You know you love it: seeing where this daisy chain of random literary connections will take you every month, as hosted by the lovely Kate on her blog. This month we start with a Beverly Cleary book, in honour of the recently deceased author. I cannot remember if I’ve read Beezus and Ramona, but I know there were some Ramona books in the school library, even though we were officially an English school (in practice, a very international one).
Another book that I found and devoured in the school library was Gone with the Wind, when I was about eleven, and thought the Southern States during the American Civil War were terribly romantic. (Full disclosure: As a child, I was also a Royalist in the English Civil War and a supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Maybe just a fan of lost causes?)
A book about a very different, more recent and long-lasting civil war is one I am reading this month, namely White Masks by Elias Khoury, about Lebanon. Beirut, with its pleasant climate and spectacular Corniche coastal road, was considered a jewel of a city before all the fighting started, often dubbed the Paris of the Orient.
Another city that was supposedly called ‘Little Paris’ during the interwar period was Bucharest. For an incomparable (if rather depressing) look at life in Bucharest during the 1930s and then the Second World War, I would recommend – of course, you were expecting this, weren’t you? – Mihail Sebastian’s Journal (1935-1944), available in English translation by Patrick Camiller.
Another, very different Sebastian is the link to my next book, namely Therapy, the debut novel by German bestselling author Sebastian Fitzek, whose big boast was that this novel managed to topple the seemingly relentless No. 1 ranking of The Da Vinci Code in Germany in 2006.
Another huge bestseller that you may not have heard of is She: A History of Adventure by H. Rider Haggard, published in 1887, which has sold over 83 million copies worldwide. Apparently a Victorian tale of archaelogy and adventure, it follows a professor and his colleague on a journey prompted by a shard of ancient pottery. Sounds very Indiana Jones (and of course reinforces the idea of white Western superiority).
A week or two ago, someone mentioned George Sand’s many novels on Twitter, and I remembered vaguely that Indiana was the name of one of them. The novel is set partly in France and partly in the French colony of Réunion, it is a story of passion, adultery, betrayal and loyal friendship. Very dramatic indeed and this cover seems to indicate a bodice-ripper, which I’m pretty sure it’s not.
So, another whirlwind tour of the world, from the state of Georgia in the US, to Beirut, to Bucharest, to northern Germany, to ‘a lost kingdom in the African interior’, to Paris and La Réunion, you cannot complain you’ve been cooped up in the house this month!
Mihail Sebastian: Jocul de-a vacanța (The Holiday Game)
The #1936Club week may have ended, but my interest in the literature of that year hasn’t. I’ve read a number of other works dating from that year, as well as a few other books that relate to that. The #PlaysinMarch theme also continues, with this first play by one of my favourite Romanian authors, Mihail Sebastian, about whom I may have written once or twice before.
The play is popular in Romania, and has been frequently performed and filmed, both during Communist times and afterwards. It is usually perceived as a sprightly romantic comedy, but there is something less Noel Coward and more Arthur Schnitzler to its tone. Traditionally, in Romania (just like in France, Spain, Greece and other European countries with very hot summers) pretty much the entire country goes on holiday in August, and this is reflected in the play. Six mismatched holiday-makers are gathered that summer in a pleasant but rather isolated mountain chalet called Pension Weber. The six characters are: a retired major; an over-dramatic middle-aged woman Madame Vintilă (a bit of an Emma Bovary, one might say); Jeff, a schoolboy in his late teens who has to revise for his maths exam, but would much rather go off fishing or dreaming about girls; middle-aged lowly civil servant Bogoiu, who always dreamt of running away to sea; rude young man Ştefan Valeriu (the character also appears in Sebastian’s novel Women); last, but not least, young, cheery Corina, who tries to tease and befriend them all, solve all their problems, and generally be the social glue.
It starts off almost like a murder mystery. The radio is broken, the telephone is no longer working, and they haven’t received any newspapers or letters for several days. Even the bus doesn’t seem to be stopping on the main road close to them anymore.
MAJOR: Are they here? The newspapers (He looks through them, reading the dates out loud.) 28th July, 23rd July, 25th July. All out of date. No papers for the past five days. I can’t bear it anymore! If this goes on, we’re all going to be completely out of touch! Dumbed down. Not knowing what’s going on in the world. There might be a war on… The government might have fallen.
BOGOIU: So what? You worried they need your permission to fall?
