When the Swiss-Russian writer and explorer Isabelle Eberhardt died in the Algerian Sahara in 1904, she was physically ravaged. She was only twenty-seven, but heavy smoking, drinking, and drug use had taken their toll, as had poor nourishment. On her travels she’d carried a gun, but not a toothbrush, and so she had lost her teeth. She suffered from malaria and possibly syphilis, and just before her death had spent weeks hospitalized with fever. An assassination attempt a few years earlier, when a religious enemy attacked Eberhardt with a sword, had nearly severed her arm and left her in constant pain. Despite her youth, her body could no longer carry on. Her strange and brilliant mind, though, was immortalized by the travelogues, journalism, and fiction she left behind. “No one ever lived more from day to day than I, or was more dependent upon chance,” Eberhardt wrote shortly before her death. “It is the inescapable chain of events that has brought me to this point, rather than I who have caused things to happen.”
A devotee of Islam and a Sufi initiate, Eberhardt repeatedly invoked the principle of mektoub: it is written. It was an all-purpose fatalism that allowed her to accept heartache, since it was, in her words, “totally useless and absurd” to rebel against sorrow. She rebelled against nearly everything else. She had innumerable erotic encounters with young Arab men (“God made me sensual”) and gave free rein to the wanderlust that took her, in male guise, across the desert plains of North Africa. With preternatural boldness, she cast off all strictures—sartorial, behavioral, and sexual—associated with turn-of-the-century womanhood. Her early French biographer Claude-Maurice Robert marveled that she “drank more than a Légionnaire, smoked more kif than a hashish addict, and made love for the love of making love.”
Eberhardt’s roots were cosmopolitan, tangled, and romantic. According to some accounts, her mother, Nathalie, was the result of a liaison between a fraulein Eberhardt and a wealthy Russian Jew. Eberhardt’s biographer Annette Kobak, however, describes blonde, elegant Nathalie as the legitimate scion of an aristocratic Prussian family in Moscow. Regardless of her lineage, Nathalie made a good marriage to Senator-General Pavel de Moerder, a senior adviser to the tsar. They had three children, two boys and a girl, for whom a tutor was engaged. This rather mundane development turned momentous. The household’s new member, a dark-bearded Armenian named Alexander Trophimowsky, was a defrocked priest, an anarchist associate of Mikhail Bakunin and Tolstoy, and irresistibly attractive. Barely a year passed before Nathalie ran away to Switzerland with the tutor, who was also married, and her children. After nine months another son, Augustin, arrived. Isabelle Wilhelmine Marie Eberhardt followed five years later. She was registered as the fille naturelle—illegitimate daughter—of Nathalie.
Though Trophimowsky was almost certainly her father, Eberhardt grew up calling him by his nickname, Vava. As an adult, she enjoyed weaving stories around her ambiguous parentage. Her real father, she once claimed, was a doctor who raped her mother. More often, to bolster her adopted Islamic identity, she referred to her father as a Tatar Muslim. In one fanciful theory, advanced by Arthur Rimbaud’s biographer Pierre Arnoult long after Eberhardt’s death, she was the daughter of the idolized French poet. The evidence, including the eighteen-year-old Rimbaud’s presence in Geneva when Eberhardt was conceived, is wholly circumstantial. Still, it makes for a compelling piece of apocrypha. The two writers, who both fled repressive bourgeois Europe for the stirring atmosphere of Africa, had a passing facial resemblance and shared a restless, visionary, live-fast-die-young spirit. At sixteen, Rimbaud declared, “I’m now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet … The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering.” Eberhardt’s diary from when she was twenty-two contains a similar sentiment:
I assume for the gallery the borrowed mask of the cynic, the debauched layabout. No one yet has managed to see through to my real inner self, which is sensitive and pure and which rises above the degrading baseness I choose to wallow in, out of contempt for convention and also out of a strange desire to suffer.
Being the secret offspring of a canonized literary rebel who slept with both men and women, devoured opium and absinthe, and pioneered new poetic forms would have appealed to Eberhardt. But whether or not she shared his genes, it was Trophimowsky who wielded the most decisive influence.
