Romanian Family Saga: Ionel Teodoreanu (Part 2)

This became such an epic long post that I divided it into two. In the first part, I considered Teodoreanu’s literary legacy and the plot. In this part, I will discuss the characters and their relationships, make more comparisons to other family sagas, and mention Teodoreanu’s controversial literary style. I do sometimes wonder why I spend so many hours rereading, thinking and writing a blog post that at best a handful of people will read and comment on. It may not be the best use of my time, but if I did not believe in trying to spread the word for Romanian literature (and culture more generally) against all obstacles such as lack of funding, lack of translations, but above all lack of interest… I would have given up a long time ago. Nevertheless, I persevere because I think it is a worthy cause… Te Digna Sequere and all that!

I imagine the Medeleni manor house to be something like this – not too grand, quite traditional in many ways, although this particular house is from the wrong part of the country.

Characters

Although Dan is the author’s alter ego and official main character, and we get to see many scenes through his eyes (in a close third person POV), it is clear that Olguța is the author’s (and everyone else’s) favourite. Teodoreanu fell in love with his creation and allowed himself to be carried away by her energy, exuberance and creativity. The author later admitted that he went for long walks in the countryside, weeping at the thought of killing her off, but that it was the only possible outcome. Almost like a comet that shines too brightly to last. She is one of the most appealing and memorable feminine characters in all of Romanian literature (and possibly beyond). I struggle to think of any comparable character, especially at the time this was written: imagine a Pippi Longstocking who grows up, a Maggie Tulliver who is not hemmed in by society. Perhaps Jo March or Colette’s Claudine come closest.

She is presented as a tomboy with jet-black hair, a demon full of mischief, yet also full of concern and loyalty for the people around her. She is quick-witted, well-read, interested in everything, sporty, rapidly picking up on people’s foibles and poking fun at them. This can come across as cruel on occasion, but she can also be far too trusting with the people she likes. Unlike with the Cazalets, there is no expectation that daughters are only there to marry and produce offspring. Olguța (always in the diminutive, as if she never quite grows up) is also remarkably free to get a good education and become whatever she wants to be – not sure if that was generally reflective of the upper middle classes in Romania at the time, or simply because of the highly cultured milieu that Teodoreanu was a part of. A couple of times the grown-ups around her lament the fact that she is not a boy, because she would have made an even greater lawyer than her father, so it’s clear that option, at least, is not quite open to her. She also rushes off to join the man she loves and they clearly spend a few happy days together ‘in sin’, without there being any huge outcry or disapproval either from the others in the book or the author himself – a very different state of affairs from Sally On the Rocks by Winifred Boggs, for example (I have just read a few reviews of that book). Clearly, the Romanians are closer to the French rather than the English in terms of ‘prudishness’ (or lack thereof).

Upon rereading the book now, I notice that Olguța can be too much at times: too loud, too expressive, too critical, too opinionated. I wonder if that comes from years of living in the quieter, more repressed British society. I wonder if Italians, Spaniards and Greeks might not find her excessive at all, merely high-spirited. I was often compared to her in my youth, and was criticised for my exuberance when I first came to England, but I wish I’d kept more of her spirit in my later years. Would Olguța have mellowed as much as I did as she grew older and had a family? Would she have turned into her mother – who is a bit of a Moominmamma, although she has given up her career as a pianist to do so?

What is interesting is that, although we are often in close third person POV with the other characters, even some of the secondary ones, we are not all that often privy to Olguța’s private thoughts. We see her opening the package that was mistakenly sent to Monica but was intended for her brother’s lover in Bucharest, and we see her interrogating the servant about it, then jumping on the train to pay her brother a visit, rather than page after page of agonising over what it all means and what she should do next. Until the final volume, where she becomes more secretive and thoughtful and sad, we see Olguța constantly in action, like the whirlwind she seems to be in her household. The very last scene of the trilogy describes a gust of wind passing through the orchard and the rooms of the old manor house, and Monica and Dănuț instantly liken it to Olguța.

Meanwhile, Monica, the quieter, more feminine, more beautiful blonde heroine, is almost dull, if it weren’t for her profound feelings of friendship and loyalty, her quiet determination and sense of justice. She is the diplomat, forever trying to mediate between the two stormy Deleanu siblings. She is calm and kind, the resting point for the extravagantly generous and passionate Olguța. There is something of the blank slate about the characterisation of Monica – as if she represents the ideal woman or ‘the eternal feminine’, as one critic called her, whom everyone likes to imagine slightly differently. In my childhood, I thought of the two ‘sisters’ as Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. But one thing bugged me: Monica seems the perfect maternal figure, yet she is the one who goes on to study for a doctorate – would she have given all that up when she had children?

Dănuț quite frankly annoyed me even more upon this reread than he did in my youth (and he annoyed me a lot even back then). He is so self-absorbed, so hypersensitive and needy, so entitled in every way… and yet, as a child, you cannot help but feel ever so slightly sorry for him when his younger sister so easily outwits and mocks him. Later on in life, he learns his lessons and becomes a much better person. He is at his best with Monica by his side or in his heart, although by putting her on a pedestal of purity, he is also limiting her options should she ever choose to behave less than perfectly. He needs an Olguța to cut him down to size every now and then. He is the quintessential dreamy idealist who rushes too quickly into things, takes people at face value and is doomed to be disappointed many times before he learns. Yet he will be the one who conveys the spirit of Medeleni to future generations through his story-telling.

Mircea is also an idealist, but he does not have the sense of entitlement and privilege that Dan has. He is straitlaced and conscientious, hard-working, unsure of himself, very self-critical. He tends to chew his pencils nervously, which earns him the nickname Hardmuth (given to him, of course, by Olguța). He is more pragmatic than the Deleanus (perhaps because he loses his father quite early on and is not as wealthy) – in a way, he is the one most similar to the rest of us. He has been uplifted by his friendship with the talented, lively, almost too good to be true Deleanus, but he is the survivor, the one who has made peace with the inevitable disappointment of life and what it takes to advance on the career ladder.

The secondary characters, the ones who play a small part, or who come to the forefront in just one of the volumes, are equally well-rounded and believable. Even the ones that you fear might descend into cliché (the vapid coquette, the stuttering amiable classmate, the horny fourteen-year-old) reveal further and unexpected layers. The one character that fails to convince me is Vania, although Teodoreanu does his best to convince us of the uniquely charismatic qualities of this rugged giant. To my adolescent mind, there was something of the Sylvia Plath attraction to Ted Hughes to this relationship between Olguța and Vania and I dread to think how disappointing it might have been for them both in later life.

One striking difference between this family saga and the Cazalets is the way class is treated, although no doubt in both there is a whiff of nostalgia which those ‘below stairs’ might disperse if they were to write their memoirs. It’s interesting that La Medeleni opens in 1907, which was the year of the (ultimately unsuccessful and brutally suppressed) Peasants’ Revolt in Romania, which started in Moldova, where the book is set. The event is mentioned in passing – as one of the arguments for why Moldova is declining and Dănuț should move to study in Bucharest – but it certainly was a defining moment for Romanian intellectuals, when they clearly sided with the peasantry rather than the government. It led to further land reforms (and all sorts of bans on local organisations), but above all it contributed to the ‘idealisation’ of the rural lifestyle and the simple, good-hearted folk, as evidenced by the Sămănătorism movement (grouped around the literary and political review Sămănătorul ‘The Sower’, a paen to rural traditionalism, neoromanticism and nationalism).

The relationship between Moș Gheorghe and Olguța (and previously Moș Gheorghe and Alice, Olguța’s mother) has that ‘lifelong faithful servant’ feel to it, but he is also a grandfather replacement, someone who has time for the children in a way that their own parents don’t always have. He is more like the governess Miss Milliment in the Cazalet Chronicles, almost part of the family yet not quite (although he owns his own house and small bit of land), and it is heartbreaking that all of the money he has spent on expensive silks and embroidered cloths as a dowry for Olguța’s wedding – he is the traditionalist who wants to see her married, clearly – goes to waste, because they end up rotting in the wooden trunk he had lovingly prepared for her. He is one of the best-loved characters in La Medeleni, and appears again and again in different guises in Teodoreanu’s work.

Other servants are not treated as kindly, for example pretty young Sevastiţa seems to become a rite of passage for all the younger men in the Deleanu family. One other person does stand out though: the cook, ‘Baba (Old Woman)’, has added to her traditional repertoire and is highly regarded by the whole family but particularly beloved by Olguța. She is kicked out by Mrs Deleanu while Olguța is abroad, because she is frequently drunk, but then shows up at the last minute before the girls are due back, convinced that no one else can give them the culinary welcome they deserve. Love clearly goes through the stomach for Moldovans, no wonder the cook is important, and there are many lovely descriptions of the lengthy meals they enjoy:

Olguța and Monica had forgotten the dimensions and duration of a Romanian banquet. Compared to the meals in France, the Romanian ones are like sauntering around in a carriage, as opposed to the precision of a journey in a taxi. By the time you reach the last course – which, incidentally, in Romania and in Moldova in particular, is the last but one – the previous courses are nothing else but vague memories, lost somewhere beyond the horizon…’

The Deleanu family itself represents an interesting mix of classes. Iorgu Deleanu and his brother were certainly not from a poor family, but not from an excessively wealthy one either. They studied hard to enter prestigious professions – one became a lawyer, the other an engineer – and they are reliant on their jobs to earn money to support a family in the case of the former, or an extravagant lifestyle in the case of the latter. It is Mrs Alice Deleanu who is a descendant of the Moldovan aristocracy, who owns land and property – but the author never brings up a sense of class difference between the spouses. Teodoreanu can be indirectly quite critical about the landed gentry, as in the case of Ioana Palla, who seems to have nothing better to do than to interfere and manipulate people. There are poorer relatives in the countryside, which is how Puiu ends up in their household: the clever little boy who needs to live with the relatives in the big city so that he has a chance to go to a good school and fulfill his potential. This practice still holds true today in Romania, and even in the supposedly egalitarian Communist society – my parents hosted and sponsored countless sons and daughters of friends and relatives who came to Bucharest for private tuition or exams.

The country house where Teodoreanu spent his summer holidays as a child and which inspired Medeleni is now a ruin, but the area surrounding it is a nature reserve.

Style

‘Metaforel (Metaphorkins)’ is the way Olguța teases her brother, and this is indeed what some literary critics at the time called Teodoreanu himself. Influenced by French symbolism and prose poetry, by the rural idyllism of Sămănătorism and the Moldovan love of storytelling (the Moldovans are best understood as South-East European Irish, who are either born poets or have kissed the Blarney Stone), and trying to capture a vanished way of life, it was perhaps inevitable that the literary style of La Medeleni can feel too rich, too ornate at times, and give you indigestion.

Despite the critics’ derision of what they called the ‘medelenisation of literature’, Teodoreanu achieves a balancing act that few of his interwar generation managed – the balance between the more traditionalist, patriarchal, Oriental-Balkanic style of storytelling and the modernist Western style. At his best, he can be extremely evocative and there are countless memorable scenes, appealing to all the senses, bursting with colour and movement.

The problem is that the book tries to be too many things at once. It is a family saga as well as a Bildungsroman, it is also an opportunity for the author to air his opinions about literature, art and music, or the shortcomings of politics and the justice system. There are far too many tangential topics thrown in, which have little bearing on the main story or even in conferring depth upon certain characters, such as the first case Dan has to defend as a lawyer (a controversial case of incest). It might be interesting (if uncomfortable from a contemporary woman’s perspective), but it just goes on for far too long. Same with the endless excerpts of ‘prose poetry’ from Dan’s notebooks. Stop, we get it, no need to insist…

This is one of the reasons why this trilogy will never get translated in its entirety (I’ve heard rumours that someone is attempting a translation into French at the moment, but nothing concrete yet). There is far too much that needs to be cut out, given a thorough edit, to appeal to modern readers. All of the literary discussion that was cutting edge at the time now sounds terribly dated. Unlike the Banffy trilogy, where the author was writing with the wisdom of hindsight of twenty or more years, or the Cazalet Chronicles, where the author has had to adapt to the sensitivities of society fifty years after the events described in the book, Teodoreanu’s world was one that he was still very much part of, even though it was beginning to disappear.

