The Oblivion Seekers by Isabelle Eberhardt
I recently reread this tiny collection of stories by Isabelle Eberhardt, published by the great independent publisher, City Lights Books (click here to visit) . I originally read it in my mid-twenties when going through a massive Paul (primarily his short fiction) and Jane Bowles phase which culminated in my reading other authors Paul Bowles had translated, Eberhardt being one of them.
They are visual, often emotional depictions of Arabic men and women living mostly on the fringes of society. They are spare, even slight, stories and yet a whole world is created in thier confines.
But reading her brings up a few questions I had in my late twenties and find myself still pondering; what is the value of a minor work by a fairly obscure writer? Eberhardt, also, was very much known for her eccentric personality -she was a Swiss born woman who dressed like an Arab man and led an intinerant lifestyle–and she died woefully young, which people find intriguing, at age 27. When does a person’s life overshadow his/her work?
I often asked myself the same questions about Jean Rhys, a writer with whom I was much more intensely engaged (and wrote about briefly here). Her life and work were largely seen as the same thing to me (disregarding Wide Sargasso Sea) and I truly romantized everything about her- her hard drinking, her financial troubles, her troubles with men. I imagined myself, drunk and chain smoking, in a drab green hotel room in Paris. But during all this silly identifying and romantizing, was the value of the work being obscured?
Now that publications are diversifying and specializing and small presses increase daily in number and the internet makes putting out ebooks something to do, perhaps the idea of “value” matters more than ever. Or maybe, it makes value less important than ever.
My opinion on the matter was made up long ago, long before everyone had a computer and the internet pervaded our lives. I was revisiting Jean Rhys on some occasion in my early thirties (or thereabouts) and I thought to myself; she has a small gift in comparison to say, the grand, ambitions and tomes of Thomas Pynchon or Richard Powers, but it’s a beautiful gift nontheless. Just as a small, nearly flawless ruby can shine so much brighter than a large, gaudy diamond ring, rife with inclusions. This is not to say one is better than the other, but both have their appropriate moments and uses. And while the absolute value of the diamond ring may be more, the emotional attachment to the ruby can be much stronger.
On that note, I’ll end with a paragraph from the story “Achoura” from The Oblivion Seekers:
Like all the women of her region, Achoura considered the sale of her body the only escape from want that was available to a woman. She had no desire to be cloistered again by marriage, nor was she ashamed to be what she was. To her prostitution seemed legitimate, and did not interfere with her love for her favorite. Indeed, it never occurred to her to associate in her mind the indescribable bliss they knew together with what she called, using the cynical sabir word, coummerce.