Because of his small output of novels as well as his problematic relationship with American writing, Paul Bowles has not achieved a firmly established reputation as a novelist. A writer who always attracted attention, and serious attention at that, Bowles has not been accorded sufficient critical notice for his significance as a writer to be measured. To paraphrase Johannes Willem Bertens, one of his most perceptive critics, who has written on the critical response to Bowles’s work, Bowles as a novelist can be classified in three categories: Romantic, existentialist, and nihilist. As a Romantic, Bowles saw the modern world in a disjunctive relationship with nature, and that vision pushed him to depict the march of Western progress in very pessimistic terms, which accounts for one of his most frequently recurring themes, namely, that of a sophisticated Westerner confronting a less civilized and more primitive society in a quest of self-discovery. Such Romantic attitudes suggest the reasons for labeling Bowles as an existentialist. The search for an authentic life amid the self-doubts and the fragile, provisional nature of the civilized instincts, as Theodore Solotaroff has described it, places Bowles squarely within the existentialist tradition made more formal and philosophical by such writers as Camus and Sartre.
The search for values in a world without God, a world with an ethical vacuum, suggests the third possible interpretation of Bowles’s fiction, that of nihilism. There are those critics, especially Chester E. Eisinger, who understand the novelist’s universe as totally without hope, a region devoid of meaning and purpose and thereby representing a nihilistic philosophical position. This position is worked out through the clash between civilizations, or rather through the tension between civilization and the savage. Even Bowles himself remarked that life is absurd and the whole business of living hopeless, a conviction he shared with most of his central characters, thereby giving credence to any nihilistic interpretation of his fiction. Whichever position one takes, the central details of Bowles’s novels remain the same: A Westerner, often an intellectual, searches through an Eastern, less civilized culture for meaning and direction, usually finding neither by the end of the book.
The Sheltering Sky
The Sheltering Sky is both Paul Bowles’s first novel and his best-known novel. It is a book in which the author set forth those topics or themes that he would pursue throughout the rest of his fiction with almost obsessive tenacity. The story follows an American couple, Port and Kit Moresby, who have traveled to Morocco in search of themselves and to reinvigorate their marriage after years of indifference. The couple appear in Oran shortly after World War II and there experience a series of devastating events that eventually kill Port and destroy the mental stability of his wife, Kit.
Soon after their arrival, Port insists that they travel inland into the desert. Kit is opposed, so Port, accompanied by an Australian photographer and her son, depart, leaving Kit with Tunner, their American friend, who is to escort her on the night train later that day. Bored by the ride, Kit wanders into the fourth-class, or native, section of the train and passes a frightening night among the Arabs, later sleeping with Tunner. Meanwhile, Port has come to the realization that he desires a reconciliation with his wife. The novel follows this hapless pair as they progress farther and farther into the heart of the country, leaving civilization more distantly behind them. Port contracts typhoid and dies, leaving his wife alone to face the rigors of the desert. She is picked up by a passing caravan and made the sexual slave of the leaders of the group. She is both entranced and repulsed by the experience and is soon completely disoriented by her subjugation. Finally, she is rescued by a member of the American embassy only to disappear once again, this time for good, into the Casbah, or native quarter, in Oran.
The Sheltering Sky is considered Bowles’s most uncompromisingly existential work and has been read by the critics along this line, with the fragile and provisional nature of civilized instincts being put to the test against the brutality and savagery of the primitive desert. Not only does Port test his febrile psyche against overwhelming powers of the North African terrain but also he must face the fact that he harbors in himself no reserves, no hope—for it is all too late—of anything better. Unable to commit himself to his wife, or to anything else for that matter, Port is left with a void that, in the end, exacts a heavy price, leaving him utterly alone and unequipped to face the hostile environment. So, too, Kit is stripped of her defenses and forced back on herself, only to discover that she has no inner resolve either. In the end, these two civilized Americans lack the inner strength to combat the primitive forces, both within and without, which they encounter in their North African adventures.
The novel offers a convincing portrait of the disintegration of a couple of innocents thrust into a cruel environment for which they are totally unprepared. The writing in places is luminescent, the locale wonderfully realized—so much so that the novel’s shortcomings pale by comparison, leaving a work, if flawed, at least magnificently so, and convincing in its portrait of nihilism in the modern world.
Let It Come Down
Bowles’s second novel, Let It Come Down, continues an existentialist quest by following Nelson Dyer, an American bank clerk, who throws over his job to join an old acquaintance who lives in Tangier and who offers Dyer a position in the travel agency he runs there. When he arrives, Dyer finds that his friend Jack Wilcox does not operate a successful agency and in fact seems to possess a mysterious source of income. As the story advances, Dyer’s relationship with Wilcox takes on a Kafkaesque tone, as he is obviously not needed at the agency.
Out of money and in desperate need of a job, Dyer accepts an offer to help in a money scheme by transporting cash between a local bank and a shop. Realizing that he is being used for illegal purposes, Dyer takes the money he has...
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