocco. A devastatingly imaginative observer of the West's encounter with the East, he is the author of four highly acclaimed novels: The Sheltering Sky, Let It Come Down, The Spider's House, and Up Above the World. In addition to being one of the most powerful postwar American novelists, Bowles was an acclaimed composer, a travel writer, a poet, a translator, and a short story writer. He died in Morocco in 1999.

Read an Excerpt

Tea in the Sahara

“Each man's destiny is personal
only insofar as it may happen
to resemble what is already in
his memory.”
--eduardo mallea


He awoke, opened his eyes. The room meant very little to him; he was too deeply immersed in the non-being from which he had just come. If he had not the energy to ascertain his position in time and space, he also lacked the desire. He was somewhere, he had come back through vast regions from nowhere; there was the certitude of an infinite sadness at the core of his consciousness, but the sadness was reassuring, because it alone was familiar. He needed no further consolation. In utter comfort, utter relaxation he lay absolutely still for a while, and then sank back into one of the light momentary sleeps that occur after a long, profound one. Suddenly he opened his eyes again and looked at the watch on his wrist. It was purely a reflex action, for when he saw the time he was only confused. He sat up, gazed around the tawdry room, put his hand to his forehead, and sighing deeply, fell back onto the bed. But now he was awake; in another few seconds he knew where he was, he knew that the time was late afternoon, and that he had been sleeping since lunch. In the next room he could hear his wife stepping about in her mules on the smooth tile floor, and this sound now comforted him, since he had reached another level of consciousness where the mere certitude of being alive was not sufficient. But how difficult it was to accept the high, narrow room with its beamed ceiling, the huge apathetic designs stenciled in indifferent colors around thewalls, the closed window of red and orange glass. He yawned: there was no air in the room. Later he would climb down from the high bed and fling the window open, and at that moment he would remember his dream. For although he could not recall a detail of it, he knew he had dreamed. On the other side of the window there would be air, the roofs, the town, the sea. The evening wind would cool his face as he stood looking, and at that moment the dream would be there. Now he only could lie as he was, breathing slowly, almost ready to fall asleep again, paralyzed in the airless room, not waiting for twilight but staying as he was until it should come.


On the terrace of the Café d´Eckmühl-Noiseux a few Arabs sat drinking mineral water; only their fezzes of varying shades of red distinguished them from the rest of the population of the port. Their European clothes were worn and gray; it would have been hard to tell what the cut of any garment had been originally. The nearly naked shoe-shine boys squatted on their boxes looking down at the pavement, without the energy to wave away the flies that crawled over their faces. Inside the café the air was cooler but without movement, and it smelled of stale wine and urine.

At the table in the darkest corner sat three Americans: two young men and a girl. They conversed quietly, and in the manner of people who have all the time in the world for everything. One of the men, the thin one with a slightly wry, distraught face, was folding up some large multicolored maps he had spread out on the table a moment ago. His wife watched the meticulous movements he made with amusement and exasperation; maps bored her, and he was always consulting them. Even during the short periods when their lives were stationary, which had been few enough since their marriage twelve years ago, he had only to see a map to begin studying it passionately, and then, often as not, he would begin to plan some new, impossible trip which sometimes eventually became a reality. He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler.

The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home. Before the war it had been Europe and the Near East, during the war the West Indies and South America. And she had accompanied him without reiterating her complaints too often or too bitterly.

At this point they had crossed the Atlantic for the first time since 1939, with a great deal of luggage and the intention of keeping as far as possible from the places which had been touched by the war. For, as he claimed, another important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking. And the war was one facet of the mechanized age he wanted to for get.

