#6Degrees of Separation: June 2019

It is always a pleasure to participate in the Six Degrees monthly link-up organised by Kate. The starting point this month is a book I haven’t read but which recently won the Wellcome Book Prize, Murmur by Will Eaves. I am interested in the subject matter but need to work up my courage to read this one, since it is a reimagining of the strain and suffering that Alan Turing must have gone through in the last few years of his life.

The title of the book, however, made me initially think it was about a heart murmur, perhaps a heart transplant. The best book (or perhaps the only book) I’ve read on that topic is Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living (published as The Heart in the US).

This book won the Prix Orange in France back in 2014. Another winner of the same prize (in 2018) is Haitian author Louis-Philippe Dalembert’s Avant que les ombres s’effacent (Before the Shadows Fade). A novel based on the real fact (that I was not at all aware of) that the Haitian state passed a decree in 1939 granting Jewish refugees passports and safe passage to Haiti.

The Haitian state was born out of slave rebellion and its hero was the beautifully named Toussaint Louverture, born a slave but, as he declared himself, ‘nature gave me the soul of a free man’. Much has been written about him, especially in French, but I have an English language biography and reassessment of his legacy written by Charles Forsdick and Christian Hogsbjerg on my bookshelves, which I have yet to read.

Since we are talking about revolutions, and with the Paris Commune on my mind quite a bit this past month, let’s turn to another book, a novel set during a very tricky revolutionary time: The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov, one of my favourite Russian writers. It’s the story of a family in Kiev (somewhat similar to Bulgakov’s own) having to live through the consequences of the Russian Revolution, and all the warring factions of the Ukrainian War of Independence – the Whites, the Reds, the Imperial German Army, and Ukrainian nationalists. Although this book was banned for decades, the stage version of the book was apparently one of Stalin’s favourite ways to relax.

Many plays were banned, of course, in Communist times in Romania. One play that censorship consistently fought over with the theatre directors (and censorship usually won) was Caligula by Albert Camus. I’m not quite sure why it was seen as so inappropriate that even the filming of the performance was stopped (and the film destroyed), except that it perhaps shows the descent of a hitherto kindly despot into absolute mad tyranny.

And so we end with one of the classics of historical novels: I, Claudius, written by Robert Graves in first person, as if it were the memoir of Emperor Claudius, who was despised and marginalised by his family because of his stutter… and therefore managds to survive to become emperor and tell the tale.

From Turing to France to Haiti to the Ukraine, with a short stopover of sorts in Romania, and a slightly lengthier stint in the Roman Empire. It’s been quite a journey in time and space this month. Where will your links take you?

#AtoZofBooks – Favourites and Forgotten Books

Simon Thomas from Stuck in a Book started a trend on Twitter a few days ago with an A-Z of favourite books: an author for every letter of the alphabet.

Oh HI book twitter!

I’ve decided I’m going to share 26 brilliant books – an author for every letter of the alphabet. It’ll be a gradual thread. It’ll be fun.

Share your own #AToZofBooks!— Simon Thomas (@stuck_inabook) May 22, 2019

This is such a lovely idea, that I wanted to emulate it on my blog – although I will no doubt curse the thought once I reach X or Z.

A: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, of course, one of the most perfect novels ever written.

B: Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal influenced me hugely in my teens and was probably the catalyst that provoked my own outburst of poetry at that age. I can still recite some of the poems by heart.

C: Another poet, Cavafy, whose collected poems I discovered much later, when I fell in love with a Greek man in my 20s. He had been forced to study Ithaka at school, and moaned about it, but I thought it was a fantastic poem and wanted to read more. The Greek man has since disappeared from my life (well, nearly… any day now… he’s a bit like Theresa May) but the love for Cavafy has remained. I have about 5 different translations of his work and can just about read the original Greek as well.

D: Dazai Osamu – I love all of the books by this nice ‘cheery’ Japanese author, but I have a soft spot for the first one I ever read by him: a collection of short stories which have been translated into English as Run, Melos! and Other Stories. The story from Judas’ point of view impressed me so much that I made my first attempt there and then at translating from Japanese.

E: Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone impressed me very much when I read it at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe.

F: Benjamin Fondane is Romanian-Jewish poet, translator, literary critic and essayist, who wrote in both French and Romanian and sadly was exterminated in Birkenau in 1944 at the age of just 46. His poetry collection Privelisti (Landscapes) is my choice here.