MAJOR: Look here, sir, this is no joke! No time for jokes. This is serious. If we don’t get any newspapers today either, I’m done. I’m leaving. This is no life! No paper, no radio…
MADAME VINTILĂ: No letters, no phone…
MAJOR: Nothing but last week’s news to read. It’s enough to drive anyone to call out: ‘Bucharest, hey, can anyone hear me? Please answer!’
MADAME VINTILĂ: But they can’t hear us. No one can hear us. Not a soul. We’re stuck here in the middle of nowhere. Shipwrecked. Lost.
MAJOR (unhappy sigh): Ach!
MADAME VINTILĂ: Where are we? What island? What continent? Where?
[Corina appears at the top of the stairs. She looks even younger than her real age, which is twenty-five. She’s wearing pyjamas, which she is buttoning up as she comes down the stairs. She catches Madame Vintila’s last words]
CORINA: We’re right here! 342 kilometres from Bucharest, 36 km from Gheorghieni. Altitude: 1285 metres above sea level.
They soon realise that all of these mysterious events started when Ştefan Valeriu joined them – but he refuses to answer any of their questions, merely hogs the best chaise-longue and reads all day, or else goes off for walks by himself. Is he planning to isolate them from the rest of the world and murder them off one by one?
It soon emerges, however, that Ştefan has no murderous intentions: instead, he merely wants to forget about the wider world and escape reality. He wants the others to join in his game ‘playing at being on holiday’ – a proper holiday, which to his mind is a liminal world where they can shed their worries and identities from ‘back home’. He shows them how to construct an utopia where they can be anyone and do anything, be more truly themselves, live closer to their dreams, and forget that they will have to return to the everyday in a month’s time. Of course the game goes deeper than any of them could have imagined, and of course Ştefan and Corina fall in love. Jeff also hero-worships Corina, while Bogoiu is not immune to her charms either. In a touching moment, as the end of the holiday approaches, they stop seeing each other as rivals for Corina’s affections and instead imagine living with her in a little house somewhere, all three male dreamers – basically the same character at three different stages of his life. A bit like Snow White and the Three Dwarves!
There are few writers that capture that sense of wistful yearning to show your ‘own true self’, to be able to live your dreams, in a world that crushes your spirit daily than Sebastian. This desire to escape from reality, to create a cocoon of wellbeing and hope, while certainly a universal human longing, acquires added poignancy when you think of the time at which this play was written. From Sebastian’s journal, we know that he was already experiencing significant anti-semitism within his circle, and that he was very much aware and fearful of international developments.
He wrote this play in 1936, while he was inflamed by his love for actress and singer Leny Caler. Leni (as he liked to call her, he didn’t approve of all of that fancy ‘foreign’ spelling) was very popular at the time on the Bucharest stage and, despite being married, she was the muse and lover of many famous writers, including Camil Petrescu, who happened to be one of Sebastian’s best friends.
By the time Sebastian met and fell in love with her, her affair with Camil Petrescu was over, but she was somewhat half-hearted in her romance with Sebastian. The Holiday Game was written more or less as a bet: the author joked that within a month he would write a play with a great part for Leny. The young woman Corina is probably the Leny that he would have liked her to be: charming, cheerful, with all the men in love with her, yet very tender-hearted and loving underneath her facade. After a quarrel with Leny, he briefly considered giving the part to another actress, Marietta Sadova, but the latter profoundly disappointed him with her enthusiasm for the right-wing Guardist movement in Romania at the time. So it was back to Leny, who was Jewish like him. Meanwhile, Valeriu appears to be a stand-in for the author, an outsider, doomed to forever stand on the edge of any social gathering, observing, often accused of judging, of not being a ‘team-player’.
The play premiered in September 1938 and was an instant hit. Both the sparky writing and Leny’s performance were admired – and yet the play closed down after a rather limited run. The pretext was that Leny had to go on a tour, but after she returned, there was no attempt to restage the play. Anti-semitic sentiment and the fear of war were making it difficult for either of them to be fully active on the Bucharest stage right then.
The great love of Sebastian’s life was probably not equally enamoured of him.She was clearly charmed by his writing, and keen to have good parts written for her, but she was rather coquettish, handling several affairs simultaneously, and not that attracted to him physically. I cannot help thinking she might have been the model for the self-absorbed Ann from the Sebastian novel The Accident – and that the author finally realised just how wrong she was for him. However, in this play Corina very much represents the ideal woman – with just the right winning combination of playfulness, high energy, earnest childish candour and wistful maturity. I suppose nowadays you might call her the manic pixie dream girl, although she is clearly the equal or superior of any of the male characters, and has a life and purpose of her own rather than being a mere plot device to draw out our brooding, solitary hero.
