#1930Club: Camil Petrescu

1930 was a bit of a bumper year for great literary works, all around the world, so I couldn’t resist taking part in this reading club hosted by Simon and Karen this week.

My choice is a book which is very well-known in Romania (required reading, I believe, in secondary school): Camil Petrescu’s Ultima noapte de dragoste, întâia noapte de război ( Last Night Of Love, First Night of War). It is considered one of the first modern psychological novels in Romanian literature and combines the story of a marriage beset by jealousy and lack of trust, as well as horrific scenes from the First World War (in which the author himself participated). Camil Petrescu believed that ‘humans are at their most authentic when they are confronted by love and death’ and the entire novel is a close exploration of one such individual drive to extremes by both love and the imminence of death.

To summarise the story: Stefan Gheorghidiu is a philosophy student who is flattered by the attentions of one of the most beautiful fellow students at the University of Bucharest, the angelic blonde Ela. They get married, much against the advice of their respective families, since they are penniless. But then one of Stefan’s uncles dies and leaves them an inheritance significant enough to allow them to enter ‘high society’. And everything starts to change. Stefan is not keen on the corruption and cruelty he finds in this new environment. Much to his horror, he discovers his wife is more materialistic and shallow than he had imagined and he starts suspecting her of infidelities. When Romania enters the war in 1916, he is on the frontline in the Carpathians and is considering desertion in order to have one last meeting with his wife, to convince himself that she does still love him and is faithful to him. He does not quite manage to allay his fears regarding Ela, but when his battalion finally plunges into war after a long period of waiting, he encounters so many traumatic situations and losses that he realises just how petty and meaningless his worries had been.

The two-volume edition my parents owned. A rather eloquent, minimalist cover.

Back in my teens, when I first read the book, of course I was more interested in the love bits. The reverse has happened when I reread it now. (Just like with War and Peace, where the girls broadly speaking liked the peace and love bits and the boys liked the battlescenes). The love scenes, particularly one infamous one where he tries to ‘teach’ his wife philosophy while she is being kittenish around him, wearing a more or less translucent nightie, seemed both cloying and unbearably patronising. Overall, Stefan is not a nice man, he jumps far too quickly to conclusions. As soon as he sees his wife flirting with a man, he runs off to a brothel or takes up with another woman to ‘punish’ her. He is far too prone to see women as mere objects of his desire, put on earth to flatter him and obliged to listen to his opinions, even commenting how his wife’s body has gone all flabby in her old age – possibly her mid to late 20s at most! It is quite possible that Ela does end up cheating on him, but boy, does he ever deserve it!

The main protagonist no doubt reflects the chauvinistic culture of his time (and his country), and Mihail Sebastian’s journal indicates that Gheorghidiu may have had some of the less desirable traits of his creator (the two of them were friends, but Sebastian can be quite critical of him). Nevertheless, I rather think that Camil Petrescu deliberately made his ‘hero’ so unheroic and so unlikeable. This is a man who excels at tormenting himself, filling his head with all sorts of fanciful notions, over-analysing every gesture (with friends and family too, not just with his wife). He is far too enamoured with his own belly-button, and it’s only when he is finally exposed to the relentlessness of war, when he sees the futility and horror and sheer repetitiveness of it, as well as the appalling organisation of the army on the frontline, that he finally starts to move beyond his immediate concerns and show empathy with others.

And yet there are moments when you really warm to the young man’s initial idealism, which soon gets crushed into cynicism by the corruption and lies he sees all around him in a country where he considers that ‘it’s easier to be mediocre or a rogue, and much harder to be a decent, honest person’. After the war starts, his cynicism gives way to shock, black humour and, occasionally, despair. There are some brilliant off-the-cuff remarks which make Stefan more sympathetic:

When it’s in a farmer’s interest to drown his dog, he will convince himself gradually that the dog has rabies.

Radulescu has gathered his troops to give them a lecture about Patriotism. We all consider it a brilliant parody, until we realise, to our surprise, that he is deadly serious about it.

The ending is too abrupt and I’d have liked to see what happened to Stefan after the war, but in subject matter it reminds me of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End. There are also similarities with Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front in the descriptions of painfully tenuous advances and retreats, or, in more recent days, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. The French translators also say there is a hint of Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity in the novel.

