#1936Club: Liviu Rebreanu

OK, I’m cheating a little here, because I read several works by Rebreanu, yet none of them were published exactly in 1936. Here are the books I’ll be referring to in this post:

  • Jar (usually translated as ‘Embers’, although I’d argue that it should be ‘Blaze’) – 1934 – psychological novel about the devastating effect of passionate love on a young girl
  • Ciuleandra – psychological novel about the devastating effect of passionate love on a young man (so an interesting counterpoint) – 1927 [Available now in English translation thanks to Gabi Reigh and Cadmus Press]
  • AmĂąndoi (Both) – crime novel – 1940

However, there’s another connection with Sebastian, which makes the connection to my previous #1936Club entry a bit more plausible. Sebastian interviewed Rebreanu and expressed great admiration for his writing, but they weren’t really close, and at some point Sebastian expressed disappointment at the anti-semitic attitude displayed during the war by Rebreanu, which he wouldn’t have expected from the author of the novella Itzik Shtrul, Desertor, dating from 1919, which showed great empathy and understanding towards the eponymous Jewish hero of the story. However, it is also true that Rebreanu used his war-time position as the Director of the National Theatre during the war (from 1940 until his death in 1944) to allow Leny Caler to continue performing, albeit only at the Jewish theatre, so his attitude is a little complicated, perhaps merely opportunistic.

Whatever he might have been like in this personal life, in his works Rebreanu is almost always solidly behind the underdog. His versatility and range in terms of subject matter are quite impressive. During Communist times when we studied him in school, he was particularly admired for the social critique and description of rural life in Ion (1920) and Răscoala (The Revolt – about the peasant revolt in Romania in 1907) (1932). I personally always preferred his stories of inner turmoil and psychological torment, such as The Forest of the Hanged and Ciuleandra. I had never previously read Jar and Both, although I have the special edition published in 1985, marking the centenary since his birth.

My father was always rather keen on Rebreanu because he spent quite a bit of his life and actually died in Argeș, the county my family originates from. Ciuleandra, the title of the book, has not been translated, because it is actually the name of a dance which is particularly popular in that region, which starts slow and then gets faster and faster, until it all descends into an orgasm of colour, passion and sensuality. This is how it is described in the book:

It starts just like any other dance, very slow, very restrained. The dancers gather, form a circle… Stirred by the heat of those bodies, the music quickens, grows wilder. The rhythm of the dance catches its frenzy… As the fiddlers warm to their instruments, the melody twitches, spins loose, explodes into chaos… The ring of dancers, daring themselves to defy and smother the music’s spell, charge at it, feet crushing into dirt, and the tornado of flesh twists into itself again, tighter, more stubborn, clenching and loosening, until, finally the bodies melt into each other…

It is at one of these country dances, under the immediate heat of the ciuleandra, that Puiu Faranga meets the pretty, extremely young peasant girl Mădălina. Puiu comes from a wealthy aristocratic family, who think France is the epitome of culture and speak French at home much like the Russian aristocracy in novels. His father is a former government minister, but worried his son might end up living a life of debauchery, and decides a girl of healthy peasant stock is just the kind of red-blooded addition his family needs. Despite the fourteen-year-old’s protests, her mother seems quite keen to sell her off to the Faranga family. But first she has to be modelled into the perfect wife for Puiu: Mădălina is cleaned up, educated, groomed, sent to finishing school and becomes the taciturn, mysterious Madeleine, fĂȘted by posh Bucharest society for her beauty. Puiu claims to be madly in love, but continues with his decadent lifestyle and multiple mistresses. He is, needless to say, very controlling and jealous of his wife, whose essence seems to escape him. And then, one night, as they get ready to go a royal ball, he strangles her in a fit of passion. There is nothing a man fears more than being laughed at by a woman, right?

His father wants to avoid a public trial and prison sentence for his beloved son, so of course he intervenes and commits Puiu to a private mental asylum under the supervision of a pet doctor. However, the pet doctor is abroad, and instead the psychiatrist working with Puiu is a young village boy made good, who is not at all ‘flattered that a Faranga has deigned to shake his hand’. On the contrary, he thinks Puiu may be faking his madness. Nevertheless, his treatment sparks something in Puiu, a journey of reflection and reckoning. He very gradually moves from a position of loathsome swagger and privilege to realising his own flaws.

… He grew ashamed of the time before, when he had been entirely self-absorbed; when all that exercised his mind had been how to get out of a tight corner, through subterfuge, connections, any means possible; when his greatest pain had been the thought of having to renounce his life’s pleasures for a while. Only a few days earlier, he had barely spared a thought for Madeleine, whose life he had extinguished, as she lay in the chapel waiting to be buried… There had been no heartfelt, deep repentance…

Although this falls into the set of Rebreanu’s novels labelled ‘psychological’, the social commentary is quite strong. This is not just a love story gone wrong, but very much a critique of the gap between the rich and the poor, and how the rich believe they can buy everything, even genuine feelings, with their money. The innate warmth of the people from the countryside is contrasted to the coldness of urban society, especially that of the upper classes. Puiu learns about forbearance from his guard, Andrei Leahu (who incidentally comes from the same village as some of my father’s family, and therefore automatically qualifies as one of my favourite characters), who suffered a real betrayal by his wife during the war, and yet did not kill her despite his rage.

