Women by Mihail Sebastian, Trans: Philip O’Ceallaigh (Penguin, £8.99 )
Mihail Sebastian has recently been discovered as one of the leading East European writers of the 1930s and ’40s. Born Iosif Mendel Hechter in Romania in 1907, he was a Jewish playwright, essayist, journalist and novelist, part of that extraordinary generation of Romanian writers and thinkers that included Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade and the playwright Eugene Ionesco, all born just before the First World War.
He was the only Jew in this group and the only one who remained in Romania throughout the Second World War. His best-known novel, For Two Thousand Years, about what it meant to be a Jew in Romania, was published in 1934. He was killed by a truck in Bucharest in May 1945, still only in his mid-30s.
In the 2000s, his Journal, 1935-1944: The Fascist Years gained an audience in the West, largely thanks to its brutal honesty. It was Sebastian’s first book to be published by Penguin and he has since received acclaim from leading writers and critics including John Banville (who wrote the introduction for this edition) and John Gray.
This latest book of Sebastian’s to be translated into English, Women, was first published in Romania in 1933. It consists of four linked stories, each named after different women. In the opening story, Renée, Marthe, Odette, we first meet the central character, Stefan Valeriu, a Romanian medical student, on a summer holiday in an Alpine resort near a lake. Young and handsome, he is described as un nouveau jeune homme.
Stefan becomes involved with three very different women: Renée, a French woman from Tunisia on holiday with her husband and young daughter; Marthe, a beautiful mother staying at the pension with her son; and Odette, aged 18, staying on her own.
At first, this tale seems like a set of games and flirtations. But there is something else going on. There are references to a new, modern world of cars, trains and home movies. The affairs also feel modern, part of a new world. Stefan is not just a young lover. He is an outsider, a Romanian in France. Marthe has noticed “the foreign newspapers you get sent from afar, the letters that arrive for you with their strange stamps.” Paris is the centre of this world, Romania and Tunisia are on the periphery. This distinction will become decisive in years to come.
The second story, Emilie, is an account of a gawky and unappealing young woman, in the world of Romanian émigrés in Paris. It has a very different feel. Banville, in his introduction, aptly compares it to Flaubert. It conveys the same kind of pitiless detachment.
The third story, Maria, is another bleak love story, the only one narrated by a woman, and the final story, Arabela, is about a couple who become the toast of the European cabaret circuit.
It ends with the narrator buying the papers “to see what had happened that morning at the League of Nations. There had been heated debates.” While each story ends darkly, Arabela’s ending is the darkest of all.
David Herman is a senior JC reviewer