What really stood out for me is the severe criticism that the author makes (via his main character) about the lack of Romanian preparation for the war. On the very first page, he sets the scene:

Ten pigs with sturdy snouts could have dug up the whole fortifications on the Prahova valley in half a day, with all of its barbed wire and ‘wolf holes’. The wolf holes were the kind of holes that children make in the sand when they are playing, but with spikes in them. The Army General HQ in 1916 – about the time of the Battle of Verdun – were convinced that the enemy would carelessly step right into these holes and would get spiked either in the soles of their feet or in their backs. The whole country spoke with respect of the ‘fortified valley’ in Prahova: the parliament, the political parties, the press.

There are several memorable scenes from the war, no doubt taken from Petrescu’s personal experience: coming face to face with enemy fire in a tight place and understanding your own cowardice; having a discussion with a German prisoner and realising that both of them have been brainwashed into despising the ‘enemy’ and believing their own propaganda; freezing at night without adequate clothes or blankets and having to sleep covered by the other men in his regiment to keep warm. All the more surprising then, that just a few years after he published this novel, the author was temporarily seduced by the nationalist rhetoric of the Iron Guard (the far-right militaristic group concerned about ‘ethnic purity’ and Romanian exceptionalism).

Although the novel has not been translated into English, there is a French translation by Laure Hinckel, published by Edition des Syrtes in 2006. There is also a 1980 film adaptation (considerably different from the book), directed by Sergiu Nicolaescu, which might be available online with subtitles.

Literary Weeks Are the Best Weeks…

And bookish friends are the best friends… I had a rather lovely week filled with books and literary discussions, just what the doctor ordered: the perfect nourishment to keep my soul from unravelling.

On Tuesday I had another Skype session with my poetry mentor and it is amazing how excited I get about rewriting some poems that I’d set aside because I felt I’d revised them so much that I was sick of them. It took another poet to read them and ask me what I was trying to achieve to actually regain some of that original spark that gave birth to the poem.

Freddie Bruckstein and Susan Curtis, founder of Istros Books.

On Thursday I attended the book launch of The Trap, two novellas by Romanian Jewish author Ludovic Bruckstein, translated by Alastair Ian Blythe. The author’s son, who has been the driving force behind the publication of his father’s literary estate, was there and gave us a very moving account of his father’s life.

Not many people born in that part of Europe can summarise their lives in simple terms. Their choices have been horribly affected by external events.

Freddie Bruckstein

Ludovic grew up in Sighet in North Maramures, just across the street from where Elie Wiesel used to live, but during the Second World War this thriving Jewish community was rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Ludovic discovered he was almost the sole survivor when he returned home after the war. For a while it seemed like he was going to be active and successful in the post-war writing community, with plays written in both Yiddish and Romanian, but he preferred a quieter life in the north of the country rather than becoming an establishment figure in Bucharest. Of course, he was duly expunged from Romanian literary history when he emigrated to Israel in 1972. But the poignant thing is he continued to write in Romanian for the Romanian community in Israel (most of his work was translated into Hebrew as well). I gave my copy of the book to my friend from Geneva days who came to visit me this weekend, and have promptly bought another one for myself. The brief reading we had from the book was absolutely brilliant and the stories really are a stark warning that passivity and political apathy often lead to the same consequences as deliberate malice.

On Friday my friend from Geneva came over to find me after work and we did non-stop literary things all weekend. First, we visited the Writing in Times of Conflict exhibition at Senate House and I discovered that my friend Jenny (a trained actress) had actually played Anne’s mother in a theatrical adaptation of the diaries, and toured with it around Europe.

I could listen to Kathleen Jamie forever…

We then went to the LRB Bookshop to see Kathleen Jamie in conversation with Philip Hoare, talking about her latest collection of essays entitled Surfacing. I’ve had the pleasure of attending a poetry masterclass with Kathleen and have always admired her sincerity and lack of pretension. She told us how she needed to write something to fill in those fallow periods in-between moments of poetic inspiration and for some reason she thought that essays would be easier and more lucrative than poetry (‘and boy, was I ever wrong!’). She also talked about her process, how she never starts out with a theme she can research, but just lets things accrue until she finally detects a pattern right at the end.

What I really appreciate about her writing is that she bears witness to a disappearing world, muses about the connections between past and present (and future) but refuses to romanticise the past or even nature. She doesn’t consider herself a pure nature writer, because it is the collision between humans and nature that she finds most interesting. Furthermore, because she is not as bound by science as archaelogists are, she can use her imagination much more freely to speculate about the lives and emotions of the people whose objects they are unearthing.