As one of the classics of Romanian theatre, the play is usually performed almost like a farce. I’ve included here a short clip (in Romanian) that veers in that direction, but is nevertheless fun, a production made for Romanian TV.
Sadly, this play is not available in English just yet [although, publishers or theatre groups, if you’re listening, I’ve translated the first act already, so…]. However, a later (and arguably far more polished) play by Sebastian has recently been translated by Gabi Reigh: The Star with No Name is available from Aurora Metro Books.
As is usual in my case, I fell into a bit of a Sebastian rabbit-hole, and read the very long novel Sebastian by Gelu Diaconu, which talks about Sebastian’s love for Leny and the writing of this play in particular. (It also talks about his life during the war and the day of his death – as he walks through the streets of post-war Bucharest, sees all the bombsites and meets friends.) I quite liked that aspect of it, although most of the descriptions and events would be familiar to anyone who has read Sebastian’s Journal. It did provide me with some new insights, such as that my old friend Margareta Sterian was friends with Sebastian.
However, there are two additional time-frames to this story: we also see the growing interest in the fate of Romanian Jews during the Second World War by Paul, a journalist starting to make his mark just after the 1989 revolution. His marriage is rapidly disintegrating, but he becomes obsessed with getting hold of Sebastian’s missing letters to Leny, which were allegedly destroyed when Leny’s house was bombed. The story is further complicated by the fact that in the present-day Paul might also be the father of a young photographer who works with him, Robert, or else simply his mother’s first husband. When Paul dies, Robert inherits his papers and starts exploring Sebastian’s life and loves, making comparisons with his own relationship with the flighty actress Maria.
The two more modern time-frames were far less interesting, particularly the contemporary, not sure they added much value. I was above all annoyed by the detailed descriptions of Maria’s naked body, especially the repetitive use of the word ‘imberb’ (beardless) to describe her sex (it must have been used at least fifteen times during the novel). It felt like a misguided attempt to make the book seem relevant to a younger generation. So a bit of a waste of time to plough through 627 pages just for a few fresh glimpses of Mihail Sebastian. Would not recommend.
Perhaps it says something that many of my most memorable classics were read as part of my ‘geographical exploration’ challenges: either the #EU27Project or the One Country per Month option. The non-fiction books appeared as additional reading for many of my fictional interests this past year, although Deborah Levy’s Cost of Living was recommended by somebody on Twitter.
Ramuz: Beauty on Earth, transl. Michelle Bailat-Jones – reads like a long prose-poem, with all the looming menace of a devastating storm about to break out
Strugatsky Brothers – started off with the story Monday Starts on Saturday, transl. Andrew Bromfield, dripping with sarcasm and surrealism, then the book Roadside Picnic, transl. Olena Bormashenko, which formed the basis for that strange Tarkovsky film Stalker
Miklos Banffy, transl. Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Banffy-Jelen – I started the first in the Transylvanian trilogy back in 2018 and then couldn’t wait to get back to that lost world, recreated with all its magic but also its flaws
Mihail Sebastian: For Two Thousand Years – memorable fictionalised account of living as a Jew in Romania in the period between the two world wars
Eileen Chang: Lust, Caution – a book of stories with several translators; the title story a particular standout tale of love, politics, self-interest and betrayal
Dorothy Whipple: Someone at a Distance – my first Persephone and a truly heartbreaking story of a dying marriage
Elizabeth Jenkins: The Tortoise and the Hare – highly recommended by everyone who had read it. I thought that this additional story of betrayal and loss in a marriage would kill me off completely, but it was exquisitely written, so well observed
Sarah Bakewell: How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and 20 Attempts at an Answer – really made Montaigne come to life for me and ignited my interest in his essays and philosophy
Deborah Levy: The Cost of Living – rediscovering your self and your creativity after marital breakdown, the right book at the right time
Julia Boyd: Travellers in the Third Reich – wonderful collection of contemporary narratives from those travelling in the Weimar Republic and early years of Nazi power, demonstrating how easy it is to believe in propaganda
Mihail Sebastian: Journal – even more heartbreaking than his novel, his diary describes life just before and during WW2 in Bucharest, and the compromises and excuses his friends make in order to survive
Rupert Christiansen: Paris Babylon – very readable account of the lead-up to the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, in which the city of Paris becomes a main character in all its infuriating, incomprehensible beauty and chaos
Susana at A Bag Full of Stories always prods me to join some fun blog posts about my reading habits. When I read her Favourite Books by Most-Owned Authors blog post, I was inspired to examine my own bookshelves. Some of the results might surprise you, they certainly surprised me!
