I went crazy in Istanbul. I know that I went crazy, because there is an entry in my journal, sparsely kept, that reads “I hated Istanbul. I think this is where I began to mentally disintegrate.” However, I broke that cardinal rule of good story telling; rather than SHOWING that I went crazy, I merely TOLD myself that I went crazy. Like, “Went to the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, then gambling, then crazy.” Now, truthfully, I do remember some of the details. But like many memories, and maybe in particular those of psychotic breaks, much of it is lost to the passage of time and the power of repression. It was almost 15 years ago now.
In order to jog my memory – which I wanted to do for the sake of writing, and not just remembrance alone – I decided to re-read The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. Because it contains what must be one of the most stellar female-crack-ups-of-an-American-woman-abroad, ever. Kit Moresby looses her shit in the Sahara, and never, ever gets it back.
The book is, I hate to say, existential. There’s no getting around it. But as Tenesssee Williams points out in his original review in 1949, don’t let that stop you from reading it, it’s also a ripping good yarn! Albeit one that will really fuck with your head.
What I remembered about the book from my first reading this: three incredibly self-absorbed Americans set out for the Sahara in search of something meaningful, and that gradually, they are undone by the vastness of the landscape combined with their own nihilism. Which is true, sort of. And is why I really didn’t want to re-read it. Because I was worried that while I might have suffered nihilism in my twenties, I would have little patience for it in my thirties. Could I really give a care about three rich, self-indulgent post-war brats – again?
What is so stunning about The Sheltering Sky is that one is not asked to sympathize with the characters. Bowles is plainly ruthless in his characterization, so that the reader needn’t be emotionally invested in them, just fascinated by them. And who can help but be fascinated as Port and Kit, the married couple at the center of the story, by turns take actions more and more incredulous and illogical.
The first time I read the book, I finished it in one of those marathon reading sessions on the old green velvet couch in the apartment on Summit Avenue. Back in the days when I could devote a good six hour stretch to the last 200 pages of a novel. I remember being unable to tear myself away as first, the protagonist was killed off (what?! who does that?) and then, Kit gave herself over to a sort of catatonic voluntary victimization that frankly blew my mind. I remember a sort of blinking, fuzzy post-reading state of “well, I certainly didn’t see that coming.”
Upon re-reading, I knew what was coming, and felt more able to … enjoy would be the wrong word; more able to appreciate Kit’s spin into madness, acutely aware of the distance between her madness and my own unhinging so many years ago. Early in the book, Port makes a distinction between travelers and tourists, identifying with the former. It was the same distinction backpackers and wanderers made in the nineties when I was abroad. Port defines it partly as a question of time “tourists generally hurry home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than the next, moves slowly over periods of years”. To me it always seemed the difference was that a tourist was interesting in seeing places, things, sites; whereas the traveler was interested in the acquisition of experience, wherever that may take them. Bowles’ pushes his characters to places wholly new – death, madness – from which there is no return itinerary.
As I finished the novel this time, it was with a sense of relief. Kit wanders off into the streets of Algiers, I drift through the rooms of my sleeping children. I attend to small bed-time rituals, turning off night-lights and radios – my children, like myself, fear both absolute darkness and silence. It is a long time since the traffic and crowds of Istanbul, and I am still dipping in and out of crazy like a tourist. But here I am – mother, single mother – ever forward, onward. There is no returning in life, only passage through.