G: A masterpiece of satire and absurdity, the short story The Nose by Nikolai Gogol.

H: A surfeit of good authors with H, but I think I’ll choose the witty (yet gentle) indictment of UN bureaucrats in Shirley Hazzard’s People in Glass Houses.

I: Who else but Eugene Ionesco, my fellow countryman? And because I love anything to do with language learning and the dangers of miscommunication, I choose The Bald Soprano.

J: Shirley Jackson has long been a favourite of mine, mainly on the basis of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is one of the most chilling yet perfect novellas ever written.

K: Franz Kafka’s Das Schloss (The Castle) – the author was never in doubt, although it’s hard to choose between this, Metamorphosis and The Trial.

L: C. S. Lewis: The Silver Chair – the Narnia chronicles provided me with many, many hours of joy in my childhood, and this one was perhaps my favourite of the lot, because I could relate to Jill and thought Puddleglum was hilarious.

M: Murakami Haruki’s Kafka on the Shore is probably my favourite novel of his, and not just because it features lots of cats.

N: Gellu Naum was a Romanian surrealist poet, but he is best known for his delightful children’s book about the little penguin Apolodor who is trying to find his relatives in Labrador.

O: On my first (and so far only) visit to Canada, I discovered Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals and have been smitten with this author ever since.

P: I could go for obvious choice Proust, but I will opt instead for Barbara Pym. Less than Angels may not be her best-known or most accomplished novel, but she pokes fun at anthropologists in it and I just cannot resist that!

Q: A tricky letter, as you might imagine, but not when you have a favourite called Zazie dans le metro by Raymond Queneau.

R: Which one of Jean Rhys‘ haunting novels to choose? In the end, perhaps After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is the most quietly devastating one.

S: Antoine de Sainte-Exupery’s The Little Prince will forever be one of my favourite books, sorry, cannot be objective about it at all, cry like a leaky faucet whenever I read it.

T: A slight cheating going on here, but I want to make sure that Tove Jansson gets a mention, as she is one of my most favourite writers ever. Plus the title of this book of hers starts with a T too: The True Deceiver.

U: Another avant-garde Romanian poet (we seem to be good at writing about absurdity, perhaps our history has taught us to see the surreal comedy and oxymorons in daily life) is Urmuz, considered a forerunner of Dadaism. His works (short prose and poetry) have been translated into English, if you are curious.

V: Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo gets a few things wrong, so the Colombian storyteller who inspired him decides to tell his own version of events. Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Secret History of Costaguana is a lively rewriting of literary history and Latin America’s riposte to Europe’s limiting vision of their continent.

W: I’m sure you all expect me to choose Virginia Woolf, but I will confound you by going for Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, which I read while visiting Granada as a child and had a lasting effect on me (again, very slightly cheating).

X: I love Qiu Xiaolong‘s Chief Inspector Chen series, set in a rapidly changing Shanghai in the 1990s, starting with Death of a Red Heroine.

Y: Very tempted to choose Richard Yates here, but instead I will mention Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, which should be far better known in the English-speaking world.

Z: Émile Zola is currently very much top of my thoughts, but it’s not The Debacle that I will be referring to here, nor Nana or Germinal, his best-known works, but the novel which supposedly brought about the end of his friendship with Cezanne, L’Oeuvre (The Work of Art), in which he somewhat satirizes the Bohemian art world in Paris at the time.

#SixDegrees April 2019: From How to Be Both

I’m still on a bit of a blogging hiatus, but I could not resist joining in this month’s Six Degrees of Separation a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked from one book to the next to form a total of six. The reason why I particularly wanted to take part this month is because Ali Smith’s How to Be Both is the starting point and it’s a book that I’ve been really curious about (I like outrageously experimental ideas) but somehow still haven’t read.

I have read one other book that relies on a dual narrative, however, and is very experimental (although not in the publishing format) and that is Michèle Roberts’ Flesh and Blood, which makes the reader work to piece together the two halves of the story of a broken relationship between mother and child, like doing up a zip.

From here it’s just a small step to Michèle Roberts’ memoirs Paper Houses, which I greatly enjoyed, and not just because I had the good fortune to meet the author and attend one of her workshops. This has everything that I ever dreamt of in my teens: living, working and loving in London in the 1970s, being part of the Spare Rib collective, marching and protesting, being an ardent feminist and also a lover of men, a thoughtful, introverted writer and also a sociable global nomad.