But first: what constitutes a lot? I have very many authors with 3-4 books on my bookshelf. In some cases they died too soon (Sylvia Plath) or they haven’t written more (yet – I’m waiting impatiently, Eva Dolan). In other cases, the rest of their works might still be at my parents’ house (Barbara Pym, Penelope Fitzgerald, Colette, Rilke, Liviu Rebreanu and Arthur Schnitzler take a bow!).
If endless editions of the same book count, then Murasaki Shikibu is also abundant on my bookshelf, with 5 different translations of Genji Monogatari, as is Cavafy with several editions (some electronic) of his poems in translation, including a bilingual one in Greek and English.
So here are the remaining authors who are present with five or more books on my current bookshelves (some of them in e-book form but only where I couldn’t easily access physical volumes).
Old Favourites I Cannot Live Without
Virginia Woolf – When it comes to Virginia, I am a bit of a completist, so although some of her books are still in my parents’s house, I nevertheless have her complete diaries, some of my favourite novels and quite a few of her essays on my bedside table.
Franz Kafka – the plain white Fischer Verlag editions of all of Kafka’s novels, stories, letters and diaries which I bought when I was 13-14 have accompanied me wherever I lived in the world ever since.
Tove Jansson – As with Virginia, I am a completist when it comes to Tove and my latest purchase is a volume of her letters. If I include her biography and all the Moomin cartoons (collected editions) as well as the Moomin books which are currently on my sons’ bookshelves, she is probably the most omnipresent author in my house.
Jane Austen – All her novels, including her juvenilia and the unfinished ones, plus her collected letters
Jean Rhys – not quite as complete as she deserves – four of her novels, a collection of short stories, her autobiography, her letters and a biography by Lilian Pizzichini.
Murakami Haruki – well, he reminds me of my student days. I prefer his earlier work and have pretty much stopped reading him since Kafka on the Shore (although, admittedly, I did fall for the Killing Commendatore hype and pre-ordered it).
Marin Preda – one of the most famous Romanian writers of the post-war period, he became a bit of a national hero when he published his last novel The Most Beloved Human. It was almost instantly withdrawn from sale, when readers interpreted it as a virulent critique against the communist regime. A few weeks later, he died under mysterious circumstances – some say possibly related to this book. I have it in three volumes, but also other novels, including the one we all had to read in school, about the destruction of village life before, during and after WW2, Morometii. I’d kind of forgotten he was so prominent on my bookshelf though…
Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö – the whole Martin Beck series, so ten books – bought as a job lot on Book People for a very low price, one of the best purchases I ever made. I absolutely devoured the whole lot in about 1 month and return periodically to them. The parents of the whole Nordic noir genre.
Muriel Spark – Another job lot from the Book People, which includes many of my favourites (Loitering with Intent, A Far Cry from Kensington, Girls of Slender Means). However, it doesn’t have some of her more challenging works (The Mandelbaum Gate or The Abbess of Crewe). So I may have to invest at some point in buying some more (although I’ve borrowed most of them over the course of the years from the library).
More Recent Discoveries
Below are all authors that I’ve discovered in the past 6-7 years (in some cases, even more recently) and have taken into my heart – or at least could not resist buying more of them.
Pascal Garnier – It all started with a request in 2012 to review one of his first books to be translated into English (by Emily Boyce and published by Gallic Books) for Crime Fiction Lover. This was the book How’s the Pain? and I was smitten. I have since reviewed pretty much all of the books that have been translated, as well as hunted him down in French libraries and second-hand bookshops. I even am the proud owner of a book signed by him to a certain Marie Louise (I think Marina Sofia is close enough, don’t you?)
Kathleen Jamie – initially I bought and read her poetry books, because she was doing a poetry masterclass with us back in my Geneva Writers’ Group days, but I soon fell in love with her insightful essays and strong sense of place as well.
Sarah Moss – I’d read a shopping list written by Sarah Moss: I admire the way her mind works. I either own or have borrowed all of her books, but my favourite book might not be the one most people like – it’s Night Waking, because it captures so well the challenges of being a mother and scholar.