The runaway family lived in the Villa Neuve, a large house in the countryside outside Geneva, set on four and a half verdant acres surrounded by pine trees. Eberhardt, according to neighbors, would “dance about like a little wild animal along the garden paths. Untamed and unfettered, she did whatever took her fancy from morning to night. Her fantasies knew no bounds.” The children were taught at home by Trophimowsky, whose anarchist principles dictated that boys and girls alike should be intellectually nurtured. Along with an eclectic program of reading that included Voltaire, Plato, Turgenev, and Zola, Trophimowsky taught Eberhardt—who grew up bilingual in French and Russian—Latin, Italian, and Arabic.
By age sixteen, Eberhardt could read the Koran in Arabic, and was already feeling the magnetic draw of faraway lands. Spellbound by the novels of Pierre Loti and their evocative fictionalizing of his travels in “the Orient,” she set her heart on going to North Africa. It was a place, she wrote, that exerted “an extraordinary attraction” before she’d ever seen it. Her short story Visions of the Maghreb, written when she was eighteen and still living in Switzerland, is an eerily precise projection of Eberhardt’s future. Published under a male pseudonym in the French journal Nouvelle Revue Moderne (whose contributors also included Loti and Rimbaud’s erstwhile boyfriend Paul Verlaine), this precocious, atmospheric tale depicts a young Russian woman’s encounters with Halim, an Islamic mystic in Algeria. Its portrayal of Halim could be of the author herself a couple of years hence:
Of medium height, his slenderness seemed almost feminine beneath the wrapping of his coarse clothing typical of a man of the people … He sat down near the fire across from me, and in its rekindled glimmer, I saw his pale face, almost unreal in its beauty, with dark eyes that seemed illuminated from the interior by a mystical flame beneath the perfect arch of his black eyebrows.
Eberhardt’s cross-dressing began under Trophimowsky’s scholastic regime, where girls were expected to perform physical as well as intellectual labor. At his behest, Eberhardt had short hair and wore boys’ clothing, all the more practical for chopping wood, gardening, and riding horses. In her late teens, when she was old enough to wander Geneva by herself, Trophimowsky allowed her to do so only if she wore trousers. She had a dalliance with a married man she met in the city, a “sensualist” like herself named Charles Schwarz. On one of their dates, Eberhardt was drunk and dressed as a sailor. Schwarz bet her that she wouldn’t dare embrace him in public. But, as she delightedly relayed to her brother Augustin, she called his bluff. They kissed at length while sitting in a drugstore. This type of homoerotic role-playing, a recurrent theme of Eberhardt’s sexual escapades, is the animating force of her only novel, Vagabond.
Drawing on Eberhardt’s experiences as well as those of Augustin, Vagabond is a bildungsroman that charts the determination of a young Russian, Dimitri Orschanow, to maintain the freedom he adores. At the beginning of the novel, Orschanow, a medical student, falls in love with Vera, a clever and thoughtful political activist. But the normal life that stretches before him—marriage, children, a respectable career as a doctor—cannot compete in his imagination with the alternative:
To become a free vagabond sleeping on the side of the road, someone who possesses nothing and envies no one, someone at odds with neither himself nor with his fellow men, but happy in his independence, master of things, not dominated by them, and master above all of the infinite horizons.
Orschanow indulges his “love of the bewitching elsewhere.” Abandoning the devoted Vera, he goes to seek a life of proletarian simplicity, liberated from domestication, sameness, and middle-class convention. It is a beautifully written, highly idealized fantasy. Yet the novel’s exaltation of nomadism, and its philosophical rejection of ambition and materialism, is as thought provoking today as it was a hundred years ago. “A subject to which intellectuals never give a thought,” wrote Eberhardt in a notebook, “is the right to be a vagrant, the freedom to wander. Yet vagrancy is deliverance, and life on the open road is the essence of freedom.”
At around the age of twenty-one, Eberhardt began to travel around the Maghreb dressed as a young Arab or Turkish man. She would introduce herself as Si Mahmoud Saadi. If her biological sex was evident to some, Arab codes of courtesy meant that she wasn’t challenged