One of the most extraordinary reactions to The Sheltering Sky was that of the first publisher to receive the novel. Unbelievably Doubleday, who had commissioned it in the first place, "unhesitatingly rejected it". As Michael Hofmann notes in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, the publisher justified its response on the grounds that it had asked for a novel. Consequently the book was first published in London in 1949 (by John Lehmann).
The response from the American public and critics (including Tennessee Williams) was enthusiastic from the start. The novel was selected by the Book of the Month Club, spending 11 weeks on the US bestseller lists. The first American paperback print-run was for 200,000 copies. It's popularity endured: four decades after it was published, The Sheltering Sky was made into an award-winning film by Bernardo Bertolucci.
The Sheltering Sky is at one level a first rate adventure story, a travel horror belonging on the same shelf as Alex Garland's The Beach and Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers. It is a straightforward A to B odyssey with, as Hofmann puts it, "lurid extremes, shocks and fatalities" to keep the reader entertained along the way. However, it is a good deal more complex than that. The Sheltering Sky also takes us on a spiritual journey into the heart of darkness, like Joseph Conrad's famous novel. It is a daring foray into the most shadowy and least confronted aspects of the human condition. Paul Bowles steadily scratches away the familiar and shiny modern veneer to reveal an ugly – but thriving – primitive self. This is a self that abandons a husband of ten years to a solitary and painful death, and accepts – even welcomes – rape by strangers. What is so devastating about Kit's behaviour is not that it is shocking but that it is both shocking and plausible. Powerful stuff.
Paul Bowles's ability to wield language with the skill of a hypnotist adds to the novel's intoxicating power. The physicality of his descriptions lend the book an intense and stiflingly real atmosphere. There is also the striking juxaposition of moments of pure comedy reminisicent of Noel Coward (exit hungover wife's half-dressed lover stage left, enter wife's guilty husband stage right) with moments of pure Kafka-esque horrror: a dog with the limbs of a dead infant in his mouth.
Part of the novel's power lies in its intensely claustrophobic quality. In its review of The Sheltering Sky, Time magazine criticises the novel for its poor characterization: "Both Port and Kit are neurotic intellectual playchildren so short on real character and appeal that they seem hardly worth saving." But for Hofmann – and this reader – the fact there is nothing in the novel beyond an incredibly strong sense of place is precisely what makes it so powerful. There is no mention of other places, times or relationships. We are given no glimpse of the characters' lives outside of the present, beyond the desert. As Hofmann puts it, "our roads out of the story, into other times and places, are all blocked off." It is this that allows readers to share in the claustrophobia experienced by Kit, making what Tennessee Williams refers to as her "moral nihilism" so horrifyingly plausible.
"a first rate story of adventure by a really first-rate writer" - Tenessee Williams, New York Times 4 December 1949
"a remarkable job of writing, with a craftsmanship that makes it the most interesting first novel to come from a U.S. writer this year" - Time 5 December 1949
"a phenomenon...a work of fiction which happens also to be a work of art...language of mesmerizing power" - Gay Firth, The Times 20 August 1981