It’s not yet eight. Stefan Valeriu can tell by the sunlight, which has crept only as far as the edge of his chaise lounge. He can sense it climbing the wooden legs, feel it caressing his fingers, his hands, his naked arm, as warm as a shawl…
Such a sensuous, delicious, lazy way to open a story!
Instantly we know that Stefan is holidaying somewhere warm and luxurious. He is obviously alone and young. The days are long and stretch out in front of him full of idleness and possibility…and women!
But who was Mihail Sebastian? And why did Penguin deem him worthy of inclusion in their new European Writers series?
Their biography is brief:
Mihail Sebastian was the pen-name of the Romanian writer Iosif Hechter. Born in the Danube port of Braila, he died in a road accident in 1945. During the period between the wars he was well-known for his lyrical and ironic plays and for urbane psychological novels tinged with melancholy, as well as for his extraordinary literary essays.
Digging a little deeper, I found that he was born to a Jewish family in Brăila, Romania as Iosif Mendel Hechter on the 18th October 1907 and died on the 29th May 1945. He went to Bucharest as a young man to attend university, before going to Paris in 1930, with a government grant, to study law. When he returned to Romania in 1931, he got caught up in the exciting literary circle that was flourishing in Romania between the wars.
The politics of the time was hard to ignore. Hechter found himself drawn into nationalistic politics and for a while, was friends with members of an anti-Semetic group, The Iron Guard. For a decade, he kept a journal, that was eventually published in 1996 as Journal, 1935-1944: The Fascist Years.
He was a reader of literature from a young age. According to his friend, Nae Ionescu, he read ‘Maeterlinck at seven, Daudet, Dostoevsky, Maupassant, Sienkiewicz at nine, Munchhausen at ten, Barbusse, Conan Doyle.’
After surviving the various anti-Semitic laws that came into effect in Bucharest during WWII, he was knocked down and killed by a drunk Russian occupation army truck driver. He was on his way to the university to give a lecture on Balzac.
Women essentially is four interconnected short stories, that read like a novella. Stefan Valeriu is the common link, and the stories are arranged chronologically, so that it’s possible to see him mature with each relationship. All four stories are set in the interwar decades, mostly in Paris or the Alps. The first and the last were my favourite stories. They were longer than the other two and felt more developed, more like a proper story, I guess. Renée, Marthe, Odette was written in the third person, while Arabela was a first person narrative by Stefan.
Renée, Marthe, Odette
After studying hard for his final medical exams, Stefan has taken a spontaneous holiday on his own to an Alpine lake. Within days he begins a flirtation with Renée, a married woman with two young children. It’s a mild, playful thing to Stefan, a way to pass the time, “she falls into his arms, seeking his mouth, her fumbling, inexpert kisses falling where they will.“
Marthe is an older woman, travelling with her teenage son. Stefan is attracted by her poise and elegance. “It’s curious how her presence always makes him feel improperly or negligently attired and inadequate before her studied, calm simplicity. He is bothered in particular by a lock of hair that he tries to tame but that always falls over his forehead. It makes him feel that he must be unkempt next to her tidy beauty.” With Marthe, he is out of his depth, trying to play the game, but not really knowing the rules. Marthe has it all over him, this makes him uncomfortable and surly.
A plain and simple answer, without artifice. Stefan Valeriu’s irony hangs uselessly, like the tension in somebody who has gone to unlock a door with a skeleton key, only to find it open. Her reply – like a single chess move – has invalidated a victory striven for over three days.
She tells him,
the way you walked across the terrace this morning in a white shirt, with an open collar. your foreign name…your earnest, confused youthfulness, your still unlived life…your gruff, unsociable exterior, your bursts of enthusiasm, your passion for books and lounging in the grass. It’s all very appealing.
After Marthe and her son move on, Stefan happily falls back into the arms of the very willing, though slightly clingy Renée.
But is it really possible for “a young man and a young woman to sleep together in a house full of people with nothing to do, without it being noticed?”
Finally, Odette, a lovely eighteen year old girl-woman arrives. Finally, someone his own age, or near enough. A contemporary. Odette is a good sport, and a virgin. She sees what’s going on and questions him about it. He is pleasantly surprised by her acuity and her matter-of-fact attitude. No coyness, no game playing, just curiosity and willingness, someone rather like him. Someone who just suddenly left, with no forwarding address.
Is a brief story about a young woman of Stefan’s acquaintance in Paris. He first met her when he was “trying to salve a secret melancholy that had endured for some three months, since a holiday I’d spent by an Alpine lake…I’d returned from from there with the memory, which still troubles me sometimes, of a blonde woman who’d loved me for no reason and disappeared in the same way, with no explanations.”