We spent a lazy Saturday in Oxford, talking non-stop about writing and reading, having pie and mash in the Covered Market, but unable to visit any of the colleges because of the graduation ceremonies taking place in the Sheldonian. Except Keble College, where I was overjoyed to see a quince tree against the ornate Victorian Gothic background. In the evening, we watched the rather depressing Marianne and Leonard documentary about Leonard Cohen’s Norwegian muse and their life together on the island of Hydra and wondered about the excuses and sacrifices we make for men who are considered geniuses (and not just them).

On Sunday we went to Henley Literary Festival and, although the weather prevented us from taking full advantage of riverside walks, we enjoyed seeing three indomitable women writers talk about why they find family dynamics so fascinating. The writers were:

  1. Harriet Evans, whose inspiration for her latest novel The Garden of Lost and Found came via a strong visual flash of children running down to the bottom of the garden when she heard someone sing the old song ‘The Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden’
  2. Hannah Beckerman, who said she wrote 24 drafts for her novel If Only I Could Tell You, because the characters usually come to her to lie down on a therapy couch and gradually reveal their stories
  3. Janet Ellis, whose second novel How It Was I have on my Kindle but haven’t read yet, said she gets her inspiration when a voice starts plucking at her sleeve and demanding to be heard.
From left to right: Harriet Evans, Hannah Beckerman and Janet Ellis.

There was a great deal of warmth and humour in their interaction, they were almost interviewing each other, or rather, having a delightful literary conversation that we were allowed to witness. One thing that they said really stuck with me: how we assume that older women just fade and vanish from public life or literature, but maybe some of that is by choice. That it is such a relief not to be at the cutting edge anymore, constantly scrutinised, judged by appearance or have every choice analysed. And also what satisfaction it is to have survived things that if anyone had told us in our youth that we would have to endure, we would probably not have believed ourselves capable of enduring.

I was planning not to buy any more books (I’d received quite a few in the post), not even if I could get them signed by the authors – although I was intrigued by the three of them and will certainly borrow their books from the library. But then Jenny took me into the Oxfam bookshop… and, in short, here is the week’s book haul. Alas.

Belatedly, Newcastle Noir

Although I’ve written three posts about Bristol’s CrimeFest, I wrote a very long and detailed post about Newcastle Noir long before that, which I generously handed over to a different site. Since they still haven’t put it up yet (and may not do so anymore, since it’s out of date), I’ll put it up now. With apologies to the wonderful organisers and all the great people I met there for the delay. If it makes them feel better, I think I liked Newcastle the town (and the festival) even more than Bristol.

I was impressed with Newcastle’s Hanseatic port type architecture.

Newcastle Noir 2019

The 2019 event (3-5 May) was the sixth annual event, and this time it was housed in the City Library. While this did mean that the venue got very crowded at times (it remained a fully functional library and community centre and it was a busy Bank Holiday weekend), it also made it very easy for people to pop in for just one panel if they so wished. And why would they not wish to, since they were very reasonably priced (£4 – eat your heart out, Hay Festival!).

The City Library, the venue.

The timing of the panels was a huge bonus: they each lasted about 45 minutes, which gave attendees sufficient time to regroup, take a comfort break, get their books signed by the authors and then head back in for the next panel. And, while the event remains small enough to avoid parallel sessions, you didn’t face the pain of having to choose between two equally fascinating panels. There were a couple of fringe events (writing workshops or a guided tour of Newcastle’s fictional crime heritage) which coincided with a few panels, but these provided a change of pace and respite for those overdosing on author talks. A bookshop and a bar on site (as well as the library café) also offered small escape areas for when it all gets a bit too intense. However, if I had one small criticism of the event, it would be that there aren’t enough dedicated places to just sitting, resting or gloating over your newly-purchased books.

There were, however, more opportunities to mingle with the authors informally in the evening. Or, as is typical in my case, fangirling over my favourite authors and waylaying them with book signing requests. Thursday night was a pre-festival Noir at the Bar Open Mic session of readings. A great opportunity to hear not only from authors who were present at the festival but also from emerging writers or others (such as Zoe Sharp) who had to leave early. Friday night we all headed over to the Central Bar in Gateshead for a cabaret evening. Crime writers proved themselves to possess enviable talents as singers, songwriter and even stand-up comedians. Last but not least, a silent disco on Saturday night gave everyone the chance to show their best (Dad) dance moves or else catch up on the day’s events without having to shout.

But what about the panels themselves?

They were an intriguing combination of themes, yet managed to avoid that forced feeling or random groupings which are sometimes the bane of literary festivals.

