jeudi 13 mars 2014

Gibran in Paris, Yusuf Huwayyik, 1976

Introductions or prefaces to works of fiction or autobiography are generally explanatory and laudatory so whenever I encounter one which is argumentative or contestatory, I take notice. In the case of Yusuf Huwayyik's memoir "Gibran in Paris", a book which I enjoyed and would recommend, I was somewhat taken aback by the introductory essay's forthright assessment not of the work itself but of the psychologies and philosophies that lay outside the scope of the book...
The twenty five short stories, more accurately characterized as episodes or character studies are perfect. They were written in 1957 when Lebanese painter Yusuf Huwayyik  was 74 years old, describing two short but fruitful years (1909-10) in his youth, spent in Paris studying art with Kahlil Gibran — painter, poet, mystic and author of "The Prophet". The stories are written by a mature, older man who has reflected on life and given us a balanced, discrete (oh so charmingly discrete) account of the adventures of two young men of limited financial means but great ambition who sowed their wild oats in Picasso and Isadora Duncan's Paris.
In the introductory essay, a fifth of the entire book, its author Matti Moosa —  academic, critic and translator of Huwayyik's reminiscences, makes almost no reference to the stories. Instead, he maps out a sophisticated philosophical and sociological schematic of Gibran's life and work, missing no opportunity to point out inconsistencies and gaps in his thought. Gibran is a Modernist, a Catholic, a Romantic, a student of Nietzsche, a self-appointed guru, a conflicted Easterner and a conflicted Westerner - an unlikely mix, clearly. Moosa also shows how Gibran sometimes just gets it wrong, misreading history or philosophy, "vitiated as his understanding is by a somewhat spurious naivete", especially when voicing his opinions on the position of women in his native culture or his interpretation of Nietzsche. There is nothing of the hagiography here!
After the toughness of the introduction, how can the reader move on to enjoy the generous, whimsical quality of the stories?
And yet there is much to recommend this little book which I would argue is really two separate pieces of writing: twenty five charming stories about the lives of two young men in Paris and a university-style essay best suited to an academic journal. They don't go together and yet they're both worth reading.

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