:: Article

An Unserious Man

By Dorian Stuber.

Mihail Sebastian, Women, translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh (Other Press, 2019)

Belying its title, Mihail Sebastian’s 1933 novel Women begins with a man. Stefan Valeriu, a Romanian, is directly or indirectly present in each of the four loosely connected sections that comprise the novel. In the first, he is a medical student in France, recuperating from his exams with a vacation in the Alps. Sprawled in a chaise longue, he glories in the mountain air. It’s early in the morning, not yet eight. Valeriu knows this, not because he glances at his watch or hears the call to breakfast, but because he feels the sun:

He can sense it climbing the wooden legs, feel it caressing his fingers, his hand, his naked arm, as warm as a shawl … More time will pass—five minutes, an hour, an eternity—and a flickering blue light with vague silver streaks will appear through his closed eyelids.

Soon afterwards, Valeriu will pass his hands through his hair, noticing how it’s been made rough by days of sun, listen idly to shouts from the lake, and stretch his toes into a patch of grass that holds its dampness late into the morning. Such references to bodily sensation feature prominently throughout the book —in the quoted passage Valeriu senses the sun, feels it as a live thing, a lover even; light appears to him in his very body, even when he tries to shut it out.

Available for the first time in English, in an elegant translation by the Romanian-based Irish writer Philip Ó Ceallaigh, Women has the Old-World sophistication of a film by Lubitsch or Olphüls. Like these directors, whose comedies of manners respond to the hardships they experienced as Jews forced to flee fascism, Sebastian would suffer also for his Jewishness—an identity almost entirely obscured in this, his second novel.

Born Iosif Hechter in the Danubian port city of Brâila in 1907, Sebastian (his pen name) studied law in Bucharest and Paris in the late 1920s and early 30s. After returning to Romania he turned to literature, drawn to the Criterion group of intellectuals which included the historian of religion Mircea Eliade, the philosopher E. M. Cioran, and the playwright Eugen (later Eugène) Ionesco. Although at first apolitical, as the group became increasingly fascistic and anti-Semitic, Sebastian was condemned by several of his former friends. His masterpiece, For Two Thousand Years, published in 1934, is about a young man much like Sebastian himself, a Jew in Romania at a time when it was impossible to be both. This brilliant novel, a succès de scandale in Romania, takes the problem of identity as its subject matter. Its interest is in how people characterize themselves as selves. Women, by contrast, is about how people experience the world in sensory terms, before the idea of the self even appears. Here, the self is something that perceives, not something that knows.

It makes sense, then, that Valeriu is a rather shadowy protagonist. He is often effaced or sidelined: sometimes metaphorically, as when he refuses to explain to a newspaper reporter how he feels about his former lover, a famous chanteuse; and sometimes literally, as in a section in which he figures only to tell the story of a friend, or another in which he doesn’t figure at all, except as the recipient of a letter from an unrequited lover. Valeriu passes his exams, but he doesn’t practice medicine for long. For a while he works as an advisor to the Romanian Ministry of Health, attached to an NGO in Paris, yet when he is recalled home he can’t be bothered to leave and drifts into an improbable relationship with a former circus performer-cum-singer for whom, out of financial exigency, he becomes a musical accompanist. Tellingly, Valeriu is satisfied by the poster for their act, which shows him at the piano “drawn in a few black strokes that shaded my face and preserved my anonymity.” A self-declared “oddball and a loner,” “a bachelor by nature,” Valeriu passes as lightly through his own life as he does through the book. Fittingly, some sections of the book are in third person, and some in first: Valeriu can’t be pinned down; he has no single point of view. An image from his time in the mountains encapsulates his relationship to the world: Valeriu notices that a patch of grass in which he has slept away the previous afternoon “has sprung back completely, as though it had never been touched.”

Paradoxically, though, the novel elevates effacement to something like a permanent state of affairs. In the novel’s third section, narrated by Maria—the woman who writes the letter explaining why she cannot reciprocate Valeriu’s declaration of love—we learn of her fear “that something can be completely obliterated, that a thing or a person or a feeling or even something familiar can just disappear overnight.” But Maria’s response to this feeling is not to value everything solid and stable, but instead to value vanishing: “What obsesses me about ephemeral things is their eternal possibility, the suggestion that they might endure.” The paradox of enduring ephemerality is borne out by the novel’s fascination with sensation, the way, for example, the thing that stays most with Valeriu about one of his lovers is that “she tasted of warm bread,” or the way a nighttime walk along a lakeshore with another encapsulates their failed relationship: “each feels the presence of the other from the sound of their sandals on the pebbles.”

We see here that the novel’s interest in sensation is tied to its investigation of what, if anything, binds people to one another. These concerns come together in a typically fragmentary passage:

November evenings in Paris cafés, when you find yourself in front of the empty bottles at midnight, choked by waves of smoke through which voices and dice and the clink of coins on the zinc bar are distant, shrouded, consoling sounds, and all part of the hubbub that tells you that you are not alone during these last days of autumn.

This is the sort of thing that could have appeared in one of the novels Jean Rhys was writing at the same time—she too loved that hopeless second-person address—except that in her novels everything goes wrong, and here everything goes, if not right, then without serious consequences. (At least, for the characters with the wherewithal and means to make a way for themselves in the world: Rhys’s heroines are more like the stolid but kind Émilie, who is pushed into a marriage with another expatriate Romanian, but whose brief happiness is cut short by her death in childbirth.) However, for a description of consolation and connection, it is striking that no people appear in the above passage. Again, sensory images (choking smoke, cacophonous voices, coins ringing on the bar) dominate, but this time they aren’t even attached to a particular perceiving subject.

I haven’t said much about the plot of Women: that’s because there isn’t one. Each section is named after one or more women, each of whom the narrator has or wants to have, or knows someone who has had, a relationship with. There’s Renée, the wife of a planter in Tunisia, excited and terrified by her adultery. There’s Marthe, an older woman pleased to be able to incite lust in Valeriu but uninterested in him. There’s Odette, a self-possessed teenager who coolly initiates a one-night stand. Then poor Émilie, much more interesting to Valeriu than the coquettish Mado, who uses the ugly woman as her messenger and general dogsbody. There’s Maria, who needs Valeriu to be a friend, not a lover, and Arabela, who casually drops her husband for Valeriu and just as casually leaves him for another man, no hard feelings, at least on her side.

But although the book is about these women, and the relationships Valeriu has and doesn’t have with them, it’s oddly not especially interested in them. Not that Women is misogynistic: although they almost never speak in their own voices—Maria is the important exception—the women actually are more fully developed than Valeriu. We know, for example, what Renée feels; whether Valeriu is simply a cad or more complicatedly in over his head with her is harder to say. And the novel presents a range of female experience: women are lovers, yes, but they are also friends, mothers, impresarios, as often in charge of their affairs with men as they are victims of them. To say that the novel isn’t interested in them, then, would be wrong. It might be more accurate to say it is unruffled by them. The narrative’s most characteristic feature is its calmness. That’s true even when it describes dramatic, even lurid events, most notably a nighttime partouza—an orgy, basically: anonymous partner swapping, resulting, it is even hinted, in gangbangs—in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne. Valeriu and Arabela are invited, but the night ends abruptly when a passing cyclist is crushed by a car traveling without its headlights. The couple “never discussed what had happened.” They tiptoe around each other for a few days, presumably touched by shame or fear, but then they simply “forgot about it.” Trauma doesn’t figure in Women, no matter the events it describes.

On the contrary, the novel can best be described as languid. Remember that opening scene with Valeriu on vacation, sprawled on his deck chair, a human sundial? The scene’s indolence is just as important as the references to the senses. No surprise then, that the most important word in the book is “lazy”; it is used as often to describe instances of bodily sensation as to characterize relationships. Valeriu stretches lazily in the sun, floats lazily in a boat, inhales the lazy flesh of a lover; he is also “measured and lazy” in his relationship with a married woman, and he laughs at a gauche friend “from laziness or cowardice.” And it’s not just Valeriu: Maria becomes a man’s mistress “out of frivolity and laziness”; Arabela stays with a man “out of laziness.”

Laziness, it seems, designates inertia—not the desire to be at rest, but the inability to change from one state to another. In these examples, laziness sometimes suggests moral failing, a carelessness and inattentiveness that can seem narcissistic. But it might be more accurate to say laziness matters because it refuses judgment. To be lazy can be a way of responding to people without referring to their identity (whether of nationality, ethnicity, class, or gender). Laziness is fundamentally unserious (Valeriu is described as a man who “will never do anything serious”). That seems like a condemnation, but when serious men only do harm (like Renée’s husband, a Tunisian estate-holder who prowls his land with a gun to keep away the Arabs, or like Maria’s husband, enthralled by nationalism), it ends up reading like a compliment.

