The colonial officials suspected she was a spy. Meanwhile, she bought a horse and headed off to explore the desert. On her travels she befriended other Muslims in the area including a young Algerian soldier named Sliman Ehnni, who would become her one great love. Under her male name she joined the Qadriya, a secretive Sufi brotherhood that exercised considerable power over unconquered desert tribes.
She subsequently became more openly political, writing articles and stories celebrating North African Arab culture and protesting the French colonial administration. This attracted further unwanted attention, now from rival religious cults as well as the government. Once she recovered, Eberhardt was ordered out of French North Africa, so she was forced to head to Marseilles.
With luck, Sliman was able to join her and the two were married.
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In , the couple returned to Algeria. They were destitute, but they experienced a few months of peaceful happiness there. It would not last, more challenges, risk and adventure awaited. However, by , hard living, recurring illness, and probable syphilis began to take its toll. They enjoyed one last night together before a flash flood collapsed the mud hut they were staying in. Isabelle did not survive. She was twenty-seven years old.
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At heart, writing was the only career Eberhardt had ever truly desired. Sadly, much of her work was destroyed in the flood that claimed her life, but several posthumous collections of her stories were published. And her incredible, unconventional life inspired a biography by Welsh author and explorer, Cecily Mackworth, which drew the attention of Paul Bowles, an ideal translator for the adventurous young writer if there ever was one.
The Oblivion Seekers gathers eleven short prose pieces, a brief travel diary, and a defiant letter to the editor in which Eberhardt defends her life among the Arab population. The stories read like parables, feature primarily Muslim characters, and sensual, vivid descriptions of the North African landscape. Yet there is very little sentimentality here; the tone is measured and controlled.
Her characters are typically independent spirits, either restless or unwilling to be bound to the life that is expected of them. Under the fragrant flowers of the Judas tree in his garden he looks at his sleeping lover:. Already she was no more than a vaporous vision, something without consistence that would soon be absorbed by the clear moonlight.
Her image was indistinct, very far away, scarcely visible. Then the vagrant, who still loved her, understood that at dawn he would be leaving, and his heart grew heavy. He took one of the big flowers of the spicy camphor tree and pressed it to his lips to stifle a sob. The Rival. They reflect her deep connection to Arab populations of North Africa and mark her early contribution to a decolonial narrative.
She is not a voyeur, her affections are honest, not romanticized. She describes the patrons, the wanderers and the regular kif-smokers and the course of a typical evening:. The seekers of oblivion sing and clap their hands lazily; their dream-voices ring out late into the night, in the dim light of the mica-paned lantern. Then little by little the voices fall, grow muffled, the words are slower. Finally the smokers are quiet, and merely stare at the flowers in ecstasy. They are epicureans, voluptuaries; perhaps they are sages.
The Oblivion Seekers. Her life was marked hardship and poverty, mixed with turns of good fortune and great passion, but through it all she retained a self-contained humility and it is this quality that comes through in her prose. Wise words still. An edition is also available from Peter Owen. I once had a job that entailed, as part of my regular duties, selecting an inspirational quote from a directory and changing a roadside sign, usually standing in the dark, in the beam of the headlights of my car, sliding the plastic letters onto a ridged board. The motley selection of letters on hand limited the choice of sayings, but one of my favourites was:.
A person who is all wrapped up in themselves makes a very small package. Poor Nadia. The tension is immediate and sustained. Nadia and her husband Ange are middle-aged school teachers in Bordeaux. Theirs is a life of smug, self-righteous isolation. They delight in their moral superiority, their cultured good taste and ostentatious frugality; they appreciate quality and reject base, popular forms of entertainment, including television. They select their few friends carefully, while judging anyone who offends their delicate sensibilities to be beneath contempt.
But something is threatening that bliss, something dark and insidious. The couple, afraid to acknowledge it, share the sensation that they have become the object of a simmering hostility in their community. Once admired, they cannot imagine what they could have done to warrant this growing contempt. He refuses treatment and retreats to his room. As an aura of disease and decay spreads from his bedside, threatening to overwhelm the entire apartment, Nadia fights to save him amid the waves of concern, fear, and disgust that appear to be driving a wedge between them.
Aggravating the divide is the presence of a disheveled and despised angel of mercy—their downstairs neighbour, a certain Monsieur Noget. Nadia is torn between her distrust of this stranger—whom everyone else seems to insist is a famous author—and the irresistible temptations of the glorious, fat-laden meals he prepares daily.
The very fabric of reality seems altered, threatening her rational self-control, but she is determined to push her anxieties aside. She arrives home in a state of shock:. My knees buckle. I collapse in the doorway. I must lie prostrate like that for some time half conscious because I can hear all sorts of sounds from the kitchen or bedroom, the scuff of slippered feet, the whistle of a tea kettle, the clink of silverware , unable to move or speak but somehow resigned, blithely or indifferently accepting my powerlessness, as in a dream.
How tedious, I think calmly, unsure what my mind means by that complaint.
I desperately want to stand up, but my will seems to have parted ways with my mind, which is serenely registering the various sounds coming to it from the building or the apartment as my soul bleeds and moans. Over the weeks that follow, Noget continues his patient vigil. He forces his luxurious fat-laden food on both husband and wife, but while Ange continues to waste away, Nadia rapidly expands beyond the capacity of her clothing. Eventually, her efforts to save her husband—and salvage her own dignity—drive her to attempt to reconnect with her estranged son.
This will bring her into contact with her ex-husband and the vestiges of a life she was once desperate to escape. Was she so unhappy? As her distress at the disorienting disruption to her previously ordered existence mounts, Nadia finds little sympathy. She does not want to hear that. Her pride is virtually indissoluble. She clings to it as if it is the only quality that gives her being—her tortured soul—substance.
Even as her surroundings seem to conspire against her, her defiance grows with her confusion and paranoia.
She will not question her sanity. Nor does she accept any responsibility. After all, she insists, she has done nothing wrong, nothing to deserve this bizarre, brutal turn of events. She is determined to hold, in Ange, a mirror of her own soul. She cannot bear the possibility that it could be her own arrogance and stubborn self-regard that corrupted him. It is where we begin to see the fissures in her psyche that are spreading and threatening to fracture any equilibrium she is able to hold on to:.
Why should I be so convinced that everything I see has some direct connection to me? But now I find Bordeaux slipping away from me, enigmatically shunning my friendship, its streets seemingly changing their look and direction is it only the fog? Nadia is a complex, troubled protagonist. She cannot fathom what it is that others see in her face, but knows she is somehow marked.
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It is not easy to feel sorry for her. She demonstrates a disturbing inability to distinguish between what is legally right and what is morally decent, refusing to acknowledge the extent of the heartlessness she has shown to others. And she is so completely self-absorbed, so willfully disconnected from ordinary human engagement, that the cost of the isolation she once craved comes as a cruel shock.
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Half-heartedly hoping to save Ange, and weighed down by the sense that her beloved Bordeaux, now contorted and encased in terminal fog, has rejected her, Nadia sets off to visit her adult son, now a married doctor living far away. She hopes she will be able to regain some stability, but the surreal, grotesque occurrences follow her. Haunted by losses and regrets, Nadia becomes increasingly unhinged and fragile as her sense of herself, and her place in the world, slowly unravels.
With My Heart Hemmed In , one is invited to read and through the observations and interpretations of a myopic, damaged, and yet fundamentally recognizable narrator. She is at once frustrating and tragic. There is, after all, a little Nadia in all of us.
Related Oeuvres de Isabelle Eberhardt (French Edition)
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