I really liked the mix of the familiar faces and the fresh, emerging talent. There were some obvious suspects there, such as showcases with big hitters such as Yrsa Sigurdardottir, or Gunnar Staalesen and John Harvey, or the finale with two of the most popular female crime writers working in England today, Mari Hannah and Elly Griffiths. But there were plenty of chances to find a new favourite regional author (Femmes Fatales from the NE including Sheila Quigley, Danielle Ramsay and Eileen Wharton; Northern Noir with Mel Sherratt, Caroline England and Robert Parker; Tyneside male authors such as Howard Linskey and Mick Herron; Yorkshire Noir for example Nick Quantrill, June Taylor and AA Dhand; and Welsh crime fiction with Phil Rowlands, John Nicholl and GB Williams) or to discover debut authors such as Adam Peacock, Alison Belsham, GD Abson and Noelle Holten. The international panels gave readers the opportunity to travel further afield and discover new worlds. Alongside the big international names, there were also writers from Romania, Australia and New Zealand who are still relatively unknown (or who, like Helen Fitzgerald, are not necessarily perceived as Australian), as well as fresh Icelandic writers who have not yet been translated into English. Let’s not forget panels that are loosely grouped around a theme but are likely to have a very wide appeal, such as modern gothic and supernatural writing (SJI Holliday, Anna Mazzola and William Ryan), LGBTQ authors (Paul Burston, Derek Farrell and Jonina Leosdottir), historical crime fiction (Lesley Thomson, Oscar de Muriel, Nicola Ford and Fiona Veitch Simon) or writers who have chosen woods as their settings for murder (Antti Tuomainen, Matt Wesolowski, Will Dean and MJ Arlidge).

From BalkanNoir to Bucharest Noir – here come the Romanians!

I was there to support my fellow countryman and women, the Bucharest Noir panel, represented by Anamaria Ionescu, Teodora Matei and their publisher and fellow crime author Bogdan Hrib.

Anamaria Ionescu was introducing her ‘hot off the press’ English translation of Zodiac, part of a trilogy featuring the nearest thing Romania has to James Bond. Sergiu Manta is a trained but reluctant assassin, who has to live apart from his beloved family in order to work for an organisation that is so secretive, it’s not even supposed to exist. The author acknowledged that a real-life person, a biker friend, was the inspiration for the Sergiu Manta character, and that she deliberately made him not quite as feminist as he thinks he is in a still rather traditional macho Romanian society.

Teodora Matei is well-known in her home country for her science fiction and fantasy novels, as well as crime and even (steampunk) romance. Her first novel to be translated into English Living Candles perfectly conveys the less glamorous aspects of urban life in present-day Bucharest. Her husband is NOT the source of inspiration for Toni Iordan, her main detective, although he had high hopes initially that he was. However, Toni does represent Mr. Average in every respect: a little overweight, a little fed up of his wife and kids, a little unfaithful but not quite as much as he dreams of being…

Bogdan Hrib is one of Romania’s most successful contemporary crime writers (and publishers). He has had several novels translated into English, although not necessarily in order of appearance. His series featuring journalist Stelian Munteanu are fast-paced, moving from one European capital to the next, with complex characters who vacillate between cold-bloodedness and sentimentality.

A more relaxed picture of the Awesome Four, with a bit of Newcastle backdrop.

Quentin Bates, himself a respected crime writer and translator, helped edit the English language translations and moderated the panel in Newcastle. He asked the authors what they consider to be special and different about Romanian noir, and why it deserves to be translated into other languages. The answer showed, I believe, that noir is at the very heart of Romanian literature: ‘We have a different way of thinking and living. It’s hard for people to understand what it takes to move from Communism – actually, that wasn’t Communism, it was pure and simply a dictatorship – to Capitalism. We survived against all odds, we’re survivors and fighter, and sometimes we have to fight against ourselves first and foremost.’ However, there was also agreement that the books that do get translated (or even the books that get talked about in the Romanian press) tend to be literary fiction, often very experimental and impenetrable. There is a bit of snobbery about genre fiction in Romania as everywhere else.

Love and crime are closely entwined

Dr Noir introducing the Orenda panel.

One of the liveliest panels despite the early morning start on Saturday was the panel What’s Love Got to Do with It? A feast of Orenda authors, moderated by Mamma Orenda herself, Karen Sullivan, talking about dysfunctional relationships and the crimes that people are ready to commit in the name of love. Lilja Sigurdardottir and Steph Broadribb’s kick-ass heroines both engage in dangerous (and sometimes criminal) pursuits to protect their children, so maternal love is strongly represented. In Doug Johnstone’s latest novel Breakers, it’s brotherly love that drives the narrative, although a Romeo and Juliet burgeoning of adolescent feelings gives some hope to the conflicted main protagonist.

