Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Empress Theodora in the Catskills

On Friday, I'm heading to a cottage in the Catskills, where I plan to spend an isolated week writing. It's an artist's retreat, something I've fantasized about doing ever since I moved to NYC two years ago. A week isn't long enough, of course. I need a month! Two months!! The idea is that I will write 12 hours a day, and during the time I'm not writing, I'll just do a little cooking, go for a swim, take a walk around the lake, then go back to the book.

My creative challenge is to take my personal history and wind it around the histories of my Bad Girls. I want it to feel like a natural weaving, and not like the self-important meanderings of a writer who wants to keep inserting herself into a narrative that has nothing to do with her.

I've already written biographies of my Bad Girls, which will be a tremendous help as I write. You could say that I'll be plagiarizing myself. I've done the research and laid out the stories to my satisfaction. And now as I write my memoir, it's fun to go back and read about the Bad Girls' lives. Here's the opening to Empress Theodora of Constantinople's story:

A beautiful girl steps onto centre stage. She strips off her clothes and stands nude in front of her audience, wearing only a look of bold defiance on her lovely face.
The audience has come from miles around to witness this 16-year-old’s sensational act. But tonight the spectators are unprepared for the sheer force of her personality. They watch, bewitched, as the girl artfully arranges herself in a spread-eagle position on the floor.
A drum sounds. Servants appear from both sides of the stage and sprinkle barley grains over her private parts. The servants retire to the wings, leaving the girl exposed and alone.
She claps her hands. Cages of hungry geese are rolled out onto the stage and released. The audience roars as the geese devour the grains one by one from her young flesh. She laughs, her flexible body twisting with pleasure, until every grain is gone. Then she stands proudly, her eyes impassive, her laughter subsiding to just the trace of a smile. The crowd cheers her wantonness and she takes a bow.
As the rich, fat old men file out of the Hippodrome and return to their comfortable homes in Constantinople, little do they suspect that this shameless whore will one day rule the Eastern Roman Empire.
The girl is Theodora, the year 517 A.D. Fate has decreed that in just a few years she will marry an emperor named Justinian, share his power, find religion and outlaw prostitution.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

My Chest X-Ray Results

What the hell do my chest X-ray results have to do with Bad Girls? Well, smoking's bad for you, and I smoke. That is to say, I used to smoke two cigarettes a day, and now I'm down to five or six cigarettes on the weekend. Except tonight (Thursday), when I plan to smoke one cigarette after dinner.

In other words, I'm a light smoker, but still a smoker in the medical sense. Last month, my doctor gave me a prescription for a chest X-ray, saying that because I've been smoking for such a long time (25 years, gulp), I should see if my lungs are okay.

So I went to the NYU radiology department last week and they took the dorsal and lateral views, I think you call it. When I left the hospital, flouncing past all the old wrinklies in their wheelchairs, there was a bounce in my step as I headed into the morning sunshine beaming down on First Avenue. The air smelled so good!

I felt happy to be alive, and part of my happiness had to do with a physical intuition that I am healthy. And yes, it's true. My doctor's office phoned back this week to say "Your chest X-ray results were normal." In medical speak, "normal" means fabulous, in the pink, robustly immortal!

Now that I know I am indeed going to live forever, as planned, I am full of self-justification for my light smoking habit. What's wrong with a little tobacco? The Indians smoked it and it did them no harm. Smoking is a relaxing and spiritual habit. If you smoke the way I smoke, then smoking is good for you. Just the way a little coffee, a little chocolate and a little alcohol are good for you, according to the latest research.

My Grandma Mil lived to be 96, and she was a light smoker. She officially quit when she was in her 50s, but even after that I remember the stale Kent cigarettes she kept in a pretty little blue-flowered cloisonee box on her coffee table. Every now and then, after a dinner party, Mil would light one up and you could see the pleasure she took from those few little puffs before she crushed out the half-smoked cigarette.

As for me, I keep trying to officially quit. On the days when I don't smoke, I don't miss it. On the days I do, I wonder if I'm really enjoying the cigarette. I roll my own, adding little English filters, and it's the ritual of rolling I enjoy as much as the smoke itself. Plus, I keep hearing the message that "smoking is bad for you," which in this puritanical society makes me want, perversely, to keep indulging my filthy habit.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

What It's Really Like

What it's really like to write a book is something I've been discovering over the past few years. On a good day, I wake up and start to write before I've had my coffee, before I have any awareness of the outside world. I might be deep into making a connection, revising a passage, introducing a new thought--and before I know it, an hour or two has passed. Then I can allow myself a break. Then I do my sit-ups and my stretches, I finally make that coffee and a bite of breakfast, I pet the cats, I kiss my husband good morning, and then I go back to the book. I keep at it for another two or three hours, and when it's over, I feel like I've accomplished something.

I had a day like that on Sunday, when after weeks of struggle, I finally made what felt like a breakthrough. My struggle involves recovery from the first major edit I've received from my literary agents. They are accomplished professionals, very good at what they do--with many published books to prove it--but man oh man, did they ever kick my ass. I've got a lot of rewriting to do. The recent breakthrough revealed itself to me on Sunday morning, when it felt like I had finally found the right tone of voice to tell my story. I was healing from the edits and the writing was stronger for it--that's the beauty of a tough edit. So Sunday was a good day, and when I finally stopped writing, I felt virtuous and peaceful.

But that's a good day. On a bad day, like the Saturday just before that blissful Sunday, I felt like a no-talent wreck, hopelessly dithering about as I tried to tell my very stupid story. I stared at the blank screen and cringed. Why even bother to try to find the words? No one cares about me. I'm a nobody and I've got nothing to say. The words aren't coming out right because my non-story shouldn't be told.

Sorry. Am I boring you? This is the typical writer's lament, isn't it? I know I've read it before in novels, in books about writing, in magazines, in magazines about's always the same lament. But now I know what it really feels like, which is an addiction. On Sunday, life was sunny and bright because I thought I was in control of it, but on Saturday, my addiction showed me who was really in charge. The cycle continues because you keep crawling back to it, convinced that this time you'll win.

All this to explain why my blog has been silent of late. I've been wrestling with my
real writing project, which is the book. The book the book the book. For all my complaining, I can think of no greater honor and privilege than writing a book. And when this one is written and published, I hope to punish myself again by writing and publishing a second one.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Isabelle Eberhardt: Heroic Muslim Male

I haven't told you about Isabelle Eberhardt yet. She's one of my favorite Bad Girls, a dreamy figure who devoted her short life to self-reinvention. A natural vagabond, she went wandering round North Africa in search of spirituality, sex and hashish years before the hippies of the 1960s went there for the same reasons. You could say she died for love of the image she had of herself.

Born in 1877, Isabelle Eberhardt was a Russian Jew who grew up in Switzerland in a community of anarchist nihilists--a fact that suggests the deep waters she swam in from the time she was a baby. She was passionate and troubled as a girl, and madly in love with her brother Augustin, who taught her how to smoke hashish. Her father taught her to ride horses, study languages and theology, and dress as a boy. And as she studied Arabic, history and ancient religions, Isabelle searched for herself, she searched and she searched, and she tried to understand who she was and where she fit in. She poured her anguish into the private well of her journals:

I must learn to feel more deeply, to see better, and especially, more and more, to think.

As her taste for the Middle East developed, she fell in love with a man who would come to rival Augustin's affections. He was Julien Viaud, a French lieutenant with poetic inclinations, a writer twenty-seven years older than she, who adopted the pseudonym Pierre Loti in 1876 and began publishing romantic tales of the Orient. In 1895, when Isabelle was 18, Loti's epic poem Le Désert, detailing his travels via camel from Suez to Gaza, was published in Paris. Its popularity swept across Europe and landed on the doorstep of Isabelle's family home in Geneva, an upright bourgeois town that Isabelle was desperate to abandon.

"Every morning you wake up in a different setting of the vast desert," Loti wrote. "You leave your tent and are surrounded by the splendor of the virginal morning. You stretch your arms and half-naked body in the cold pure air. Out on the sand, you wrap your turban and drape yourself in your white woolen veils. You get drunk on light and space. At the time of waking, you know the heady intoxication of just being able to breathe, just being alive . . .And then off you go, perched atop the ever-moving camel that steadily plods along until nighttime. You go along, go along, go along, and you see in front of you a hairy head decorated with shells and its long neck, cutting the air like the prow of a ship at sea."

Thus began Isabelle's love affair with Loti, and she devoured everything he wrote, including his first novel, Aziyadé, published in 1877, the year Isabelle was born. It's the story of his hero's illicit love for Aziyadé, a Turkish woman he meets while traveling on assignment in her country to pacify and colonize the Turks. Loti writes of the soldier's arrival in Istanbul and visit to a tailor who strips him of his lieutenant’s uniform and outfits him in full Turkish dress: a gold jacket with flowing sleeves, a turban, silver daggers in his belt.

The photo you see below on the left is of Loti himself. You might say, in fact, that the hero of Aziyadé is Loti himself. He slips out the tailor’s back door and into the hidden passageways of Istanbul’s bazaar and mosques, enjoying the disguise that could get him killed if his true identity were to be revealed. Veiled women pass him in the street, and he hears them say that such a handsomely dressed gentleman could only be a white Albanian. “At the end of this trail there waits the love of a Turkish woman, the wife of a Turk, a crazed passion that makes no sense considering our time and place," Loti writes. "You might say that to be capable of such an act, one must be deeply egotistical; I won’t argue with that; but I had begun to think that anything which pleases me must be a good thing and that one must always do one’s best to spice up the dull food of life.”

Here's my theory: Inspired not only by his tale of dangerous Oriental love but by his gift for disguise and self-invention, Isabelle wanted to be Loti. During those precious years of her youth when she wondered who she would become, she visited a photographer's shop and created the self-portrait you're looking at now on the right, Isabelle's Orientalist fantasia of the heroic Muslim male. In my research, I've found no evidence that Isabelle actually saw any pictures of Loti, but the striking similarities of these two images lead me to believe that she did.

And her journal entries after Loti came into her life suggest Loti had just as great an influence on her writing style. Here's a passage from Isabelle: "I detest cultivated green country full of crops. Why do I have this morbid craving for a barren land and desert wastes? Why do I prefer nomads to villagers, beggars to rich people? Aie yie yie! For me, unhappiness is a sort of spice."

Two years after reading Le Désert, Isabelle traveled to Algeria and converted to Islam, renamed herself Si Mahmoud (why not? Loti had renamed himself), dressed every day as an Arab male, and with a great sense of purpose lived like a man, especially after her initiation into the Kadriya brotherhood of Sufis. Si Mahmoud married a spahi soldier--Slimène, an Algerian man who served under the French military--and spent the rest of her (his?) life obsessed with the Sahara Desert, riding horseback over the sand dunes and coming to know the lives of villagers and nomads.

Slimène tried to make a home for them, but Si Mahmoud was restless and often preferred to live among the soldiers of the Foreign Legion. She would prowl around at night, have sex with the Arabic boys who took her fancy, smoke kif, and drink absinthe, kummel, chartreuse and cognac until she passed out on the floor of whatever random café she was drinking in. It was Isabelle Eberhardt's ambition to be a great writer, and while she did keep journals and serve as a war correspondent for the El Akhbar newspaper in the Sud Oranais, Isabelle never got very far with her ambitions. She died in a freak flood in the desert in 1904 when she was twenty-seven.