Javier Marias – I read A Heart So White in 2016 and was so impressed that I hastily bought several more of his books, including the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow but I haven’t actually gotten around to reading any of them.
Antti Tuomainen – an author I discovered a few books in, once he got published by Orenda, but I’ve bought his (much grimmer) back catalogue since and have particularly enjoyed his recent forays into black comedy.
Old Passions Reignited
Shirley Jackson – an author I’ve always admired but only been able to find in libraries rather than bookshops, at least until recently. Luckily, her books are now back in print courtesy of Penguin Modern Classics, so I have availed myself of several of those, as well as The Library of America collection of her most famous novels and stories. I also have the illuminating biography by Ruth Franklin, and even her stories of the chaos of family life.
Mihail Sebastian – I’d always admired him as a playwright and was particularly fond of his novel The Accident, because so much of it was set in the mountains and referred to skiing. But this past year I’ve read his diaries and much less sentimental, more polemical novel For Two Thousand Yearsand I fell in love even more with his voice and clear-sightedness.
Jean-Patrick Manchette and Georges Simenon – actually, both of them are present with just 2-3 books each, but in each case one volume contain about 11-12 novels (I’ve gone for Simenon’s ‘romans durs’, although I have a few Maigret volumes as well).
Now all I have to do is to actually work my way through all of these, since not all of them have been read. Plus, I’d quite like to reread many of them!
So what has my first month of reading freedom brought me? By freedom, I mean of course not having to read any books for review, following my own whims and jumping into rabbit holes. There was only one book that I had already promised to review, and that was the controversial story of child killers The Flower Girls by Alice Clark-Platts. But other than that, I was free as a bird or a butterfly, so which flowers have I alighted on?
11 books, no less, and some of these were massive 500+ books, so great in terms of quantity, but also of quality.
First and foremost, January has got me obsessed with Romanian playwright, novelist and essayist Mihail Sebastian. I read his polemical novel about being Jewish in Romania, his essay in response to the outrage he experienced upon publication of that novel, and his diaries which pick up the story from where he left it off in the novel. I am also now rereading his novels and trying to get hold of his plays (in Romanian, of course, but some of his work has been translated into English, with more forthcoming).
I’ve become equally absorbed with the work of Miklos Banffy, as I read the second and third books in his Transylvanian trilogy after a year’s break following the first volume. I was so reluctant to reemerge into the real world after bathing in that beautiful description of a vanished world, although I was slightly disappointed that the story stops with the outbreak of the war (and Balint’s family all gaily setting off as Hussars in the army). I will be reviewing the trilogy shortly for my #EU27Project, and beware! It might end up being a bit of a mammoth post.
The third obsession this month has been poets talking about poetry, where they find inspiration, the craft of poetry, what a poet’s role is in society etc. I’ve started with Denise Levertovand Maxine Kumin, but have a few others planned for next month.
I read a lot of women this month too. In addition to the two poets, I also read Scholastique Mukasonga’s remarkable account of a rapidly disappearing traditional way of Tutsi life in Rwanda just prior to the genocide The Barefoot Woman. Another woman’s account of war was Pat Barker‘s The Silence of the Girls, a very different book, not based on personal experience, more shouty than understated.
I’ve also read Jana Benova‘s Seeing People Off, a Slovakian entry to my #EU27Project. I still have to write the full review of this short, snappy novel, a series of vignettes offering an often hilarious, satirical account of post-Communist life in the artistic milieu in Bratislava.
Another short but biting satire was Fernando Sdrigotti’s Shitstorm, forcing us to take a good hard look at ourselves and how we conduct our lives and debates online, moving quickly onto the next scandal that we can be indignant about, without really being fully implicated. I can’t help but wonder what Sebastian would have made of it all. I think this may become my theme when looking at any present-day news: ‘What would Orwell and Sebastian say about this?’, although Sebastian, with his gentler, more forgiving approach, is perhaps closer to me in spirit.
So much happier now that I’m following my own interests in reading, with no qualms about abandoning books that promise to be average or not quite captivating. This month I didn’t finish The Binding for example, a new book just out which sounded great in concept, but failed to set my heart alight. I’m sure it will do well commercially though, it has The Miniaturist success written all over it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. TheNameless 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.
