I approach biographies of my favourite writers with some trepidation, more so when the writer in question has already told her story in her own words. But when I heard that the life of Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch (1909-1999) had been told in fictional form — and that too in the first person — my doubts were leavened by curiosity: how would the precision of EdV’s words be captured in a novel, and that too in English, a language in which she is little known, if at all?
Her own recollections were published in a long interview she gave at the end of her life; the aspects of her experience she chose to divulge were evidently determined by the agenda of the interviewers, which was to chronicle the career of a scholar who presented a positive image (the other face) of Islam to the West for nearly half a century. There is no attempt there at the confessional. Events of crisis (the Second World War), grief (the early and tragic death of her husband) and discovery (her conversion to Islam) are calmly narrated; unlike many scholars, she did not write multiple accounts of her life or even present herself as anything but a modest interpreter of the metaphysics of others.
What, then, does the quiet life of this translator dedicated to rendering the works of two major poets (Allama Muhammad Iqbal and Maulana Rumi) in her mother tongue (French) have to offer the Anglophone reader? Unlike Annemarie Schimmel, EdV did not write copious commentaries on various aspects of Islam and Sufism; she mostly concentrated on writing succinct and elegant prefaces and introductions to the works that she — and others — translated. (These were only collected in book form after her death.) Her doctoral thesis on Rumi and mysticism, published as a book, has never found a place in the already over-subscribed world of Rumi studies in English.
After her conversion, there were significant journeys: Haj; a stint teaching in Cairo; visits to Iran and Pakistan; and finally, late in life, pilgrimage to Morocco to visit a Sufi dervish master, Sidi Hamza, who became her guide. Her intensely inward life offers no sensational episodes to the biographer or the novelist.
However, the author of Ink of Light, Katharine Branning, is also a Western Muslim and probably sees EdV as a predecessor and mirror. So her novel is also a story of Islam and the West, particularly relevant for a Pakistani reader as EdV’s pathway to Sufism came from her early exposure to Iqbal’s English writings, which she translated. (It was through Iqbal that she discovered Rumi.)
In many ways, Branning’s documentary novel is an embellished translation of EdV’s interviews, drawing its power from her spoken and written words, but attempting at times to amplify events EdV chose to touch upon lightly and leave behind.
EdV was in her early 40s when she read Iqbal’s The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. As she was to recount on various occasions, this encounter with this philosopher of her own century (dead only a few years then) introduced her to a culture and religion of which she had no prior experience, and led this doubting and non-devout Catholic to study Persian and convert to Islam within a decade.
Although EdV’s major achievement lies in her many translations of Rumi — including the entire Masnavi — she always acknowledged her debt to Iqbal and continued to present his work in lucid translations to French readers.
Branning has not charted her own search for her subject, which might have been an interesting approach; instead, she stages her novel as an interior conversation between Rumi and the narrator, drawing parallels between the poet-philosopher of the 13th century and his aristocratic, highly educated 20th century translator. Narrative segments are framed by scenes from the ritual of the Sema (samaa).
Branning’s approach, however, doesn’t always work. In keeping with EdV’s very discreet biographies of Rumi, the author only briefly touches on Rumi’s life; readers expecting a diachronic story which is also a popular re-enactment of Rumi’s life a la The Forty Rules of Love will be disappointed by both parts of the story. Branning’s attempt to compare Rumi’s encounters with Shams of Tabriz and other disciples to EdV’s relationship with her academic mentors is simultaneously overstretched and sketchy; what emerges is how brave and solitary EdV’s path was, guided only by her intellectual and spiritual mentors Rumi and Iqbal, with whom she shared no common first language. I wondered, at times, whether Branning would have done better to stage her “interior conversation of minds and hearts” between Iqbal and EdV, whose chronologies and trajectories overlapped. (EdV was initially drawn to Iqbal’s understanding of Western philosophy and culture, which were her pathway to the richness and complexity of Islamic metaphysics.)
At times I found the occasionally effusive voice of the narrator unlike the written or audio recordings of EdV’s original voice in French. The narrative gains real strength when Branning comes closest to a translated paraphrase of EdV’s own words, introducing us to the layered nuances of EdV’s reflections on her religion, life and times, and offering the reader with little or no French a picture of her subtle mind.
This book is most compelling in its depiction of its protagonist’s quest as an intellectual journey to reconcile worlds in conflict, and her farsighted refusal to draw boundaries between the East and West — deeply relevant in a new century that continues to attempt to build higher barriers between cultures while technology makes these boundaries dissolve.
My favourite passage in the book, though, recalls EdV’s introduction to a most wonderful book, a retelling of Sufi tales: “You wanted the student — the murid — to discover, through your stories, discursive anecdotes and verse, his own path. How I love to share with my students the stories of the citadel with 10 doors, the dragon in the snow and the contest between the Chinese and the Byzantine painters and watch their reaction!” It is this “pathway of light” — as EdV named her book — to which this great and modest teacher still beckons us.
The columnist is a London-based short story writer and novelist
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 26th, 2020