Meanwhile, Will Carver’s insomniac Seth is desperate for love and connection, feeling lonely and trapped in his marriage, so seeks to talk to random people he selects from the phonebook. As the author says, boredom should also be on the list of factors that motivate us to commit a crime – the unbearable dreariness of routines often make us long to do stupid things.

Doug Johnstone agrees that he likes to focus on those split-second stupid decisions that people make. Readers can relate to that: they might think that they would act differently and wisely if they were in the same position, but when we are under pressure, how many of us wouldn’t make a foolish choice?

Lilja Sigurdardottir admitted that one of the most embarrassing things she had done for love was to stalk her partner when she first met her (in pre-internet days), in order to convince her that they were right for each other. 24 years later, they are still together, so the panel agreed that what we might deduce from that is: ‘stalking works’.

And if you have no love life to speak of, maybe this fortune teller to the stars can help.

One of the most surprising moments was when the authors talked about their own favourite reading matter, love related or not. Who would have thought that tough thriller writer Steph Broadribb likes to alternate crime with romance and chick lit type fiction? Doug Johnstone admits he is envious of Sara Gran’s writing, while Will Carver considers The Great Gatsby to be one of the most poignant love stories ever told. Lilja appears to be the most romantic (or possibly the most dysfunctional) of them all, citing Wuthering Heights as her favourite, as well as being a regular re-reader of Shakespeare.

Seen one festival, seen them all?

Literature festivals are a bit like music festivals in the UK at the moment – there seems to be one (or several) taking place every week all across the country. Poetry, regional literature, special interest (children and YA, romance, for aspiring writers etc.), big names and debut authors – there seems to be something catering for every taste. Quite frankly, I don’t know how any writing or reading gets done, as we could just spend three quarters of the year touring from one event to the next.

I was tickled pink to see this Newcastle landmark mentioned in the latest book by Mari Hannah.

Crime festivals seem to be particularly popular. Unsurprising, since crime fiction is consistently one of the most bought and widely-read genres. However, in this crowded landscape, how can you make your event stand out? Well, if you are Dr Jacky Collins (aka Dr Noir) and her organising committee, you pick your lively local town (Newcastle), put together an eclectic but affordable programme of local, national and international writers, with some quirky additional events (more about that later). Above all, don’t forget to create a cosy sense of community around the event, while opening it up to as wide an audience as possible. Newcastle Noir certainly succeeds in having its very own distinct, informal feel.

#EU27Project: Mihail Sebastian: For Two Thousand Years

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I was not aware of this novel by Mihail Sebastian (if I thought about it at all, I thought it was an essay). It is actually somewhat uncharacteristic: most of his other works, which I loved and poured over, were romantic, idealistic, more about the artist’s place in society, avoiding loneliness, finding love. All the things guaranteed to appeal to a teenager. But they weren’t sickly sweet like Ionel Teodoreanu (alas, yes, I have to admit it now, although I loved him at the time too) or Cella Serghi. There was always an element of sharp psychological observation and a few hints of social critique (especially in the plays).

In For Two Thousand Years, the love story plays an entirely secondary role to what is predominantly social critique. The plot hardly qualifies as a plot: it describes key moments in the biography of a young Jewish architect in Romania from 1922 to about 1932, with references to his friends and acquaintances, and how they react during periods of virulent anti-semitism and more relaxed, tolerant periods.

The first few chapters are like diary entries (very similar in fact to Sebastian’s later diary, written in the run-up to the Second World War), so readers may feel somewhat discombobulated as the narrator talks about things that would have been obvious to those living in Romania at that time, but are not widely known nowadays. Anti-semitism was alive and well in Romania at the time (something they had in common with many European countries) and the first constitution of Romania (after the unification of Wallachia and Moldova) in 1866 stated quite bluntly that only Christians could be considered Romanians. The Versailles Treaty in 1918 (which led to Romania’s unification with Transylvania) had a special clause about granting equal political rights to all ethnic groups, but this was often taken to mean the Hungarians and Germans living in Transylvania rather than the Jewish population who was scattered all over the country. In 1922 a numerus clausus was introduced at universities, limiting the number of students from a particular ethnic group (guess which one?) and there were student riots and aggressions against Jewish students.

Mihail Sebastian

The narrator not only witnesses all of this, but also has discussions about the Jewish soul and Zionism with both Romanian and Jewish friends. In a sense, he is forced to discover his Jewish roots, which he hadn’t thought much about hitherto. His own family history shows him that there is no such thing as the ‘Jewish archetype’. His father’s side of the family were strong hulks, workers in the port town of Braila, while his mother’s side from North Bucovina contained sickly intellectuals, but neither were particularly urban or rich.

He has always spoken Romanian and is not sure how he feels about Yiddish or Hebrew, until he meets the elderly book collector Abraham Sulitzer, who has Cervantes, Moliere, Shakespeare and modern authors all translated into Yiddish. Abraham berates the narrator for not appreciating this language:

Jargon! Broken German! Ghetto dialect! That’s what Yiddish is to you. If I tell you, though, that it’s a language neither beautiful nor ugly, but a living language, a language that people have suffered in, sang in, expressed their thoughts and fears in for hundreds of years, you’d stare at me open-mouthed… It’s a living language, with its own nervous system, its veins, its joys and sorrows, with its homeland in the ghetto…

As a student, the narrator is dazzled by one of his professors, Ghita Blidaru (a thinly disguised Nae Ionescu, who wrote that horrible preface). Blidaru is an idealist, all about the cultural heritage of the Romanians, the superiority of the rural traditions, where the true, pure soul of the Romanians lie, harking back to an imagined glorious past. For a while, the narrator buys into his theories, but there are strong hints of his teacher’s thoughtlessness and indifference to those who are different to himself. The narrator’s surprise and disillusionment as he discovers the indifference and apathy of his friends to the plight of minorities, as they tell him that they don’t mean him of course when they launch into anti-semitic speeches, will sound very familiar to those living in Brexit Britain.

So will the desire to protest against the government, to make sure your voice gets heard, even if that is done in a truly destructive and hate-filled way. His friend Stefan Parlea, for instance (likely to be a portrait of his real-life friend at the time, Mircea Eliade, although Sebastian took care to deny that any of the characters in the book were drawn from real life etc.) justifies aggressions of the right-wing Iron Guard against Jewish shops (way before Kristallnacht) thus:

I don’t regret what happened. I regret how it ended: in indifference, forgotten… It’s great to smash windows. Any violent action is good. Of course, crying out ‘Down with the Jews!’ is idiotic, but what does it matter? You need to shake things up in this country. And if that means starting with the Jews, then so be it, it can’t be helped, but it will end with a major conflagration, an earthquake that will spare nothing. That was my ambition, that was my hope.

Camil Petrescu

The narrator survives all this, although getting sadder and sadder in the process. He becomes an architect and works on a project funded by a wealthy American to extract petrol and build a large refinery in a village in the picturesque Valea Prahovei, which leads to the destruction of the natural beauty and traditional way of life, as symbolised by the plum trees that they had to cut down. The narrator cannot help but feel that this time he is not innocent, he is actively contributing to the destruction of a way of life, but not because of his ethnicity. Here he has conversations with another friend Mircea Vieru (most probably a fictionalised version of Sebastian’s great friend and fellow writer Camil Petrescu). This is where the tensions arise, between the rational Western Cartesian values (often associated with urbanism and economic development) and the more emotional Balkanic approach, equated here with rural traditions, being a proud peasant, returning to the ‘soil that made you’, thereby excluding the Jews, because they were never ‘created’ by this soil, but are doomed to be forever migrant.

Funnily enough, when the book was published, the author was hated equally by both the Romanian and the Jewish community. Clearly, for the Romanians, he was showing an aspect of their society that they were not comfortable admitting to, but why was he considered anti-semitic? Not only because of his association with Nae Ionescu, who denounces the whole book with his virulent preface, but because Sebastian is remarkably clear-eyed and unsentimental about the Jewish propensity to be almost complacent in their victimhood. Self-doubt and self-flagellation are very Jewish characteristics, and perhaps the persecution they have suffered over the centuries has added to their feeling that they are the ‘special, chosen’ nation. He is also sceptical about the Zionist movement, and he has characters discussing the pros and cons.

The author is almost thinking out loud (which explains why I thought this was an essay):

To be persecuted isn’t just a physical misfortune, but above all an intellectual one, because it deforms your thinking bit by bit… I never enjoyed being a martyr, although I do recognise a certain Jewish propensity in myself towards that… For a long time I couldn’t understand Parlea as the enemy territory, because of all the barbed wire separating us. It’s so easy and comforting to think of your adversaries as evil and stupid…

I could go on and on, there are so many juicy quotes, but instead of posting the whole book here (in my own translation), I would urge you to read it. It has been translated into English and published by Other Press in the US and Penguin Modern Classics in the UK. Don’t expect a conventional novel with a satisfying story arc, but do expect a disarmingly patient, honest, puzzled account of the rise of fascism. An inquiring mind that seeks to understand others, even when what they say is indefensible, as well as a scrupulously honest dissection of his own beliefs and blind spots.

Calea Victoriei, one of the main boulevards in Bucharest, in 1930. Sebastian lived for a while in a studio flat on this (long) street.

For me, a complete revelation, adding to the portrait of the talented, dreamy, idealistic young man that I knew from his novels and plays. As a Romanian, I cannot help but be ashamed of the venom that Nae Ionescu spits at him (and compare it with some of the things I have heard lately being spouted about gays in the recent referendum about family and Orthodox values):

It is an assimilationist illusion, it is the illusion of so many Jews who sincerely believe that they are Romanian … Remember that you are Jewish! Are you Iosif Hechter, a human being from Brăila on the Danube? No, you are a Jew from Brăila on the Danube.

Mihail Sebastian: A Bit of Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holiday Book Haul

I had to pay a rather absurd amount for overweight luggage, although it was only my suitcase that was 4 kilos overweight, my older son’s suitcase was 4 kilos underweight and my younger son had no suitcase at all. What can I say except: don’t fly TAROM, as they clearly try to rip you off. So what was in my luggage? Of course all the Romanian delicacies that I miss so much when I am back in England: wine, homemade jam and honey, herbs and tea leaves from my mother’s garden, quinces (shame I cannot bring the tasty organic vegetables or cheese or endless array of milk products – kefir, sana, drinkable yoghurt, buttermilk etc.).
And, naturally, I had to bring back some Romanian books and DVDs. Romanian cinema is not very well known but highly respected in a small niche community. I got a recent film Child’s Pose, winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2013, which covers pretty much all the topics that interest me: domineering mothers, generational and class conflict, as well as corruption in present-day Romania. I also got two older films from the 1960s by one of the best Romanian directors, Lucian Pintilie: The Forest of the Hanged based on one of my favourite Romanian novels, and The Reconstruction. The latter was named ‘the best Romanian film of all time’ by the Romanian film critics’ association, although it was forbidden during the Communist period because it turned out to be too much of a commentary on the viciousness of an abusive, authoritarian society.
There are many beautiful bookshops in Romania nowadays, although not all of my pictures came out well. I certainly lived up to my reputation of not being able to enter any bookshop without buying something! Among the things I bought are Fram and Apolodor, a polar bear and a penguin homesick for their native lands, two children’s books I used to adore and which I am very keen to translate into English and promote for the BookTrust reading scheme for diverse children’s literature In Other Words
I succumbed to the lovely hardback edition of Mihail Sebastian’s diary from 1935 to 1944, such a crucial (and sad) time in Romanian history, especially from a Jewish point of view. I got two titles, both family sagas, by female authors that I already know and admire: Ileana Vulpescu and Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu (the latter is sort of our national Virginia Woolf, although not quite as experimental, but she nevertheless dragged Romanian literature into modernity).
Brasov Bookshop 1
I also bought some new contemporary writers to try out: Radu Pavel Gheo –  Good Night, Kids about emigration and coming back to the ‘home country’, Lavinia Braniste – Internal Zero, a book about young single women in Romania today, Ioana Parvulescu – Life Starts on a Friday, a historical crime novel or time-travelling story. Last but not least, I sneaked back one of my favourite books from my childhood Follow the Footprints by William Mayne. Nobody else seems to have heard of this book or this writer, although he has been described as one of the ‘outstanding and most original children’s authors of the 20th century’. Sadly, in googling him, I discover that he was also imprisoned for two years in 2004 for sexually abusing young girl fans, so that leaves a bitter taste in my fond childhood memory.
Brasov Bookshop 2
While in Romania, I received a fairly large pile of books back home in the UK to my cat sitter’s surprise, some for review, some I’d previously ordered. So here are the things which came thudding through my letter-box.
I went on a bit of a Murakami Haruki binge following the reading of Killing Commendatore. I suppose because the book was enjoyable but not his best work, I wanted to get my hands on some of my favourites by him that I did not yet own: The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleSputnik Sweetheart and South of the Border, West of the Sun. Unrelated, and possibly as a result of some Twitter discussion, I went on a Marian Engel binge – a Canadian author I had heard of, but never read. I had to search hard in second-hand stores but found The Honeyman Festival, Lunatic Villas and Bear (I had heard about this last one, the love story between a woman and a bear, and it sounds absolutely bonkers). Meanwhile, I decided I needed to up my game with Chinese women authors, so I bought two Shanghai-based stories of illicit passion, Eileen Chang’s Lust, Caution and Wei Hui’s more contemporary Shanghai Baby. I also read an extract from Anna Dostoevsky’s reminiscences about how she met and fell in love with Dostoevsky on Brainpickings, so I ordered a copy of her out-of-print memoir.
I make no bones about being an unabashed fan of Finnish crime writer Antti Tuomainen, but I realised that one of his books was still missing from my shelves – his first to be translated into English (and possibly his darkest) The Healer. And the final, thick tome to make its home on my bedside table is from the Asymptote Book Club. I am very excited to be reading Ahmet Altan’s first book in the Ottoman Quartet – yet another family saga – Like a Sword Wound. Currently imprisoned in Turkey for his alleged involvement in the 2016 coup attempt, Altan (better known in the West as a crusading journalist, but much loved and respected in his homeland for his fiction) is currently working on the final volume of the quartet in prison. Last, but not least, I also received a copy of Flash Fiction Festival Two, a collection of sixty micro fictions written by participants and presenters from the second Flash Fiction Festival in the UK, which I attended (and loved) in Bristol in July. I am delighted to be there among them with a tale about a kitchen!

Most Obscure on My Bookshelves – Romanian Prose

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

I’ve had to break this down into two posts, one for poetry, one for prose, for fear of it becoming a post as long as a novella. I have the sneaking suspicion that anything that I mention here will be obscure, as Romanian novels are not widely translated and very little known beyond the borders. There are some contemporary writers that are starting to find some recognition: Mircea Cartarescu, Dumitru Tsepeneag, Dan Lungu, but there are many more that have failed to penetrate foreign markets (especially the English-speaking ones, they seem to do better in French, German, Italian etc.) I am focusing on the classics rather than on contemporary writers for this post. Once again, I’ve tried to find ones that are available in translation.

Prose

I. L. Caragiale – A Lost Letter – election time comedy – for a taster 

I have mentioned Caragiale before in a writing exercise: I am awestruck and intimidated by his impeccable comedic timing, exquisite precision with language and ability to convey characters with just a few of their stock words and phrases. Think Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Chekhov all rolled into one. His short stories/flash fictions paint a discomfiting picture of all the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of Romanian society in the late 19th century. He was a razor-sharp, merciless journalist with a cruel tongue. Above all, his plays are masterclasses in combining farcical situations with a serious message. For instance, A Lost  Letter is ostensibly a comedy about adultery, a missing letter and misunderstandings, but there is a lot of political satire here, very much like Beaumarchais with his Figaro plays. Back in high school we had a group of friends nicknamed after the main characters here. And in fact my cat is partly named after the main female character here: Zoe.

You may not be able to understand the following brief fragment, but it’s a typical political scenario. The head of the committee is making a speech and summarising (once he finds the right page): ‘If you allow me, we need to decide one or the other…. In conclusion, either we are going to revise this decision completely, I agree, but then nothing must change. Or else we don’t revise it, I agree, but then we should make a few changes here and there, in the essential parts.’

Liviu Rebreanu – The Forest of the Hanged 

I keep repeating myself, for I’ve mentioned this writer and this book before. It is one of the most moving accounts of the First World War that I have ever read, based partially on the true story of Rebreanu’s brother, who was conscripted into the Imperial Austro-Hungarian Army in Transylvania and forced to fight against his fellow Romanians from across the Carpathians. This is not just a war novel, but a brilliant psychological thriller. Rebreanu also wrote one of the defining novels about Romanian peasants and the love of the land Ion, which might remind you of Hardy but with a lot more Latin passion.

Mateiu Caragiale – The Gallants of the Old Court

The son of I.L. Caragiale was also a writer, but in very different style from his father. He was much more wedded to nostalgia, heraldry and a glorious past, which his father saw as something to despise or make fun of. Influenced by Proust, this is a richly descriptive paen to the fast disappearing oriental influence and decadence on Bucharest in the years before the First World War. Full of sensual descriptions, virtually plotless, by turns gothic and Mediterranean, it has all the indolence and voluptuous charm of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. It is perhaps too rich to enjoy all in one go, but tremendously evocative, very much like a prose poem. It’s a bit of a cult book, with some readers passionate about it and writing fan fiction, while others find it very slow going.

So there you have it, three writers representing all the different aspects of Romanian literary (and perhaps national) style: wit and sarcasm, drama and psychological torment, poetic fantasy.