Romanian Family Saga: Ionel Teodoreanu (Part 1)

I was going to write just one blog post about this, but it is turning out to be far too long, so I am dividing it up into two parts: Part 1 is about the author and the period the book is set in, as well as giving an overview of the three volumes. Part 2 will discuss the characters, gender and class, as well as literary style.

Under the Influence

It is almost impossible to overstate how much of an influence the Medeleni trilogy had on our childhood in 1980s Romania, although it was a book published in the early 1920s, depicting a period just before and just after the First World War (without actually talking much about that war at all). Maybe we were starved of nostalgic, escapist types of literature and depictions of children who could be lively, naughty, rebellious. Maybe we were just at that blushingly adolescent stage of writing bad poetry and falling in love with the wrong people. For me, as for many others of my age, it must have been the casual acceptance of travelling, living and studying abroad presented in the book, and the openness to foreign languages, literature and music, at a time when we were forcibly cut off from the rest of the world.

Suffice it to say that we used ‘which character are you?’ test just like the children of today might use the Hogwarts houses quiz to determine compatibility and alliances (I was obviously an Olguţa, so my account of the characters might be slightly biased). We played Potemkin and Kamimura battles in the schoolyard, although we knew nothing about the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Many of us had relatives in the countryside and spent our summers there, so the fact that this was a privileged family with a summer estate did not strike us as too strange. We all craved such close and understanding friendships… the only other series of books whose popularity rivalled Medeleni’s was the Cireșarii series, written in the 1950s-60s, a sort of socialist Famous Fivers (we loved them for their travel adventures and friendship).

However, it turns out we were not the first generation to succumb to the charms of Ionel Teodoreanu. He was born in 1897 in a reasonably well-to-do Moldovan family in Iasi. His father was a lawyer, his mother a piano teacher at the Conservatoire, his brother was also a writer and journalist. Ionel was a brilliant student and lawyer himself, married early (his wife was also a writer), had twins, and published pretty much a book per year during his creative period (mid-1920s to just after the war). La Medeleni was his first major work, published in serialised form, when the author was in his mid to late twenties, and it became an instant hit. Literary critics were not always kind to him (see the Style section), but he was an undeniable bestseller. La Medeleni has never been out of print, and has had many covers and different editions over the decades. His later novels never quite recaptured that early success, but he remained popular, especially among the ladies (he was good-looking and romantic, what more could you want?) He stopped writing after the Communists came to power in 1948 (both he and his wife were actively anti-Communist) and died in 1954.

In an interview dating from 1932, Teodoreanu describes how he spends most of the summer in a friend’s garden, writing from morning to evening, because the rest of the year he has to work (both as a lawyer and as director of the National Theatre in Iasi), and how being married is ideal for a writer, because it ‘simplifies’ his life. (His twin boys were eleven years old at the time, so I am guessing they were spending their summers mostly with their mother or grandparents and not allowed to complicate their father’s life.)

The author explicitly set out to describe an idyllic rural way of life that he feared was already disappearing. In the first volume, in particular, there is a similarity to the almost dream-like, yearning atmosphere of Le Grand Meaulnes. There are many references in the book to the differences between fast-paced, sharp-tongued, quite urban province of Muntenia (with its capital, Bucharest) and the softer, slower way of talking and moving in Moldova, with its predominantly rural landscapes. Iasi was a town proud of its cultural heritage, particularly its literary past, but in the newly unified Greater Romania after 1918, the author fears it will become a second-rate provincial town (he himself moved to Bucharest in 1938).

Plot, period and location

No fear of spoilers, since you will have read this book already if you are Romanian, and there is not a chance in the world that it will be translated. So I can give you the whole plot, prepare your tissues now! [Addendum: I discovered after writing Part 2 that Histria Books in the US does have a translation of At Medeleni coming out, so if you intend to read it and do NOT want spoilers, please skip the rest of this post.]

A signed first edition of the second volume of the book, dating from 1926.

The first volume (‘The Uncertain Border’) is set in 1907 on the country estate of Medeleni in the Romanian province of Moldova, not that far from Iasi, where the Deleanu family are spending their summer. Mr Deleanu is a lawyer, his wife is the actual owner of the estate, as a descendant of a family of Moldovan bojars – landed gentry. They have two children, dreamy mother’s favourite Dănuț (11) and sarcastic, hyperactive ten-year-old Olguţa, who is the apple of her father’s eye. As the story opens, they are welcoming ten-year-old Monica, shy and well-behaved, into their home, whom they will foster after the death of her last surviving relative, her grandmother. Not much happens in the book, or rather, only the typical mischief of children on holiday, and Monica harbouring a secret passion for Dănuț, but by the end of the book the uncle from Germany (nicknamed Herr Direktor) offers to take the boy with him to study in Bucharest, while Olguţa’s beloved family coachman/groom, the grandfatherly Moș Gheorghe, dies.

Teodoreanu has as good an ear for children’s dialogue and sibling rivalry as Elizabeth Jane Howard, as well as a knack for the well-placed detail of daily life. In fact, it was the detailed descriptions of daily life in the country home before the war in the Cazalet Chronicles which made me pick up the Medeleni trilogy again. Here too we are in the home of a fairly wealthy family, with servants, a vanished world that most of us are unfamiliar with, and yet there are so many little scenes that will sound familiar to those of us who spent any part of our childhood somewhat unsupervised and unscheduled, whether in the Romanian countryside or not – there is a sort of timelessness and classlessness to these memories. We find here descriptions of thin white sheets soaked in cold water and pinned to the windows to cool down the rooms enough to allow for some sleep. The children eat juicy watermelons and get told off by their mother for bad table manners. The children invent all sorts of excuses for wearing a new piece of clothing. They want to play at being grown-up and do what grown-ups do:

Mum dearest, please make me a coffee.

Beg your pardon?

Please, Mum!

Coffee isn’t suitable for children.

Why not?

It makes you nervous.

So why do you drink it then?

… It helps me with the digestion.

Don’t I have a digestion too?

You’ve got one without any coffee.

And you have nerves without any coffee, dear mother, Olguta whispered suavely.

The uncle comes to visit, bringing presents and gossip about the old days, they all dress up, run in and out of the kitchens and annoy the servants. Dănuț plays horsies in the garden with Monica, using her long blonde plaits as reins. Later, in a fit of spite against his sister, who he thinks put Monica’s doll in his bed to tease him, he cuts off the doll’s hair and never finds the forlorn little love note that Monica had put in its pocket.

A prettier edition of the trilogy

In the second volume (‘Paths’) we skip forward seven years and move to Bucharest for a while. Dănuț is about to start his final year of secondary school, living in his own independent little annexe next to his uncle’s house. He is very much in love with Adina, a coquettish married older woman, much to the dismay of his good friend Mircea, who is of a timid and anxious disposition. Dănuț persists in seeing Adina as an innocent, darling little girl (helped no doubt by her acting skills and diminutive proportions) and writes endless bad poetry to her – mostly in French, like the poets he so much admires. He has neglected writing to his mother and the patient Monica, who has become his friend and confidante, although he seems blind to the fact that she is in love with him. Olguța storms off to Bucharest to bring her brother to his senses, although she is much subtler about it than we might expect, and wins all of her brother’s classmates over with her frank, impulsive style.

Later in this volume, all of the actors, including their new schoolfriends, gather for the summer at Medeleni again. Mircea joins them, falls in love with Olguța, who also has another admirer in the shape of young cousin Puiu, who is, however, both attracted and repelled by superficial and highly-sexed classmate of the girls, Rodica. Rodica pines after Dănuț, who initially pines after Adina, but then falls under the spell of a neighbour of theirs, Ioana Palla, whose brother-in-law is a famous painter who ends up with Adina in Venice, in something of a Dangerous Liaisons type move. This is perhaps the weakest part of the trilogy, mostly because it tries to be a Bildungsroman as well as an insight into the artistic psyche of … let’s face it, a rather green and callow youth, with many pages given over to his prose-poems (all fashionable in France at the time, but rather derivative and pointless in this context), or to descriptions of womanly flesh and eyes and pouts. Despite its flaws, it’s a very funny volume as well, with lots of skewering of the pretentiousness and budding sexual feelings of adolescence. Ahough Dan might be the author’s alter ego, he has no qualms in presenting him warts and all to the reader: the universal teenage boy – self-absorbed, easily seduced, vain, a wannabe artist or writer, derivative, imitative, unable to quite believe in or control his talents.

But this is the summer of 1914 and of course the threat of war is on the horizon. Although Romania remained neutral until 1916, we know that the young boys we have gently mocked and grown to love will be conscripted very soon. As a side note, Teodoreanu’s younger brother died in the war, which is perhaps the reason why he chose not to show the war and its effect directly in this book, nor kill off any of the young men.

The third volume (‘Windswept’ or ‘Between the Winds’) is set in 1922 and suddenly a lot of the playfulness has gone. The girls have been to study in Paris: Monica has completed a Ph.D. on the poetry of Villon, while Olguța has trained as a concert pianist, and they are on their way back to Romania on board a ship, unhurriedly making their way from Marseille to Constanța. Dan is following in his father’s footsteps as a lawyer, but struggles with his conscience and idealism, and would much rather spend all of his time writing (this time in Romanian, rather than French). Mircea has become a teacher, a journalist and is starting to get involved in politics. Puiu too is a lawyer, of the more materialistic and earthy kind.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the family, Olguța (still known by her diminutive, although her brother prefers to be called Dan now) has fallen in love with Vania, a distant relative on her mother’s side, with family and property in Basarabia (the part of Moldova which until 1918 belonged to the Russians). He disappeared during the war, feared dead, but in a rather far-fetched plot twist, Olguța finds him on board the ship. He is wanted by the Russians as a possible deserter and political agitator, he has been travelling the world like a vagabond, and he needs to sort out his inheritance and land, which now is within Romanian borders, plus he is twenty years older than Olguța, but she is adamant she wants to be with him no matter where he might go. She briefly joins him for a few days in the very depressing, run-down town of Bălți (now in the Republic of Moldova), which Teodoreanu describes in very unflattering terms – but which is transformed of course by their love and happiness. They promise each other to elope to America together on a ship from Constanța on the 14th of September.

Most of the action then takes place in the Deleanu house, as they prepare to receive their beloved daughters back home. Once again we have various memorable set-piece scenes: a furious and funny present-giving ceremony, in which the servants aren’t forgotten either; or the hunting scene by the lake. However, everything is tinged with melancholy, not just because Olguța is secretly planning to leave them, but also because back in Paris, she had an operation to remove a lump from her breast and was told that if it reappeared, she might be in trouble. It does reappear, and she remembers that her grandmother too died of breast cancer, but not before she was taken to all sorts of clinics abroad, having various chunks of her flesh chopped off, and suffering more and more pain. She cannot bear to see herself or her family go through this ritual of false hope, so on the 12th of December, in Moș Gheorghe’s old house where she enjoyed so many carefree moments in her childhood, she writes her farewell letters and commits suicide. She asks Monica to go to the port in her place to explain to Vania what happened and ask for the engagement ring he was going to bring to that meeting, the only piece of jewellery with which she wants to be buried. But Vania does not show up at their meeting place. Instead, he wrote a letter, which arrived after Olguța’s death, to explain that he could not tear her away from her family and allow her to give everything up for an old footloose vagrant like himself.

One of the worst series of book covers that I’ve ever seen for La Medeleni.