Political protests form the link to my next book. One that I’ve not read but am very interested in, if only I could find it in a library: The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton, set in Cairo in 2011. The government is crumbling; the people are in open revolt; and two members of the political underground, Mariam and Khalil, are determined to change the world as the meaning of revolution evolves in front of them.

Another revolution, another city links to my next choice: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, which was the blight of my Year 7 English. It wasn’t so much the story itself that annoyed me but having to analyse it to death in a class that couldn’t care less about the whole matter.

One book that we also had to read at school in Year 8 or 9 was The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, which definitely appealed more to all of us. A science fiction/horror classic. Now that I look back on the reading choices at our English school (Lord of the Flies was another), I can see that they were quite conservative and very UK-centred, although we were supposedly an international school.

My final choice, however, is a bit more international and was the book we read in our French class: Vipère au poing, that ‘cheery’ family drama by Hervé Bazin. Good choice from our French teacher, because it’s a vivid, shocking, often funny book of teenage rebellion. The evil mother Folcoche made such a strong impression on me that I’ve never quite forgotten her or the book.

So my literary association journey this month was mainly based around London and Paris, Britain and France, with a stopover in Cairo. Also, a predominance of the colours red and green in terms of covers. Where will your literary chain take you?



Charles Simic: Bridging the Abyss

Charles Simic: Essays on the Poetry, edited by Bruce Weigl.

Photo from the Poetry Center

Charles Simic is a Puliter Prize winning American poet of Serbian origin, and one of the few modern poets in the US who doesn’t seem to fit neatly into any ‘school’ or style. Yet he is always recognisably himself: pared down, short poems polished to perfection like small gems, no fancy diction or ‘swallowing a thesaurus’ type of vocabulary, but containing big ideas.

I like the conciseness of the lyric and I like to tell stories – an impossible situation! Brevity has always impressed me! A few striking images and goodbye… How to say everything with the minimum of words is my ideal.

Born in Belgrade and witnessing the indiscriminate bombing of the city as a small child, he is deeply distrustful of absolutist statements or those who claim moral authority. Partly surrealist, deceptively simple but never simplistic, he remains preoccupied with history and truth, the search of meaning in a world that seems determined to destroy all innocence.

I continue to believe that poetry says more about the psychic life of an age than any other art. Poetry is a place where all the fundamental questions are asked about the human condition.

Where does he get all his inspiration from? Simic has no qualms about admitting that it’s from his personal experience.

Form is the extension of content, so it’s not an invention – something out of nothing, but a discovery of what is already there… Poetry is the archeology of the self. The bits and pieces one keeps digging up belong to the world – everybody’s world. It’s a paradox that has always amused me. Just when you think you’re most subjective, you meet everybody else.

But if poetry is about universal experience, then why is it so little appreciated and read? Simic has quite trenchant views on that and I can’t help wondering what he feels about the current popularity of Instagram poetry.

… why more people don’t read poetry? I suppose for the same reasons more people don’t read philosophy. Philosophy is important, was alayws important, but very few people in any age have read it. No point kidding ourselves! The human animal is lazy. Thinking is work and so is poetry… You notice how all those imported Eastern phiosophies, when they come to the West, reduce their theologies to the simplest possible terms? A two-word mantra and off you go! That’s all you need, kid! Imagine if someone actually tried to make them study the great Hindu and Buddhist philosophers and poets?

            War
The trembling finger of a woman
Goes down the list of casualties
On the evening of the first snow

The house is cold and the list is long.

All our names are included.

The tragic in Simic’s verse is always tempered with something uttered so baldly, it almost becomes comic. As he describes it, the world is a mix of the sacred and the profane, the serious and the absurd: ‘dopiness is at the heart of much human activity.’ I love the juxtaposition of abstract and very concrete indeed, of high-minded, high-falutin’ ideals and the boring old everyday.

        Mother Tongue
Sold by a butcher
Wrapped in a newspaper
It travels in a bag
Of the stooped widow
Next to some onions and potatoes

Toward a dark house
Where a cat will
Leap off the stove
Purring
At its entrance
The young Simic with his father, from This Recording/Poetry.

For a boy who learnt English only after he emigrated to the States at the age of 16, to then go on to become the Poet Laureate… Not a bad accomplishment, right? Oh, and the title of this post? It’s from a quote of his: ‘Poetry tries to bridge the abyss lying between the name and the thing. That language is a problem is no news to poets.’

