Waggish

The Accident by Mihail Sebastian

I have a new review up at the Quarterly Conversation about Mihail Sebastian’s first novel to be translated into English, The Accident. Sebastian’s remarkable Journal 1935-1944 was published in English ten years ago. His novel, which bears some resemblance to contemporaneous works by the Hungarian writers Antal Szerb and Sandor Marai, is significant when compared against his journal entries of the same period.

The Accident by Mihail Sebastian

The Accident arrives as something of an appendix to the massive Journal of Mihail Sebastian (1907-1945), a record of his life as a Romanian Jewish writer from 1935 to 1944. Though Sebastian is known in Romania for his plays and, to a lesser extent, his novels, to my knowledge nothing of his appeared in English until his Journal was published in 2000, chronicling the horrors and fears of life in Romania during World War II. The Accident is his first translated work of fiction.

Next to the immediacy of the JournalThe Accident initially disappoints….

The greater import of The Accident reveals itself only against the background of Sebastian’s Journal, which described in some detail his writing of the novel. But the greater context is crucial as well. The Journal was not published until 1996 (it was translated into in English in 2000), when its portrayal of Romanian complicity in the Holocaust caused controversy. Over 300,000 Romanian Jews died during World War II, a large percentage by death squads set up by Romania’s own aggressively anti-Semitic government. Sebastian was fortunate to live in Bucharest, which was spared the worst of Romania’s policies, but he witnessed the virulent anti-Semitism and deportations and heard firsthand accounts of the government’s massacres carried out on the orders of Prime Minister Ion Antonescu. Sebastian sensitively, painfully chronicled details of the Holocaust as it was happening that many would not know until after the war. Sebastian survived the war, only to be killed in an auto accident in 1945.

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One Comment

  1. Kevin J MacLellan
    13 December 2011

    Hello waggish,
    I enjoyed the review (and thanks for the heads-up regarding the journal), but I have to take umbrage -somthing I usually only do on vacation – with your comparative assessment of Sandor Marai. I have read only one of his many books (“Embers”, the only one translated so far, I think) but I was greatly impressed with, not only the remarkable figure he addresses as protagonist, but with the rigor of intimate elucidation of a very peculiar and insular mind-set. Moreover, I think he was doing, successfully, in that book exactly what you fault Sebastian for not doing –or doing only half-heartedly. He was rendering – ‘exposing’, if you will – the stifling, enervating insularity (inwardness!) of the prevalent codified, militaristically regimented mentality of the Austro-Hungarian bourgeouise. The character’s highly regimented intellectual (and spiritual) life was laid bare and at odds with his emotional life and social connections. This focus is thematic, and it puts the burden on the reader to see that this mindset can only have chilling outcomes –on the personal as well as the social level, and over great lapses of time. This too is thematic.
    I could go on, but my point is, that Sebastian does not seem to have done anysuch thing. And the fact that his text only rises above the irrlevant by dint of the journal-as-backdrop makes it less appealing, in my view, not more so. (I can easily understand the interest in the artistic process, but this is a thing entirely seperate from assessments of the artist’s finished product, NO?) I am more inclined by the review to read the journal than the novel.
    Sandor Marai does not make overt or obvious connections, within the plot, between the lives of its characters and the greater socio-historical world, this is true. But the drama played out within its lines is, by projection or analogy, I think, an implicit indictment of the social failure of his regime; I think, the kind of social failure that was once again leading to War. It is true that context makes a difference to the reading (interpretation), but here the context is public and historical, rather that private and autobiographical. One cannot mistake, I think, the near murderous rage that simmers in the belly of the main character and the mercilessness of his treatment (exile) of his wife, as anything but harbingers of bad things to come from this inbred, overly-regimented austerity.
    Come on, waggish, throw old Sandor a bone, won’t you? Sebastian is your favorite. I get that; but if Marai had kept a journal would he now be the better writer?
    Another hot topic! Thanks.
    Regards,
    kjml

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