WWWednesday 16 October 2019

It’s been a long time since I participated in this weekly meme, hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words

The three Ws are:

  • What are you currently reading?
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently reading:

Will Carver: Nothing Important Happened Today – A dark thriller about suicide pacts of people who belong to a cult – even if they don’t know they do. I studied so-called cults for my Ph.D; it’s a term that I really objecto to, because, as the author quotes right at the start of the book: ‘Nobody joins a cult. Nobody joins something they think is going to hurt them. You join a religious organsiation, you join a political movement, and you join with people that you really like.’ For #Orentober reading with Orenda Books.

Sébastien Meier: Le Nom du père (The Name of the Father) – To continue with my Swiss in October reading, another francophone Swiss writer, despite his Germanic sounding name, with a psychological thriller.

Always in the background: Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries (the German edition) – trying to read one entry per day, although it usually ends up being 4 days’ worth of entries in one day and then a break.

Just finished:

Alex Capus: Almost Like Spring – part of my Swiss in October reading. The story of the two most notorious bank robbers in Basel or perhaps the whole of Switzerland. I had no idea this was based on a true story and was about to give it brownie points for the stylistic innovation of making it sound like it’s a documentary, with quotes from eyewitnesses and people reminiscing after the event.

Camil Petrescu for the #1930Club

Reading next:

Nicola Barker: The Cauliflower – From one guru to another; and finally a woman writer after a very male-centred week of reading.

China Mieville: Embassytown – because I think it might be a nice counterpoint to the Meier novel, with crime fiction as a pretext for uncovering so much more.

Looking ahead at November, because some of my blogger friends so kindly reminded me that it will be German Literature Month, I have the following possibilities in mind:

#1930Club: Camil Petrescu

1930 was a bit of a bumper year for great literary works, all around the world, so I couldn’t resist taking part in this reading club hosted by Simon and Karen this week.

My choice is a book which is very well-known in Romania (required reading, I believe, in secondary school): Camil Petrescu’s Ultima noapte de dragoste, întâia noapte de război ( Last Night Of Love, First Night of War). It is considered one of the first modern psychological novels in Romanian literature and combines the story of a marriage beset by jealousy and lack of trust, as well as horrific scenes from the First World War (in which the author himself participated). Camil Petrescu believed that ‘humans are at their most authentic when they are confronted by love and death’ and the entire novel is a close exploration of one such individual drive to extremes by both love and the imminence of death.

To summarise the story: Stefan Gheorghidiu is a philosophy student who is flattered by the attentions of one of the most beautiful fellow students at the University of Bucharest, the angelic blonde Ela. They get married, much against the advice of their respective families, since they are penniless. But then one of Stefan’s uncles dies and leaves them an inheritance significant enough to allow them to enter ‘high society’. And everything starts to change. Stefan is not keen on the corruption and cruelty he finds in this new environment. Much to his horror, he discovers his wife is more materialistic and shallow than he had imagined and he starts suspecting her of infidelities. When Romania enters the war in 1916, he is on the frontline in the Carpathians and is considering desertion in order to have one last meeting with his wife, to convince himself that she does still love him and is faithful to him. He does not quite manage to allay his fears regarding Ela, but when his battalion finally plunges into war after a long period of waiting, he encounters so many traumatic situations and losses that he realises just how petty and meaningless his worries had been.

The two-volume edition my parents owned. A rather eloquent, minimalist cover.

Back in my teens, when I first read the book, of course I was more interested in the love bits. The reverse has happened when I reread it now. (Just like with War and Peace, where the girls broadly speaking liked the peace and love bits and the boys liked the battlescenes). The love scenes, particularly one infamous one where he tries to ‘teach’ his wife philosophy while she is being kittenish around him, wearing a more or less translucent nightie, seemed both cloying and unbearably patronising. Overall, Stefan is not a nice man, he jumps far too quickly to conclusions. As soon as he sees his wife flirting with a man, he runs off to a brothel or takes up with another woman to ‘punish’ her. He is far too prone to see women as mere objects of his desire, put on earth to flatter him and obliged to listen to his opinions, even commenting how his wife’s body has gone all flabby in her old age – possibly her mid to late 20s at most! It is quite possible that Ela does end up cheating on him, but boy, does he ever deserve it!

The main protagonist no doubt reflects the chauvinistic culture of his time (and his country), and Mihail Sebastian’s journal indicates that Gheorghidiu may have had some of the less desirable traits of his creator (the two of them were friends, but Sebastian can be quite critical of him). Nevertheless, I rather think that Camil Petrescu deliberately made his ‘hero’ so unheroic and so unlikeable. This is a man who excels at tormenting himself, filling his head with all sorts of fanciful notions, over-analysing every gesture (with friends and family too, not just with his wife). He is far too enamoured with his own belly-button, and it’s only when he is finally exposed to the relentlessness of war, when he sees the futility and horror and sheer repetitiveness of it, as well as the appalling organisation of the army on the frontline, that he finally starts to move beyond his immediate concerns and show empathy with others.

And yet there are moments when you really warm to the young man’s initial idealism, which soon gets crushed into cynicism by the corruption and lies he sees all around him in a country where he considers that ‘it’s easier to be mediocre or a rogue, and much harder to be a decent, honest person’. After the war starts, his cynicism gives way to shock, black humour and, occasionally, despair. There are some brilliant off-the-cuff remarks which make Stefan more sympathetic:

When it’s in a farmer’s interest to drown his dog, he will convince himself gradually that the dog has rabies.

Radulescu has gathered his troops to give them a lecture about Patriotism. We all consider it a brilliant parody, until we realise, to our surprise, that he is deadly serious about it.

The ending is too abrupt and I’d have liked to see what happened to Stefan after the war, but in subject matter it reminds me of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End. There are also similarities with Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front in the descriptions of painfully tenuous advances and retreats, or, in more recent days, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. The French translators also say there is a hint of Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity in the novel.

What really stood out for me is the severe criticism that the author makes (via his main character) about the lack of Romanian preparation for the war. On the very first page, he sets the scene:

Ten pigs with sturdy snouts could have dug up the whole fortifications on the Prahova valley in half a day, with all of its barbed wire and ‘wolf holes’. The wolf holes were the kind of holes that children make in the sand when they are playing, but with spikes in them. The Army General HQ in 1916 – about the time of the Battle of Verdun – were convinced that the enemy would carelessly step right into these holes and would get spiked either in the soles of their feet or in their backs. The whole country spoke with respect of the ‘fortified valley’ in Prahova: the parliament, the political parties, the press.

There are several memorable scenes from the war, no doubt taken from Petrescu’s personal experience: coming face to face with enemy fire in a tight place and understanding your own cowardice; having a discussion with a German prisoner and realising that both of them have been brainwashed into despising the ‘enemy’ and believing their own propaganda; freezing at night without adequate clothes or blankets and having to sleep covered by the other men in his regiment to keep warm. All the more surprising then, that just a few years after he published this novel, the author was temporarily seduced by the nationalist rhetoric of the Iron Guard (the far-right militaristic group concerned about ‘ethnic purity’ and Romanian exceptionalism).

Although the novel has not been translated into English, there is a French translation by Laure Hinckel, published by Edition des Syrtes in 2006. There is also a 1980 film adaptation (considerably different from the book), directed by Sergiu Nicolaescu, which might be available online with subtitles.

#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.

First World War Literature: Lesser-Known Works

The 100 year anniversary of the beginning of Battle of the Somme (it dragged on for 4-5 endless months) should show the monumental stupidity and futility of war and the dangers of heeding the siren call of nationalism. Thy advanced all of five miles during those months and suffered nearly 60,000 casualties on the first day alone, over a million deaths (on both sides) over that period.

The First World War was a war of empire and young men were used as cannon fodder, so, not surprisingly, it was also a time of ‘rude awakening’ and cognitive dissonance for those young men. There has been a steady stream of literature depicting the horrors but above all the psychological torments of that war. I remember reading Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘ when I was 12 and shivering. If that doesn’t make you a pacifist, nothing ever will!

Here are some lesser-known novels about the First World War, which truly question in some depth the role of individuals in history, how history shapes each one of us, how we become its pawns and whether we have any choice in the matter.

Love my old 2 volume edition of it, in black-white-red.
Love my old 2 volume edition of it, in black-white-red.

Camil Petrescu: Ultima noapte de dragoste, întîia noapte de război (Last Night of Love, First Night of War) – 1930

Ștefan Gheorghidiu is a rather self-important, naive young man who falls in love and marries Ela, a woman who seems his polar opposite in every respect. He becomes increasingly jealous and suspects she is only interested in his fortune, but war intervenes and he is sent to the front.

Many present-day readers feel the book delves too much into Ștefan’s tortured psychology, but that was precisely what I loved about it.  As he is confronted with the harsh realities of war, he realises just how petty his own problems are and becomes aware of the greater tragedy and absurdity of life. This book is very similar in theme to the next on the list below. It hasn’t been translated into English, but there is a French version of it.

Vintage edition of Parade's End tetralogy.
Vintage edition of Parade’s End tetralogy.

Ford Madox Ford: Parade’s End – 1924-28

This book doesn’t describe war scenes in great detail either – rather, it’s about the psychological effects of war on the people who live through it, on the front and beyond. Christopher Tietjens and his flight wife are very similar to the couple in Petrescu’s book, but the style is far more modernist and experimental. Tietjens is more infuriating than Stefan – a big block of an emotionally stunted man who seems to be a passive recipient of things, rather than over-agonising mentally. And yet, both novels show that sex and war are two sides of the same coin: when passion becomes obsession and we become overly focused on just one thought, one person, one ideology.

Original 1929 edition in German.
Original 1929 edition in German.

Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front – 1929

Rather better known than the others featured here, but still not quite as popular in the English-speaking world as it deserves to be. It shows the war from ‘the other side of the barricades’, the German side, and just how unwilling and disenchanted the average soldier could be about being a cog in a very large imperial machine which had little to do with him or his life. The author makes it clear that he wants to tell the story of ‘a generation of men who even though they escaped the shells, were destroyed by the war’. The filth and squalor, the boredom and random cruelty of trench warfare are shown here quite graphically.

Padurea-spanzuratilor-402Liviu Rebreanu: Pădurea spânzuraţilor (Forest of the Hanged) – 1922

This is in some ways the most shocking of the books on the list. For those unfamiliar with Romanian history, before the First World War Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. All the ethnic Romanian men were recruited and fought on several fronts, including against Romania, which was on the side of the Allies. The author himself was considered a deserter for leaving Transylvania during the war and settling in Romania, but the real inspiration behind the story was the tragic fate of his brother, who was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army and executed for treason for refusing to fight against his fellow Romanians. The Forest of the Hanged is a haunting image, apparently based on a picture of a forest filled with Czech soldiers who had been hanged for treason (for refusing to fight against their compatriots behind the Italian front).  It’s not great battle scenes, however: it’s about one man’s internal journey and the awakening of his conscience. There is an English translation from 1986 – out of print now, obviously.

If any publisher would like to reconsider a translation, I’m happy to offer my services. I love this book so much!

Couv_1102Didier Daeninckx: Le der des ders (The Last of the Last) – 1984

The title alludes to the fact that the First World War was initially known as the ‘War to End All Wars’. So far from the truth!

This is almost a crime story set in the confused, anarchic period just after the end of the war. A former colonel hires a former soldier turned detective (René Griffon) for an apparently banal case of suspected adultery. But what Griffon uncovers is a wide-ranging case of corruption and conspiracy, which mocks all of the idealistic principles of war and fatherland. Similar to Lemaitre’s Au-revoir la-haut, but predating it by 30 years. There is also an immensely evocative BD version illustrated by Tardi, an English version has been recently published as ‘A Very Profitable War’ by Melville House .