Louise Glück’s Way of Telling the Truth

Louise Glück is one of those American who is temperamentally diametrically opposed to me, but whose style I greatly admire. Her austere, pared-down poems are deeply confessional, but you don’t quite know what the poet confesses to, so deeply embedded is the truth in her narrative. Like Elizabeth Bishop, she wants to reshape events from memory, with discipline, technical precision, and above all a certain distancing. Restraint is her favourite tool, but we can guess at an undercurrent of passion.

Bearing testimony, she seems to suggest, is the poet’s fate:

I’ll tell you

what I meant to be-

a device that listened…

Not inert. Still.

A piece of wood. A stone.

I was born to a vocation

to bear witness

to the great mysteries.

The poet has stated in essays that she often writes poems backward: she begins with the abstract insight or illumination that she wants to demonstrate and then tries to find a real-life example to relate it to. She often turns away from the very specific and concrete – this is not the poetry of rich detail, allowing you to feel textures, colours, tastes – but a poetry of the abstract, the universal.

Does it matter where the birds go? Does it even matter what species they are?

They leave here, that’s the point,

first their bodies, then their sad cries.

And from that moment cease to exist for us.

You must learn to think of our passion that way.

Each kiss was real, then

each kiss left the face of the earth.

Winning the National Book Awards for poetry in 2014.

She has a wonderful way of blending the personal with the myths of the Ancient World, especially in the two collections which are of most bleak comfort to someone going through a divorce: Meadowlands and Vita Nova. Yet, in an interview, she takes issue with being called ‘grim’ or ‘bleak’.

Unless it is grim to write a poetry that does not soothe or placate or encourage (except in the sense that it might, if it worked, dignify a certain kind of struggle). Or grim to write without a taste for noble thought or moral heroism. Perception seems to me in its very essence not grim: it tacitly believes meaning exists, that experience has complexity and weight, that accuracy is of the most immense importance.

The sustained blessing of my life has been the weird conviction that certain kinds of distilled utterance have unique, timeless, unquestioned value. This conviction confers meaning on experience.

I’ll close with fragments from one of my favourite poems: The Untrustworthy Speaker. Notice the cool detachment of her spin on confessional poetry (if you can bear to use that word).

Don’t listen to me; my heart’s been broken.
I don’t see anything objectively.
I know myself; I’ve learned to hear like a psychiatrist.
When I speak passionately,
that’s when I’m least to be trusted.
In my own mind, I’m invisible: that’s why I’m dangerous.
People like me, who seem selfless,
we’re the cripples, the liars;
we’re the ones who should be factored out
in the interest of truth.
When I’m quiet, that’s when the truth emerges.
That’s why I’m not to be trusted.
Because a wound to the heart
is also a wound to the mind.

#EU27Project: The Transylvanian Trilogy

It’s taaken years of mental preparation and gradual acquisition of books, and about a year in the reading (the first volume followed by a gap and then a rather breathless devouring of the two remaining volumes). But I’ve finally done it: finished the entry for Hungary in my #EU27Project. And what a magnificent entry it is: Miklós Bánffy’s trilogy The Writing on the Wall, a.k.a. The Transylvanian Trilogy.

I have to admit to a stuttering start with it. I picked it up at least three times to read the first 10-20 pages and got lost in the profusion of unfamiliar names and events. But once I found the key that opened the door, I was rewarded with an entire (vanished) world that I had difficulties letting go of…

The 2nd book in the trilogy.

It’s a monumental work, running to 1392 pages, yet my feeling by the end was that it finished too soon, because it barely addressed the war and its aftermath. So, for people comparing it to War and Peace, I would say it’s more peace overshadowed by the gathering clouds of war. It is far more similar to Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March, mourning the loss of the same empire from the point of view of minority ethnic groups who have benefitted from the Empire, but have an ambiguous relationship to it.

Bánffy himself was an incredibly interesting man, a politician as well as a writer, mature and liberal, suspicious of both Hungarian and Romanian nationalism, trying a conciliatory middle ground after the Versailles Treaty, a rapprochement to the Allies during the Second World War (during the period when both Hungary and Romania were in the German camp) and somehow forever caught in the middle as a proud Transylvanian. He lived long enough to see his beautiful home,
Bonțida, the inspiration for Denestornya in his book, destroyed by the retreating, resentful Germans, and his ‘homeland’ or ‘heartland’ occupied by the Soviets.

