This is the month where my abstract anger at the lack of any Covid mitigations in schools in England actually had something concrete to rant against: my son caught Covid from a classmate, I caught it from him, and both of us found out about it from Track’n’Trace long after we had tested positive. Yet, according to the ‘legal requirements’, I could have gone to work in London on the day my son tested positive (because I tested negative) and infected all of my colleagues at work that day, plus an old friend I was supposed to meet at LRB Bookshop/Cafe (plus people working or shopping there), plus the people around me attending the theatre performance I had tickets for that night. Luckily, I ignored government guidelines and self-isolated from the start.
Although for a few days I thought I might never be able to concentrate enough to read properly ever again, I did in fact finish an extraordinarily large number of books this month. Probably because I struggled to do anything else. 15 books, of which: only 4 by women writers (my lowest ever proportion, I believe!), 9 in translation or foreign language (of which five in Romanian, which was my country focus this month), 7 labelled as crime fiction, one biography, two books for Book Clubs – Constance by Matthew Fitzsimmons and Roxanne Bouchard’s We Were the Salt of the Sea (trans. David Warriner). I also had a record number of historical fiction books this month – or else books written at a time that may almost be labelled historical (8).
Once again, I haven’t quite reviewed all that I’ve read (with the excellent excuse of not feeling quite well enough to do so), but I have written about:
David Peace’s Tokyo Redux and compared it to a Golden Age crime novel
And I could not stop myself writing about a childhood favourite of mine, the Romanian classic La Medeleni by Ionel Teodoreanu: Part 1 and Part 2
I was intrigued by the premise of Radu Pavel Gheo’s Good Night, Children, which was a blend of childhood reminiscing, the challenges of emigration and then the shock of returning to your home country after a long time away, plus a knowing nod towards satire and supernatural elements like Bulgakov. However, the book just couldn’t make up its mind if it was comic or tragic, tried to fit too much in, and ended up not going being enough in any of its categories.
The other book that disappointed me was Magpie by Elizabeth Day: the publishers probably did the book a disservice by labelling it as a psychological thriller with an unforeseeable twist, because I did foresee the twist quite early on, and even the final denouement (although my expectation was that it would be even darker). Some of the characters were quite flat or clicheed, and the most interesting aspect of the book, the lengths people are prepared to go to have a child of their own, rather got buried under all of the attempts to make the book palatable to a wider audience.
One book that I found very intriguing and that I do want to review was Admiring Silence by the newly-crowned Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah, about a man who comes to England as a refugee, builds a life here without every quite feeling he belongs but upon returning to visit his family back home in Tanzania (Zanzibar to be precise), discovers that he no longer fits there either.
Speaking of the refugee experience, I saw the very powerful and yet somehow sweet and wholesome film about asylum-seekers waiting for their status to be clarified, Limbo by British director Ben Sharrock. There is a lot of humour and close observation of infuriating but also poignant absurdities that alleviate the frankly quite hopeless and tragic situation. I was comparing it on Twitter to the other film about economic migrants that I saw recently Oleg, which was much bleaker, a much more violent, dog eats dog world, while here there is a certain solidarity and friendship between the characters which makes it ultimately ever so slightly hopeful. And the music! Music really occupies a prime spot here, in many different versions.
That was one of the few films I watched this month (other than anime, Squid Game and a rewatch of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with my younger son). I have been too listless to engage with anything more challenging than Strictly Come Dancing or the Great British Bake Off, both of which I completely ignored last year.
I have switched to a new (16 month) diary and so had a chance to tally all of my submissions to literary journals or competitions and see what I’ve done with my writing thus far this year: I have submitted 37 times, had 21 rejections, seven acceptances. So by the end of 2021, I will clearly have beaten my previous record in each of the categories. It may not feel like a huge number compared to others, but I am trying to keep it manageable and protect myself from too much disappointment.
I’ve also had the pleasure of attending one of the best short masterclasses I’ve ever heard, run by Lucy Caldwell for Arvon. I listened to the recording again after the class was over and have learnt so much about voice and the use of tenses – fundamental elements, which you think you already know by now, and yet… there was so much still to discover. I was pleased to hear just a week or two after this class that Lucy Caldwell won the BBC National Short Story Award this year.
I also attended another Arvon class (in collaboration with ClassFestival) on Poetry and the Body with Joelle Taylor, which sparked some new ways of looking at my body and how to use it in my poetry (or even prose), and also made me eager to explore spoken word poetry more (as I was planning to do before Covid struck).
Plans for November
My holiday plans for October were thwarted, but here’s hoping that my third attempt at a proper holiday this year will finally come to fruition in November! I have managed to change the dates for my stay at the Westwood Centre, so I hope I will be fit enough to drive all the way there and, once there, go on plenty of walks to admire the landscape, read lots and write something. (I had an ambitious writing plan before, but I will be happy with whatever I can get this time.)
In terms of reading, I’ll be tackling some German novellas, although I use both terms rather loosely. I have a selection to choose from, let’s see how much of it I manage to go through: Arthur Schnitzler’s Casanova’s Journey Home, Marlen Haushofer’s We Kill Stella, Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations, Friedrich Glauser’s The Spoke, Jonas Lüscher’s Barbarian Spring and Katharina Volckmer’s The Appointment.
This became such an epic long post that I divided it into two. In the first part, I considered Teodoreanu’s literary legacy and the plot. In this part, I will discuss the characters and their relationships, make more comparisons to other family sagas, and mention Teodoreanu’s controversial literary style. I do sometimes wonder why I spend so many hours rereading, thinking and writing a blog post that at best a handful of people will read and comment on. It may not be the best use of my time, but if I did not believe in trying to spread the word for Romanian literature (and culture more generally) against all obstacles such as lack of funding, lack of translations, but above all lack of interest… I would have given up a long time ago. Nevertheless, I persevere because I think it is a worthy cause… Te Digna Sequere and all that!
Although Dan is the author’s alter ego and official main character, and we get to see many scenes through his eyes (in a close third person POV), it is clear that Olguța is the author’s (and everyone else’s) favourite. Teodoreanu fell in love with his creation and allowed himself to be carried away by her energy, exuberance and creativity. The author later admitted that he went for long walks in the countryside, weeping at the thought of killing her off, but that it was the only possible outcome. Almost like a comet that shines too brightly to last. She is one of the most appealing and memorable feminine characters in all of Romanian literature (and possibly beyond). I struggle to think of any comparable character, especially at the time this was written: imagine a Pippi Longstocking who grows up, a Maggie Tulliver who is not hemmed in by society. Perhaps Jo March or Colette’s Claudine come closest.
She is presented as a tomboy with jet-black hair, a demon full of mischief, yet also full of concern and loyalty for the people around her. She is quick-witted, well-read, interested in everything, sporty, rapidly picking up on people’s foibles and poking fun at them. This can come across as cruel on occasion, but she can also be far too trusting with the people she likes. Unlike with the Cazalets, there is no expectation that daughters are only there to marry and produce offspring. Olguța (always in the diminutive, as if she never quite grows up) is also remarkably free to get a good education and become whatever she wants to be – not sure if that was generally reflective of the upper middle classes in Romania at the time, or simply because of the highly cultured milieu that Teodoreanu was a part of. A couple of times the grown-ups around her lament the fact that she is not a boy, because she would have made an even greater lawyer than her father, so it’s clear that option, at least, is not quite open to her. She also rushes off to join the man she loves and they clearly spend a few happy days together ‘in sin’, without there being any huge outcry or disapproval either from the others in the book or the author himself – a very different state of affairs from Sally On the Rocks by Winifred Boggs, for example (I have just read a few reviews of that book). Clearly, the Romanians are closer to the French rather than the English in terms of ‘prudishness’ (or lack thereof).
Upon rereading the book now, I notice that Olguța can be too much at times: too loud, too expressive, too critical, too opinionated. I wonder if that comes from years of living in the quieter, more repressed British society. I wonder if Italians, Spaniards and Greeks might not find her excessive at all, merely high-spirited. I was often compared to her in my youth, and was criticised for my exuberance when I first came to England, but I wish I’d kept more of her spirit in my later years. Would Olguța have mellowed as much as I did as she grew older and had a family? Would she have turned into her mother – who is a bit of a Moominmamma, although she has given up her career as a pianist to do so?
What is interesting is that, although we are often in close third person POV with the other characters, even some of the secondary ones, we are not all that often privy to Olguța’s private thoughts. We see her opening the package that was mistakenly sent to Monica but was intended for her brother’s lover in Bucharest, and we see her interrogating the servant about it, then jumping on the train to pay her brother a visit, rather than page after page of agonising over what it all means and what she should do next. Until the final volume, where she becomes more secretive and thoughtful and sad, we see Olguța constantly in action, like the whirlwind she seems to be in her household. The very last scene of the trilogy describes a gust of wind passing through the orchard and the rooms of the old manor house, and Monica and Dănuț instantly liken it to Olguța.
Meanwhile, Monica, the quieter, more feminine, more beautiful blonde heroine, is almost dull, if it weren’t for her profound feelings of friendship and loyalty, her quiet determination and sense of justice. She is the diplomat, forever trying to mediate between the two stormy Deleanu siblings. She is calm and kind, the resting point for the extravagantly generous and passionate Olguța. There is something of the blank slate about the characterisation of Monica – as if she represents the ideal woman or ‘the eternal feminine’, as one critic called her, whom everyone likes to imagine slightly differently. In my childhood, I thought of the two ‘sisters’ as Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. But one thing bugged me: Monica seems the perfect maternal figure, yet she is the one who goes on to study for a doctorate – would she have given all that up when she had children?
Dănuț quite frankly annoyed me even more upon this reread than he did in my youth (and he annoyed me a lot even back then). He is so self-absorbed, so hypersensitive and needy, so entitled in every way… and yet, as a child, you cannot help but feel ever so slightly sorry for him when his younger sister so easily outwits and mocks him. Later on in life, he learns his lessons and becomes a much better person. He is at his best with Monica by his side or in his heart, although by putting her on a pedestal of purity, he is also limiting her options should she ever choose to behave less than perfectly. He needs an Olguța to cut him down to size every now and then. He is the quintessential dreamy idealist who rushes too quickly into things, takes people at face value and is doomed to be disappointed many times before he learns. Yet he will be the one who conveys the spirit of Medeleni to future generations through his story-telling.
Mircea is also an idealist, but he does not have the sense of entitlement and privilege that Dan has. He is straitlaced and conscientious, hard-working, unsure of himself, very self-critical. He tends to chew his pencils nervously, which earns him the nickname Hardmuth (given to him, of course, by Olguța). He is more pragmatic than the Deleanus (perhaps because he loses his father quite early on and is not as wealthy) – in a way, he is the one most similar to the rest of us. He has been uplifted by his friendship with the talented, lively, almost too good to be true Deleanus, but he is the survivor, the one who has made peace with the inevitable disappointment of life and what it takes to advance on the career ladder.
The secondary characters, the ones who play a small part, or who come to the forefront in just one of the volumes, are equally well-rounded and believable. Even the ones that you fear might descend into cliché (the vapid coquette, the stuttering amiable classmate, the horny fourteen-year-old) reveal further and unexpected layers. The one character that fails to convince me is Vania, although Teodoreanu does his best to convince us of the uniquely charismatic qualities of this rugged giant. To my adolescent mind, there was something of the Sylvia Plath attraction to Ted Hughes to this relationship between Olguța and Vania and I dread to think how disappointing it might have been for them both in later life.
One striking difference between this family saga and the Cazalets is the way class is treated, although no doubt in both there is a whiff of nostalgia which those ‘below stairs’ might disperse if they were to write their memoirs. It’s interesting that La Medeleni opens in 1907, which was the year of the (ultimately unsuccessful and brutally suppressed) Peasants’ Revolt in Romania, which started in Moldova, where the book is set. The event is mentioned in passing – as one of the arguments for why Moldova is declining and Dănuț should move to study in Bucharest – but it certainly was a defining moment for Romanian intellectuals, when they clearly sided with the peasantry rather than the government. It led to further land reforms (and all sorts of bans on local organisations), but above all it contributed to the ‘idealisation’ of the rural lifestyle and the simple, good-hearted folk, as evidenced by the Sămănătorism movement (grouped around the literary and political review Sămănătorul ‘The Sower’, a paen to rural traditionalism, neoromanticism and nationalism).
The relationship between Moș Gheorghe and Olguța (and previously Moș Gheorghe and Alice, Olguța’s mother) has that ‘lifelong faithful servant’ feel to it, but he is also a grandfather replacement, someone who has time for the children in a way that their own parents don’t always have. He is more like the governess Miss Milliment in the Cazalet Chronicles, almost part of the family yet not quite (although he owns his own house and small bit of land), and it is heartbreaking that all of the money he has spent on expensive silks and embroidered cloths as a dowry for Olguța’s wedding – he is the traditionalist who wants to see her married, clearly – goes to waste, because they end up rotting in the wooden trunk he had lovingly prepared for her. He is one of the best-loved characters in La Medeleni, and appears again and again in different guises in Teodoreanu’s work.
Other servants are not treated as kindly, for example pretty young Sevastiţa seems to become a rite of passage for all the younger men in the Deleanu family. One other person does stand out though: the cook, ‘Baba (Old Woman)’, has added to her traditional repertoire and is highly regarded by the whole family but particularly beloved by Olguța. She is kicked out by Mrs Deleanu while Olguța is abroad, because she is frequently drunk, but then shows up at the last minute before the girls are due back, convinced that no one else can give them the culinary welcome they deserve. Love clearly goes through the stomach for Moldovans, no wonder the cook is important, and there are many lovely descriptions of the lengthy meals they enjoy:
Olguța and Monica had forgotten the dimensions and duration of a Romanian banquet. Compared to the meals in France, the Romanian ones are like sauntering around in a carriage, as opposed to the precision of a journey in a taxi. By the time you reach the last course – which, incidentally, in Romania and in Moldova in particular, is the last but one – the previous courses are nothing else but vague memories, lost somewhere beyond the horizon…’
The Deleanu family itself represents an interesting mix of classes. Iorgu Deleanu and his brother were certainly not from a poor family, but not from an excessively wealthy one either. They studied hard to enter prestigious professions – one became a lawyer, the other an engineer – and they are reliant on their jobs to earn money to support a family in the case of the former, or an extravagant lifestyle in the case of the latter. It is Mrs Alice Deleanu who is a descendant of the Moldovan aristocracy, who owns land and property – but the author never brings up a sense of class difference between the spouses. Teodoreanu can be indirectly quite critical about the landed gentry, as in the case of Ioana Palla, who seems to have nothing better to do than to interfere and manipulate people. There are poorer relatives in the countryside, which is how Puiu ends up in their household: the clever little boy who needs to live with the relatives in the big city so that he has a chance to go to a good school and fulfill his potential. This practice still holds true today in Romania, and even in the supposedly egalitarian Communist society – my parents hosted and sponsored countless sons and daughters of friends and relatives who came to Bucharest for private tuition or exams.
‘Metaforel (Metaphorkins)’ is the way Olguța teases her brother, and this is indeed what some literary critics at the time called Teodoreanu himself. Influenced by French symbolism and prose poetry, by the rural idyllism of Sămănătorism and the Moldovan love of storytelling (the Moldovans are best understood as South-East European Irish, who are either born poets or have kissed the Blarney Stone), and trying to capture a vanished way of life, it was perhaps inevitable that the literary style of La Medeleni can feel too rich, too ornate at times, and give you indigestion.
Despite the critics’ derision of what they called the ‘medelenisation of literature’, Teodoreanu achieves a balancing act that few of his interwar generation managed – the balance between the more traditionalist, patriarchal, Oriental-Balkanic style of storytelling and the modernist Western style. At his best, he can be extremely evocative and there are countless memorable scenes, appealing to all the senses, bursting with colour and movement.
The problem is that the book tries to be too many things at once. It is a family saga as well as a Bildungsroman, it is also an opportunity for the author to air his opinions about literature, art and music, or the shortcomings of politics and the justice system. There are far too many tangential topics thrown in, which have little bearing on the main story or even in conferring depth upon certain characters, such as the first case Dan has to defend as a lawyer (a controversial case of incest). It might be interesting (if uncomfortable from a contemporary woman’s perspective), but it just goes on for far too long. Same with the endless excerpts of ‘prose poetry’ from Dan’s notebooks. Stop, we get it, no need to insist…
This is one of the reasons why this trilogy will never get translated in its entirety (I’ve heard rumours that someone is attempting a translation into French at the moment, but nothing concrete yet). There is far too much that needs to be cut out, given a thorough edit, to appeal to modern readers. All of the literary discussion that was cutting edge at the time now sounds terribly dated. Unlike the Banffy trilogy, where the author was writing with the wisdom of hindsight of twenty or more years, or the Cazalet Chronicles, where the author has had to adapt to the sensitivities of society fifty years after the events described in the book, Teodoreanu’s world was one that he was still very much part of, even though it was beginning to disappear.
Nevertheless, as a portrait of a family and society, and as a description of a (rather privileged) country childhood, I think La Medeleni still bears up well. It may not have the social depth of the Transylvanian trilogy, or the appeal of the familiarity (for the British reader) of the Cazalet Chronicles, it may not cover as much ground as the Buddenbrooks, nor as dramatic a political period as Lampedusa’s The Leopard, but it is the closest that we come to any of these in Romanian literature.
HOLD THE PRESS for some just-in glorious news! The first volume has just been translated into English and is available from Histria Press. Huge thanks to Other Words Books, who did some exploration and found this momentous item of news and let me know about it!
I was going to write just one blog post about this, but it is turning out to be far too long, so I am dividing it up into two parts: Part 1 is about the author and the period the book is set in, as well as giving an overview of the three volumes. Part 2 will discuss the characters, gender and class, as well as literary style.
Under the Influence
It is almost impossible to overstate how much of an influence the Medeleni trilogy had on our childhood in 1980s Romania, although it was a book published in the early 1920s, depicting a period just before and just after the First World War (without actually talking much about that war at all). Maybe we were starved of nostalgic, escapist types of literature and depictions of children who could be lively, naughty, rebellious. Maybe we were just at that blushingly adolescent stage of writing bad poetry and falling in love with the wrong people. For me, as for many others of my age, it must have been the casual acceptance of travelling, living and studying abroad presented in the book, and the openness to foreign languages, literature and music, at a time when we were forcibly cut off from the rest of the world.
Suffice it to say that we used ‘which character are you?’ test just like the children of today might use the Hogwarts houses quiz to determine compatibility and alliances (I was obviously an Olguţa, so my account of the characters might be slightly biased). We played Potemkin and Kamimura battles in the schoolyard, although we knew nothing about the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Many of us had relatives in the countryside and spent our summers there, so the fact that this was a privileged family with a summer estate did not strike us as too strange. We all craved such close and understanding friendships… the only other series of books whose popularity rivalled Medeleni’s was the Cireșarii series, written in the 1950s-60s, a sort of socialist Famous Fivers (we loved them for their travel adventures and friendship).
However, it turns out we were not the first generation to succumb to the charms of Ionel Teodoreanu. He was born in 1897 in a reasonably well-to-do Moldovan family in Iasi. His father was a lawyer, his mother a piano teacher at the Conservatoire, his brother was also a writer and journalist. Ionel was a brilliant student and lawyer himself, married early (his wife was also a writer), had twins, and published pretty much a book per year during his creative period (mid-1920s to just after the war). La Medeleni was his first major work, published in serialised form, when the author was in his mid to late twenties, and it became an instant hit. Literary critics were not always kind to him (see the Style section), but he was an undeniable bestseller. La Medeleni has never been out of print, and has had many covers and different editions over the decades. His later novels never quite recaptured that early success, but he remained popular, especially among the ladies (he was good-looking and romantic, what more could you want?) He stopped writing after the Communists came to power in 1948 (both he and his wife were actively anti-Communist) and died in 1954.
In an interview dating from 1932, Teodoreanu describes how he spends most of the summer in a friend’s garden, writing from morning to evening, because the rest of the year he has to work (both as a lawyer and as director of the National Theatre in Iasi), and how being married is ideal for a writer, because it ‘simplifies’ his life. (His twin boys were eleven years old at the time, so I am guessing they were spending their summers mostly with their mother or grandparents and not allowed to complicate their father’s life.)
The author explicitly set out to describe an idyllic rural way of life that he feared was already disappearing. In the first volume, in particular, there is a similarity to the almost dream-like, yearning atmosphere of Le Grand Meaulnes. There are many references in the book to the differences between fast-paced, sharp-tongued, quite urban province of Muntenia (with its capital, Bucharest) and the softer, slower way of talking and moving in Moldova, with its predominantly rural landscapes. Iasi was a town proud of its cultural heritage, particularly its literary past, but in the newly unified Greater Romania after 1918, the author fears it will become a second-rate provincial town (he himself moved to Bucharest in 1938).
Plot, period and location
No fear of spoilers, since you will have read this book already if you are Romanian, and there is not a chance in the world that it will be translated. So I can give you the whole plot, prepare your tissues now! [Addendum: I discovered after writing Part 2 that Histria Books in the US does have a translation of At Medeleni coming out, so if you intend to read it and do NOT want spoilers, please skip the rest of this post.]
The first volume (‘The Uncertain Border’) is set in 1907 on the country estate of Medeleni in the Romanian province of Moldova, not that far from Iasi, where the Deleanu family are spending their summer. Mr Deleanu is a lawyer, his wife is the actual owner of the estate, as a descendant of a family of Moldovan bojars – landed gentry. They have two children, dreamy mother’s favourite Dănuț (11) and sarcastic, hyperactive ten-year-old Olguţa, who is the apple of her father’s eye. As the story opens, they are welcoming ten-year-old Monica, shy and well-behaved, into their home, whom they will foster after the death of her last surviving relative, her grandmother. Not much happens in the book, or rather, only the typical mischief of children on holiday, and Monica harbouring a secret passion for Dănuț, but by the end of the book the uncle from Germany (nicknamed Herr Direktor) offers to take the boy with him to study in Bucharest, while Olguţa’s beloved family coachman/groom, the grandfatherly Moș Gheorghe, dies.
Teodoreanu has as good an ear for children’s dialogue and sibling rivalry as Elizabeth Jane Howard, as well as a knack for the well-placed detail of daily life. In fact, it was the detailed descriptions of daily life in the country home before the war in the Cazalet Chronicles which made me pick up the Medeleni trilogy again. Here too we are in the home of a fairly wealthy family, with servants, a vanished world that most of us are unfamiliar with, and yet there are so many little scenes that will sound familiar to those of us who spent any part of our childhood somewhat unsupervised and unscheduled, whether in the Romanian countryside or not – there is a sort of timelessness and classlessness to these memories. We find here descriptions of thin white sheets soaked in cold water and pinned to the windows to cool down the rooms enough to allow for some sleep. The children eat juicy watermelons and get told off by their mother for bad table manners. The children invent all sorts of excuses for wearing a new piece of clothing. They want to play at being grown-up and do what grown-ups do:
Mum dearest, please make me a coffee.
Beg your pardon?
Coffee isn’t suitable for children.
It makes you nervous.
So why do you drink it then?
… It helps me with the digestion.
Don’t I have a digestion too?
You’ve got one without any coffee.
And you have nerves without any coffee, dear mother, Olguta whispered suavely.
The uncle comes to visit, bringing presents and gossip about the old days, they all dress up, run in and out of the kitchens and annoy the servants. Dănuț plays horsies in the garden with Monica, using her long blonde plaits as reins. Later, in a fit of spite against his sister, who he thinks put Monica’s doll in his bed to tease him, he cuts off the doll’s hair and never finds the forlorn little love note that Monica had put in its pocket.
In the second volume (‘Paths’) we skip forward seven years and move to Bucharest for a while. Dănuț is about to start his final year of secondary school, living in his own independent little annexe next to his uncle’s house. He is very much in love with Adina, a coquettish married older woman, much to the dismay of his good friend Mircea, who is of a timid and anxious disposition. Dănuț persists in seeing Adina as an innocent, darling little girl (helped no doubt by her acting skills and diminutive proportions) and writes endless bad poetry to her – mostly in French, like the poets he so much admires. He has neglected writing to his mother and the patient Monica, who has become his friend and confidante, although he seems blind to the fact that she is in love with him. Olguța storms off to Bucharest to bring her brother to his senses, although she is much subtler about it than we might expect, and wins all of her brother’s classmates over with her frank, impulsive style.
Later in this volume, all of the actors, including their new schoolfriends, gather for the summer at Medeleni again. Mircea joins them, falls in love with Olguța, who also has another admirer in the shape of young cousin Puiu, who is, however, both attracted and repelled by superficial and highly-sexed classmate of the girls, Rodica. Rodica pines after Dănuț, who initially pines after Adina, but then falls under the spell of a neighbour of theirs, Ioana Palla, whose brother-in-law is a famous painter who ends up with Adina in Venice, in something of a Dangerous Liaisons type move. This is perhaps the weakest part of the trilogy, mostly because it tries to be a Bildungsroman as well as an insight into the artistic psyche of … let’s face it, a rather green and callow youth, with many pages given over to his prose-poems (all fashionable in France at the time, but rather derivative and pointless in this context), or to descriptions of womanly flesh and eyes and pouts. Despite its flaws, it’s a very funny volume as well, with lots of skewering of the pretentiousness and budding sexual feelings of adolescence. Ahough Dan might be the author’s alter ego, he has no qualms in presenting him warts and all to the reader: the universal teenage boy – self-absorbed, easily seduced, vain, a wannabe artist or writer, derivative, imitative, unable to quite believe in or control his talents.
But this is the summer of 1914 and of course the threat of war is on the horizon. Although Romania remained neutral until 1916, we know that the young boys we have gently mocked and grown to love will be conscripted very soon. As a side note, Teodoreanu’s younger brother died in the war, which is perhaps the reason why he chose not to show the war and its effect directly in this book, nor kill off any of the young men.
The third volume (‘Windswept’ or ‘Between the Winds’) is set in 1922 and suddenly a lot of the playfulness has gone. The girls have been to study in Paris: Monica has completed a Ph.D. on the poetry of Villon, while Olguța has trained as a concert pianist, and they are on their way back to Romania on board a ship, unhurriedly making their way from Marseille to Constanța. Dan is following in his father’s footsteps as a lawyer, but struggles with his conscience and idealism, and would much rather spend all of his time writing (this time in Romanian, rather than French). Mircea has become a teacher, a journalist and is starting to get involved in politics. Puiu too is a lawyer, of the more materialistic and earthy kind.
Unbeknownst to the rest of the family, Olguța (still known by her diminutive, although her brother prefers to be called Dan now) has fallen in love with Vania, a distant relative on her mother’s side, with family and property in Basarabia (the part of Moldova which until 1918 belonged to the Russians). He disappeared during the war, feared dead, but in a rather far-fetched plot twist, Olguța finds him on board the ship. He is wanted by the Russians as a possible deserter and political agitator, he has been travelling the world like a vagabond, and he needs to sort out his inheritance and land, which now is within Romanian borders, plus he is twenty years older than Olguța, but she is adamant she wants to be with him no matter where he might go. She briefly joins him for a few days in the very depressing, run-down town of Bălți (now in the Republic of Moldova), which Teodoreanu describes in very unflattering terms – but which is transformed of course by their love and happiness. They promise each other to elope to America together on a ship from Constanța on the 14th of September.
Most of the action then takes place in the Deleanu house, as they prepare to receive their beloved daughters back home. Once again we have various memorable set-piece scenes: a furious and funny present-giving ceremony, in which the servants aren’t forgotten either; or the hunting scene by the lake. However, everything is tinged with melancholy, not just because Olguța is secretly planning to leave them, but also because back in Paris, she had an operation to remove a lump from her breast and was told that if it reappeared, she might be in trouble. It does reappear, and she remembers that her grandmother too died of breast cancer, but not before she was taken to all sorts of clinics abroad, having various chunks of her flesh chopped off, and suffering more and more pain. She cannot bear to see herself or her family go through this ritual of false hope, so on the 12th of December, in Moș Gheorghe’s old house where she enjoyed so many carefree moments in her childhood, she writes her farewell letters and commits suicide. She asks Monica to go to the port in her place to explain to Vania what happened and ask for the engagement ring he was going to bring to that meeting, the only piece of jewellery with which she wants to be buried. But Vania does not show up at their meeting place. Instead, he wrote a letter, which arrived after Olguța’s death, to explain that he could not tear her away from her family and allow her to give everything up for an old footloose vagrant like himself.
But the novel does not end on this dramatic note. The epilogue takes place a couple of years later. The family, needless to say, has been devastated by the loss of their daughter, although at least they have the consolation of seeing Monica and Dan get married. Dan hasn’t been able to write at all since his sister’s death, and tries to work harder than ever as a lawyer, to allow his poor broken father some time to rest. Monica is teaching at a girls’ school. Mircea has married and settled for mediocrity. He finds the solemn vow that he wrote in his youth, when he first fell in love with Olguța, that if he ever were to become ‘like everyone else’, he would commit suicide – or else accept that his real soul is broken and his wings have been cut off… and quietly burns it to cinders. Saddest of all, the family has decided to sell Medeleni. The parents can no longer bear to go there, the memories are too painful, while Dan realises that he cannot afford to maintain the vast property, even if he were to work non-stop. The buyers are none other than vulgar Rodica and her rich banker husband, an act of revenge for being rather summarily dismissed from Medeleni in her youth (after trying to seduce Dan). In the Cazalet Chronicles, there was one last gathering at Home Place before it went on sale, but in this book, it’s just Dan and Monica spending one last day going through the empty house, haunted but also strengthened by their memories.
The days of the landed gentry are over, Teodoreanu seems to be saying. The hard-working professional classes can no longer afford to own such properties – and it’s the wild capitalists, the financiers, the industrialists and nouveau riche who are taking over. Banffy’s Transylvanian trilogy offers a similar sense of nostalgia in describing a vanished world, albeit one with far more politics and protagonists facing higher stakes overall.
I was going to write a very lengthy post about the family saga La Medeleni, but I don’t have the energy for it right now, plus you are never likely to read it unless you learn Romanian, since its chances of being translated are close to zero. However, Life Begins on Friday is a book you can find in English, courtesy of Istros Books and the translator Alistair Ian Blyth (see link below). I cannot comment on the translation itself, since I read it in Romanian, except to say that it must have been quite a challenge to render the linguistic and cultural specificity of 1897 Bucharest into English. The author has also written non-fiction, historical accounts of everyday life in Bucharest at the turn of the 20th century, and this meticulous research and understanding of the period stands her in good stead in this novel, which was published in 2009, won the EU Prize for Literature in 2013 and had an unheard of success in Romania, leading to a second edition in 2013 and a third edition in 2018.
It is an amazingly unclassifiable novel, a complete mash-up of mystery, fantasy, literary, historical and romance. Above all, it is not the ‘type’ of novel that people have come to expect from the former East Bloc countries: either all about the Communist dictatorship, or else all about the poverty, crime and human trafficking after the fall of Communism. This is a fun novel, with endearing characters and a plot that never quite resolves itself but keeps you intrigued throughout. We find ourselves in Bucharest during the Christmas/New Year period of 1897. The main streets are lit up by electricity and full of elegant horse-drawn carriages, but just behind them are the dark streets, full of potholes and mud. Much like today, in fact!
On the snowy road on the outskirts of the city, close to Baneasa forest and lake, two young men are found at a short distance from each other, both unconscious and stunned. One of them is wounded and later dies in hospital, while the other seems to be a madman or amnesiac: hatless, wearing funny clothes, not quite knowing how to behave or how to speak politely, claiming to be a journalist, although he appears completely unaware of the current news. This is Dan Creţu (whom they decide to spell Kretzu, because they think he might have come from abroad) and he comes into contact with a series of close-knit characters who each tell part of the story from their point of view: the altruistic doctor Margulis and his family, including his disabled son Jacques and lively older daughter Iulia, who keeps a diary; the brave and witty little errand boy Nicu (my favourite), who tries to protect his bipolar mother, who is occasionally well enough to work as a washerwoman; the police inspector Costache Boerescu, friend of the Margulis (and former suitor of Mrs Margulis), who keeps trying to find any links between the two men; the journalists at the Universul newspaper; Alexandru Livezeanu, the spoilt son of a rich family, who seems to have got himself entangled in some unpleasant, possibly criminal activity. But there is so much else to enjoy here: cabbies, porters, German craftsmen crossing the border from Transylvania to find work in Bucharest, pigeons, stolen icons, rivalries between different sweet shops, banquets, present-giving, the novelty of using fingerprints to help in police investigations, the revolutionary medical opinion that tight stays and corsettes might actually be harmful for women’s internal organs and so much more.
In truth, the main character of the novel is Bucharest itself, the city with all its infuriating babble and imperfections, its corruption and crime, but also its charms and friendliness, a city that was then (as now) a bit of a building site. Human nature and the city of Bucharest seem to have a lot in common, immovable, unchanging except in superficial ways, with grounds for both optimism and pessimism, as a rather lovely passage makes clear in which the professions of detective and medical doctor are compared – or rather, the idealistic concept of the two. There are constant parallels between past and present, for those who like to read between the lines, but it is not a political book.
We begin to suspect rather quickly that Dan might be a time traveller from the present-day Romania, but he is never quite able or willing to explain his dilemma to the people he meets. As a visitor from a much more cynical age, he is perhaps more exasperated rather than shocked by the negatives of life during that period, but he becomes charmed by the manners, naivety and hopefulness of the characters who view the advances of science and the progress of their country with such optimism.
It was as though I had landed in a world where God was younger and more present, after living for years in a ruined world that had lost God, or had been lost by God. It was as though I could see the sky, after forgetting about its existence for years. It was as if I had come alive again, after being dead on my feet. I felt as if I had been taken under a wing. A pleasant feeling gripped me, full of love for everything I could see around me.
In one of the final scenes of the novel, a large party of dinner guests on New Year’s Eve try to imagine what the future might be like. One says he thinks that the Eiffel Tower will become a permanent fixture and a symbol for the city of Paris, much to the derision of the other guests. Others say there will be a cure for TB, that the whole world will be electrified, that people will travel to the moon just like in Jules Verne. And Dan does not disillusion them by predicting world wars or any of the other horrors that the new century was about to throw their way. There is a rather clever post-modern final chapter that tries to imagine Dan’s life in the future, while a poignant epilogue informs us about the fate of some of the characters in the story.
There is a sequel to this book, The Future Begins on Monday, which has not been translated, and a third novel The Innocents, is the story of a house and a family set in the author’s home town of Brașov. If you want to find out more about Ioana Pârvulescu, you can catch her on the 8th of November in conversation with Tracy Chevalier at the Romania Rocks 2 Festival organised by the Romanian Culture Institute in Bucharest. (Most of the events will be recorded and streamed online).
There is something very familiar to me in the language, landscape and characters described by Bogdan Suceavă. Unsurprising, really, because he is of the same generation as me, growing up under Communism but then having the opportunity to go and study abroad in the 1990s. He got his Ph.D. in Mathematics at Michigan State University (coincidentally, one that I was seriously considering for a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at the time) and has been teaching the subject at university level in California ever since. Nevertheless, alongside his passion for geometry, he has always been equally diligent in writing and publishing, initially prize-winning short stories and novellas, but then moving on to novels. A few of his works have been translated into English by Alistair Ian Blythe. For a good dose of traditional Romanian atmosphere, I would suggest Miruna, a Tale. Or, if you want to see just how tricky a time the early 1990s were in Romania after the fall of Communism, you might want to try Coming from an Off-Key Time. He is also a contributor to the anthology of Bucharest Tales, published by New Europe Writers in 2010.
I have to admit prior acquaintance with his work: I edited the translation of one of his novellas for the online multilingual literary journal Respiro back in the early 2000s, so I have signed copies of two of his short story collections, including the one I am currently reviewing: Bunicul s-a întors la franceză (Grandpa Goes Back toFrench).
You may wonder at the strangeness of that title, but the short story that lends its name to the entire anthology is about a grandfather who is trying to remember his youthful, mostly bookish knowledge of the French language. It is a very moving tale of a grandson trying to get his eighty-year-old grandfather to eat and take his medication, when all the old man wants to do is write his memoirs and get them published, so that the present generation will know the truth about Romania after the Second World War and the anti-Communist resistance movement. He sends off his lengthy manuscript to a newspaper editor, who somewhat jokingly tells him he’s be better off writing all that in French. The grandfather takes this seriously and rewrites the entire volume, trying to assuage his guilt at not having followed his former army comrades into the mountains. An incredibly sad scene takes place in the park, when the grandfather proclaims loudly, in a mix of Romanian and French, that ‘everyone needs to hear the truth’, and his grandson has to disillusion him:
‘There’s nothing new, Grandpa, in all of this. They know it all. And they don’t care. It’s the past, nobody cares about it anymore.’
This feels very true and is in stark contrast to the endless tomes written about the Second World War in Britain. I remember an author telling me that nearly every middle-aged man she met at the London Library was writing a book about WW2. It makes me wonder if it is better to live in a country that tries to bury its past or one that tries to glorify it. Of course, one approach does not exclude the other…
Other stories bring in a dose of humour, such as The Story of Al Waqbah, in which the narrator tells us about his cousin Matei, whose childhood naughtiness persists even in adulthood, when he becomes a respected mechanic in the tank division of the Romanian army and gets sent to the (First) Gulf War. A mix of British, American, French, Polish and other forces all get involved in Matei’s complicated plan to build a home-made distillery to make fig brandy in a country where alcohol is prohibited (with predictably bad consequences).
One of the stories takes place on an American university campus, but it feels to me like the author is at his best when he sticks to the time and places he knows in his bones. When Night Falls in Bucharest borders on the melodramatic, but gives an interesting insight into the compromises you had to be prepared to make as a second-tier Communist party bureaucrat aspiring to become a minister under Ceaușescu. The Disintegration of the Fatherland into Elementary Particles looks at more recent Romanian society (future, actually, 2006, when in fact the book came out in 2003) and the more violent, disorderly ways in which people might channel their discontent and anger at the prevailing corruption and dysfunctional political system.
Not all of the stories have a political slant. The author is having fun experimenting with genres and styles. He has an excellent ear for dialogue and an ease of switching from a more lyrical to a factual style. There is a pseudo-scientific and historical style in Greetings from Prague. Your World: Rock Music and Guava Perfume is the story of a lifelong friendship between a boy and a girl, that somehow never quite turned into love, a universal tale of missed opportunities and miscommunication, a yearning for what might have been. There is a short, experimental bit of prose about a man walking the streets while desperately trying to solve a Rubik’s cube.
An interesting collection of short stories of an author still testing the ground and honing his craft. One or two of them will certainly stay with me, and I am now curious to read his novels. Next time I go to Romania (if I go to Romania any time soon), I will search out more of his work.
Tongue in cheek question: Should I add him to the list of Bogdans that I seem to be translating? (Bogdan Teodorescu and Bogdan Hrib are the first, but there might be more to follow.)
I am really enjoying my aimless September wanderings of reading without a purpose and often with no intention to review. It provides a much-needed break and gives me the time and leisure to immerse myself in the rapidly-changing world of 1930s and 40s Britain, the world of the Cazalets. Although I will be wary of overburdening myself with obligations in the future, I do like to have a bit of a plan for my autumn and winter reading. So here are my current plans (as always, they are subject to change, depending on internal whims and external events).
October: Romanian Fun Reads
Family sagas have not been my cup of tea, generally, but now that I’ve succumbed to the charm of the Cazalets, I was thinking of rereading one of my favourite series of books when I was growing up – the three volume (sometimes published as four volumes) saga At Medeleni (that being the name of a country home in the Moldova region of Romania). I might not have time to sink completely into it, but I could try the first volume, when the main protagonists are children, and compare it with the Cazalets or with the Palace Walk trilogy by Mahfouz, which I also need to finish at some point.
Then I thought I might as well make it a fun month of reading Romanian literature – as in, reading without a professional editorial eye, wondering whether it would be worth translating or not, whether for Corylus or someone else. Here are the books I’ll be contemplating:
Ionel Teodoreanu: La Medeleni, Vol. 1 – The Unsteady Border.
Doina Ruști: Mâța Vinerii (The Book of Perilous Dishes) – YA novel set in 1798 Bucharest, a fantastical tale about a magic recipe book. The blurb says: ‘Merchants, sorcerers, spiritists, cooks of the Princely Court, lovers, haughty young ladies, ambassadors from diverse lands, mercenaries, officials of the Sublime Porte, princes in exile and princes newly enthroned, schemers of all sorts, revolutionaries, Bonapartists, tricksters, and envoys of Sator populate the carnivalesque space of this novel of fantasy, whose deeper levels lead far into the distance, towards worlds we could scarcely imagine.’ The book has received a translation grant and will be published by Book Island in the near future.
Ioana Pârvulescu: Life Begins on Friday – this historical time-travelling crime but literary novel won the European Union Literature Prize in 2013 and has been translated into English.
Bogdan Suceavă: Grandpa Returns to French (my own translation of the title – untranslated collection of short stories). I know the author slightly, worked with him briefly on the same literary journal, plus he was born in the town where my parents live now in Romania. He is a Mathematics Professor at a university in California, but is a highly skilled prose writer.
Radu Pavel Gheo: Good Night, Children! The story of four childhood friends, growing up in Communist Romania, who all dreamt of emigrating to the ‘promised land’ and return to their home country and their friendship in their thirties; older but are they any the wiser? The story of my generation, I suppose.
November: German Literature Month and Novella in November
I’ve always taken part in the German Lit Month and want to take part in the Novellas in November one too this year, since both of these initiatives are hosted by some of my favourite bookish bloggers. (Novellas in November is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of BookishBeck and I believe their definition of novella is any work under 200 pages). So I’ve found a way to combine these two themes by choosing to read German-language novellas. Or, very short novels in some but not all cases. If you’ve read the original announcements for German Lit Month on Lizzy’s and Caroline’s blogs, you’ll have seen that the plan is to read:
Books from Austria 1-7 Nov: I have a collection of short stories by Marlen Haushofer, which includes the novella-length We Kill Stella.
Books from Germany 9-14 Nov: Irmgard Keun: Child of All Nations, transl. Michael Hoffmann (almost a novella, only 180 pages long)
Books from Switzerland 15-21 Nov: Friedrich Glauser: The Spoke (again, novella-length – only 130 pages)
Books from Elsewhere 22-28 Nov: Mrs Mohr Goes Missing, a crime novel set in Krakow in 1893, when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, written by a dynamic Polish writing duo publishing under the pen-name Maryla Szymiczkowa, transl. Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Here, There and Everywhere 29-30: Dana Grigorcea: The Undying. This sounds like an utter wild card, a vampire crime novel that isn’t really about vampires by a Romanian author writing in German and living in Switzerland.
December: Russians in the Snow
Under Karen’s (aka Kaggsy59) nefarious influence, I have been steadily adding to my pile of Russian books, and it always feels most suitable to read them when curled up inside with the wind blowing a blizzard outdoors. Even if they are set during the hot summer months spent in the countryside. Last year I managed to read The Karamazovs and was planning to reread The Idiot this year, but the book (in the translation I really like from the Raduga Publishing House in Moscow) is at my parents’ house in Romania, and I am not sure I will get a chance to pick it up before then. Therefore, I am wisely selecting quite short works this time, allowing myself room for sudden lurches in mood.
Bulgakov: Diaboliad, transl. Hugh Aplin – satire about Soviet bureaucracy
Victor Pelevin: Omon Ra, transl. Andrew Bromfield – a satire about Soviet space race
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, transl. Anna Summers – There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In – well, it will be the month when my older son comes back from his first term at university!
Marina Tsvetaeva: Poems (maybe comparing different translations, although of course I can’t read the original Russian)
I recently came across this feature in The Guardian about bored teenagers in literature as selected by John Patrick McHugh – and really liked many of the titles listed, some of which deserve to be better known. However, we come up against this problem over and over again in the Anglo-Saxon world: very little awareness of literature that is not written in English.
Much as I love the ‘Write Around the World’ literary travels with Richard E. Grant currently showing on BBC4, and much as I appreciate F. Scott Fitzgerald and Patricia Highsmith to have only two foreign writers out of seven in both the episode on Italy and the one on the South of France feels rather… provincial. My blogger friend Emma in France is always puzzled why there is such reluctance to read books in translation in the Anglocentric world and has a Translation Tragedy category on her blog. (This applies also to English books that haven’t been translated into French, but more often books in other languages that haven’t been translated into English).
Anyway, back to stroppy teenagers (a subject which has somewhat incensed me this week, I have to admit). There are so many superb books about teenagers in world literature – and a few of those have made it into the English-speaking world too. So here is my correction to that Guardian list. Quite a few of these titles also fit into the #WITMonth project, if you are looking for inspiration.
Françoise Sagan: Bonjour Tristesse, transl. Heather Lloyd, Penguin Modern Classics
The quintessential story of a bored wealthy teenager who cannot resist manipulating all the people around her, especially the women who seem to be gravitating around her father. Written when the author was still in her teens herself, this short book scandalised French society at the time (1950s) and led to a life of success and excess for Sagan. (This would also have fit in perfectly with the Write Around Episode set in France and has had a Hollywood adaptation).
Trifonia Melibenia Obono: La Bastarda, transl. Lawrence Schimel,The Feminist Press at CUNY
The teenage protagonist here is anything but privileged: Okomo is an orphan, raised by her grandmother in Equatorial Guinea. She longs to find her father and in doing so gets involved with the illicit gay subculture in her country, which she finds far more welcoming than her own mainstream culture. It is also the first novel from that country to be translated into English.
Faiza Guene: Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow, transl. Sarah Adams, Harvest Original/Harcourt.
Again, a marked contrast to the genteel, wealthy French teen described by Sagan: this is the France of the banlieue, those ghetto-like suburbs of Paris. The heroine Doria is determined to prove that not all that comes out of these estates is crime and rap although all the odds seem stacked against her: her father has abandoned the family, her mother has to do cleaning jobs to make ends meet, the boy she loves doesn’t seem to notice her, and she has just about had enough of school…
Janne Teller: Nothing, transl. Martin Aitken, Strident Publishing.
Denmark may often be touted as the happiest country in the world, but for Pierre Anthon, the teenager at the heart of this book, it is most certainly not the case. One day, he has an existential crisis ‘he realized that nothing was worth doing, because nothing meant anything anyway’ and climbs up a tree. Nothing that his classmates say or do can convince him to come down again. Philosophy is clearly important to Scandinavian teenagers (remember ‘Sophie’s World’ by Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder), and this is a very interesting attempt to counteract teen nihilism.
Marjane Satrapi: Persepolis, Jonathan Cape (no named translator!)
At the start of this autobiographical graphic novel, the authors is a child, but in the subsequent volumes she grows up and describes both her daily life in Iran in a time of Islamic revolution and war with Iraq, as well as her difficulties in adapting to life in exile.
Giorgio Bassani: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, transl. Jamie McKendrick, Penguin Modern Classics
A will-they, won’t-they teenage love story set in 1930s Italy, when the anti-semitic laws introduced by Mussolini means that the young narrator of the story is kicked out of the local tennis club in Ferrara and is invited to play tennis in the private garden of the wealthy Finzi-Continis. Elegy for a lost world, with the author telling us early on in the book that the glamorous family he so admired were deported and killed in concentration camps during the war.
Wolfgang Herrndorf: Tschick, transl. as ‘Why We Took the Car’ by Tim Mohr, Scholastic
Mike and Tschick are two German teenage boys – or rather, Tschick is the nickname of a Russian immigrant boy, whose surname is too complicated for anyone to even attempt to pronounce. They feel like outsiders, never get invited to any of the cool parties and during the summer holidays, they take an ancient Lada for a spin and end up making a road trip out of it.
Makoto Shinkai: Your Name, Yen Press.
This YA novel was released around the same time as the animated film directed by Shinkai, describing two teenagers, a boy and a girl, bored of their daily routines in the city and the countryside respectively, who end up switching bodies periodically. They communicate through notes and text messages on their phones, but when the boy makes an attempt to visit the girl in the countryside, he discovers that her village has been obliterated by a falling comet.
Tsugumi Oba & Takeshi Obata: Death Note, Shonen Jump.
I cannot avoid mentioning Death Note when I talk about Japanese teenagers: this is a very different kettle of fish than the romantic and sweet Your Name. It is a manga that became an hugely successful anime series and a (somewhat less superlative) film. It’s the story of cocky teenager Light Yagami who finds a mysterious, dark notebook, which confers the ability upon the owner to kill anyone whose name is written within its pages. And so Light becomes a vigilante, initially planning to create a more just world by killing all criminals, until the power goes to his head…
Mircea Eliade became a revered (although controversial) professor of world religions, but this is a fairly autobiographical novel that he wrote as a teen and never published in his lifetime. Although it takes place in Bucharest a hundred years ago, it is a universal story of the monumental egoism but also lack of confidence, search for identity and everyday failure of teenagers everywhere. Although there are shades of the insufferable Holden Caulfield here, this book doesn’t try too hard to be clever. The strength of the book lies in precisely those passages where the narrator unwittingly reveals all of his adolescent naiveté and doubts which are both funny and touching.
I could have made a much longer list, but the original had ten, so these ten will do for starters. However, it would be remiss of me not to mention the recent French novella that we published at Corylus Books Little Rebel by Jérôme Leroy, transl. Graham Roberts, in which we spend some rather tense time with disaffected teenagers in a run-down school and a French literature class. A guest author is visiting, the ineffectual teacher is ogling at her much to the amusement of his pupils, and then the school enters lockdown because of a potential terrorist attack…
Very good timing to talk about teenagers in literature: wishing you success to all the UK students getting their GCSE results today!
I ‘met’ the author Alta Ifland online via Twitter, both of us exchanging opinions on news items pertaining to Romania or reviews of Romanian literature. Alta left Romania in the 1990s and has lived abroad ever since, first in France, then in the US, so we clearly had many things in common. When she asked me to read and review her novel The Wife Who Wasn’t, which is coming out in the US on the 18th of May, explaining that it’s all about cross-cultural (mis)communication, I could not resist. (It is also available for pre-order in the UK, although I am not sure if it has the same publishing date.)
The story takes place in 1996-7, mostly in California, but with some trips to the Republic of Moldova. Sammy is a reasonably well-off widower living in Santa Barbara with his teenage daughter Anna. He realises that she is running a bit wild, too much of a tomboy, so he decides she needs some womanly influence and finds himself a mail-order bride from Moldova. Enter the energetic, not-all-that-young but still attractive Russian lady Tania, arriving at the airport in LA:
He recognises the woman right away (though they haven’t seen each other in over half a year), not because she is very memorable, but because there is something that makes her stand out in the crowd. It may be her hair… or her swinging hips, marking her territory as she advances like a lioness toward prey… When she is almost near him, he notices that her skin looks very young, white and plump like a baby’s, and her lips, equally plump, have the shine and luminescence of a wet, luscious grape.
But Tania is no baby – she is a born hustler, hungry for all of the advantages and luxuries that America has to offer. Her new husband seems a bit scared of her; it is true that she has been hiding the fact that she has a teenage daughter back in Moldova, whom she intends to bring over to join her in California as soon as possible. However, it’s not a straightforward case of golddigger and victim, for Sammy’s own motives for choosing a bride from the ‘Old World’ are fairly murky:
It’s not that he couldn’t have found a wife on his own; what worried him was that he’d also have to marry her family and friends. He’d labored so hard to isolate himself and Anna from the rest of the world, from the vulgarity and petty noises that often passed for communal bonding. A wife from the Old World would have the immediate advantage of being an orphan, so to speak: no family, no friends. She would be like a rescued pet, entirely dependent on him. Not to mention the supplemental advantage of a woman from a world where they still believed in taking care of the head of the family!
You just know that things are not going to go according to plan. At first, Tania is stunned by the fancy houses, the endless choice in the supermarkets and shops, the fancy lifestyle. But the hipster Californian sensibility doesn’t quite make sense. When Anna tells her that she is a vegetarian, because she believes in treating every living thing with respect, Tania muses:
Treat chicken with respect! That’s a good one. I’m telling you, this country is going to the dogs. If you start treating chickens with respect, where does it end? Besides, she doesn’t even treat me with respect!
There are many opportunities for satire in the culture clashes between the newly-capitalistic Eastern Europeans eager for domestic comforts, and the privileged Californians hankering after an idealised ‘old-fashioned, more spiritual’ lifestyle. The hypocrisy of the capitalist system is exposed through delicious comedy. For example, when Tania looks for a job in a cafe (she wants to have her own pocket money, not have to ask her husband for an allowance), she is asked why she wants to work there. She replies very frankly that it was the only place hiring, that she doesn’t really want to work but she needs the money.
After all those years under communism, when we were forced to claim that we wanted to work for the good of the country, now, in freedom, I could tell the truth: I wanted to work for the money! I didn’t give a shit about society, all I wanted was the money.
The manager tries to explain that they represent more than a workplace, that every day they cleanse themselves of negative thoughts and have a philosophy of sacred commerce. Clearly, Tania muses to herself, if the communists are failed capitalists, then the capitalists are failed ministers who feel ‘compelled to shroud their money in the sacred veil of communal wholesomeness’.
Add to the mix Tania’s unruly daughter Irina, her good-for-nothing drunkard of a brother Serioja, Sammy’s divorced neighbour Bill with his teenage son, another art-collecting neighbour Lenny – and you have quite a powder keg of personal interests, rivalries, flirtations and affairs, attempts to seduce or trick or worse.
This is not the gentle observational comedy of manners that you might expect from Barbara Pym. It is more of a return to the original comedy of manners principles of the Restoration period in England or Molière in France, with heightened – often ruthless – satire, some stock secondary characters (who represent types rather than rounded individuals), complex plotting and counter-plotting, and a lot of social commentary. It is fast, furious and occasionally infuriating, as the largely unlikable characters try to outwit each other, but you can’t help wanting to know how these moves on the chessboard will all end.
There is one part that doesn’t seem to fit in as well with the rest of the story: the painting icons section. Before leaving Moldova, Irina tries to master the skill of icon-painting from the talented Maria (who later marries Irina’s uncle). Maria takes the work very seriously, and is fully immersed in the tradition and spiritual meaning of this ancient craft, while Irina just wants to learn enough to make a quick buck in the States. I personally enjoyed the long descriptions of Maria’s art and how she came to disover it:it reminded me of the film ‘Andrei Rublev’ and I really recommend you search for the famous Voronets blue, which is my favourite shade of my favourite colour. However, it jarred slightly against the lighter-hearted comic moments or social critique in the rest of the book. I also thought the ending was a bit contrived, as if the author wanted to wrap things up quickly, although it was inspired by real-life events in the Santa Barbara area.
Despite these two slight misgivings, I have to say it is a hugely entertaining novel, a perfect change of pace from my usual fraught fare; I gulped it down in 2 days. It steers clear of the cute and fluffy, and has quite a bit to say about the contrasts between two very different societies. Please note that Alta Ifland’s other work is far more quirky and experimental. The author cites Beckett, Clarice Lispector, Paul Celan and Kafka among her influences, and you can get an idea of her style in the prose poems she uses in her biographical notes on her website.
There are glimpses of this less conventional style of storytelling in the frequent changes in point of view. We occasionally have an omiscient narrator with a wry sense of humour, but we also get to see what each character thinks of the others and how they plan to outsmart them. This is sometimes done through the letters that Tania and Irina write to each other or to the grandmother they have left back in Moldova: that is where the truth comes out in an unvarnished way, with people who truly understand your background. The humour is closer in spirit that of the Soviet satirists Ilf and Petrov, but overlaid with an easy, breezy Californian chick lit style; a more successful marriage, perhaps, than Sammy and Tania’s.
OK, I’m cheating a little here, because I read several works by Rebreanu, yet none of them were published exactly in 1936. Here are the books I’ll be referring to in this post:
Jar (usually translated as ‘Embers’, although I’d argue that it should be ‘Blaze’) – 1934 – psychological novel about the devastating effect of passionate love on a young girl
Ciuleandra – psychological novel about the devastating effect of passionate love on a young man (so an interesting counterpoint) – 1927 [Available now in English translation thanks to Gabi Reigh and Cadmus Press]
Amândoi (Both) – crime novel – 1940
However, there’s another connection with Sebastian, which makes the connection to my previous #1936Club entry a bit more plausible. Sebastian interviewed Rebreanu and expressed great admiration for his writing, but they weren’t really close, and at some point Sebastian expressed disappointment at the anti-semitic attitude displayed during the war by Rebreanu, which he wouldn’t have expected from the author of the novella Itzik Shtrul, Desertor, dating from 1919, which showed great empathy and understanding towards the eponymous Jewish hero of the story. However, it is also true that Rebreanu used his war-time position as the Director of the National Theatre during the war (from 1940 until his death in 1944) to allow Leny Caler to continue performing, albeit only at the Jewish theatre, so his attitude is a little complicated, perhaps merely opportunistic.
Whatever he might have been like in this personal life, in his works Rebreanu is almost always solidly behind the underdog. His versatility and range in terms of subject matter are quite impressive. During Communist times when we studied him in school, he was particularly admired for the social critique and description of rural life in Ion (1920) and Răscoala (The Revolt – about the peasant revolt in Romania in 1907) (1932). I personally always preferred his stories of inner turmoil and psychological torment, such as The Forest of the Hanged and Ciuleandra. I had never previously read Jar and Both, although I have the special edition published in 1985, marking the centenary since his birth.
My father was always rather keen on Rebreanu because he spent quite a bit of his life and actually died in Argeș, the county my family originates from. Ciuleandra, the title of the book, has not been translated, because it is actually the name of a dance which is particularly popular in that region, which starts slow and then gets faster and faster, until it all descends into an orgasm of colour, passion and sensuality. This is how it is described in the book:
It starts just like any other dance, very slow, very restrained. The dancers gather, form a circle… Stirred by the heat of those bodies, the music quickens, grows wilder. The rhythm of the dance catches its frenzy… As the fiddlers warm to their instruments, the melody twitches, spins loose, explodes into chaos… The ring of dancers, daring themselves to defy and smother the music’s spell, charge at it, feet crushing into dirt, and the tornado of flesh twists into itself again, tighter, more stubborn, clenching and loosening, until, finally the bodies melt into each other…
It is at one of these country dances, under the immediate heat of the ciuleandra, that Puiu Faranga meets the pretty, extremely young peasant girl Mădălina. Puiu comes from a wealthy aristocratic family, who think France is the epitome of culture and speak French at home much like the Russian aristocracy in novels. His father is a former government minister, but worried his son might end up living a life of debauchery, and decides a girl of healthy peasant stock is just the kind of red-blooded addition his family needs. Despite the fourteen-year-old’s protests, her mother seems quite keen to sell her off to the Faranga family. But first she has to be modelled into the perfect wife for Puiu: Mădălina is cleaned up, educated, groomed, sent to finishing school and becomes the taciturn, mysterious Madeleine, fêted by posh Bucharest society for her beauty. Puiu claims to be madly in love, but continues with his decadent lifestyle and multiple mistresses. He is, needless to say, very controlling and jealous of his wife, whose essence seems to escape him. And then, one night, as they get ready to go a royal ball, he strangles her in a fit of passion. There is nothing a man fears more than being laughed at by a woman, right?
His father wants to avoid a public trial and prison sentence for his beloved son, so of course he intervenes and commits Puiu to a private mental asylum under the supervision of a pet doctor. However, the pet doctor is abroad, and instead the psychiatrist working with Puiu is a young village boy made good, who is not at all ‘flattered that a Faranga has deigned to shake his hand’. On the contrary, he thinks Puiu may be faking his madness. Nevertheless, his treatment sparks something in Puiu, a journey of reflection and reckoning. He very gradually moves from a position of loathsome swagger and privilege to realising his own flaws.
… He grew ashamed of the time before, when he had been entirely self-absorbed; when all that exercised his mind had been how to get out of a tight corner, through subterfuge, connections, any means possible; when his greatest pain had been the thought of having to renounce his life’s pleasures for a while. Only a few days earlier, he had barely spared a thought for Madeleine, whose life he had extinguished, as she lay in the chapel waiting to be buried… There had been no heartfelt, deep repentance…
Although this falls into the set of Rebreanu’s novels labelled ‘psychological’, the social commentary is quite strong. This is not just a love story gone wrong, but very much a critique of the gap between the rich and the poor, and how the rich believe they can buy everything, even genuine feelings, with their money. The innate warmth of the people from the countryside is contrasted to the coldness of urban society, especially that of the upper classes. Puiu learns about forbearance from his guard, Andrei Leahu (who incidentally comes from the same village as some of my father’s family, and therefore automatically qualifies as one of my favourite characters), who suffered a real betrayal by his wife during the war, and yet did not kill her despite his rage.
What is interesting in this story is that, although the story revolves around Mădălina, we never get to hear her point of view. How did she feel about being plucked out of her familiar environment at a young age and being Pygmalioned without any chance of escape? No, the story is all told by men: Puiu, his father, his doctor, his guard, the prosecutor, the superintendant (his aunt is a woman, but she is all about family pride and keeping things under wraps). The poor young woman was merely an object to them, and she has been comprehensively silenced.
As a brief taster for this dance, I’m including a link to a video, not necessarily the best dancing or the highest-quality filming, but simply because it is in a village community, being danced by girls who are of similar age to Mădălina in the book.
Just in case you thought that Rebreanu sympathised with that macho point of view, the novel Jar is the counterpoint to that, presenting a love story from the point of view of a young, intelligent woman, Liana. She lives with her extended family: her father is a petty civil servant who constantly fears for his position (and would dearly love a promotion), her mother is not well-educated and spoils her younger son rotten, her grandmother just wants to see Liana married. Meanwhile, Liana herself aspires to be an independent career woman and move out, like her older brother. At her annual ‘non-birthday’ party, she meets the pilot Dandu Victor, who starts courting her with almost stalkerish intensity. Liana succumbs to his charms, but the love affair is short-lived and ends tragically. Throughout, we are mostly in Liana’s head, conflicted as she is between her intellectual aspirations and the instincts of the heart and lust. Once again, Rebreanu manages to seamlessly set a love story against the fresco of Bucharest society of that period, populated with well-rounded and recognisable characters from all social classes: the fatuous wannabe poet who is only ‘playing at’ journalism, the middle-aged state functionaries fearing for their jobs, the older rake who now craves a more settled lifestyle, the widow of a former minister who flatters herself she still has some influence and so on.
Amândoi is a more straightforward crime novel, but it too has a strong social element to it. Unlike in the other two novels, the action takes place in Pitești, a smaller town about a hundred kilometres from Bucharest, a bustling commercial and industrial centre, but still very much a provincial backwater (especially at that time). The two people found murdered (both of them, hence the title of the novel) may live in a ramshackle old house, but they were actually very wealthy landlords, shopkeepers and pawnbrokers. The rest of their family, a brother and sister with their respective spouses and offspring, come under suspicion, for there were some quarrels about inheritance. The judge Dolga who investigates the case (the Romanian legal system is similar to the French one in this respect, so it will be familiar to those who watch Spiral/Engrenages) is an outsider, refuses to bow down to political and social pressures to wrap up the case quickly without causing too much scandal. He is determined to get at the truth. As we follow his methodical investigation, we get a rich picture of small-town life in Romania in the 1930s, the rapaciousness of wealth, the desperation of poverty, the interaction between the different social classes, their assumptions and presumptions. I can’t help feeling the crime is just a pretext for painting this picture of a town where I spent huge chunks of my summer holidays during childhood – always a pleasure to see familiar places – but I was very disappointed when I found out who the killer was.
I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for Romanian literature, although I am aware only one of the above is available in translation. I do sometimes wonder why I spend so much time, days, often weeks, preparing these lengthy posts which so few people read. However, if I can get one person to try something new, or view Romanian literature as a more diverse and interesting landscape than is commonly believed, then I will declare myself happy.
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.