Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: The Sheltering Sky (#9)

The Sheltering Sky.

#9: THE SHELTERING SKY, by Paul Bowles.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

I hesitate to put this book on this list, because then you might read it and think I’m a psychopath. (This is a similar fear to writing rave reviews of Nabokov, with the danger being that you might think I was a pervert.) This brings up the distinction between the “morality” of art and one’s separate consumption of it, but that’s another theoretical discussion for another time.

This is a very, very dark book. (In fact, it is on a Goodreads list titled “The Darkest Books of All Time.”) My best guess is that 75 percent of you would hate it, so I am not going to use the word “recommend” here, but I am going to tell you why I liked it and why I thought it was worth a damn.

The Sheltering Sky is the debut novel by American expatriate Paul Bowles, who lived in Morocco, where this story is set. American couple Port and Kit Moresby travel through the Sahara, accompanied by their friend, Tunner. On the surface, the book seems like it would be just another Hemingway-esque tale of blundering, drinking, profligate American tourists (a la The Sun Also Rises) bumbling their way through a vast and complex foreign land. But that would be too easy for Bowles. This novel is like a much darker and more lyrical Hemingway, but I don’t even know if that’s a fair comparison. It is more like someone dropped Hemingway characters into the middle of a Moroccan nightmare and left them there to die.

As the group’s travel plans begin to fall apart, the characters and the narrative also begin to unravel. The darkness of the book comes over one suddenly, as a great shadow. “It all started off so well and even funny!” you think, naively, as you continue to read. “Surely things will turn out in the end.” But things do not turn out in the end. Sunny resolution is for children’s novels, apparently, because Bowles has written a story that somehow plumbs the depths of the human condition and the hopelessness of escape.

Sounds fun, right? And yet it was an incredible book. It is difficult for me to explain this. Thankfully, I don’t have to hunt for the right words, because the brilliant Tennessee Williams already did. He published a short review of The Sheltering Sky in the New York Times on 4 December 1949, the year the novel came out, “An Allegory of Man and His Sahara.” In it, he expresses what I have vainly tried to express about the deep, eternal appeal of this dark book:

There is a curiously double level to this novel. The surface is enthralling as narrative. It is impressive as writing. But above that surface is the aura that I spoke of, intangible and powerful, bringing to mind one of those clouds that you have seen in summer, close to the horizon and dark in color and now and then silently pulsing with interior flashes of fire. And that is the surface of the novel that has filled me with such excitement.

It is exciting to read and it is frightening at the same time. Williams has many delightful and encouraging things to say about Bowles as an artist and as a writer. Then he ends his review with this bomb, which I find to be as fitting a way as any to end my own:

I suspect that a good many people will read this book and be enthralled by it without once suspecting that it contains a mirror of what is most terrifying and cryptic within the Sahara of moral nihilism, into which the race of man now seems to be wandering blindly.

All such nice people

Source: Oh, Joy!

It was like certain dinners I remember from the war. There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that you could not prevent happening. Under the wine I lost that disgusted feeling and was happy. It seemed they were all such nice people.

— Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

I like this quote. Even though it’s so cynical. I just like that feeling.

Happy weekend! Really excited about the Virginia Film Festival and Jonathan coming down for it!

20 essential authors

A few weeks ago, when Windy and Mike were visiting, and Tracy was staying at our house, the women were lingering in our apartment, talking about books. Windy and Tracy asked me for my recommendations of the essential authors who need to be read in the Western canon. Quite a question. I didn’t have a good answer–I mumbled something about Joyce and Woolf and Shakespeare–but I’m going to try to prepare one now.

For Windy and Tracy:

My List of 20 Essential Authors in the Western Canon

20. Toni Morrison

Morrison’s novels have always completely enchanted me. I feel she is channeling something similar to Virginia Woolf, an intimation confirmed when I found out she wrote her master’s thesis on Woolf and Faulkner. Nothing escapes her notice. Her characters are raw. Her characters’ experiences are so far removed from my own, and yet Morrison’s undeniable talent lies in the fact that she makes all of her people extremely close. You care for them like family. My favorites: Beloved and Sula. To read: A Mercy, Tar Baby, The Bluest Eye.