Banffy Castle, Bonțida. Renovations have started on it in the past couple of years.

It must have been even more heartbreaking ultimately than described the final chapter of his trilogy, where he allows himself to utter a cry of despair:

Now this beloved country would perish, and with it most of his generation… that deluded generation that had given importance only to theories, phrases and formaleu, that had ingored all reality, that had chased like children after the fata morgana of mirage and illusion, that had turned away from everything on which their stregnth was based, that denied the vital importance of power and self-criticism and national unity.

This is a family saga as well as a description of Hungarian society in the ten years preceding World War One. All of life seems to be present in its pages: we have a love story (several, in fact), affairs, friendships, betrayals, disappointments and heartbreaks, political intrigue, fraud and loving descriptions of a landscape (and its people) that clearly meant a lot to the author.

Bonțida Castle in 1890, from Wikipedia.

I certainly enjoyed reading about the fancy dress balls in Budapest, charity bazaars in Koloszvar (Cluj), carriage processions drawn by Lippizzaner horses bringing guests to a hunting party in Slovakia, weddings and parties, duels and conmen, romantic moonlit serenades, jinks and high spirits like stealing cows by youthful members of the privileged elite to prove the laziness of the nightwatchman… and yet… I felt uncomfortable with the excessive wealth and pomp, the hedonistic lifestyle of many of the characters in the book in their huge manor houses and lands bequeathed to them by the Emperor, and their casual cruel references to the ‘local’ populations who were their servants. I am sure that is precisely what the author intends: there is much affection in describing that lost world, but also a chilling indictment of his fellow aristocrats’ self-indulgence and indifference to the plight of others.

Miklos Banffy and his family in front of Bontida, including his daughter Katalin, who was involved in the translation of his masterpiece.

The main protagonist, Balint Abady, tries to be fair and organise cooperatives on his land (reflecting, I am sure, Banffy’s own liberal beliefs), but the truth is many of the Magyar landlords and artistocracy were unbelievably cruel to the majority Romanian population,
who were essentially their property, i.e. serfs (and not that friendly to the ethnic Germans either, who were however largely merchants and craftsmen, therefore more independent – as for the gypsies and Jews, well…). Balint’s mother has a generous yet very patronising way of distributing Christmas presents, and owns such vast swathes of land that she loses sight of it and falls easy prey to those who trick her and mistreat the people living there.

Still, I can’t help melting when Banffy describes the mountains so lovingly, the same mountains that I grew up with and adore. For him, they clearly represent the Garden of Eden. There are so many moments which impregnate themselves on your retina, like Balint and the love of his life Adrienne bathing naked in an ice cold stream high up in the forest:

They emerged from out of the thick trees onto the bank of a sizeable basin of water, almost circular, with steep banks dipping down to it that were so regular they might have been carved by the hand of man himself. Here the cranberries tumbled in tropical profusion; and here and there could be glimpsed bluebells, buttercups and pale green ethereal ferns. In the middle of the basin, some rocks rose above the surface of the water… glistening with the water that flowed around and over their smooth, polished surface.

Apuseni National Park, photo credit: Gabor Varga, Romaniatourism.com

I have a vested historical interest in Transylvania, of course, as some of my family originated there (then escaped across the mountains into Wallachia when things got too bad), so I found the political elements of the story fascinating. I hadn’t realised before quite how much tension there was between Hungary and the Austrians, despite the ‘K. und K.’ agreement (Emperor – Kaiser – of Austria, King of Hungary, so a dual monarchy and devolved parliament). Some of the speeches in the Budapest Parliament are probably taken word for word from the author’s own speeches and experiences of politics. Banffy (via Balint) is clearly highly critical of the infighting amongst Hungarian politicians, their focus on petty parochial issues instead of the major international threats heading their way.

It is, after all, a generally accepted rule that only some cataclysmic event or terrible danger can wipe away the preoccupations with the joys, sorrows and troubles of everyday life. The news was mulled over when they read the morning newspapers, argued and discussed in the clubs and coffee-houses and possibly even discussed at the family meals, but, while it was, everyday life went on as usual and most people only thought seriously about their work, their business interests, property, family and friends, their social activities, about love and sport and maybe a little about local politics and the myriad trifles that are and always have been everyone’s daily preoccupations. And how could it have been otherwise?

Most readers will skip the politics and be attracted to the diverse characters and family histories (be warned: there are lots of names and complex family alliances through marriage, it’s quite a challenge to keep track of them all). It is an immersive experience, you become so engrossed in the minutiae of their daily lives, anxieties and sorrows, that you are very reluctant to leave that world.

Above all, there are some real set-piece scenes that will linger in your mind long after finishing the books. Balint’s cousin Laszlo Gyeroffy starts out with such high hopes, optimism and talent and becomes a tragic figure, a victim of his own foolhardiness at the gambling tables; his death is ignoble and lonely. The scene of the death of Balint’s mother, by way of contrast, is beautiful, peaceful, as she slips away, surrounded by all she loved. Balint’s lover Adrienne is quite frankly annoying at times, with her dithering between passion and keeping up appearances, although of course we have to understand that she was living in different times and there are examples in the book of what happened to women who defied social expectations.

A captivating and unforgettable reading experience, and if it makes you want to visit Cluj, Bonțida and the Apuseni mountains, then all the better. I’m planning to go there next time I’m in Romania!

Apuseni Mountains, from Senior Voyage website.

#EU27Project: Mihail Sebastian: For Two Thousand Years

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I was not aware of this novel by Mihail Sebastian (if I thought about it at all, I thought it was an essay). It is actually somewhat uncharacteristic: most of his other works, which I loved and poured over, were romantic, idealistic, more about the artist’s place in society, avoiding loneliness, finding love. All the things guaranteed to appeal to a teenager. But they weren’t sickly sweet like Ionel Teodoreanu (alas, yes, I have to admit it now, although I loved him at the time too) or Cella Serghi. There was always an element of sharp psychological observation and a few hints of social critique (especially in the plays).

In For Two Thousand Years, the love story plays an entirely secondary role to what is predominantly social critique. The plot hardly qualifies as a plot: it describes key moments in the biography of a young Jewish architect in Romania from 1922 to about 1932, with references to his friends and acquaintances, and how they react during periods of virulent anti-semitism and more relaxed, tolerant periods.

The first few chapters are like diary entries (very similar in fact to Sebastian’s later diary, written in the run-up to the Second World War), so readers may feel somewhat discombobulated as the narrator talks about things that would have been obvious to those living in Romania at that time, but are not widely known nowadays. Anti-semitism was alive and well in Romania at the time (something they had in common with many European countries) and the first constitution of Romania (after the unification of Wallachia and Moldova) in 1866 stated quite bluntly that only Christians could be considered Romanians. The Versailles Treaty in 1918 (which led to Romania’s unification with Transylvania) had a special clause about granting equal political rights to all ethnic groups, but this was often taken to mean the Hungarians and Germans living in Transylvania rather than the Jewish population who was scattered all over the country. In 1922 a numerus clausus was introduced at universities, limiting the number of students from a particular ethnic group (guess which one?) and there were student riots and aggressions against Jewish students.

Mihail Sebastian

The narrator not only witnesses all of this, but also has discussions about the Jewish soul and Zionism with both Romanian and Jewish friends. In a sense, he is forced to discover his Jewish roots, which he hadn’t thought much about hitherto. His own family history shows him that there is no such thing as the ‘Jewish archetype’. His father’s side of the family were strong hulks, workers in the port town of Braila, while his mother’s side from North Bucovina contained sickly intellectuals, but neither were particularly urban or rich.

He has always spoken Romanian and is not sure how he feels about Yiddish or Hebrew, until he meets the elderly book collector Abraham Sulitzer, who has Cervantes, Moliere, Shakespeare and modern authors all translated into Yiddish. Abraham berates the narrator for not appreciating this language:

Jargon! Broken German! Ghetto dialect! That’s what Yiddish is to you. If I tell you, though, that it’s a language neither beautiful nor ugly, but a living language, a language that people have suffered in, sang in, expressed their thoughts and fears in for hundreds of years, you’d stare at me open-mouthed… It’s a living language, with its own nervous system, its veins, its joys and sorrows, with its homeland in the ghetto…

As a student, the narrator is dazzled by one of his professors, Ghita Blidaru (a thinly disguised Nae Ionescu, who wrote that horrible preface). Blidaru is an idealist, all about the cultural heritage of the Romanians, the superiority of the rural traditions, where the true, pure soul of the Romanians lie, harking back to an imagined glorious past. For a while, the narrator buys into his theories, but there are strong hints of his teacher’s thoughtlessness and indifference to those who are different to himself. The narrator’s surprise and disillusionment as he discovers the indifference and apathy of his friends to the plight of minorities, as they tell him that they don’t mean him of course when they launch into anti-semitic speeches, will sound very familiar to those living in Brexit Britain.