There is at least one other explanation for the novel’s imperturbable casualness, which applies in particular to Valeriu, and explains the haziness of his physical and mental self. And here we return to the concept of identity that this novel largely, but not entirely, eschews. “You sound just like a Frenchman,” Renée’s husband remarks in surprise when he learns that Valeriu is Romanian. Our hero can pass, but he never quite fits in with his surroundings. It is not incidental that it’s the Tunisian, with all the insecurity of the pied-noir, who has asked him where he’s from. In early twentieth century European literature—to say nothing of its political discourse—the person whose mimicry never quite takes, giving rise to pernicious fantasies of dual loyalties, is most often a Jew. Extrapolating from Sebastian’s biography and the subject matter of his next book, one can’t help but wonder if Valeriu is meant to be read as if he could be Jewish.

It’s a thought possible only in hindsight, of course, but reading Women I couldn’t shake the sense that in this book Sebastian was marking time, unable to figure out how to address his real subject, namely, the inability of Jews, in Romania especially but throughout Europe, to partake in national life, to affirm that they were at once Jews and Romanians. In fact, no matter what Sebastian wrote about, readers found Jewishness in it, even in its very style. He writes in his diary—itself a remarkable literary and testimonial document—that in October 1936, three years after the publication of Women, the writer Nicolae Davidescu claimed Jews couldn’t master Romanian, adducing as his evidence a metaphor from Sebastian’s novel. The line in question come in a description of Émilie’s tortured delivery: “Her breathing was labored and sometimes her eyes rolled upward in their sockets, like a goose that’s been force-fed.” Sebastian doesn’t relate exactly what bothered his colleague so much (“I am too lazy to reproduce it in full”), but wryly concludes, “Davidescu suffers from a case of syphilis with anti-Semitic symptoms.” At the time, Sebastian didn’t remember writing the line, but later he searches through his copy of Women: lo and behold, there it is. The next day, Sebastian writes Davidescu and admits to having written the offending passage. He concludes, with elegant shade, “I am delighted that… I am able to restore one of the fundamental arguments in your political and critical system.”

But taking the piss at bigots wasn’t going to cut it in an increasingly dangerous world—not least when Sebastian later narrowly avoided the massacres of Jews in Bucharest during WWII—and it’s easy to see how Sebastian might have concluded that, since everything he wrote was going to be taken as evidence of his “tainted” identity, he should go ahead and address Jewishness openly.  The result, For Two Thousand Years, is a masterpiece. Women is not, but its elegance can be enjoyed both on its own and as a stage in Sebastian’s literary development.

The novel feels like the most a writer can do without addressing his true subject matter head-on. Which might explain its surprising, almost bathetic ending. Arabela, the singer with whom Valeriu has become famous, suddenly leaves him for another man, someone she knew in her past and who she bumps into when they’re on tour in Geneva. Surprisingly, Valeriu seems entirely unaffected. Here’s the last paragraph:

It was five, getting on toward evening. 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.

That’s it. Just that empty final sentence, with its banal passive voice. A comment on the book as a whole; it too has been devoid of heated debates. Affairs of the heart, we might conclude, are too important for such puffed-up nonsense. (That would be the Lubitsch take.) Yet For Two Thousand Years is full of passionate (and often vitriolic) debates. Thus, we might read Women as unconsciously gesturing to Sebastian’s more serious literary future. Writing only a decade earlier, at the other end of Europe, W. B. Yeats famously wrote that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst /Are full of passionate intensity.” In this intriguing novel, we see Mihail Sebastian trying this idea out for size. Ultimately, the worst left him no choice but to discard it, countering their passion with his conviction. In this regard, Women reads like a document of a lost though by no means naïve world, a world in which identity wasn’t yet the measure of meaning it would soon, and with such deadly consequences, become.

Dorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College and blogs about books at eigermonchjungfrau.blog. He has written for Open Letters Monthly, Numéro Cinq, Quarterly Conversation, and Words Without Borders.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 15th, 2019.