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Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky


Some years ago, the British film director (and wonderful friend and collaborator) Nicolas Roeg gave me a book and told me, “Read this, it will change your life.”

I had no idea what to expect – except that with Nic, I trusted that he knew what he was talking about.  I went home and read the book, Paul Bowles’ magnificent novel, The Sheltering Sky, set in Morocco and first published in 1949, and indeed it both woke me up, psychologically and emotionally, and changed the way I thought about things.

The novel is set in Morocco, where American-born composer and writer Bowles lived for most of his life, and among its other effects, The Sheltering Sky made me fall in love with the country, too.  Marrakesh became one of my favorite cities in the world (I still dream of its exquisite architecture, its wonderful people and its unforgettable desert beauty) and the drive from there to the Sahara through the Atlas Mountains is still one of the most memorable and remarkable journeys I have ever made.  To touch snow in the Atlas Mountains on the same day that you ride a camel up a Saharan sand dune is to know how extraordinary our world is.

Recently I mentioned to a friend, Lisa Anderson, my favorite passage from the book – which literally made me sit up and think differently about life, so startling are the words.  Lisa, who also found it remarkable, was kind enough to look it up and email it to me, so here it is.  Please read it, and read the whole of The Sheltering Sky.

Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1990 movie of the book captures some of its mystery, but nothing can compare with reading Paul Bowles’ masterpiece.  (His short stories are also probably the best I have ever read.)

"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, we get to think
of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of
times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you
remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's 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. How many more
times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all
seems limitless."
- Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky)



  1. What a wonderful quote. Someone asked me a few days ago why I wanted to do something different with the rest of my life and I said it was because I'm not here for long. He thought that was morbid, but I thought it was quite sensible!

  2. Thank you, I have always thought it the most extraordinary quote, and not morbid at all. People who use the word "morbid" are, I suspect, not at one with the idea of death. We may be eternal in one sense but our individual experience of life is quite brief. It helps us to appreciate each moment when we value each moment, in my opinion!


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