It’s amazing how the colours on the covers of the most memorable books I read in the second part of the year also match my mood during that period: much more colourful, even pinkish and coy, although normally I am not a fan of pink. Yes, this was the most optimistic part of the year.
In my teens I was (sort of) diagnosed with bipolar disorder: for me (everyone is slightly different) this typically manifests itself as periods of intense activity, almost manic energy and optimism which has no bearing to reality (the ‘up’ periods), to be followed by far longer periods of utter hopelessness and despondency (the ‘depressive’ periods). I was given lithium to even out these wild mood swings, but that made me feel like it was benumbing me, so I lost all of the positives of being on a high and only very slightly had the edge taken off my depression. Over the next few decades, I learnt to manage my moods with a cocktail of home-made and medical remedies, and over the past decade, I thought I had moved more into depression (partly sparked by external circumstances).
However, this year the manic period reasserted itself with a vengeance, perhaps because I travelled to see my parents for the first time in 2.5 years, or perhaps because I briefly thought I might like to have a relationship again. It was kind of lovely having the energy back, even though I knew about its dangers and limitations. For a couple of months, I felt invincible: I survived on very little sleep, had so many new ideas, wrote love poetry (which I had not done since high school) and so many other things, submitted regularly, took my boys on a trip to Brighton, went to plays and exhibitions, joined the Society of Authors, attended the Translation Day in Oxford, reconnected with old friends, investigated a possible collaboration with a theatre in London and so much more. Helped by the wonderful weather and by better news on the creative front, I was able to handle the growing anxiety about my mother’s incipient dementia or my cat Zoe’s state of health (she had started vomiting far too frequently, but we had not yet diagnosed her with cancer).
All this is reflected in my top reading choices. In April, I chose to focus on Romanian writers, because I spent two weeks in Romania, although some of the reading was entirely serendipitous since I just happened to come across Martha Bibescu’s journals set just before and during the Second World War in my parents’ house. I was also smitten with the two plays by Mihail Sebastian that I had not previously read (one was seldom performed during Communist times, perhaps because it talked about lies being published in newspapers, while the other was unfinished at the time of his death). I also reconnected with the work of surrealist, absurdist writer Urmuz, whose work was published largely posthumously when he committed suicide at the age of 40 and translated a couple of his short pieces (they are all very short, more like flash fiction, even a novella in flash). One of them, I am happy to say, will appear in Firmament, the literary journal issued by Sublunary Editions.
May was all about life in Berlin, often written by expats. The only one that impressed me and which gave me a bit of insight into the history and society of Berlin was The Undercurrents by Kirsty Bell, but I was intrigued by a different kind of expat, namely the anthropologist, in Mischa Berlinski’s rather epic, occasionally uneven but fascinating look at the ‘outsider going native’ Fieldwork.
June was my month for catching up with French writing, and I’d forgotten how eloquent and impressive Simone de Beauvoir can be in describing women’s experiences. Gael Faye’s Petit Paystaught me so much about Rwanda and Burundi and trying to integrate into French life. I also enjoyed books that fell outside my original reading plan (I’ve always been flexible about allowing others in): I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed the relatively simple story about a love affair set in Japan, Emily Itami’s Fault Lines and yearning for love and companionship in Seoul in Sang Young Park’s Love in the Big City.
As I said, I might have been susceptible to love stories that trimester, even though mine never got off the ground (with the wisdom of hindsight, I’m inclined to say: thank goodness it didn’t!).
Finally, one crime novel that stuck with me because it was so post-modern and different and sly: True Crime Story by Joseph Knox. The danger with these seasonal summaries (rather than those done by genre, for example), is that crime fiction often gets sidelined. So, several crime novels might have made my ‘best of the year’ list among others of its genre, but they might struggle to compete with Simone de Beauvoir or Mihail Sebastian.
I have already mentioned the stash of books I brought back with me from my trip to Romania earlier this month. I also had a bit more time to read, being on holiday (although, naturally, I did spend a lot of time sorting out paperwork and chatting with my parents, which were the two main reasons for going there). So I also raided my father’s bookshelves. He is as great a reader and book collector as me, although he tends to prefer non-fiction, political biographies and history. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that I’ve managed to read ten Romanian books already this month – with more than a third of the month still to go. Since none of them have been translated into English, I will review them briefly here.
Martha Bibescu: Berlin Journal 1938and War Journal 1939-1941
Princess Martha Bibescu (aka Marthe Bibesco in France) was born in 1886 in a noble family in Romania (Lahovary) and married into another noble, even princely, family (Bibescu). She spoke several languages fluently and knew everyone who was anyone across most of Europe during the early part of the 20th century. She was also a popular writer, a prolific diarist and a cultural and political hostess, often engaging in ‘soft diplomacy’ with those in power.
These two diaries are fascinating for their insights into the political climate of the time. I expected Martha Bibescu to be the typical spoilt socialite complaining about declining service and the lack of respect of the working classes, but she comes across as remarkably empathetic and clear-eyed. Despite her obvious privileges, wealth, many love affairs, she was a shrewd judge of character, especially of politicians and their duplicity. She was a personal friend of Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany and in her Berlin journal, she describes the delusional hope that he and his wife harboured about every becoming essential to German life again. She also met Hermann Göring during that trip, but never succumbed to the Fascist temptation: on the contrary, she describes a handsome young officer in SS uniform as the ‘bait to reel them [Western powers] in’.
She was also profoundly loyal to Romania, although not necessarily to the constantly changing governments of the time and rapid switches in alliances. She was fully aware of the challenges of being a small country surrounded by great empires and I couldn’t help but admire her analytical abilities, how she cut through the bullshit to get to the core of problems. She was a great admirer of British diplomacy and level-headedness, although she had been brought up in a Francophile culture, and sent her grandson to be educated in England, believing that would be the most influential culture in the future.
Lavinia Braniște: Sonia ridică mâna(Sonia Raises Her Hand) and Mă găsești când vrei (You Know Where to Find Me)
Braniște is the epitome of the millennial generation in Romania, I feel, and the three novels she has written to date are excellent at describing the daily grind of life in contemporary Romania from the perspective of a young woman, well-educated but somewhat drifting between jobs, relationships and family, struggling to find a sense of purpose in a society which is still quite prescriptive about what your goals and direction should be. Both of these novels are somewhat similar in style to her first one (the one I am trying to shop around at various publishers), but address different topics: in the first, Sonia is confronting the recent Communist past and how it lives on in the memories of her parents’ and grandparents’ generations; in the second, she explores issues such as domestic violence, force control and lack of self-esteem. Both are topics that are often brushed under the carpet in Romania.
Mihail Sebastian: Ultima oră(Breaking News) and Insula (The Island)
Sadly, Mihail Sebastian only wrote four plays, of which only the first two are frequently performed. These are his two lesser-known ones: Breaking News is a frankly barely believable farce about a mix-up in a printing press. The historical research paper of a university professor accidentally gets published in the local paper, full of misprints, causing mayhem when an oligarch and his pet MPs and ministers believe that it is written in code, threatening to reveal some of their nefarious corrupt or even illegal deeds. Some might describe the comedy as heavy-handed, but the absurdity of censorship reminded me of Communist times (no wonder this was not performed much back then), while the lengths to which politicians are prepared to lie and obfuscate… well, quite frankly, it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched anymore.
The final play, The Island, was never finished – only two acts out of the planned three exist. It was nevertheless performed posthumously in 1947 with an ending by Sebastian’s friend Mircea Ștefănescu, but I only read it in its original state. As if to emphasise the universality of his themes, Sebastian has set this play in an unspecified country (possibly in Latin America), prone to revolution or civil war. Three travellers, Boby, a football player, Nadia, a young painter, and Manuel, a wealthy businessman, are all stuck in the country when an unspecified major war-like event breaks out. There are no ships or trains to take them out of there, banks are frozen, so they have to find some cheap accommodation and sell off their possessions in order to survive. They are so hungry that they eat a pack of aspirins that they manage to find somewhere. Although there is some witty banter, this feels much less like a comedy and more like a serious drama about the plight of refugees – which is understandable, since it was written in 1943-44, when the outcome of the war in Europe was still far from certain. As a Romanian Jew, I have no doubt that Sebastian was both more aware of and more sympathetic to the refugee stories they must have been hearing at the time.
Tony Mott: Toamna se numără cadavrele (Autumn Is the Dead Season) and Bogdan Teodorescu: Băieţi aproape buni (Nearly Good Guys) and Teodora Matei: Himere (Illusions)
I reread the first two and read the third one so I could write an application for a translation grant for Corylus Books. Fingers crossed we get some funding this time, as I think they would both appeal to an English-speaking audience. Tony Mott’s book is set in beautiful Brasov and features an indomitable, fast-talking, no-nonsense female forensic scientist, while Teodorescu’s is a more experimental novel depicting politics and social issues in recent Romanian history, under the guise of a juicy bit of police investigation. Teodora Matei’s book continues with a slightly more light-hearted entry in the police procedural series featuring the older, slightly jaded chief inspector Iordan and his young, charismatic sidekick Matache, investigating an apparently unrelated series of killings of family men all over the country.
Alina Nelega: Ca și cum nimic nu s-ar fi întâmplat(As If Nothing Happened)
At first glance, a story like thousands of others, about growing up during the 1980s in Romania, but the author is a playwright and theatre director, and it shows in the phenomenally fluid way she slips into other people’s voice and stories. The main character here is Cristina, who has to come to terms with her own sexuality as a lesbian, which was completely illegal in Ceauşescu’s Romania and punishable with jail, but there are many other experiences we hear too, in an indirect but extremely lively speech, as if we are following someone filming a speeded up documentary of tragicomic scenes. Although both the author and her main protagonist are roughly a decade older than me, there were so many descriptions of situations, people and places that I could relate to and made me laugh or wince out loud in recognition.
One unforgettable vignette is when Cristina, who lives in a small town in the north of the country, attempts to go to the seaside with her small son and her friend Nana. As they reach Bucharest on the train, she realises she forgot to take the rubbish out and that her house might be full of cockroaches when she gets back from holidays. She can’t phone her friends to take out the rubbish, because most of them don’t have a phone or else aren’t close enough to borrow a set of keys off someone and empty her bin. She can’t go back to do it herself, as the train connections are horrible and it would take her forever. So she decides it would be best to send a telegram from the Central Post and Telephone Office in Bucharest (the only place from which you could send telegrams at the time), but the girl at the counter becomes suspicious that Cristina’s laconic text ‘Please throw rubbish’ could be a code for something political, so she refuses to send it.
I hope this gives you an idea of the great variety of books being published in Romania today – and hopefully at least a couple of them will get translated into English (they seem to be doing better with French or German translations).
I thought I had the perfect excuse for justifying the vast amount of books that recently joined my household: it’s two months’ worth of incomings. But actually, it’s more like 6 weeks. Time to hit the pause button, I think, especially with the cost of everything going up so much and me contemplating a more part-time role (i.e. lower pay) so that I have more time to write, translate and promote Corylus. In the meantime, however, it’s been inspiration (or greed) galore. And, if I’m honest, book addiction is my way of escaping from all the anxiety that the current news cycle provokes in me.
I’m naming the culprits here (my daily walks while listening to podcasts are proving terribly injurious to my bank balance):
Backlisted Pod: for O Caledonia (mentioned in passing) and Stephen Sondheim (a full episode)
Slightly Foxed for Red Comet (full episode with biographer), although I vowed I had enough books about and by Sylvia Plath
Late to It for Hilma Wolitzer (although not this particular book) and Kirsty Gunn’s Infidelities
Book reviews by favourite bloggers such as Jacqui and Susana (who read it in the original Portuguese of course) and in Asymptote Journal for Empty Wardrobes
Dorian Stuber and his guest Niccie Panetta for the 2021 books of the year round-up which included Blue Remembered Hills and Olga Zilbergourg for mentioning The Man Between about legendary translator Michael Henry Heim.
Someone at Penguin Classics heard my boisterous declarations of love for Mishima’s work, for which I am profoundly grateful. Meanwhile, Clare O’Dea is a Switzerland-based expat writer whom I briefly encountered at Geneva Writers Group and she asked her publisher to send me this fictional account of the very recent (1959) Swiss referendum about women’s suffrage. Finally, I’d been a keen reader of Daniel Hahn’s diary of translating Damiela Elit’s Never Did the Fire for Charco Press, and commented on some of his blog posts, so was kindly sent a copy of the final diary published in book form.
I have several books of poetry and prose by my friend and fellow Romanian writer who writes in English, Carmen Bugan, but realised that I did not have this collected version of her poems. I had been covetously eyeing Hannah Lowe’s The Kids and finally got the nudge to buy it after it won the Costa Award. I can’t remember exactly whom I had a conversation with on Twitter about the Bloomsbury Group, but I thought it was high time I read Angelica Garnett’s memoir, which puts them all in a less golden light. Meander Spiral Explode has been recommended to me for its exploration of the writing craft for those who are no longer content with the Three Act or linear structure. Finally, for our London Reads the World Book Club in March, we will be reading a Romanian book at last and it’s one of my favourite writers, Mihail Sebastian. I thought it might be helpful to have the English translation to hand, rather than rely solely on the Romanian version I have, and I might end up having OPINIONS about the translation.
I’ve heard so many good things about this memoir of living with disability A Still Life, shortlisted for the Barbellion Prize, and I’ve been on the waiting list for it at the library for ages. When I finally went to pick up my reservation, I came across this collection of short stories by Dostoevsky and I’ve never been able to ignore anything by him, even when he infuriates me.
I happened to be in the lovely Marlow Bookshop in real life, and was intrigued about Gail Simmons’ journey across the Chiltern Hills, which recreates Robert Louis Stevenson’s three-day journey across the same landscape nearly 150 years earlier. With HS2 speed railway threatening to destroy this landscape forever, it’s an attempt to capture a place and time before it disappears. I also picked up a British Library anthology there, because crime fiction and books are an irresistible combination. The quest to diversity my bookcase continues with the academic study of London as a migrant city, a science-fiction take on office life by Chinese American author Ling Ma, and two crime novels by Adam Macqueen introducing Tommy Wildeblood, rent boy turned sleuth, against a backdrop of London’s recent history (1970s-80s).
Communist dictatorships in the former East Bloc countries and the United Nations (or other international organisations) are very triggering for me: in other words, as soon as I see or hear something about these topics, my online buying finger gets activated. The Stasi Poetry Circle is the true story of an attempt to set up a ‘propaganda poetry writing group’ in the German Democratic Republic. As for Romain Gary’s book: as I mentioned in the blog post about Frank Moorhouse’s book, it is a satire about the United Nations (thank you, Emma, for first drawing my attention to it), which Gary initially published under a pseudonym. I managed to find it second-hand on a French website and it got here relatively quickly.
Last, but not least, an online conversation with the same Emma as above, following her brilliant review of the Marseille Trilogy reminded me how much I love Jean-Claude Izzo and how difficult his books are to find over here. But lo and behold, a quick online search produced these two at reasonable prices. They’re both set mainly in Marseille too.
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.