There is no such thing as a relaxing holiday with the extended family back in the home country… but there were many pleasant moments, and a complete break from the treadmill, so I can’t complain! I’ve been boring everyone with endless holiday pictures on Twitter, but here are a few of my favourites, to give you a flavour of the landscapes and ‘vibes’. I will share more in my next few Friday Fun posts. [None tomorrow, though, as I have a lot of catching up to do still]
Although I had no time to browse in bookshops (unbelievable, I know!), I brought back a whole pile of books with me, some were old favourites languishing on my parents’ bookshelves, others that I had ordered online a few months ago and got delivered to their address. Meanwhile, a few books made their way into my letterbox here in the UK while I was away.
Here’s the result!
As part of my search for contemporary Romanian authors to read and possibly translate, particularly women authors, I’ll be reading Raluca Nagy, Nora Iuga, Magda Cârneci (this one has been translated by Sean Cotter) and Diana Bădică. All recommendations via Romanian newsletters to which I subscribe.
A mix of contemporary and more classic male authors as well: Gellu Naum is better known for his avantgarde poetry and prose in the 1930s and 40s, or his wonderful children’s book about the wandering penguin Apolodor in the 1950s, and this is his only novel as far as I am aware (this too has been translated into English, see some reviews here); Max Blecher’s Scarred Hearts, which I previously read and reviewed in English, but wanted to own in Romanian; one of my favourite modern poets, Nicolae Labiș, who died tragically young; an English translation by Gabi Reigh of my favourite play by one of my favourite writers, Mihail Sebastian; finally, two young writers that I want to explore further, Tudor Ganea and Bogdan Coșa.
Last but not least, a dictionary of Romanian proverbs translated into English – just to remind myself of some of the old folk sayings.
Another expat in Berlin story, imaginatively entitled Berlin by Bea Sutton. I read Susan’s review on her blog A Life in Books and couldn’t resist.
Two Japanese crime novels: Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Onda Riku (I was bowled over by The Aosawa Murders by the same author) and an older crime classic by Matsumoto Seicho entitled Tokyo Express.
Two volumes of poetry, Reckless Paper Birds and Panic Response by the English poet John McCullough. I recently attended a workshop with him and found him very inspiring indeed.
Last but by no means list: a whole flurry of chapbooks of Swiss literature, translated from all four official languages of Switzerland, published by the wonderful Strangers Press at the UEA. I am hoping to convince them to do a series on Romanian literature too someday, fingers crossed!
Kristiina Ehin: Walker on Water, trans. Ilmar Lehtpere, Unnamed Press, 2014.
There is not much literature from Estonia available in translation, unfortunately, so when the London Reads the World Book Club was looking for an Estonian book for May, we only managed to find two, of which one was out of print. However, I think we chose well, since Kristiina Ehin is contemporary and comes highly recommended by Estonian readers. She is a poet, translator, singer and songwriter, and this preference for the brief form shows clearly in this collection of very short stories – linked flash fiction – or novella-in-flash, I suppose you could call it. She also has an interest (and M.A.) in folklore, and this too is obvious in her work. Well-worn tropes are inverted; the plain storytelling style becomes playful or deadpan; an intimate chat between friends around a campfire veers off into the fantastical and impossible.
The title story ‘Walker on Water’ is a typical example of this. It starts off fairly innocuously with the narrator stating that she had to see off the female competition to win over the man who became her husband. ‘There’s nothing more exciting than desiring a man who doesn’t even notice you.’
However, once this prize morsel has been won, you need to be able to keep him and the narrator describes how she starts to indulge in her favourite pastime, walking on water, which she compares to marriage itself: ‘It’s a game with little danger when everything is just starting out and the little waves lick your shoreline with pleasure.’ But is it enough to keep afloat on the water when your intelligent and educated husband literally opens the hatch at the back of his head when he comes back from work and takes his brains out?
There were so many instances of droll humour or satirical asides, which remind me of Finnish authors I have read previously. In Ehin’s case, these revolve around the often absurd lengths to which people will go in their relationships with the other sex: the woman whose husbands were all called Jaan and all have their arms bitten off, the narrator who hires a Love Organizer to keep her love from freezing at the edges but ends up having to do everything herself, a Surrealist’s Daughter who turns into a dragon and ultimately has two pairs of three-headed twins… On and on it goes, from one absurd story to the next, from one metaphor taken to extremes to another hyperbole, usually with a feminist twist that brought a wry smile to my face.
