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The Sheltering Sky

The Sheltering Sky

4.0 25
by Paul Bowles

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The Sheltering Sky is a landmark of twentieth-century literature. In this intensely fascinating story, 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


The Sheltering Sky is a landmark of twentieth-century literature. In this intensely fascinating story, 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.

This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

Editorial Reviews

New Republic
Stands head and shoulders above most other novels published in English since World War II.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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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.

Meet 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.

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Sheltering Sky 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 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.
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.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Although the scenes were picturesque, I failed to pick up on the overall meaning. It was definitely the author's first novel - I felt that some of the description and dialogue was childish, and that he didn't seem to understand how women really think, as Kit does some things which seem to be totally against the character she portrays. A big disappointment. I was born in North Africa, and was hoping to enjoy this famous novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago