Mihail Sebastian: A Bit of Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Creativity of Molière

Inscription on backside: peint par Pierre Mign...
Inscription on backside: peint par Pierre Mignard en 1671 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am always a little wary of statements beginning ‘we writers’, as I feel it is wrong to believe that my sentiments and bad habits are universal.  So let me revise that to: ‘this particular writer is sometimes plagued by self-indulgent behaviour, laziness and self-pity’. When I am in the mood to whinge about how busy I am and how I have no time to write, I remind myself of the amazing creativity in the face of adversity of French playwright Molière.  Then I shut up about my own minor niggles…

 

What is so amazing about Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known by his stage name Molière? He was born in 1622 in a rather wealthy bourgeois family and was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps in a career in public service. Instead, he chose to become an actor and join a wandering troupe of players – the equivalent of running away to join the circus.  Back then, actors were considered somewhat disreputable – in fact, they were not even allowed a decent burial in church grounds. Yet Molière chose to face this public and family disapproval to follow his passion.

Here are some other things I have learnt from him:

1) Writing is hard work – you need to be disciplined and persevere. Never complain about lack of time.  Molière overcame bankruptcy, censorship, fickle court fashions, disapproval by powerful clerics, ill health, an unhappy marriage, and still wrote more than 30 plays in 14 years, whilst also holding down a full-time job as a theatre director and performer.  He also had to please his royal patron, the Sun King Louis XIV, and make himself available for the daily formal ‘waking up’ ceremonies. The King occasionally demanded a new play in less than 48 hours and the public would not offer any applause or feedback until the King himself showed his pleasure for a certain performance.

2) You may reach the height of glory and still descend to the pits of despair and end up forgotten. In other words, you’ve got to do art for art’s sake, not just for money or glory. Although the King backed  Molière for many years, and even was the godfather of the firstborn son of the playwright, his support could never be taken for granted and he withdrew it on several occasions, which meant works such as ‘Tartuffe’ or ‘Don Juan’ were banned. In the end, the King abandoned him and never attended a performance of Molière’s final play, ‘Le Malade Imaginaire’.

3) You love your art to the death.  Molière is notorious for being so dedicated to his art that it actually killed him. During a performance of ‘Le Malade Imaginaire’, he suffered a coughing fit and haemorrhage (it appears he was suffering from tuberculosis). He insisted on finishing his performance, but died a few hours later as a result of these superhuman exertions.

Molière in classical dress, by Nicolas Mignard...
Molière in classical dress, by Nicolas Mignard, 1658. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4) You play to your strengths. Personally, Molière appears to have been fonder of playing tragedy and would have liked to write tragedy as well.  However, he very quickly realised that his real talent lay with satire, mockery and comedy, and that this was what his public wanted from him.

5) You can have depth in any genre. Despite having to please a difficult courtly audience, who liked their comedy broad and farcical, Molière proved that, if you are a good enough writer, you can be funny and still layer in universal and profound questions about hypocrisy, falseness in human relationships, pretentiousness and truth.

6)  You don’t have to be perfect.  French language purists argue that there are lots of  errors, padding, grammatical inconsistencies and mixed metaphors in Molière’s work (much like the criticism made of Shakespeare). Yet French is known nowadays as the ‘language of Molière’. Corneille is the greater writer, Racine has the more profound tragic sentiment, but Molière is the most performed and the most quoted French dramatist. His plays have been continuously performed for the past 350 years and the public has always loved him, even when critics, philosophers, religious leaders etc. tried to diss him.

7) Learn from others. In the early years, Molière met with Corneille and even collaborated with him on a play.  He also encouraged Racine in his artistic endeavours, although the troupe never performed a play by the younger writer. His most famous collaboration, however, was with Jean-Baptiste Lully, the founding father of French opera and ballet.  Together they created a new genre known as the comédie-ballet, perhaps the forerunner of today’s musicals.

8) We don’t care about his private life. Yes, he was a bit of a ladies’ man. Yes, he married the illegitimate daughter of his lover. Yes, he wrote extremely well about being cuckolded, so it might have been based on personal experience. Do we care? No. His work stands on his own merit, much like Shakespeare’s, about whom we know even less.

As an interesting footnote, there are some who doubt the authenticity of Molière’s work and attribute at least some of his plays to another playwright (in this case Corneille, in Shakespeare’s case Christopher Marlowe).  It seems that readers will always need to invent complicated theories to fill in the gaps.  So perhaps I should rephrase again from the ‘we’ to the ‘me’.  Do I care about Molière’s private life and his failings as a human being? No. He still has so much to teach me.