What is interesting in this story is that, although the story revolves around Mădălina, we never get to hear her point of view. How did she feel about being plucked out of her familiar environment at a young age and being Pygmalioned without any chance of escape? No, the story is all told by men: Puiu, his father, his doctor, his guard, the prosecutor, the superintendant (his aunt is a woman, but she is all about family pride and keeping things under wraps). The poor young woman was merely an object to them, and she has been comprehensively silenced.

As a brief taster for this dance, I’m including a link to a video, not necessarily the best dancing or the highest-quality filming, but simply because it is in a village community, being danced by girls who are of similar age to Mădălina in the book.

Just in case you thought that Rebreanu sympathised with that macho point of view, the novel Jar is the counterpoint to that, presenting a love story from the point of view of a young, intelligent woman, Liana. She lives with her extended family: her father is a petty civil servant who constantly fears for his position (and would dearly love a promotion), her mother is not well-educated and spoils her younger son rotten, her grandmother just wants to see Liana married. Meanwhile, Liana herself aspires to be an independent career woman and move out, like her older brother. At her annual ‘non-birthday’ party, she meets the pilot Dandu Victor, who starts courting her with almost stalkerish intensity. Liana succumbs to his charms, but the love affair is short-lived and ends tragically. Throughout, we are mostly in Liana’s head, conflicted as she is between her intellectual aspirations and the instincts of the heart and lust. Once again, Rebreanu manages to seamlessly set a love story against the fresco of Bucharest society of that period, populated with well-rounded and recognisable characters from all social classes: the fatuous wannabe poet who is only ‘playing at’ journalism, the middle-aged state functionaries fearing for their jobs, the older rake who now craves a more settled lifestyle, the widow of a former minister who flatters herself she still has some influence and so on.

AmĂąndoi is a more straightforward crime novel, but it too has a strong social element to it. Unlike in the other two novels, the action takes place in Pitești, a smaller town about a hundred kilometres from Bucharest, a bustling commercial and industrial centre, but still very much a provincial backwater (especially at that time). The two people found murdered (both of them, hence the title of the novel) may live in a ramshackle old house, but they were actually very wealthy landlords, shopkeepers and pawnbrokers. The rest of their family, a brother and sister with their respective spouses and offspring, come under suspicion, for there were some quarrels about inheritance. The judge Dolga who investigates the case (the Romanian legal system is similar to the French one in this respect, so it will be familiar to those who watch Spiral/Engrenages) is an outsider, refuses to bow down to political and social pressures to wrap up the case quickly without causing too much scandal. He is determined to get at the truth. As we follow his methodical investigation, we get a rich picture of small-town life in Romania in the 1930s, the rapaciousness of wealth, the desperation of poverty, the interaction between the different social classes, their assumptions and presumptions. I can’t help feeling the crime is just a pretext for painting this picture of a town where I spent huge chunks of my summer holidays during childhood – always a pleasure to see familiar places – but I was very disappointed when I found out who the killer was.

I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for Romanian literature, although I am aware only one of the above is available in translation. I do sometimes wonder why I spend so much time, days, often weeks, preparing these lengthy posts which so few people read. However, if I can get one person to try something new, or view Romanian literature as a more diverse and interesting landscape than is commonly believed, then I will declare myself happy.

The Threepenny Opera

Earlier this month, as a reward for all of the hard relocation work, I treated myself to a play at the National Theatre. It was an old favourite of mine, Brecht and Weill’s ‘Threepenny Opera’, in a new translation by Simon Stephens, directed by Rufus Norris, with Rory Kinnear as Macheath. It was a canny blend of cabaret, jazz, dissonance and va-va-voom to infuriate and entertain. Not quite the escapism one might wish for in a play, but then Brecht was never about making the audience feel good.

From Official London Theatre website.
From Official London Theatre website.

Of course, the play is made for London and its inhabitants. The original story by John Gay (1728), was set among the whores, pimps and criminals of Newgate, full of allusions to the streets of the East End, satirizing politics, injustice and corruption at all levels of society. Much of it still sounds familiar today. Of course, Brecht took it a step further: from Gay’s romantic comedy, laced with social commentary, he turned his Threepenny Opera (and let’s not forget that Elisabeth Hauptmann was practically a co-author for this, but has since been denied credit) into an acerbic social critique, with elements of romantic comedy.Well, if by ‘romantic’ you mean a quick fumble and a slap… But there certainly was plenty of social commentary to make in Berlin in 1928, when it premiered. It was performed continuously until 1933, when Brecht had to go into exile, but had already become an international success by that point.

With the world increasingly resembling the 1930s, this play is more topical than ever, and this energetic production points out parallels to futile wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, anything-but-meritocracy promotion systems, inward-looking little England patriotism and flagrant social inequality without ramming the messages down your throat.