19. Emily Brontë/Charlotte Brontë

Maybe it’s not fair to include both of them under one point, but they both wrote one important novel each, and they’re sisters, so, sorry, Ellis and Currer Bell. The Brontës are still so shocking to me. They prove the power of the imagination and the ascension of the artist’s soul above demeaning material and cultural circumstances. How did two sheltered women in the mid-19th century write such dark, powerful novels? Wuthering Heights is one of the most upsetting novels I’ve ever read and yet I cannot deny that it is a masterpiece. Jane Eyre is beautiful and moving. Both need to be read.

18. John Steinbeck

This man can write a NOVEL. If you’ve ever been through an American high school, I’m sure you know that by now. If you didn’t like Steinbeck when you were 15, try him again. He doesn’t write for children. My favorites: East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath.

17. Ernest Hemingway

I like to say that Hemingway is the only “macho” writer I’ve ever liked. He writes about drunken brawls, war, hunting, and bullfighting. His writing style is be the polar opposite of Virginia Woolf’s. And yet. I like him. I even love some of his novels. This is because Hemingway doesn’t succumb to the common path of many male writers strung up with their machismo. He doesn’t write women who are tired, sexy stereotypes and he lets his tough guys cry. Hemingway writes like a real man–not one who is trying to prove that he is. My favorites: A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, his short stories.

16. Eudora Welty

In basic description, she may be difficult to distinguish from Flannery O’Connor: Both native Southern women who wrote collections of compelling short stories. I was first introduced to Welty when I was quite young. Our family friend, Dave, who is a writer, gave me a collection of her complete short stories. I started reading them when I was about 12 or 13 and have been enchanted by her and her world ever since. Another writer I’ll always return to.

15. William Faulkner

By all accounts, I should be in love with William Faulkner. He’s a modernist and he’s Southern. I love both of those genres. But I confess that I’ve never loved one of his novels. This could be because I’ve only read two (The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!). But he’s consistently called one of the greatest writers ever to have lived (or THE greatest writer ever to have lived, if you’re this lit blog). This to say, I think Faulkner is important because everyone says he is important. Lame, I know. But I’m not giving up on him yet. Next up: Light in August, which should be arriving by post any day now.

14. Emily Dickinson

Who has ever written such short and such profoundly beautiful lines? No one can match Dickinson in this regard. One of my most prized books on my shelf is my giant anthology of her complete works. You can read just about any page and leave with your mind inspired and your heart illuminated.

13. Homer

Obligatory inclusion for the Father of Western Literature. Blah blah blah. I can never really make it through “The Odyssey,” but he has to be on this list somewhere.

12. Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard has a ravenously curious mind. I also think she’s read almost every book that was ever written. The amount of information that this woman KNOWS is simply astounding–and yet she writes with simple, direct humility. I have never read one of her novels, but her most famous books have made a sizable impression on my heart. One of the worthiest living American writers today. My favorites: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, For the Time Being. To read: Teaching a Stone to Talk, The Writing Life, her novels.

11. Jane Austen

I don’t tell people that I like Jane Austen now, because her reputation has been ruined by Hollywood. Thanks to silly films, most people write Austen off as a writer of fluffy, feel-good “chick lit.” Yes, there’s always a marriage at the end, but this is a classic trope of comedy she borrowed from Shakespeare; give the woman a break. She’s supremely intelligent, witty, and funny. Her characters evade stereotype. Her novels endure. I wish Austen could be seen for what she really was: A gifted artist who permanently affected the trajectory of the English novel–and got her reputation ruined by Hollywood. My favorites: Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility.

10. George Eliot

I like to think of her as the female, British version of Tolstoy, if that makes any sense. Like Tolstoy, she created full-fledged universes in her novels and never wrote on a small scale. Virginia Woolf once said of Middlemarch, “It is one of the few novels written for grown-up people.” I think it is a wonderful description and one that fittingly applies. It’s still one of my all-time favorites.

9. T.S. Eliot

Clearly, I have a thing for the modernists. “The Waste Land” will probably have a similar effect as Ulysses; so dense it’s barely comprehensible without a guide. While that will stand as his great contribution, I think his truly wonderful work lies in The Four Quartets. And “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” will always have my heart.

8. James Joyce

I say that I read Ulysses last year, but I don’t know if I can say that. I looked at all of the words in Ulysses–and there are a LOT of them–but I’m not sure how much of it I really understood. I was using Allusions in Ulysses (UNC Press) as a guide the whole time, and that was a huge help, but it was still an arduous task. If you’re not a native Dubliner, Roman Catholic, and fluent in Latin and classic mythology–basically if you’re not Joyce–a lot of Ulysses will be incomprehensible without the help of a guide. Still. Most people say it’s the greatest novel ever written. It certainly changed the face of modern literature in a way that no other book did. My favorite: Dubliners (collection of short stories), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. To read: Ulysses, again.

7. Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy is probably the best at creating an entire world within the pages of his (usually long) books. He won’t let you escape the figurative boundaries he has created for you. But, as it is in my case, one is usually more than content to stay, to learn about these rich, realistic characters and their challenges. Essentially, he’s famous for a reason. He should be read. My favorites: Anna Karenina, Resurrection, and The Kreutzer Sonata. To read: His letters and essays.

6. Flannery O’Connor

O’Connor is second in my book for master of the short story form, close on the heels of Anton Chekhov. She writes with conviction and wry humor. She always tells it like she sees it. My favorites: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” stands out, as does her other most famous one, “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” But all of them are good. To read: Brad Gooch’s recent biography of her, Flannery

5. Vladimir Nabokov

“Genius” is a word too liberally rendered to authors, but it has never been misapplied in Vladimir Nabokov’s case. He wrote one of (if not THE) greatest novels, Lolita–and he wrote it in English, his fourth language. His mind is enchanted by language. He makes up words. He creates characters so externally appalling and so internally sympathetic that one’s moral compass is thrown entirely off kilter. He’ll make your skin crawl, but you’ll keep returning to him. Because he’s the best. My favorites: Lolita and Pale Fire. To read: Most of his other novels; Speak, Memory, and Lectures on Russian Literature.

4. Anton Chekhov

I believe Chekhov is the greatest short story writer who ever lived, and I’d pick a fight with anyone who disagreed. Just read four or five of his stories and you’ll fall under his spell. His plays are equally incredible, and probably more famous. Chekhov was a noble-hearted country doctor who started writing later in his career. His glimpses into the souls of people are inspiring and chilling. My favorites: The Cherry Orchard (play), The Duel (novella), Grief (short story). To read: His memoir and his letters.

3. Marcel Proust

I’m currently reading Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, although his thesis is not something that I need to be convinced of; I already believe it’s true. For the past four summers now, I have read a volume of his epic novel, In Search of Lost Time (aka Remembrance of Things Past). It’s an arduous task. I only read a volume a year, because I think it takes me a full year to recover from it. Nothing escapes Proust’s notice. The whole world is infinitely fascinating to him; all people worth describing; all memories worth mining. Proust captures the beauty and complexity of humanity in a dazzling, astonishing way. How can it be? He writes about rich people orbiting around each other at parties. And yet he writes about all of humankind. My favorite volumes, so far: Swann’s Way and Sodom and Gomorrah. To read: The final three volumes!

2. Virginia Woolf

It’s no secret that this woman is my hero. I spent a year and a half re-reading all of her novels and essays and then I wrote a sprawling, 130-page love letter to her, in the form of a mismanaged and somewhat poorly executed undergraduate thesis. I could talk about her all day long; consider that your warning. Woolf does something to me that no other writer does. I think all readers have a writer who affects them in this way. When I read her novels, I feel perfectly understood, completely reached–and yet constantly drawn in and mystified. She refashioned the novel in a way that no one else did or has done since. I will return to her for the rest of my life and I’d encourage all readers to do the same. My favorites: To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, The Waves, A Room of One’s Own. To read: Her extensive letters and the rest of her diaries.

1. William Shakespeare

The man invented most of our commonly used phrases and puns. That alone should get him some quality read-time. Aside from that, he just has to be read, thoroughly, for his influence on English literature extends beyond what anyone else accomplished. Yes, the language can be dense sometimes, but with a good annotated copy and a Shakespeare dictionary–and the willingness to read aloud to yourself–he’s a guaranteed great time. He’s merry and bawdy and the greatest wit you’ll ever meet. My favorites: King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and Richard III. Still to be read: Julius Caesar and about five or six other plays.

Who would be on your list? Who do you think I’m missing?

Are women artists inferior to men artists?

Virginia Woolf Smiling? Surely not…
Woolf has a thing or two to say about this. Just look at that smirk.

Today I read a long and interesting piece by my favorite book critic, Francine Prose. The essay, entitled “Scent of a Woman’s Ink: Are Women Writers Really Inferior?” was published in Harper’s back in June 1998. You’d think it was written today, because the problem Prose addresses–the lack of skilled women writers getting critical attention–is no better today than it was in 1998. (For purely graphical proof, take a look at the pie charts published by VIDA on the dispersion of male-to-female writers in top literary magazines.)

Of course, this topic interests me. Heck, I once wrote 120 pages about Woolf’s thoughts on women artists and the struggles they face. Francine Prose, in 1998, is merely writing shades of what Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929. Is there such a thing as writing “like a woman” or writing “like a man”? Why do people take men’s fiction more seriously than women’s fiction? Is it because women actually aren’t as skilled as men are?

As Prose points out, serious readers and serious consumers of art would never say that women artists are inferior to men artists. We should judge art by time-honored standards of value, skill, and beauty–not by the sex of its creator. But what if there is an unconscious and disguised sex bias against women artists? Prose gives plenty of examples of this (and some of them are not so unconscious and disguised. You’re appalling, Norman Mailer), but I’ll give some personal anecdotes to support this hypothesis.

Take, for example, my ex-boyfriend. He was a very serious reader and very intelligent; I respected his opinion on art. He was a classics and philosophy major; he read “real” books–and he did appreciate books by great female writers. (Flannery O’Connor, whom Prose uses as an example of stereotypically “masculine” prose in her essay, was one of his favorites.) But I noticed a distinct gender preference in his music taste. I realized early on that he didn’t listen to any female musicians. He never said anything against women musicians or bands fronted by women; he just stayed away from them entirely. This bothered me, but I never had any grounds to mention it to him. When I started hanging out with my husband, I was instantly interested by the fact that he talked about a lot of women musicians–Joanna Newsom, Bjork, Tori Amos, St. Vincent, Ani diFranco–and he didn’t just talk about them; he actually respected them as lyricists and musicians.

It’s not impossible for men to like women artists; many men do. But why does this bias persist? Prose quotes novelist Diane Johnson’s hypothesis on the issue:

Diane Johnson — herself a novelist of enormous range, elegance, wit, and energy — observes that male readers at least “have not learned to make a connection between the images, metaphors, and situations employed by women (house, garden, madness), and universal experience, although women, trained from childhood to read books by people of both sexes, know the metaphorical significance of the battlefield, the sailing ship, the voyage, and so on.”

It’s an interesting suggestion–that men aren’t cultured to appreciate or decipher language that’s traditionally relegated to women. I feel like I can resonate with this depiction. I read your typical fare of princess books, Little House on the Prairie, and Nancy Drew, but I also read Johnny Tremain, The Bronze Bow, Encyclopedia Brown, and the Narnia books (interestingly, those first two “boy” books were written by women). It was somehow improper or undignified for a boy to read Little House on the Prairie or other “girls'” books. And yet girls were encouraged and even expected to read books across the gender categories.

This point was impressed upon me a few months ago. I served as a judge for a city-wide short story contest for middle-school girls. As I read through the dozens of submissions, I was surprised by how many girls wrote stories from the perspective of boys. Of the 70 submissions I read, there were at least 30 of them that were written from the vantage point of boys. I think you’d be very hard-pressed to find any middle school boys who were writing stories from a girl’s point of view of girls; the very idea seems ridiculous.

Why is this? This implicit understanding that boys should read boy books, but girls can read both? If anything, it’s far more of an injustice to boys. Because then they grow up to be men who blanch at the thought of reading anything that wasn’t written by Clive Cussler.

I don’t know any men who like Woolf, for example. (With the exception of my freshman-year English professor, Marc Cohen, who introduced me to the beauty and power of Woolf in the first place.) Woolf is intensely introspective, women-focused, and grounded primarily in the domestic realm. She writes about “feminine” things like wives, flowers, families, and mental illness. But does that mean she’s not as valuable a writer as Ernest Hemingway, who wrote about bulls and battlefields? Hardly. It’s worth noting that men write just as many superficial, cheap novels as women supposedly do. Let’s talk a little bit about Dashiell Hammett and his ilk, shall we?

And what should we say of Marcel Proust, who is just as intensely introspective, women-focused, and domestically centered as Woolf is? He seems to write “like a woman,” but no one dares question his merit or his additions to the Canon. People question Woolf’s contribution to literature all the time. That said, I am gratified by the rise of male artists writing about the mind and the domestic scene, like Jonathan Franzen, but maybe that’s still part of the problem. Franzen gets a lot more attention than his contemporary women writers who are doing the exact same thing. Prose is a huge fan of Deborah Eisenberg, one of Guion’s celebrated professors at UVA. Prose frequently references Eisenberg as an example of a woman writer who writes strong, “stereotypically ‘masculine'” stories and yet still fails to garner much critical attention.

So, what’s the deal? Prose ends her essay with the expected platitude that we cannot judge writers by their sexes; rather, there is good writing and there is bad writing. That is all. I felt a little disappointed. I wanted her to provide a solution to this appalling trajectory of the descent of critically acclaimed female novelists. But she was writing this in 1998. I can’t help but wonder if she feels dejected that, in 2011, we still seem to think that women artists aren’t as deserving of attention, merit, or praise as men artists. (Update: It seems that she is dejected, per her response to V.S. Naipaul’s statement that “no woman is my equal.”)

Clearly, an “affirmative action”-type program is not what we need. Women artists ought not to be unfairly elevated just because they are women. But how do we move ourselves beyond gender stereotypes in art? I guess that’s the unanswerable question. And so I am still frustrated. But at least I’m writing about it.

The Maltese Falcon and hyper-masculine novels

For the church classics book club, we’re reading Dashiell Hammett’s classic detective novel, The Maltese Falcon. I’m not a big fan. I actually roll my eyes at just about everything the protagonists do. For example, take this exchange:

She suddenly moved close to him on the settee and cried angrily: “Can I buy you with my body?”

Their faces were a few inches apart. Spade took her face between his hands and he kissed her mouth roughly and contemptuously. Then he sat back and said: “I’ll think it over.” His face was hard and furious.

Or this one:

Spade’s arms went around her, holding her to him, muscles bulging his blue sleeves, a hand cradling her head, its fingers half lost among red hair, a hand moving groping fingers over her slim back. His eyes burned yellowly.

Um, barf. Most of the book sounds just like this, like it was written by an 11th-grade boy who is trying his hand at noir short stories.

Here we have the detective Sam Spade, 110% American male, fighting the dark forces with his cool masculinity. The dark forces, so far, happen to be embodied by a highly stereotyped man named Joel Cairo, who is usually just called “the Levantine” (had to look it up; old-fashioned term for someone from Israel, Lebanon, or Syria) and is just a prototypical image of the “Arab enemy.” It’s gross. And then we have Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the dame in the quotation above. You can pretty much guess that she’s always sexy and impulsive and pulling wads of cash out of her bra.

Some people like these kinds of novels. My dad, for instance, likes Ayn Rand and Clive Cussler. He’d probably like Dan Brown, too, if he had read him. It’s easy to see why Hollywood also likes these kinds of novels and is always adapting them into film; they read like run-of-the-mill screenplays. Authors like Rand, Cussler, Brown, and yes, Hammett, play into a formula in which one can simply plug in a number of variables–and then, poof! Bestselling novel. Add some grossly overused and stereotypical characters (uber-macho, dangerous man + voluptuous woman in need of rescue) and lots of guns, explosions, sex, and cliff-hanger moments and you’re golden.

Personally, I fundamentally reject the notion that literature can be crafted from such an easy set of variables. There’s a reason why Dashiell Hammett is remembered for basically inventing the detective novel genre, but there’s also a reason why no one remembers him as a great writer. The same goes for Ayn Rand, Clive Cussler, and Dan Brown. They write dramatic page-turners, but they don’t write great literature.

I kind of want someone to prove me wrong, though. Do you know of a novel that fits this general hyper-macho mold that is generally regarded as part of the literary canon? If so, why can it be included and not these others? Hemingway and Steinbeck come to mind as writers of hyper-masculine novels who are considered critical to the American canon. I think the differentiation between them and the crowd of thinly disguised screenwriters is that Hemingway and Steinbeck knew when to avoid a crippling stereotype and craft a deep, meaningful character. Any thoughts? Am I totally off-base in my utter disregard for this novel and those like it?

One true sentence

Hemingway with his Paris coterie

Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast:

I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day. But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand  and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

Oh, to have Hemingway’s confidence. Happy weekend, everyone! It’s going to be a beautiful one here in Charlottesville, which is especially nice, since Guion is performing tomorrow night at 8 p.m. at The Garage. It’s a free show, so if you’re remotely near us, you should definitely come. We’ll feed you if you do.