In an essay about the Sahara, “Baptism of Solitude,” Paul Bowles tells us many interesting things about oasis towns (where the fertility of cultivated plants is all-important and birds are hated as seed-stealers) and about the Touareg, a desert-dwelling tribe whose name in Arabic means “lost souls” but who call themselves the “free ones.” But what Bowles (who was born a hundred years ago this past December) prizes above all else about the desert is its absolute solitude. “Why go?” he asks.
The answer is that when a man has been there and undergone the baptism of solitude he can’t help himself. Once he has been under the spell of the vast, luminous, silent country, no other place is quite strong enough for him, no other surroundings can provide the supremely satisfying sensation of existing in the midst of something that is absolute. He will go back, whatever the cost in comfort or money, for the absolute has no price.
As his novel The Sheltering Sky (1949) suggests, the absolute solitude of the desert may exert a strong appeal, but that magnetism is not necessarily salutary. In it two young Americans, Kit and her husband Port, head farther and farther into the desert, even though he is seriously ill and will soon die. When they finally arrive at a remote outpost, Kit observes that at last there is no “visible sign of European influence, so that the scene had a purity which had been lacking in the other towns, an unexpected quality of being complete which dissipated the feeling of chaos.” Here Port dies and Kit enters her own slow process of abjection and self-destruction. “Purity” is the quality Bowles’s characters cherish, but it is a purity that destroys them.
Bowles embraced the desert as a Christian saint embraces his martyrdom. His self-abnegation and his love of traditional culture made him one of the keenest observers of other civilizations America has ever had. Unlike some of his countrymen he did not brashly set out to improve the rest of the world. For Bowles, Americanization was the problem, not the solution.
Although The Sheltering Sky was a first novel, it reads like the work of an experienced master. Bowles was in his late thirties when he wrote it; he had long been living in a sophisticated milieu; and he had carefully edited the remarkable novel Two Serious Ladies by his wife, Jane Bowles. The Sheltering Sky has none of the awkwardness or unevenness of a maiden effort.
It is also surprisingly adroit technically. Novels need different openings than stories do; a novel needs an opening that is inviting, engaging, but not too definitive or even too satisfying. The Sheltering Sky opens with a narrative that wavers between the point of view of Port and Kip without giving away too much about either character. And in just a few …