Émilie was the friend of his latest amour. She was unattractive, poor, gauche and a virgin. Something considered unusual given her lowly position in society.
Irimia C. Irimia was a peasant from Bulgaria, someone that Stefan had gone to school with. An accidental meeting between the two, finds them sleeping together. Irimia is horrified to discover she was a virgin and offers to marry Émilie. Their happiness is short lived. Émilie dies after a protracted and difficult labour. Stefan’s cool observations seem at odds with the tragedy.
Marie is romantically involved with Andrei, yet her friendship with Stefan in complicated, “your loving me or wishing to love me or thinking you love me is an unnecessary complication in a relationship which I value“. Marie likes Stefan because she can talk openly and honestly with him. They go to art galleries together, attend concerts, read books and go to tea.
Her story is told via a letter to Stefan, explaining why she will never leave Andrei.
This time we are seeing an older Stefan, being asked to recall his relationship with Arabela, the music hall sensation. A relationship that turned out to be one of the most serious of Stefan’s young life. In this story, he refers to Maria as someone who he had been “pointlessly in love with for a long time and whose regard I still craved“.
There haven’t been many women in my life. But there have been a few. As many as any man of average attractiveness might have, when he acts kindly and knows when to insist. I’m not boasting, as I know any number of acquaintances of mine, taller and darker and better-looking, who have had ten times the number of “conquests.” Still, I’ve never met a woman–and I’ve been in love with some of them–who has ever given me the sense of cool sensuality that I found in Arabela’s arms, as I inhaled the smell of her warm, lazy, indifferent flesh.
His time with Arabela turned out to be significant. It signalled a career change, a lifestyle change, new friends and new adventures. At one point her also remembers Odette, the young girl he met and loved for just one night, before she “disappeared utterly” from his life.
So, too, Arabela. One night they perform their cabaret show in Geneva. Members from her old act are unexpectedly in town too. And just like she suddenly left them to be with Stefan, she now leaves Stefan. And just as suddenly, Sebastian inserts a dark, political reminder of the days he (& Stefan) were actually living in.
I walked into town and bought the papers on the way to see what had happened that morning at the League of Nations. There had been heated debates.
All the stories in Women have a very different feel and tone. Sexuality and desire are front and centre, as is the modern world, a world enjoying it’s new freedoms, new music and new technologies. Stefan’s character is pretty illusive and tended towards the self-conscious. We really only get to know Stefan through the women he chooses to tell us about.
Sebastian uses some beautiful language and imagery. The small details are delicately observed. An innocence pervades the story, one we all know is doomed given the changing politic climate in Europe. But I will leave it to Orlando Crowcroft to sum up why Women is such an entrancing read.
As a novel, Women will provoke no national reckonings, nor will it force us to examine our prejudice and our history as his other work has done and continues to do. The book encapsulates a different era of Sebastian’s life – and indeed, of Romania’s.
His main protagonist, Stefan Valeriu, is young, idealistic, fearless, wistful, spending his summers in Paris or on the coast. He is of a generation of young Romanians who looked to Europe, who considered Bucharest the ‘Paris of the East’ and who was relatively optimistic about what was coming for himself, and for his generation.
It is difficult to read Women when you know what came next, the ugliness that was about to shatter the reveries of youth: the years of persecution, of war, of survival, only to be mown down in the street at just 37. But it is also a rare pleasure to read Sebastian like this. When life was simple and at a time when the storm clouds were gathering but had yet to unleash their fury on him, his country and the world.Mihail Sebastian: How a Jewish writer lived, loved and survived in WW2-era Romania | Orlando Crowcroft | EuroNews | 2 November 2020
What I Read For This Post:
- London Review of Books | 15 November 2001 | You Have to Hang On | Eugen Weber
Sebastian’s Other Novels:
- De două mii de ani (1934) | For Two Thousand Years | translator Philip Ó Ceallaigh, 2016
- Oraşul cu salcâmi (1935) | The Town with Acacia Trees | translator Gabi Reigh, 2019
- Accidentul (1940) | The Accident | translator Stephen Henighan, 2011
Book: Women Alternate Titles: Femei Author: Mihail Sebastian Translator: Philip Ó Ceallaigh ISBN: 9780241442906 Imprint: Viking (Penguin European Writers series) Published: 5 November 2020 (originally published 1933) Format: paperback
- Book 12 of 20 Books of
- Paris in July
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin.