Mihail Sebastian: A Bit of Background

I’ve become immersed in the world of Mihail Sebastian after reading his novel For Two Thousand Years, his pamphlet How I Became a Hooligan, moving straight onto his Journals, which take up where the previous two left off (1935-1944). I would continue with his plays and novels too, but sadly they are buried somewhere in my parents’ shelves in Romania.

In many ways, Sebastian was the Romanian Orwell, remarkably clear-eyed about politics and social justice, not prone to extremes, and with the ability to articulate so well the pain of the world that he lived in. I have so much to say about him and his writing, that I will dedicate several posts to him.

First, a little bit of background. Mihail Sebastian was born Iosif Hechter, in a Jewish family in the port town on the Danube Braila in 1907. He went to study Law in Bucharest (and Paris) and soon became involved in the lively literary and artistic milieu at the time, which included Mircea Eliade, Emil Cioran, Eugen Ionescu, Constantin Noica, Camil Petrescu, Cella Serghi and Geo Bogza.

I was born in Romania, and I am Jewish. That makes me a Jew, and a Romanian. For me to go around and join conferences demanding that my identity as a Jewish Romanian be taken seriously would be as crazy as the Lime Trees on the island where I was born to form a conference demanding their rights to be Lime Trees. As for anyone who tells me that I’m not a Romanian, the answer is the same: go talk to the trees, and tell them they’re not trees.

Like most of his contemporaries, he fell under the spell of charismatic philosophy professor and journalist Nae Ionescu, who convinced him to join his journal Cuvântul, which became one of the cultural trendsetters in the late 1920s. Sebastian published two volumes of prose in the early 1930s but was generally better known as a theatre and music critic. And then he wrote the novel For Two Thousand Years, in which he describes what it was like being a Jewish student during that period in Romania. I’ll discuss that book in more detail in another post, but here is the back story of how he became notorious.

He asked his favourite professor and mentor for a foreword to his novel and Nae Ionescu unleashed one of the most virulent anti-semitic attacks on his protégé that you could possibly imagine. Devastated by this betrayal, and after much soul-searching, Sebastian decided to publish the book with the preface. It became the most talked about, scandalous book of 1934, with the author being accused of being both right-wing and left-wing, simultaneously an anti-semitic traitor to his race and a whingeing Zionist with a chip on his shoulder.

Sebastian with the actress Leni Caler, the great unrequited love who inspired his first play.

With a nationalistic government in place in 1937 and then with the outbreak of the Second World War, there were more and more restrictions for Jews in their professional life. Sebastian was no longer allowed to practise law, or write for national papers, or have his plays performed. Lesser men might have crumbled, but Sebastian continued writing. Most of the work for which he was remembered for decades was actually written between 1934 and 1944. In his novels and plays he was a real romantic, despite never quite finding fulfilment in love in real life. In my teens I adored the novels The Town with Acacia Trees about a young girl’s emotional awakening, and The Accident, a love story where the nice girl does get the man in the end, even if he was pining after an impossible, difficult love. She does so with a little help from a mountain chalet and some skiing lessons (which describes my youth perfectly).

His plays are even better, all are comedies but with a layer of wistfulness and missed opportunities. The Holiday Game is about a group of male friends on holiday who are all in love with the same girl. For a short while, they can pretend to forget stark reality, but alas, the holidays finish far too soon. The Nameless Star is about the embryonic romance between a shy astronomer and the young lady who gets off the train at his station. They spend a magical night together and he names a star he has just discovered after her. But when morning comes, she goes back to her old way of life. There is a French film version of this, starring Marina Vlady as Mona.

He died in 1945, just as the war was ending, at the age of 38, while crossing the street to catch a tram on the way to give his first lecture at university. Although I regret all the books he didn’t have time to write, I can’t help thinking that maybe it was for the best. After so many years of suffering and watching his country succumb to right-wing military regime, I’m not sure he could have coped with a cruel descent into Communist dictatorship.

Tatiana Salem Levy: The House in Smyrna (transl. Alison Entrekin)

housesmyrnaBrazil is in the news today with the impeachment of its president – and will be in the news soon again with the Olympics (and will all the stadiums get finished in time).  Its troubled history and on-off economy are easy to mock; the violence inside and outside its favelas is dramatic. And yet it also remains a country of extraordinary beauty, passion, music and literature. I’ve vowed many times to learn Portuguese and to read its authors in the original. Luckily, for my sanity, there are splendid translators helping me to enjoy Brazilian literature, although very little contemporary literature gets translated. Is there a fear that it will not appeal? Certainly, the recent crime novel by Raphael Montes was strange and unsettling, but a refreshingly different read in a landscape that has often become rather uniform.