Nevertheless, as a portrait of a family and society, and as a description of a (rather privileged) country childhood, I think La Medeleni still bears up well. It may not have the social depth of the Transylvanian trilogy, or the appeal of the familiarity (for the British reader) of the Cazalet Chronicles, it may not cover as much ground as the Buddenbrooks, nor as dramatic a political period as Lampedusa’s The Leopard, but it is the closest that we come to any of these in Romanian literature.

HOLD THE PRESS for some just-in glorious news! The first volume has just been translated into English and is available from Histria Press. Huge thanks to Other Words Books, who did some exploration and found this momentous item of news and let me know about it!

13 thoughts on “Romanian Family Saga: Ionel Teodoreanu (Part 2)”

  1. I for one am in your debt here. I so appreciated the chance to read your insights into La Medeleni. I hope that I may have the chance to read it someday. Bowing down to you again!

    1. You are very kind to say so, Jenny. Maybe someday, when I retire, and if I have plenty of money to self-publish and promote, I will do a trimmed down version of it. A labour of love, obviously.

  2. You know, Olguța as a character really interests me, Marina Sofia. She may be too much at times, but she is appealing. I like characters with ‘life.’ And it sounds as though this really gives insight, not just into the family structure, but into the class structure, too. Even if the story is too big – if that’s the way to put it – for what it’s trying to be, it sounds really worth reading, and I wish it would get translated.

    1. She is a really interesting character, who appears extremely modern, particularly if you compare to the social and historical context of her time. Perhaps the author could not bear to see her crushed by disillusionment and the limitations of her place in society, and that is the reason she had to die…

  3. Thanks for taking the time to write it all up! I have a feeling you enjoyed thinking about your posts and writing them up, irrespective of the “noble cause”. I wonder how you would have approached this re-reading had you not read and been triggered by the Cazalet chronicles. Of course, I also thought of Bánffy towards the end of your first post! Regarding the second, I think we discussed the question of “prudishness” in relation to Mihail Sebastian, among others, as I was struck (again, and this time in connection with Oraşul cu salcâmi) by his willingness to go further with words than most other writers I’ve read from that period. And finally (to try and keep this comment short), I really like your description of Teodoreanu’s handling of Olguța’s close-but-not-so-close third person POV). Oh, and finally-finally, great news about the English translation!

    1. I am so pleased you enjoyed these two posts. It has been a pleasure for me to reread and think afresh about these childhood favourites. And try to formulate my thoughts to an audience who is unfamiliar with these books. I honestly think Banffy might have had these volumes in mind when he wrote his trilogy (they really were super-popular at the time). Yes, I’ve seen this freer attitude towards premarital sex, affairs and so on in most Romanian literature of that period (Rebreanu, Camil Petrescu, Sebastian and many more) – I do wonder if it was because French culture was the role model at the time, or if it is just typical of the more… erm… sensual, hot-blooded Latin spirit and no Catholicism to make them feel guilty about it!

  4. The best use of your time! Thanks so much.

    Please, translators, remember that at least some modern readers – the ones most likely to pick up the book – do not want cuts or edits. Give me the thing as it is, please. Except with extensive notes, and perhaps a map or two.

    1. Awww, bless you, Tom, for your kind words! Although even you might struggle with page after page of prose poems in imitative Jules Laforgue style… some things should never have gone beyond 2-3 pages (except I think he thought he was educating the Romanian reading public of the time).

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