The two elderly ladies sitting next to me were muttering under their breath: ‘Really, is all this bad language necessary?’ but to my mind, yes, it is. Brecht’s original exuberance and desire to shock are all intact, even if some of the texts and storyline have been altered . This is all about over-the-top characters and situations (I particularly liked the red wool pouring out of wounds when a character was knifed). It’s all about filth and squalor, nasty characters chock-full with self-interest. The production even stuck to the original orchestra of just 7 musicians, which gave the musical interludes and singing a dissonance and drama that fitted so well with the on-stage action.

From Exeunt Magazine.
From Exeunt Magazine.

Confession time: although I’ve never seen the Threepenny Opera performed live on stage before, I’ve been obsessed with it since 1990. I read the libretto and the later novel by Brecht based on it (in which he does go on and on, rather, to explain his intentions). I watched most of the film adaptations  but it was when I found one of the best recordings of it in German, with the legendary Lotte Lenya singing, and started singing it with all my German friends in Cambridge, that it became something very special to me. (I texted one of those friends at the interval of the show with a lyric, and he replied straightaway with the next part of it, such is the power of that connection between us). The reason why it resonated so much with me is that it perfectly described the confusion and materialism of broken post-Communist society, where not only every person but the whole country seemed to be up for sale.

Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral – First comes the feeding, then the ethics.

NatĂŒrlich hab ich leider recht/ Die Welt ist arm, der Mensch ist schlecht./Wir wĂ€ren gut – anstatt so roh/Doch die VerhĂ€ltnisse, sie sind nicht so. – Of course, you see that I am right/Life’s a bitch and man is shite./We could be good instead of hell,/But circumstances don’t bode well. [my own translation, as I couldn’t find this new script online anywhere.]

In the end, Brecht’s cynicism was justified. Germany was engulfed by even darker shadows in the 1930s. By the mid 1990s, I’d lost all hope of leading a decent life in a country so hell-bent on its own destruction and that of its younger generation. I just hope that this time, for present-day London, he proves more entertaining than prophetic.

If you do want to see this inventive production for yourself, it will be broadcast live on the 22nd of September in many cinemas across the UK via the National Theatre Live programme.

 

 

Women in Translation Month: Poverty in France

WITMonth15Bibliobio is organising another Women in Translation Month this year, a challenge with very few prescriptions other than to read as many women authors as possible. I’m reading plenty and I hope to review a good few.

 

Despentes

Virginie Despentes: Apocalypse Bébé

[I read this in French, but it has been translated into English by Sian Reynolds and published by Serpent’s Tail].

Valentine, the troubled teenage daughter from a well-off Parisian family, has disappeared. The private detective her family had hired to follow her, Lucie, is out of her depth, so she partners with a creature known to everyone only as The Hyena, a secret agent with a mad gleam in her eyes, notorious for her penchant for good-looking women and her ability to make the bad boys of this world quake in their shoes. Valentine must also be the only teenager in France who doesn’t use her mobile or Facebook or any other internet platform – how to trace her?

As this strange, squabbling duo search for the girl first in Paris and then in Barcelona, they come across all walks of life. This is where the satire comes in, and Despentes spares no one. She has a ruthless eye for revealing details and a sharp tongue. She mocks and yet at the same time serves some uncomfortable home truths about the publishing world (Valentine’s Dad is an author), blended families, hustling to escape poverty, nouveau riche aspirations, the angry young people of the banlieue, the lesbian milieu, even the building boom and snobbery of Barcelona.

This book just whacks you on the head and takes you for one hell of a ride, with a blend of fierce humour, very individual voices and genuine revolt and sadness. It is to my mind a very realistic fresco of contemporary French society, with no particularly likeable characters, but certainly characters that you can understand and pity. My heart went out to the poor stepmother, Claire, who has played by the rules all of her life, lived according to other people’s expectations, and yet has encountered nothing but disappointments.

Even though I usually prefer my prose to be less direct and more measured or minimalistic, this was quite an exhilarating experience, a shock to the system.

QuinnAlice Quinn: Queen of the Trailer Park (transl. Alexandra Maldwynn-Davis)

I came across this book on Netgalley: despite the name of the author and the rather American-sounding main protagonist, it is translated from French. Under the original title Un palace en enfer it became a self-publishing phenomenon, reaching No. 1 on the Kindle bestseller list in France in 2013. Then again, France has a much lower rate of e-book penetration, so perhaps the people reading it were on the younger side. The plot is unrealistic to say the least, but it’s a bit of escapist fun.

One might call this ‘Despentes lite’: it too portrays life on the margins of society, of people whom many might call ‘losers’, but it is a book with a much more optimistic message. Fairy tales can happen. Single mothers on benefits with little education can make it good, trick the Mafia, battle corrupt officials and still bathe four children and put them to bed. The ‘trailer park’ is actually a single caravan parked outside the former railway station in a town in Southern France and sounds quite idyllic, but the language and attitude is defiantly that of what the Americans would call ‘white trailer trash’. I did like the quote: ‘People always say money isn’t everything… Don’t believe a word of it. It’s not as simple as all that. It might not buy you love, but it lifts your spirits…’

For a more thoughtful (yet just as funny) depiction of life in poverty in France, I would recommend Jeanne Desaubry: Poubelle’s Girls. Or just read the original: Despentes herself.