But the novel does not end on this dramatic note. The epilogue takes place a couple of years later. The family, needless to say, has been devastated by the loss of their daughter, although at least they have the consolation of seeing Monica and Dan get married. Dan hasn’t been able to write at all since his sister’s death, and tries to work harder than ever as a lawyer, to allow his poor broken father some time to rest. Monica is teaching at a girls’ school. Mircea has married and settled for mediocrity. He finds the solemn vow that he wrote in his youth, when he first fell in love with Olguța, that if he ever were to become ‘like everyone else’, he would commit suicide – or else accept that his real soul is broken and his wings have been cut off… and quietly burns it to cinders. Saddest of all, the family has decided to sell Medeleni. The parents can no longer bear to go there, the memories are too painful, while Dan realises that he cannot afford to maintain the vast property, even if he were to work non-stop. The buyers are none other than vulgar Rodica and her rich banker husband, an act of revenge for being rather summarily dismissed from Medeleni in her youth (after trying to seduce Dan). In the Cazalet Chronicles, there was one last gathering at Home Place before it went on sale, but in this book, it’s just Dan and Monica spending one last day going through the empty house, haunted but also strengthened by their memories.

The days of the landed gentry are over, Teodoreanu seems to be saying. The hard-working professional classes can no longer afford to own such properties – and it’s the wild capitalists, the financiers, the industrialists and nouveau riche who are taking over. Banffy’s Transylvanian trilogy offers a similar sense of nostalgia in describing a vanished world, albeit one with far more politics and protagonists facing higher stakes overall.

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 .

Pierre Lemaitre: Au revoir là-haut

AurevoirFrance’s most prestigious literary prize is the Prix Goncourt. It’s awarded each year in November, and (like the Booker in the UK and the Pulitzer in the US) there is much suspense beforehand… and much dismay and controversy afterwards. 2013 saw the win of Pierre Lemaitre’s World War One epic. I had previously read (and enjoyed) Lemaitre’s crime fiction and it seems to me that much of the consternation about his win has to do with genre snobbery. This book is just too readable, too much of a page-turner to be a novel of real literary merit… it’s just not ‘difficult’ enough.

And that is exactly why I loved it. It makes sense of a difficult subject like the end of the First World War, with its inglorious aftermath of black marketeering, petty cons, appalling treatment of war veterans, rising materialism and cynicism. The first sentence immediately sets the scene:

Ceux qui pensaient que cette guerre finirait bientôt étaient tous morts depuis longtemps. De la guerre, justement.

Those who thought the war would soon be over had all died long ago. In the war, of course. (my transl.)

But it also shows just how difficult this book will be to translate. The short ‘de la guerre’ could mean ‘because of’ the war, ‘from’ the war or ‘in’ the war. The title of the book itself is taken from the farewell letter written by a young soldier Jean Blanchard, who was unjustly executed for treason in 1914: ‘Till we meet again (up there), my dear wife…’. I will be very curious to see what catchy but faithful title the publisher will be able to come up with.

In the very last days of the war, the egotistic Lieutenant d’Aulnay-Pradelle (that double-barrel name is very important to him and says it all about this unpleasant character) orders a pointless patrol and attack which nearly kills two soldiers, the artistic Edouard and the practical Albert. Edouard saves Albert’s life and, in turn, Albert tends to Edouard in hospital. The latter is so badly injured that he can no longer talk and becomes hooked on morphine. He wants to disappear, to take on another identity, even if that causes distress to his family, and Albert helps him with that. This odd couple then try to survive in a post-war world which is all rhetoric of gratitude towards the ‘poilus’ (the soldiers of WW1), but in practice has little kindness or compensation for them, and makes no effort to help them to reintegrate into society. So they embark upon a rather desperate con trick to make money, but they turn out to be nothing like as ruthless as their nemesis Pradelle proves to be with the war graves.

pierrelemaitreMuch of this story is true, but the author brings forth his meticulous research with a light touch. The characters and the situations flow with the ease, satire and excitement of a soap opera. But a soap opera that is more reminiscent of Balzac and Zola, with macabre moments, very dark humour and real cruelty, as well as rather beautifully written passages. A book which reminds us that wars can turn any of us into monsters, and that is consequences are prolonged and unsavoury. It’s a long book, but it just swept me along, made me growl and laugh (bitterly) and cry. Lemaitre really is a master storyteller.

MacLehose Press has already published two of Lemaitre’s crime novels (see my reviews here and here) and hopes to bring out a translation of this book too soon. I also had the pleasure of interviewing the author and was entranced with his answers.