In New York they had found that North Africa was one of the few places they could get boat passage to. From his earlier visits, made during his student days in Paris and Madrid, it seemed a likely place to spend a year or so; in any case it was near Spain and Italy, and they could always cross over if it failed to work out. Their little freighter had spewed them out from its comfortable maw the day before onto the hot docks, sweating and scowling with anxiety, where for a long time no one had paid them the slightest attention. As he stood there in the burning sun, he had been tempted to go back aboard and see about taking passage for the continuing voyage to Istanbul, but it would have been difficult to do without losing face, since it was he who had cajoled them into coming to North Africa. So he had cast a matter-of-fact glance up and down the dock, made a few reasonably unflattering remarks about the place, and let it go at that, silently resolving to start inland as quickly as possible.

The Sheltering Sky. Copyright © by Paul Bowles. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Gore Vidal

His art far exceeds that of... the greatest American writers of our day.

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Sheltering Sky 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 38 reviews.
Desertsail More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book very much, although I would advise anyone who reads it to NOT read the author's forward beforehand, as it contains a HUGE spoiler, one that I'm actually annoyed was in there. Aside from that, the book is great, touching on the culural interaction between Western and Northern African cultures after the turn of the war.
Guest More than 1 year ago
One of the best novels I have ever read. I think it's a symptom of twentieth-century moral dissolution. The deeper into the Sahara the travelers go, the more they lose their grip on Western civilization. There's a wonderful scene in a hotel room where Kit removes every item from her luggage and surrounds herself with her stuff: she's losing her cultural identity, the Western rationalism that was programmed into her. Not to mention that all three travelers are decadent epicures - the morals of Christendom that endured for centuries are seen to be crumbling, if not already disintegrated, in this book. The Sheltering Sky is the epitome of existentialism - though not entirely atheistic: there's a suggestion that God may exist, but if so, He is malignant. This is a book, like Moby-Dick, to be read slowly and deliberately, and definitely more than once. Again, a fantastic novel.
SJohnTucson More than 1 year ago
Finished this while I was laying in bed sick this evening. Wow! Frankly, I found it a little hard to get into at first, but by the second half of the book, I did not want to put it down. The last section of the book ("Sky") just pulled me right through it and spit me out on the other side! This is an amazing book, with an intense story and indelible, unforgettable characters. The "clash between cultures" theme is mirrored, sometimes explicitly, with a clash-within-oneself conceit, which I did not catch until I was done reading. I wonder how much else I will realize in the days to come, as a result of reading this.... This is a book that reminds us that "great literature" doesn't have to mean dry, dull, and willfully difficult. If you've been putting off reading this (as I was, for decades), get off your duff, pull it down off the shelf, and dive in!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book simply stunned me. I hate it when I guess the end of a book before it is over and this book not only surprised me but shook me. The simple minded tourists who haven't the slightest idea what they have landed in and the terror that can await the naive - beautiful flowing language that sucks you into it. Read and hold-on!
Guest More than 1 year ago
To sum this book up in a few words: It was amazing, inspiring, incredible, addictive, all around it has to be the best book I have ever read. Unlike many other writers, Paul Bowles dug deep into these people's lives and gave very detailed descriptions. If you do not read this, you are missing out on a great book.
ArkLA More than 1 year ago
When the idea of spending time away comes to mind, I now understand the key difference between being a tourist and a traveler after reading "The Sheltering Sky." “Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another.” - Page 5 Initially, I heard of the novel from an interview with Brandon Lee on "The Crow" home video, and from what he mentioned about passages from the story, I knew I had to read it. I recommend this book to anyone who feels a sense of wanderlust and adventure, overall to read a story that emphasizes human emotion and culture shock. What left an impression on me was the passage, “Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don't know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It's that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless…”
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
While I am glad that I read this book, I found it difficult to relate to any of the characters in the book. The writing is extremely good but the people were very not likeable and the story is kind of flat. The imagery, however, is wonderful. I was left wanting to find someone to discuss the book with to see what I, "missed". It is a difficult book to recommend.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book explores the cultural rift of Europe and North Africa mixed in jealousy, thievery and the udder ridiculousness. It is almost impossible to put down once you begin reading. The story line starts with the basic two's company and threes a crowd motif and becomes more introspective and even nihilistic at the end. It showcases the inhumanity and stupidity of colonialism in a poignant manner. It was the first book I read by Paul Bowles and will not be my last. Spiders House is next.
TheBentley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
On one hand, the language is pure poetry. There's no doubt the book is beautifully written, but it's also very slow going. Many of the themes are just better developed by better writers. Westerners out of their depth in the "uncivilized" colonies is better done by Forster, and the angst and ennui of the leisure class is better done by Fitzgerald. Still, one could do considerably worse than to be compared in any way to Forster and Fitzgerald.
piefuchs on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A classic worth reading - if only for its fine descriptions of life in Africa.
edgeworth on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Sheltering Sky is the story of three friends who go on an extended period of travelling through French Africa in the post-war period. Port Moresby, his wife Kit Moresby, and their friend Tunner are not particularly likeable characters (Kit and Port are both unfaithful to each other within the first few chapters), but neither are they unlikeable enough to be particularly interesting. They are also prone to periods of intense introspection, and thought patterns extensively explained via metaphor. This is unappealing enough to me already without Bowles' habit of zealously rationing his paragraph breaks to about one per page. In any case, the overall story is one of travel without appropriately assessing the dangers of the region; arrogant Americans blundering off into the desert without a second thought and badly hurting themselves as a result. The final fifty pages of the book were somewhat more interesting than the rest, since they deal with imprisonment, a favoured theme of mine - alas, not interesting enough to salvage the other two hundred pages of meandering philosophical passages.I always feel frustrated whenever I read a classic of literature and fail to enjoy it. Am I somehow missing something? Am I not intelligent enough to appreciate it? Should I skulk off back to my Playstation and Doritos like the wretched product of the public school system that I am? No, it's the literary critics who are wrong.
kjacobson1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
For some reason, I love books about the desert. This landscape is primal and dangerous and unforgiving--and, therefore, intriging. Bowles' book explores all of these elements of the North African desert. In many ways, it is a depressing book: the characters seem empty and soulless as they search for meaning in Africa's harsh, yet exotic landscapes. Each of the three main characters is forced to confront his/her emotional depths as the book moves from the city to the most remote parts of the desert. They don't all survive the journey.
pipster on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
For some reason, I love books about the desert. This landscape is primal and dangerous and unforgiving--and, therefore, intriging. Bowles' book explores all of these elements of the North African desert. In many ways, it is a depressing book: the characters seem empty and soulless as they search for meaning in Africa's harsh, yet exotic landscapes. Each of the three main characters is forced to confront his/her emotional depths as the book moves from the city to the most remote parts of the desert. They don't all survive the journey.
technodiabla on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book-- both the story and the writing. Bowles is a master of capturing a moment, a feeling, with just the perfect words. Everything he describes comes across as completely unambiguous and familiar. He even made me forget that I hate the desert. The characters are remarkably believable and his portrait of the decaying marriage has so many facets-- each described perfectly from both Kit's and Port's viewpoints. I don't want to spoil the plot, but Book 3 was completely unexpected. I read it in one sitting and it felt like a dream/nightmare. Once I have emerged from the hypnosis of Bowles writing Book 3 will either disgust me or amaze me with its provocative and disturbing insight. I won't know which for a while. I highly recommend this book-- it is not a difficult or long read but high in enjoyment and thought-provoking content. 4 stars (maybe more later)