So will the desire to protest against the government, to make sure your voice gets heard, even if that is done in a truly destructive and hate-filled way. His friend Stefan Parlea, for instance (likely to be a portrait of his real-life friend at the time, Mircea Eliade, although Sebastian took care to deny that any of the characters in the book were drawn from real life etc.) justifies aggressions of the right-wing Iron Guard against Jewish shops (way before Kristallnacht) thus:

I don’t regret what happened. I regret how it ended: in indifference, forgotten… It’s great to smash windows. Any violent action is good. Of course, crying out ‘Down with the Jews!’ is idiotic, but what does it matter? You need to shake things up in this country. And if that means starting with the Jews, then so be it, it can’t be helped, but it will end with a major conflagration, an earthquake that will spare nothing. That was my ambition, that was my hope.

Camil Petrescu

The narrator survives all this, although getting sadder and sadder in the process. He becomes an architect and works on a project funded by a wealthy American to extract petrol and build a large refinery in a village in the picturesque Valea Prahovei, which leads to the destruction of the natural beauty and traditional way of life, as symbolised by the plum trees that they had to cut down. The narrator cannot help but feel that this time he is not innocent, he is actively contributing to the destruction of a way of life, but not because of his ethnicity. Here he has conversations with another friend Mircea Vieru (most probably a fictionalised version of Sebastian’s great friend and fellow writer Camil Petrescu). This is where the tensions arise, between the rational Western Cartesian values (often associated with urbanism and economic development) and the more emotional Balkanic approach, equated here with rural traditions, being a proud peasant, returning to the ‘soil that made you’, thereby excluding the Jews, because they were never ‘created’ by this soil, but are doomed to be forever migrant.

Funnily enough, when the book was published, the author was hated equally by both the Romanian and the Jewish community. Clearly, for the Romanians, he was showing an aspect of their society that they were not comfortable admitting to, but why was he considered anti-semitic? Not only because of his association with Nae Ionescu, who denounces the whole book with his virulent preface, but because Sebastian is remarkably clear-eyed and unsentimental about the Jewish propensity to be almost complacent in their victimhood. Self-doubt and self-flagellation are very Jewish characteristics, and perhaps the persecution they have suffered over the centuries has added to their feeling that they are the ‘special, chosen’ nation. He is also sceptical about the Zionist movement, and he has characters discussing the pros and cons.

The author is almost thinking out loud (which explains why I thought this was an essay):

To be persecuted isn’t just a physical misfortune, but above all an intellectual one, because it deforms your thinking bit by bit… I never enjoyed being a martyr, although I do recognise a certain Jewish propensity in myself towards that… For a long time I couldn’t understand Parlea as the enemy territory, because of all the barbed wire separating us. It’s so easy and comforting to think of your adversaries as evil and stupid…

I could go on and on, there are so many juicy quotes, but instead of posting the whole book here (in my own translation), I would urge you to read it. It has been translated into English and published by Other Press in the US and Penguin Modern Classics in the UK. Don’t expect a conventional novel with a satisfying story arc, but do expect a disarmingly patient, honest, puzzled account of the rise of fascism. An inquiring mind that seeks to understand others, even when what they say is indefensible, as well as a scrupulously honest dissection of his own beliefs and blind spots.

Calea Victoriei, one of the main boulevards in Bucharest, in 1930. Sebastian lived for a while in a studio flat on this (long) street.

For me, a complete revelation, adding to the portrait of the talented, dreamy, idealistic young man that I knew from his novels and plays. As a Romanian, I cannot help but be ashamed of the venom that Nae Ionescu spits at him (and compare it with some of the things I have heard lately being spouted about gays in the recent referendum about family and Orthodox values):

It is an assimilationist illusion, it is the illusion of so many Jews who sincerely believe that they are Romanian … Remember that you are Jewish! Are you Iosif Hechter, a human being from Brăila on the Danube? No, you are a Jew from Brăila on the Danube.