The same can be said for Tatiana Salem Levy’s exploration of cultural and personal identity The House in Smyrna. Apparently, this book was initially intended to be a dissertation on literature and family history, but Levy’s Ph. D. supervisor suggested that she write it as a novel instead.  The novel was entitled ‘The Keys to the House’ in the original Portuguese. Since its publication in 2007 (year in which it won a prestigious Brazilian prize for best debut), it has been revised and edited by the author prior to its translation into English. The author speaks English very well, as I found out when I saw her a couple of years ago at Lavigny, and she works as a translator, so she may have streamlined the text to make it more palatable to English readers.

Palatable, perhaps, but not easy. The narrative is fragmented, very much like Brazilian sensibility itself, which, the author says ‘if there is such a thing, it’s all about mixed identities’. The author is reluctant to close any doors, she doesn’t answer questions, merely asks more. It feels like she wants to allow the readers to find their own path through the novel and formulate their own interpretation of the story. So below is my personal interpretation of it.

A young woman lies helpless on her bed in Rio de Janeiro, filled with self-hatred and self-pity, victim to some kind of wasting disease. She has inherited a key to the house in Smyrna which her Jewish grandfather had left decades before as a young man. Her mission is to find the house and try the key. At first, she has no intention of doing that, but after her mother’s death, she somehow hauls herself off her sickbed and flies off to Istanbul. We then trace her route through Turkey, all her travel experiences, then her return via Lisbon, where she was born (her parents having lived there in exile during the dictatorship in Brazil). At the same time, we have flashbacks to her loving yet complicated relationship with her mother, and also a passionate but increasingly violent relationship with a lover.

By this point, it was getting very confusing: was the protagonist severely disabled or was she able to travel? What happened first, what next, all those switches between time frames made me nervous? And then I came across the following quote and the mystery deepened but also resolved itself:

This journey is a lie: I’ve never left this musty bed. My body rots a little more each day, I’m riddled with pustules, and soon I’ll be nothing but bones… How could I undertake such a journey? I have no joints; my bones are fused to one another. The only way I could leave this bed is if someone were to carry, but who would pick up such a repugnant body? What for? I have the silence and solitude of an entire family in me, of generations and generations.

This immediately gave an added poignancy to the story. We don’t know if the travel is real. It could be a pilgrimage in her mind, wishful thinking, an attempt to understand herself and the people around her while powerless to make the actual journey. Perhaps we are doomed to never quite understand our full heritage. Perhaps the paralysis is metaphorical: the equivalent of ‘writer’s block’, the need to find out more about the past in order to start building the future. The key is of course a metaphor, perhaps a very obvious one: the key to the narrator’s life, her sense of purpose.

tatiana-salem-levy-a-chave-de-casa-en-portugues-807711-MLA20602118566_022016-FThere is a throbbing, raw, emotional style to this kind of writing, which reminds me of Clarice Lispector and of Elena Ferrante. Unashamedly candid about sex, lyrical in the description of places the author visits, musical in its repetitions and waterfalls of sentences. Yet the pathos is gently tempered with down-to-earth humour. When the narrator proclaims that sense of loss of identity in exile:

I was born in exile, and that’s why I am the way I am, without a homeland, without a name. That is why I am solid, unpolished, still rough. I was born away from myself, away from my land — but, when it comes down to it, who am I? What land is mine?

we have the voice of the mother cutting down her fanciful pronouncements to size:

There you go again, narrating through a prism of pain. That isn’t what I told you. Exile isn’t necessarily full of suffering. In our case it wasn’t… We were in Portugal, eating well, speaking our own language, meeting people, working, having fun…

You can listen to an interview with the author in English on Australian radio, which I think helps greatly to unravel the mystery of this novel.

ravenscragCoincidentally, I was reading another novel of fragments and wildly different time frames just a few days later, Québécois author Alain Farah’s novel Ravenscrag. Initially exhilarating and intriguing, hinting at some mysterious disappearances and indoctrination, it ultimately disappointed me. By not exploring some of its most promising possibilities, it did not quite fulfill its promise and left me unsatisfied.