I wasn’t quite sure that I understood all of the metaphors or cultural references, but I did enjoy the retelling of Snow White from the point of view of the apple painted by a Princely Paintbrush, or the collection of the (possibly?) souls of former husbands portrayed as dried apricots, or the Sheherezade style of storytelling, blending myths and family tales, in ‘Lena of the Drifting Isle’.
Urmuz is the pen name of one of the most unusual yet influential writers Romania has ever had. Born Ionescu Demetrescu-Buzău in 1883 in Curtea de Arges, he spent most of his schoolyears in Bucharest, studied law and became a county court judge and, after the war (in which he fought largely in Moldova), he became a registrar at the High Court in Bucharest. He started writing his proto-Dadaist pre-surrealist stories around 1913, but didn’t publish anything until1922. Hypersensitive to most things, leading the life of a recluse, he ended his life with a gunshot and was found behind the famous buffet (now restaurant) on Kiseleff Boulevard on the 23rd of November 1923.
His contemporaries were shocked by his apparently motiveless death, and the poet Tudor Arghezi (the first to recognise his talent and offer to publish him) always reproached himself afterwards for not being closer to him and preventing this tragedy. Yet, despite his brief literary career and the meagre output (he left behind at most fifty pages of writing), he had a huge influence on the Romanian literature that followed. While some compare him to the tragic absurdity of Kafka, others emphasise his comic tour de force a la Lewis Carroll or his links to folklore, but to me he is far more clearly linked to Tristan Tzara and the Dadaists, and produced a whole vein of direct descendants in Romanian literature like Eugen Ionescu, Leonid Dimov, Mircea Cartarescu.
In the preface, one of the leading literary critics of Romanian literature, Nicolae Manolescu, says: ‘Can you imagine the reaction of readers in 1922 – used to epic novels like Ion – when they were confronted with the opening lines of the mini-novel The Funnel and Stamate?’ Indeed, a startling contrast to everything else that was being written at the time.
A well-ventilated apartment, made up of three main rooms, not forgetting a terrace with a glass partition and a doorbell.
A table with no legs in the middle of the room, based on intense calculations and probability, upon which there is a vase containing the eternal essence of the ‘thing in itself’, a clove of garlic, a figurine of a (Transylvanian) priest holding a grammar book and 20 pennies change… The rest is unimportant.
However, you should be aware that this room, forever darkened, has no doors or windows and only communicates with the outside world via a tube, through which you occasionally see smoke or, at night, the seven hemispheres of Ptolemy, or, during the day, two humans descending from the apes alongside a finite row of dried okra, reflecting the endless and useless Auto-Cosmos…
The Dadaists were also playing around with language and concepts at that time, but they had the additional benefit of combining their poetry with decoupage and other artistic methods, making their poems very visual (you can see an example by Tristan Tzara here). Urmuz has to bring all of the playfulness and experimentation, the sense of joy and freedom, but also the futility, into his prose using nothing but words.
There is, however, one poem by Urmuz that schoolchildren have always loved – a mock-fable nonsense rhyme, which reminds me of Edward Lear or Dr Seuss, and is delicious to roll about on the tongue, although hell to translate.
If I have whetted your appetite for this highly unusual writer, you can find an online translation of two of his stories here, while Dalkey Archive is bringing out his collected prose in 2024. Once again, Alistair Ian Blyth has got there before me with the translation! 😦 However, I think I might go ahead and translate one of his pieces anyway (maybe The Fuchsiad), just for fun and practice and the sheer love of it.
I know it’s a bit early to summarise the month, but since I only post on Mondays and Wednesdays (and the more pictorial Friday Funs), this is my last chance to summarise the month before we embark upon May. As such, I have not quite finished two of the books I feature on my list (Nostalgia and the escapist Georgette Heyer) but expect to do so by the weekend. I also intend to review in more detail the two surrealist pieces of literature (Ehin and Urmuz) on Monday 2nd of May, when we will be discussing the Estonian book at our London Reads the World Book Club.
Eighteen books. Bit of a record reading month in terms of quantity, partly because I had so much time off – on holiday until the 11th, then university closure around Easter – and partly because I was racing through some rereads for translation funding applications for Corylus. 12 of those books were in Romanian, and I’ve already written about some of them. I have already expressed some of my dissatisfaction with the translation of Nostalgia and my mixed feelings about Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir of learning Italian.
There were two non-Romanian books that I read for book clubs – the highly unusual supernatural crime novel The Dying Squad by Adam Simcox and the even more unusual vignettes/short stories by Estonian author Kristiina Ehin, translated by Ilmar Lehtpere. I alternated my serious reads with two escapist, nearly-but-not-quite romance books from the library: Clare Chambers’ The Editor’s Wife (entertaining if rather predictable) and one of Heyer’s Regency novels The Reluctant Widow (which seems more of a crime caper than a romance, a bit of a colour by numbers effort from the author, but one of the few of her books available at the library).
My reading plans for the next few months are:
Anglos Abroad in May – American and English writers who have set their books in other countries, whether it’s fiction or a memoir, depicting some sort of culture clash – and quite a few of them will be about Berlin.
June: French literature – for no other reason than remembering how much I adored these verses by Rimbaud and the lime trees on the promenade.
On n’est pas sérieux, quand on a dix-sept ans
On va sous les tilleuls verts de la promenade. Les tilleuls sentent bon dans les bons soirs de juin !
July – Spanish Lit Month – and I intend to focus on Latin America mostly
August – Women in Translation Month – not that I don’t love reading women in translation all year round.
I have already mentioned the stash of books I brought back with me from my trip to Romania earlier this month. I also had a bit more time to read, being on holiday (although, naturally, I did spend a lot of time sorting out paperwork and chatting with my parents, which were the two main reasons for going there). So I also raided my father’s bookshelves. He is as great a reader and book collector as me, although he tends to prefer non-fiction, political biographies and history. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that I’ve managed to read ten Romanian books already this month – with more than a third of the month still to go. Since none of them have been translated into English, I will review them briefly here.
Martha Bibescu: Berlin Journal 1938and War Journal 1939-1941
Princess Martha Bibescu (aka Marthe Bibesco in France) was born in 1886 in a noble family in Romania (Lahovary) and married into another noble, even princely, family (Bibescu). She spoke several languages fluently and knew everyone who was anyone across most of Europe during the early part of the 20th century. She was also a popular writer, a prolific diarist and a cultural and political hostess, often engaging in ‘soft diplomacy’ with those in power.
These two diaries are fascinating for their insights into the political climate of the time. I expected Martha Bibescu to be the typical spoilt socialite complaining about declining service and the lack of respect of the working classes, but she comes across as remarkably empathetic and clear-eyed. Despite her obvious privileges, wealth, many love affairs, she was a shrewd judge of character, especially of politicians and their duplicity. She was a personal friend of Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany and in her Berlin journal, she describes the delusional hope that he and his wife harboured about every becoming essential to German life again. She also met Hermann Göring during that trip, but never succumbed to the Fascist temptation: on the contrary, she describes a handsome young officer in SS uniform as the ‘bait to reel them [Western powers] in’.
She was also profoundly loyal to Romania, although not necessarily to the constantly changing governments of the time and rapid switches in alliances. She was fully aware of the challenges of being a small country surrounded by great empires and I couldn’t help but admire her analytical abilities, how she cut through the bullshit to get to the core of problems. She was a great admirer of British diplomacy and level-headedness, although she had been brought up in a Francophile culture, and sent her grandson to be educated in England, believing that would be the most influential culture in the future.
Lavinia Braniște: Sonia ridică mâna(Sonia Raises Her Hand) and Mă găsești când vrei (You Know Where to Find Me)
Braniște is the epitome of the millennial generation in Romania, I feel, and the three novels she has written to date are excellent at describing the daily grind of life in contemporary Romania from the perspective of a young woman, well-educated but somewhat drifting between jobs, relationships and family, struggling to find a sense of purpose in a society which is still quite prescriptive about what your goals and direction should be. Both of these novels are somewhat similar in style to her first one (the one I am trying to shop around at various publishers), but address different topics: in the first, Sonia is confronting the recent Communist past and how it lives on in the memories of her parents’ and grandparents’ generations; in the second, she explores issues such as domestic violence, force control and lack of self-esteem. Both are topics that are often brushed under the carpet in Romania.
Mihail Sebastian: Ultima oră(Breaking News) and Insula (The Island)
Sadly, Mihail Sebastian only wrote four plays, of which only the first two are frequently performed. These are his two lesser-known ones: Breaking News is a frankly barely believable farce about a mix-up in a printing press. The historical research paper of a university professor accidentally gets published in the local paper, full of misprints, causing mayhem when an oligarch and his pet MPs and ministers believe that it is written in code, threatening to reveal some of their nefarious corrupt or even illegal deeds. Some might describe the comedy as heavy-handed, but the absurdity of censorship reminded me of Communist times (no wonder this was not performed much back then), while the lengths to which politicians are prepared to lie and obfuscate… well, quite frankly, it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched anymore.
The final play, The Island, was never finished – only two acts out of the planned three exist. It was nevertheless performed posthumously in 1947 with an ending by Sebastian’s friend Mircea Ștefănescu, but I only read it in its original state. As if to emphasise the universality of his themes, Sebastian has set this play in an unspecified country (possibly in Latin America), prone to revolution or civil war. Three travellers, Boby, a football player, Nadia, a young painter, and Manuel, a wealthy businessman, are all stuck in the country when an unspecified major war-like event breaks out. There are no ships or trains to take them out of there, banks are frozen, so they have to find some cheap accommodation and sell off their possessions in order to survive. They are so hungry that they eat a pack of aspirins that they manage to find somewhere. Although there is some witty banter, this feels much less like a comedy and more like a serious drama about the plight of refugees – which is understandable, since it was written in 1943-44, when the outcome of the war in Europe was still far from certain. As a Romanian Jew, I have no doubt that Sebastian was both more aware of and more sympathetic to the refugee stories they must have been hearing at the time.
Tony Mott: Toamna se numără cadavrele (Autumn Is the Dead Season) and Bogdan Teodorescu: Băieţi aproape buni (Nearly Good Guys) and Teodora Matei: Himere (Illusions)
I reread the first two and read the third one so I could write an application for a translation grant for Corylus Books. Fingers crossed we get some funding this time, as I think they would both appeal to an English-speaking audience. Tony Mott’s book is set in beautiful Brasov and features an indomitable, fast-talking, no-nonsense female forensic scientist, while Teodorescu’s is a more experimental novel depicting politics and social issues in recent Romanian history, under the guise of a juicy bit of police investigation. Teodora Matei’s book continues with a slightly more light-hearted entry in the police procedural series featuring the older, slightly jaded chief inspector Iordan and his young, charismatic sidekick Matache, investigating an apparently unrelated series of killings of family men all over the country.
Alina Nelega: Ca și cum nimic nu s-ar fi întâmplat(As If Nothing Happened)
At first glance, a story like thousands of others, about growing up during the 1980s in Romania, but the author is a playwright and theatre director, and it shows in the phenomenally fluid way she slips into other people’s voice and stories. The main character here is Cristina, who has to come to terms with her own sexuality as a lesbian, which was completely illegal in Ceauşescu’s Romania and punishable with jail, but there are many other experiences we hear too, in an indirect but extremely lively speech, as if we are following someone filming a speeded up documentary of tragicomic scenes. Although both the author and her main protagonist are roughly a decade older than me, there were so many descriptions of situations, people and places that I could relate to and made me laugh or wince out loud in recognition.
One unforgettable vignette is when Cristina, who lives in a small town in the north of the country, attempts to go to the seaside with her small son and her friend Nana. As they reach Bucharest on the train, she realises she forgot to take the rubbish out and that her house might be full of cockroaches when she gets back from holidays. She can’t phone her friends to take out the rubbish, because most of them don’t have a phone or else aren’t close enough to borrow a set of keys off someone and empty her bin. She can’t go back to do it herself, as the train connections are horrible and it would take her forever. So she decides it would be best to send a telegram from the Central Post and Telephone Office in Bucharest (the only place from which you could send telegrams at the time), but the girl at the counter becomes suspicious that Cristina’s laconic text ‘Please throw rubbish’ could be a code for something political, so she refuses to send it.
I hope this gives you an idea of the great variety of books being published in Romania today – and hopefully at least a couple of them will get translated into English (they seem to be doing better with French or German translations).
At the beginning of this month I had the honour and pleasure to be invited to join the readalong for The Book of Perilous Dishes by Doina Ruști, translated by James Christian Brown, published recently by Neem Tree Press. You can find further information about the book’s background and how it was translated on the Neem Tree Press site. I attended a Q&A with the author and translator, which helped me understand the book better (and the vast amount of research that went into it, both at the time of writing and at the time of translating).
N.B. I have just realised that I forgot to tag this as part of the #ReadIndies initiative launched by @Kaggsy59 and @LizzySiddal.
Set predominantly in 1798 Bucharest (although the older heroine travels to Germany and France and looks back upon the events of that year from the year 1829), this is a book that is full of colour, street noises, market aromas, as well as larger than life characters. I knew the historical research was accurate and detailed, but I was surprised to hear that many of the characters are actual historical figures.
It was a tricky time in Romanian history. This is a part of the world which has always been at the mercy of feuding empires. The dichotomy between Cartesian West (associated with modernity) and Balkanic East (associated with oppression but also the church and traditional values) has dominated all of Romanian history and culture.
Wallachia was for several centuries under the indirect rule of the Ottoman Empire, which in practice meant that money and goods had to be sent to the Sultan every year in return for a quasi-autonomy. However, the Sultan’s court couldn’t be bothered to get their hands dirty with administrative details. So instead they appointed wealthy Greeks from the Phanar quarter of the city to oversee these vassal states. It was a much sought-after position (lots of money to be earned through taxation) and there was no shortage of candidates prepared to pay money to be appointed prince of the country.
One of the greatest amusements of the Sublime Porte was to fool some Greek with the notion that he could make himself lord and master over the land of Wallachia for the modest price of a mere four hundred bags of loose change. No one had any idea what the price of a country should be. But it was not the real value that counted, so much as that ‘yours for only…’ which even today makes people restless…
…there and then he became the master of Wallachia, where he fondly dreamed that he was going to spend the rest of his days with subjects falling at his feet. A year later, however, another sucker for a cut-price offer would turn up, with another four hundred bags. Consequently, when I arrived there, Bucharest had already had the pleasure of being ruled by at least thirty Greeks, not to mention the Russian army, which made its way there from time to time, and drove out whoever happened to be the ruler… Fortunately, the Russian soldiers had itchy feet and they never stayed long.
But fear not! This book is anything but a dry old history lesson. This is the story of the fiery fourteen-year-old Pâtcă who suddenly finds herself alone in the world when her grandmother Maxima gets arrested for witchcraft in the Transylvanian town of Brașov. She respects Maxima’s command to go back to her home town of Bucharest, seek out her great-uncle Zăval and acquire the magical recipe book of Perilous Dishes. Alas, she finds her great-uncle has been murdered and a bottle of powerful poison is missing, while the whole city is in uproar over a cook kidnapped by the Prince, who is able to cook gourmet dishes out of this world. Pâtcă soon figures out that the cook has somehow got hold of her uncle’s book, but is not aware of the dangerous powers of his recipes he is preparing, so the girl has to use all her resources to stay out of prison, recover the recipe book and keep her true identity secret. For she has been told that she is the notorious Cat O’Friday (Mâța Vinerii in Romanian, the original title of the book), the last descendant of a family of magicians who follow the cult of the great pagan god Sator.
The book is stuffed to the gills with fascinating characters of all nationalities or ethnic backgrounds, some of them criminals and hustlers like Ismail Bina, some impossibly charismatic and naive (like the French diplomat Dubois), others simply going along with things in order to survive (like the pragmatic Caterina Greceanu, who takes the girl into her household). There are so many plot twists that your head will spin, but I advise just allowing yourself to gallop along. Some flashbacks have been tidied up to create a more logical chronological order in the translated version.
I also like the way the translation manages to convey the funny, irreverent, confessional tone of the young girl, with all of the moodiness, stubbornness and know-it-all attitude of her age. Pâtcă itself is a nickname, meaning ‘Tiny’ or ‘Little’Un’, but the girl is so used to it, she doesn’t understand why people laugh when they hear her name. It’s little details like this, plus her difficulties in summoning up Sator’s powers or finding the houses she is supposed to have inherited, which make me wonder if she is… not exactly an unreliable narrator, but rendered unreliable because her family has been withholding secrets from her.
Translator James Christian Brown has been teaching English at the university in Bucharest for a long time, and his respect for and knowledge of Romanian culture and language shows clearly in this book. However, he admitted that if he hadn’t coincidentally also been given some 18th century documents to translate at roughly the same time, it would have been a huge challenge to do this book justice. It’s not just the vocabulary, but many of the concepts themselves which have fallen into oblivion, so even if you find the ‘correct’ term in English, it would not mean much to a modern reader. I found myself sighing in relief on many a page that I didn’t have to translate this!
With its fast-paced plot and young heroine, I suspect it is being marketed as YA literature in the English-speaking world. However, it is a rollicking good read for adults as well, particularly for its vivid recreation of a vanished world. It reminded me somewhat of Carlos Ruis Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind or Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, so if you liked either of these, I would definitely try this one.
Here is just a handful of the many examples I could have picked. However, it might be worth mentioning that more recent writers would have lived in blocks of flats and therefore have a less attractive backdrop for their creativity.
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).