Of course, it’s good to read as widely as possible—especially outside your race, class and gender—but, as a writer, I’ve found I’ve learned more by returning to the same book again and again. When you finish reading a novel for the first time, your memory of it does not stay fixed forever; it shifts and evolves. Years later, you might find yourself talking about it only to discover that your memory has retained only a few scraps—mythic representations—of the text. You realise that, in the intervening years, you have reconstructed in your mind an entirely different book—an inner book of ‘received beliefs’—from the actual one. This is when the value of re-reading becomes obvious. A book comes alive with each new reading. A book is born again every time you pick it up. When you re-read a book, it will appear to be different on a second, or third reading, but of course the book hasn’t changed, you have. Any text has the potential for several different interpretations, and no single reading can ever exhaust a text’s full potential because, on re-reading, each reader will search for connections in their own way, excluding other possibilities and so making them aware of their own role in the play of meaning. It’s not the case that subsequent readings are any ‘truer’ than the first—they are just different. The fact that readers can be differently affected by the same text shows the degree to which reading is a creative process. If you read a single book many times over, it marks the changes in your life and, whatever happens, you continue to have a conversation with it.
Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky is a novel that I happen to have read a number of times and, each time I re-read it, it offers fresh insights into how and why I think it is such a great piece of work. Set in North Africa just after the Second World War, the novel is about husband and wife, Port and Kit, and their travels after they arrive in Tangier. When I first read the novel, I thought it was Port’s story, but after a few more reads, I realised it was in fact Kit’s story. She is the character who undergoes the most change and the person in whose company we end the story. Also, I had not noticed at first how Port and Kit’s journey starts at the coast, in a well-populated city, and goes directly inland, stopping at places that become fewer and further between and less and less well-populated until, ultimately, they arrive in the middle of nowhere. The desert and its ‘virulent sunlight’ take on an increasingly claustrophobic, emptying role, smothering love and hope until all that is left is sand and wind. This doomed journey into the desert is a subtle, sophisticated metaphor for their relationship. I also had not noticed that, although Port and Kit both have sexual encounters with native Arabs, it is how they respond to those encounters that matters, that defines the difference between their personalities. Port’s is a one-night stand and the experience ‘poisons’ him and is his ultimate undoing. Kit, on the other hand, enters into a desperate, very physical affair with a Bedouin that rejuvenates her body entirely and sets her off on another journey altogether.
Port’s death in the desert provokes an existential panic attack in his wife, Kit. She is crushed by his death, but she is also liberated in a way. The novel continues for another 60 pages as we see the consequences of Kit’s loss play itself out in the narrative and, by the end, we realise that the story had been about Kit all along, not Port. His death has not resolved her life, just set her off on a new and different journey. Indeed, endings of stories are, in a sense, just beginnings to other stories. In the most perfectly plotted stories, resolutions give rise to a new set of problems.
The start of The Sheltering Sky has its end seeded deep within it. Port has become so disenchanted with Kit that he has reduced their marriage to an intellectual exercise. What he comes to expect from it can never be sustained. At one point in the book while looking at the sky, Port says, ‘I often have the sensation when I look at it that it’s a solid thing up there, protecting us from what’s behind’. Bowles peels back that protection to reveal the pain and pitilessness of a modern relationship. We, the reader, sense this and pull against the inevitable and Bowles dramatises this tension. He has said that, after getting the idea for the novel, he wrote it ‘in cold blood’ in nine months flat. The only scene that proved tricky to write was Port’s death in the fly-blown desert town of Sbâ (one of the most convincing and harrowing evocations of death since Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich). He says, ‘I got to the death scene and I didn’t feel up to tackling it, so I ate a lot of majoun and just lay back that afternoon and the next day I had it resolved.’
Literary novels such as The Sheltering Sky act as mirrors, but the act of reading and re-reading them presents us with the paradox—the reader is forced to reveal aspects of themselves in order to experience the reality of the text, a ‘reality’ that is different from their own. The impact of that reality will depend on the extent to which the reader actively participates and provides the unwritten part of the text, and yet, by participating in that way, the reader must think in terms of experiences beyond their own. Some texts offer nothing but harmonious world-building, purified of all contradiction and excluding everything that might disturb that illusion once established, but The Sheltering Sky doesn’t lie like this—it is so fragmentary that the reader’s attention is solely occupied with the search for connections, making us aware of our own capacity for providing links. Indeed, it is only by leaving behind the familiar world of their experience that the reader can truly participate in the adventure. In this way, Paul Bowles is Mercury, a messenger, world-traveller, transporter of communications from one realm to the next, and his cold, clear eye tells us that a truthful marriage can sometimes be both loving and loveless, that a modern love can be ‘twisted’.
‘A moral message is the last thing I look for.’ Paul Bowles