In the 1960s, writers like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson started what became known as the Gonzo style of journalism, in which writers used a combination of writing techniques and self-immersion in their subjects to create a bold new form of writing. Isabelle Eberhardt did it too, only more than five decades earlier. Long before T. E. Lawrence dressed in Turkish drag to run intelligence during the Great War, the Swiss-born Eberhardt went undercover into Islamic society in North Africa to study the language and culture. She eventually became a Sufi practitioner, and become not only one of the first Europeans to write about twentieth-century Muslim life, but also a proto feminist-anarchist writer.
Translated from the French, “Writings From the Sand” collects and restores a hundred of Eberhardt’s essays and journal entries, re-edited from later adaptations and abridgments. The book is not only more complete and accurate than previous editions, but features a much stronger translation. Earlier small-press editions suffered from vague interpretations that hindered both her voice and message; for example in her short piece “Reflections in a Courtyard,” an earlier collection had the author “feeling at ease” as she enters “their midst”; this edition has her feel “no discomfort” as she enters “their home.”
The writings themselves are fascinating, coming from both a world and a perspective that is left largely unexplored and unremarked upon today. Though at times Eberhardt’s continental tendencies to invoke colonial attitudes surface, given the culture and time period she had emerged from she is still remarkably progressive and cognizant in her perceptions and analysis of life in pre-World War I North Africa. Perhaps most importantly, this new re-edited translation offers readers the full unmitigated beauty of her writing style, which marries the verve of poetry to the strength of prose: “From all this greenery, from all of yesterday’s budding riches, spread out for a few days under the sky that will soon be leaden and stop smiling for months and months, rises an intoxicating medley of perfume, a languid hot scent.” (Greg Baldino)
“Writings From the Sand, Volume 1: Collected Works of Isabelle Eberhardt”
By Isabelle Eberhardt, translated by Karen Melissa Marcus
University of Nebraska Press, 600 pages, $40