kant1066 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found this novel underwhelming. The sense of place was wonderful (if a bit romanticized), and in places it read like a sort of travelogue. This was one most interesting parts of it for me. The people seem distant, aloof, and completely cut off from one another. Two of the main characters, Kit and Port, husband and wife, have presumably escaped post-World War II America to explore northern Africa. Tunner, a third wheel, awkwardly tags along, allowing for an additional romantic interest for Kit. The title is highly ironic: Africa has almost nothing to offer these three other than desolation, solitude, and loneliness. The weather is oppressive. It is hardly a wonder why so many people were reminded of Camus' Algeria in their reviews.Much of the novel consists of Kit, Port, and Tunner scurrying from one African city to another, in search of what even they probably do not know. Even though Kit loathes Tunner, they end up taking a train ride together to one of the cities during which they romantically bond (rather unrealistically, considering her contempt for him). In fact, romantic (or at least physical) connections, with the possible exception of the one between Port and Kit, were idealized. For example, early on, Port is led to the tent of a prostitute, Marnhia, whose decoy insists that she is not a prostitute. What seems to be a misunderstanding is really a cultural difference. Much like Nature herself, Marnhia is bleak, alluring, and ultimately incomprehensible.Halfway through the book, Port begins to show some portentous symptoms, including fever and hot and cold spells. Even though he shows no signs of getting any better, Kit has no qualms about leaving him in their hotel room. It will surprise few readers that in this land of exclusion, disconnectedness even from those next to you, and disorientation, Port dies. Just as unbelievable as the trysts between Tunner and Kit and then between Port and Marnhia, as soon as Port dies she leaves the hotel without pausing or grieving. The story of their marriage up to this point had me fairly convinced that they did care for one another, but reading this made me wonder whether Port's love was fully reciprocated.Port Moresby, the name of one of the protagonists, is also the name of Papua New Guinea's capital. I'm not sure whether this could be pure coincidence, but I would be eager to know what anyone else thought of it. Did anyone notice this? It popped right out at me, but I just saw it mentioned in one or two other reviews.Gore Vidal said that Bowles' short stories are "emblematic of the helplessness of an over-civilized sensibility when confronted with an alien culture." Port also makes it clear that he's a traveller instead of a tourist. Those points are central to the book. The first of these will genuinely frustrate those who think that some sort of genuine connection can be made between people of different cultures, and maybe even those of the same culture. As someone who still holds hope, perhaps naively so, for this kind of communication, I found the characters proportionately unconvincing. Personally, I find myself much more oriented toward E. M. Forster's exhortation to "Only connect!" It is what informs all of my reading, my curiosity about the world, and my relationships with others. I realize that my choice is purely an aesthetic one, but Bowles' central message diverged so much from it that I found difficulty making the connection. However, as Forster might be the first to point out, even though I had trouble with its message and characters, this book offered still another opportunity to connect - one which, unfortunately, I'm a worse person for not being able to make.
maritimer on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Sheltering Sky is a real bummer to read, one of those "classics" that one can only suffer through. What little there is by way of plot starts at bad and proceeds to much worse. The biographical notes in this edition say that the period when Bowles wrote this coincided with his becoming a heavy user of cannabis derivatives kif and majoun. This could account for the paranoid haze that permeates the story. In any case its unpleasant dissonance makes for a sad waste of a brilliant metaphor, "the sheltering sky".
unknown_zoso05 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It's fascinating how Bowles weaves the three main characters together. He beautifully constructs them so that the reader is able to understand their personal philosophies. Even the minor characters are well done but they are interjected into the plot at random. It works with the plot as a whole, which can be very erratic and unsuspecting at times.
stephmo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Sheltering Sky is so many things and yet nearly nothing...much like its Saharan setting. So where the Sahara can appear to be a vast and endless nothing of sand, closer examination reveals all sorts of life and stories. And so Paul Bowles tells the story of Port and Kit Moresby as they travel with Tunner deep into the African desert. And yet, this is no simple travelogue novel. Everything has a surface story and then reveals itself later to have far-reaching consequence. As a minor character points out later in the story, The desert's a big place, but nothing really ever gets lost there...Things turn up sometimes months later. There is little that goes on in this novel that does not have consequence in some manner later. For arrogant travelers who have not had a genuine human encounter in years, this is a double-edged sword. Bowle's depictions of the Sahara are beautiful, even as you see the damage that can be inflicted to the physically and spiritually unprepared. But his greater talent seems to be in presenting you three characters who are rather unlikable at first and transforming them not into different people, but into characters in a story you want to finish.
gefox on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Three young Americans with enough money to do whatever they want but with no ambition to do anything in particular bumble into the unforgiving North African desert, where one of them loses his innocence, another his life, and the third her soul and sanity. The harsh beauty of the desert, the hopeless naïveté of the clueless adventurers, and the symbiotic rhythms of the Arab and black African peoples accustomed to this environment are beautifully evoked (even in this Spanish translation). The mostly strongly felt character is the young woman, Kit (Catherine) Moresby, whose sensual yearnings lead her deeply into sexual bondage and a will to become part of desert life. We also saw the 1990 film by Bernardo Bertolucci (John Malkovich and Debra Winger are wonderful as Port and Kit Moresby), which alters the story by bringing in Bowles himself as "narrator" and, regrettably, dropping several of the novel's most memorable secondary characters, including the two French military officers, the hotel-keeper Abdel Kader, and the humble and generous Jewish shopkeeper Daoud Zozeph. But the Tuareg who takes Kit into his harem is thoroughly convincing, and the camerawork effectively conveys the terror and the beauty of the desert and the cities, saloons, hotels and markets.
sarradee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
From the TIME Archive:All this may be taken straight as simply a lurid, supersexy Sahara adventure story completely outfitted with camel trains, handsome Arabs, French officers and a harem¿TIME Magazine, Dec. 5, 1949 Of all the Time Magazine 100 All Time list books that I've read this year, I found this one the most interesting and least annoying. Katherine (Kit) and Porter Moresby originally from New York travel to Africa with friend Tunner, in an attempt to resolve their marital difficulties. As they move further and further towards the Sahara, they seem to forget about the dangers implicit in their trip. When Porter is struck down by typhoid two thirds of the way through, Kit is slowly driven crazy and the last section of the book deals with her descent into madness and debauchery.This was a pretty fascinating story, although the main characters were somewhat one-dimensional and hard to work up a large amount of empathy for the supporting characters were realistic and amusing. Especially the mother/son team that plague the Moresby's by showing up everywhere.
mattviews on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The scope of Paul Bowles' *The Sheltering Sky* is two-fold: on the outside it is the tale of three young Americans traveling around North Africa after the World War. In a deeper level it is really a terrifying, exhilarating journey into the depth of human existence. Kit and Port Moresby's marriage was jeopardized. They came to the desert to escape from civilization, to escape from one another. The couple had never settled down in any one place, but rather they casually intended to move from one place to another in Africa in order to avoid places that had been touched by wars. The couple was also joined by a mutual friend Tunner and with whom emarked on a journey into the forbidden Sahara. What this book strikes me the most is the way Bowles examines the ways in which Americans apprehend an alien culture (as well as alien land). The very same apprehension at the end in a sense destroyed these Americans. As they emarked on their journey, further and further away from civilization, we can see how the cultural superiority of these fellow Americans dominate their thoughts-how they not trust the locals, the Arabs, the porters of town, the butler at inns. The journey forced these Americans to push the limits of human life. Each one of them was touched by the unspeakableemptiness and impassive cruelty of the desert. I don't want to give away the ending of the tale but this is definitely not a page-turner as you, the reader, will have to emark yourself on this journey and think about the limits of human reason and intelligence, about the powerlessness in controlling our fate. Beautiful prose, challenging reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Exceptional! Now begins my obsession with Paul Bowles' writing. This novel removed me from my current reality into a new world. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Story of Europeans in North Africa in post WWII era. Differences in culture are highlighted with tragic consequences. Not a "feel good" novel, but interesting perspectives on life. Most critics feel this is Bowles best novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you relate to the true meaning of what being a traveller is, read this. If you are delighted in intelligent prose and deep thinking, read this. If you question your own cultural values and societal norms and want to explore another's abstract mind, read this. If you want to feel enlightened, then pick up a copy of this beautiful work of art.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago