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Harry, Myriam (1869–1958)

Harry, Myriam (1869–1958)

Palestinian-born French author who was a significant literary figure in pre-1914 Paris and was awarded the first Prix Fémina. Name variations: Mme. Perrault Harry. Born Maria Rosette Shapira in the Old City of Jerusalem, then part of the Ottoman Empire, in April 1869; died in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, March 10, 1958; daughter of Moses Wilhelm Shapira and Rosette Jockel Shapira; had sister, Augusta Louisa Wilhelmina Shapira; married Emile Alfred Paul Perrault.

Some authors' lives have been just as colorful as their books. This is certainly the case of the French author who called herself Myriam

Harry. The first decades of her long life can only be described as highly unconventional. She was born in the Old City of Jerusalem, then part of the Ottoman Empire, in April 1869 (she always stated her date of birth to be February 21, 1875) and was baptized with the name Maria Rosette Shapira in the Anglican Christ Church of Jerusalem on May 2 of that year. She grew up in a venerable whitewashed Saracen house and thrived in the nooks, crannies, and alleyways of the Old City of Jerusalem. Her parents, who had been living there for a number of years, were both from unconventional backgrounds. Her father Moses Wilhelm Shapira had been born a Jew in Russia but had converted to Anglicanism and made his living as a bookseller and antiquarian. Maria's mother Rosette Jockel Shapira was a German, a Lutheran deaconess to be precise, who found the Middle East too exotic at times, dreaming at Christmastime of the snowcovered fields and fir trees of her native Hesse. The languages Maria learned from her parents were English and German; from the streets, she picked up Arabic and occasionally Hebrew phrases, and, from one of her family's Arab servants, she learned a few words of imperfect French. Maria's lifelong love of travel and adventure doubtless began in these early years, when she journeyed with her father into the exotic provinces of Syria and Arabia.

One day in 1883, Moses Wilhelm Shapira came across an ancient artifact he believed to be the original manuscript of the Hebrew Pentateuch. After a complex series of contacts and negotiations, the British Museum was prepared to purchase the document at a substantial fee, but at this juncture an eminent French archaeologist, M. Clermont-Ganneau, came up with proof that Shapira's "Pentateuch" was in fact not genuine. His reputation shattered in the sensational "Shapira Affair," Maria's father committed suicide on March 9, 1884. After the tragedy, Rosette Shapira returned to Germany with Maria and her older sister, Augusta. In Germany, where she attended a boarding school for three years, Maria's already marked interest in literature and writing became even more pronounced. Within a short time, some of her short stories began to appear in print, and before long she was being published in major magazines and newspapers, including the distinguished Berliner Tageblatt. At this point, Maria Shapira was culturally more German than anything else, although it was clear that her unique background made it much easier for her to experience the world from a cosmopolitan perspective.

Feeling restless in Germany, Maria decided to study French literature in Paris. The visit was a revelation, and the young woman who felt herself artistically and emotionally secure in the English and German languages now fell profoundly in love with the French language and its rich literary tradition. For several years, she was able to publish nothing, literally finding herself in an unformed state between languages, moving rapidly away from her familiarity with German but not yet fully comfortable with French. Soon, however, she was convinced that she had achieved total mastery of the French style and began to write in that language. Once settled in France, she began to travel, visiting much of Europe as well as Egypt, Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), parts of China, and several French colonies and protectorates including Indo-China (modern-day Vietnam) and Tunisia.

In 1899, Maria Shapira announced her debut to the French literary world by appearing in print under the name she would henceforth use, Myriam Harry. In that year, she published Passage de Bedouins, followed in rapid succession by a series of novels set in French Indo-China. All of these works received good reviews, but it was not until 1904, when she published La Conquête de Jérusalem, that Harry's writings began to be regarded seriously by the leading Paris critics. The book became a literary sensation, and as a result she was awarded the firstever Prix Fémina (1904), created by 22 members of the editorial staff of the journal Vie heureuse because women were unlikely to win the prestigious Goncourt Prize. (In 1905, despite an allwoman jury, the Goncourt was awarded to Romain Rolland for his novel Jean Cristophe.)

All of Myriam Harry's novels (she published at least 35 in the course of her career) were escapist works for a bourgeois reading public for whom travel meant travel in Europe, not the Near East or Asia, places that were too distant and too dangerous to visit. As Marie Louise Fontaine enthused in 1913, The Conquest of Jerusalem places its readers in an ancient and mysterious city "peopled with strange beings, some Biblical and peaceful, others wild-eyed and enfevered."

Myriam Harry's depiction of Jerusalem and the Middle East is part of a Western perspective on non-Western peoples now often explained in terms of the notion of Orientalism. As defined by the noted scholar Edward Said, Orientalism was constructed by Western scholars not so much to understand and learn from non-Western cultures and peoples as to denigrate, control, and dominate them in a world dominated by imperialist and racist assumptions. Although Myriam Harry was neither a scholar nor in any way a member of a conspiracy to control the non-European world, her work nevertheless falls into the general category of Orientalism and its stereotypical view of non-Europeans as the Other.

In her 1901 novel Petites épouses (Little Brides), set in French Indo-China, she describes as inevitable the physically degenerate state of a half-breed child, with its thin, waxy white body, round ivory head, and blue eyes that its French father cannot bear to look at. The father, Alain, at first worries about what will happen to his son after he departs for France, and for a time seriously considers taking the boy with him, or perhaps even remaining in the colony. Will the boy, with "his expatriate eyes and his white soul… be able to acclimatise among his yellow relatives and the black water-buffaloes?" Soon, however, Alain notices that his son is in fact much more "a native" than he is European, paying no attention to the European toys he brings him, preferring instead to watch his young maternal uncles as they torture butterflies, even encouraging them to continue. At this crucial point in her novel, Harry presents Alain as pondering deeply "the prodigies of atavism which had already transmitted to this brain—his very own son's!—the Asian sense of artifice and cruelty."

The exoticism so central to Myriam Harry's novels made her popular with French audiences for several decades, but by the 1930s both her subject matter and her florid prose style had largely fallen out of favor with large sectors of the literate public. Her books, which had once fascinated readers by conjuring up apparently endless pageants of exotic peoples and scenes of alien cultures, now seemed stale and dated. Harry could neither change her approach to literature nor did she wish to retire, so she continued to publish books to smaller audiences and less enthusiastic critics. Starting in the 1920s and until the end of her long life, she was as much a celebrity as she was a distinguished citizen of the republic of letters. Year after year, she would appear at sessions of the Prix Fémina jury dressed in flowing Bedouin robes, a colorful turban on her head. Having authored a highly romanticized biography of Cleopatra VII , she soon claimed to be an authority on the long-departed ruler of the Nile, claiming on several occasions that Cleopatra's mummy had in fact been buried in a courtyard within the walls of the French National Library. Myriam Harry remained to the end of her days a strong-willed, eccentric, and incorrigibly Romantic woman. She died, out of step with a world that had less time for her kind of exotic fantasy, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, on March 10, 1958.

sources:

Abitol, Michel, and Guy Dugas, eds. Israël: Rêve d'une terre nouvelle. Paris: Omnibus, 1998.

Allegro, John Marco. The Shapira Affair. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965.

Apter, Emily. "Acting Out Orientalism: Sapphic Theatricality in Turn-of-the-Century Paris," in L'Esprit Créateur. Vol. 34, no. 2. Summer 1994, pp. 102–116.

Caroz, Yaël. "Relire l'oeuvre de Myriam Harry: La Petite Fille de Jerusalem," in David Mendelson and Michaël Elial, eds., l'intersiecle 2: écrits français d'Israël de 1880 a nos jours. Paris: Lettres Modernes-Minard, 1989, pp. 39–47.

"Cleopatra Said to Be Buried in Paris 'Neath French Library's Chestnut Trees," in The New York Times. December 16, 1934, section IV, p. 2.

"Enver Bey's Gold-Shod Horses," in The Literary Digest. Vol. 52, no. 26. June 24, 1916, pp. 1874, 1876.

Fontaine, Marie Louise. "Some French Women Writers of Today," in The Bookman. Vol. 37, no. 7. March 1913, pp. 32–41.

Harry, Myriam. The Conquest of Jerusalem: A Tale of To-Day. Boston, MA: H.B. Turner, 1906.

——. The Little Daughter of Jerusalem. With an Introduction by Jules Lemaitre. Translated by Phoebe Allen. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1919.

——. Siona à Paris. Paris: A. Fayard & Cie., 1919.

——. Siona chez les barbares. Paris: A. Fayard & Cie., 1918.

——. A Springtide in Palestine. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1924.

Lefévre, Fréderic. Une heure avec … Myriam Harry. [VI. série]. Paris: Flammarion, 1933.

Mailloux, Auguste. Myriam Harry. Paris: M. Mendel, 1920.

Mansoor, Menahem. "The Case of Shapira's Dead Sea (Deuteronomy) Scroll of 1883," in Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences. Vol. 47, 1959, pp. 183–225.

"Mummy of Cleopatra in Paris, Says Writer; Believes Napoleon Brought It From Egypt," in The New York Times. July 30, 1926, p. 19.

Pierrot, Roger. "Myriam Harry et Jerusalem," in Études art et litterature Université de Jerusalem/Hebrew University Studies in Literature and the Arts. Vol. 18, 1991, pp. 49–57.

Said, Edward. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. Rev. ed. NY: Penguin Books, 1995.

Shapiro, Sraya. "In Search of a Lingua Franca," in Jerusalem Post. February 1, 1990.

Silberman, Neil Asher. Digging for God and Country: Exploration, Archeology, and the Secret Struggle for the Holy Land, 1799–1917. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.

"Some Successful French Women Authors," in American Review of Reviews. Vol. 47, no. 5. May 1913, pp. 613–615.

Yee, Jennifer. "Neither Flesh nor Fowl: 'Métissage' in finde-siecle French Colonial Fiction," in L'Ésprit Créateur. Vol. 38, no. 1. Spring 1998, pp. 46–56.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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