I had to pay a rather absurd amount for overweight luggage, although it was only my suitcase that was 4 kilos overweight, my older son’s suitcase was 4 kilos underweight and my younger son had no suitcase at all. What can I say except: don’t fly TAROM, as they clearly try to rip you off. So what was in my luggage? Of course all the Romanian delicacies that I miss so much when I am back in England: wine, homemade jam and honey, herbs and tea leaves from my mother’s garden, quinces (shame I cannot bring the tasty organic vegetables or cheese or endless array of milk products – kefir, sana, drinkable yoghurt, buttermilk etc.).
And, naturally, I had to bring back some Romanian books and DVDs. Romanian cinema is not very well known but highly respected in a small niche community. I got a recent film Child’s Pose, winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2013, which covers pretty much all the topics that interest me: domineering mothers, generational and class conflict, as well as corruption in present-day Romania. I also got two older films from the 1960s by one of the best Romanian directors, Lucian Pintilie: The Forest of the Hanged based on one of my favourite Romanian novels, and The Reconstruction. The latter was named ‘the best Romanian film of all time’ by the Romanian film critics’ association, although it was forbidden during the Communist period because it turned out to be too much of a commentary on the viciousness of an abusive, authoritarian society.
There are many beautiful bookshops in Romania nowadays, although not all of my pictures came out well. I certainly lived up to my reputation of not being able to enter any bookshop without buying something! Among the things I bought are Fram and Apolodor, a polar bear and a penguin homesick for their native lands, two children’s books I used to adore and which I am very keen to translate into English and promote for the BookTrust reading scheme for diverse children’s literature In Other Words
I succumbed to the lovely hardback edition of Mihail Sebastian’s diary from 1935 to 1944, such a crucial (and sad) time in Romanian history, especially from a Jewish point of view. I got two titles, both family sagas, by female authors that I already know and admire: Ileana Vulpescu and Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu (the latter is sort of our national Virginia Woolf, although not quite as experimental, but she nevertheless dragged Romanian literature into modernity).
I also bought some new contemporary writers to try out: Radu Pavel Gheo – Good Night, Kids about emigration and coming back to the ‘home country’, Lavinia Braniste – Internal Zero, a book about young single women in Romania today, Ioana Parvulescu – Life Starts on a Friday, a historical crime novel or time-travelling story. Last but not least, I sneaked back one of my favourite books from my childhood Follow the Footprints by William Mayne. Nobody else seems to have heard of this book or this writer, although he has been described as one of the ‘outstanding and most original children’s authors of the 20th century’. Sadly, in googling him, I discover that he was also imprisoned for two years in 2004 for sexually abusing young girl fans, so that leaves a bitter taste in my fond childhood memory.
While in Romania, I received a fairly large pile of books back home in the UK to my cat sitter’s surprise, some for review, some I’d previously ordered. So here are the things which came thudding through my letter-box.
I went on a bit of a Murakami Haruki binge following the reading of Killing Commendatore. I suppose because the book was enjoyable but not his best work, I wanted to get my hands on some of my favourites by him that I did not yet own: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Sputnik Sweetheart and South of the Border, West of the Sun. Unrelated, and possibly as a result of some Twitter discussion, I went on a Marian Engel binge – a Canadian author I had heard of, but never read. I had to search hard in second-hand stores but found The Honeyman Festival, Lunatic Villas and Bear (I had heard about this last one, the love story between a woman and a bear, and it sounds absolutely bonkers).
Meanwhile, I decided I needed to up my game with Chinese women authors, so I bought two Shanghai-based stories of illicit passion, Eileen Chang’s Lust, Caution and Wei Hui’s more contemporary Shanghai Baby. I also read an extract from Anna Dostoevsky’s reminiscences about how she met and fell in love with Dostoevsky on Brainpickings, so I ordered a copy of her out-of-print memoir.
I make no bones about being an unabashed fan of Finnish crime writer Antti Tuomainen, but I realised that one of his books was still missing from my shelves – his first to be translated into English (and possibly his darkest) The Healer. And the final, thick tome to make its home on my bedside table is from the Asymptote Book Club. I am very excited to be reading Ahmet Altan’s first book in the Ottoman Quartet – yet another family saga – Like a Sword Wound. Currently imprisoned in Turkey for his alleged involvement in the 2016 coup attempt, Altan (better known in the West as a crusading journalist, but much loved and respected in his homeland for his fiction) is currently working on the final volume of the quartet in prison.
Last, but not least, I also received a copy of Flash Fiction Festival Two, a collection of sixty micro fictions written by participants and presenters from the second Flash Fiction Festival in the UK, which I attended (and loved) in Bristol in July. I am delighted to be there among them with a tale about a kitchen!