The Nomad – Isabelle Eberhardt

Yes, I did put my book in a flower pot. Thanks for noticing.

The sickness is finally over, but was given additional oomph when it left, as I worked an eight-day-long event with over a hundred thousand(!) people and many of those people were sick. There was much hand washing and coughing and wheezing and me wincing.

Anyway, to the book!

This week’s book was The Nomad: The Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt. Like most of the books on my to-read list, I had been looking forward to this one. Ms. Eberhardt was a fascinating woman–bastard daughter of an anarchist scholar and artisocrat Russian, multi-lingual (Arabic, Russian, and I can’t remember what else), she became obsessed with North Africa and began touring through it often dressed as a man. She survived an assassination attempt, had multiple lovers (absolutely shocking in the late 1800s), was actively, passionately Muslim, and constantly on the road (sometimes by choice, sometimes by force). She died in 1904 at the age of 27, drowned in a freak flash flood in the desert.

She sounded amazing.


(Yes, there’s always a “but.”)

…the book was disappointing.

Written from her early twenties to the time of her death, the collection of her diaries was repetitive. Not in her adventures–those were unique–but in her thoughts. Honestly, it was like reading the diaries of what you would expect from an emo teen.

She was obsessed with men, with love, with finding the “right guy.” Huge swathes of her book are devoted to men she does not name (example passage below) or her all-consuming, “one-of-a-kind” love for her husband.

“Time will tell whether I have been perceptive, whether I have seen him as he really is, or whether I have made another mistake. I will not swear to anything, but nothing has given me reason for suspicion, even though I have become terribly, incurably wary. If he is but another dissembler and a sham… that will be the end of it once and for all, for if what I hold to be pure turns out to have a hidden blemish, if was looks to me like true beauty masks the usual horror, if the light I take to be a beneficial star showing me the way or a beacon in life’s black maze is but a trick meant to lead wayfarers astray–if so, what can I expect after that?”

It’s just so… blaaaaaagh. This amazing woman, full of wanderlust and unconventional activities, is just another Hot Topic shopper.

“I shall always cherish the memory of these past few days spent in greater happiness for they are moments stolen from life’s hopelessness, so many hours snatched from the void.”

I mean, what is that? How many layers thick is her eyeliner and how many Fall Out Boy concerts has she attended?

And you’d think that, you know, she’s young. She’ll get over it. WRONG. Four years later, the last entry before her surprising death (at 27, mind you):

“Many other corners of the African continent still hold me in their spell. Soon, the solitary, woeful figure that I am will vanish from this earth, where I have always been a spectator, and outsider among men.”

It just kills me a little.

Maybe it’s because I have similar gloomy journal entries in my past and I can’t stand the reminder, but… those were from my teens. This woman was roaming Africa, usually by herself, cross-dressing, attending Muslim ceremonies, joining a “secret” Muslim group, writing agitating articles (and occasionally selling them), dodging a would-be assassin… and her diaries read like this. Ugh.

About her husband, Slimene:

“Slimene, Slimene! I do not think I have ever loved him so purely and deeply as I do now, and if God wants to take him from me, let His will be done. After that I will undertake to go where there is fighting in the southwest and seek out death, proclaiming that there is no god but God and Muhammad is his Prophet. That is the only death worthy of me and of the man I love. Any attempt to make a new life for myself would be in vain, and criminal as well. It would be an insult.”

On her constant “I’m going to do this thing and actually write something” tangents:

“My literary bent is stirring, and I shall try to make a name for myself in the Algerian press at least, while waiting for the opportunity to do the same in Paris. To do all this, I will have to have total peace and quiet for a while, almost to the point of seclusion. In Algiers, I shall have to find someone capable of teaching Slimene what he doesn’t know, which is a major task.”

The book is filled with her writing about how she’s going to be writing and getting her career moving. Over and over. Year after year. And yet… very little actually gets done. She also, as you might have noted, thinks highly of her education and intellect. Usually it is to rail against the masses, but occasionally will descend on her husband, Slimene, as in the passage above.

She also references her “gestation” at least once a year. No, she’s not pregnant in the book (at least that she writes about). It’s more of a sudden mental growth. A coming-out-of-the-cocoon deal. She talks of how she can feel herself “growing” and becoming more. Not that you ever see the results which, again, grated.

“I am going through another slow period of gestation, which can be quite painful at times. I am beginning to understand the character of the two people, Barrucand and Mme ben Aben, who have helped us here, both of them good people and very tactful. Barrucand, a dilettante in matters of thought and in particular of sensations, and a moral nihilist, is, however, a man who is very positive, and knows how to live. Mme ben Abe is the second woman I have known after my mother who is good to the core, and enamored with ideals. Yet in real life, how ignorant the two women are!”

What’s funny is that I marked certain pages to pull out particular passages, but opening to almost any page will find quotes that echo things I have complained about in this blog. I didn’t need to mark anything at all.

Other failings…

Isabelle was addicted not only to men, but various drugs (mostly hashish, but others enter the picture) and was a total alcoholic, prone to rages and destroying things when under the influence. She had no ability to save money or make reasoned judgments. She was constantly living in extreme poverty because of life circumstances and poor choices, as well as a lack of follow-through.

In reading this, there was nothing admirable about her, which bothered me because I really, really wanted to like her. I wanted to see Africa through her eyes, but most of what I saw was her judging others harshly, being desperate for love (and often food), making absolutely horrible decisions, searching for hashish, and attempting to borrow money. While there was some travel in this purported travelogue, there was little attention to the travel itself, or the people she encountered, except in her negative opinions of them.

I know this is all quite harsh, which is possibly due to my disappointment in the book, but the writing is (as you may have noted above) atrocious in content and overly dramatic. It’s draining to read, the sort of emotional experience one could have in modern times by stealing a teenage goth girl’s diary. (This is no slander on teenage goth girls–after all, I was one.)

Join me next time for Freya Stark’s Baghdad Sketches, which I am looking forward to even more than I was looking forward to The Nomad and have high hopes. (Which could mean an even bitchier blog if they aren’t even somewhat met. Yikes.)