The Accident by Mihail Sebastian (trans. Stephen Henighan). Biblioasis. 320 pp. $17.95.
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 Journal, The Accident initially disappoints. The novel begins promisingly with an evocative scene in which the intense, quixotic Nora falls while exiting a tram and is helped up by the downtrodden intellectual Paul. They tentatively embark on a rushed affair driven by Nora’s fixation on Paul, which frightens and liberates them. But the novel then loses its way in a flashback chronicling Paul’s earlier involvement with Ann, a dreary artist. Ann clearly represents the faux-bohemian life that has ensnared Paul, but both she and Paul remain too diffuse for this section to take hold as a picture of the limits of Paul’s life. Paul’s criticism of Ann’s paintings telegraphs the problem with their entire milieu: “There’s something gesticulating in your paintings. They’re too hearty, too talkative, too familiar at the first glance.” Ann replies: “I am talkative, I am frivolous.”
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.
The Accident was Sebastian’s fourth and final novel, written during 1937 to 1940, and his journals describe its creation: Sebastian starts the novel, loses a good chunk of the manuscript, reconstructs it, struggles with it, and finishes it after reaching a period of intense focus, only to be set upon by grave doubts about its quality and his talent after publication. In between, he finds solace in classical music and skiing while wondering how to reconcile his life and his profession with the increasingly horrific political situation. After publication, he makes little subsequent mention of The Accident in his journal, and moves on to writing plays.
Read in light of the circumstances of its writing, The Accident reveals itself much more darkly. We have an explanation for the weakness of the Ann section: this seems to be precisely the section that Sebastian lost and had to rewrite. He bemoans his inability to recapture the intensity of the original draft. His instincts were right. Knowing of Sebastian’s dissatisfaction with his reconstruction of the manuscript makes it sad to read. Yet the darkness only grows greater over the more successful remainder of the novel.
Once the focus returns to Paul and Nora, the novel regains momentum, as Nora becomes a catalyst to pull the hesitant, almost hapless Paul out of his mundane life. She is not an intellectual, but this is an advantage: “You, too, should be ridiculous a few times in your life,” she tells Paul. “You should see it does you good.”
They take a long journey to the ski resort near Brasov, and the rest of the novel shifts between ski chalets, the city, and a strange, small cabin inhabited by a young recluse named Gunther. Each location has its own personality and subject matter, and Nora and Paul alternate among them. The chalets are domesticated, rustic outposts. The villages are bustling small communities with local color. And the cabin is a Gothic portrayal of a hermetic existence. (This is where the Stifter influence is most felt.)
That final location is the oddest, and Sebastian was correct to sense that it fit uneasily into the novel. Gunther is the outcast scion of a prominent local German family, and he lives in the cabin as a recluse with his older caretaker Hagen. Nora stumbles on the cabin by accident after rushing out of a chalet late one night, and soon finds out that it is a forbidden place where no one goes, Gunther being a willing exile from his own family and the product of a dark family past.
We hear both Nora and Paul’s thoughts, but as the novel goes on, Paul emerges as the protagonist, and Nora as the object which is acting on him. Sebastian loses touch with the vulnerability and somewhat creepy obsessiveness Nora possessed in the early scenes and transforms her into a secular redeemer for Paul. Her past lover Grig, who was not described in detail as Ann was, is completely forgotten.
And yet the book remains something of a travelogue. Nora and especially Paul appear to grow and gain meaning over the course of the book, but they do not engage with their surroundings. They care about them, particularly about Gunther, to whom they become close, but their actions only affect their surroundings to a small extent. Rather, the events serve to drive Nora and especially Paul’s fulfillment.
It is, in other words, a process of bourgeois self-actualization that Sebastian portrays, a safe sort of freedom based in the culture that he and Paul inhabited. Nora ostensibly becomes Paul’s liberating angel, but she too remains insulated from the drama of her surroundings. As visitors to Brasov, she and Paul can travel from scene to scene without consequence or commitment. This life brings them happiness, but at the cost of genuine engagement with the world.
The Accident seemingly portrays this process as a positive thing. Sebastian’s tale of liberation from a bourgeois life is similar to the work of another assimilated Jewish writer of the period, the Hungarian Antal Szerb. Both utilized a mildly expressionistic Romanticism that draws a bit from Thomas Mann, but also from less fashionable 19th century writers such as Adelbart Stifter and Gottfried Keller. Both were aware of the limitations of this style. Its inability to face up to their present-day realities was obvious.
But unlike Szerb’s superb Journey by Moonlight, The Accident does not deflate the Romantic ideals it sets up, but neither does it convincingly endorse them. Paul and Nora’s momentary epiphanies of Romantic freedom seem mundane, almost naive. Some of its passages seem possessed of a naivete that cannot be credited: Nora tells Paul, “Our lives are full of bad habits, compulsions and obsessions. Skiing cleanses us of them.” This seems almost insensate, even trivially comic, next to the Sturm und Drang of Gunther and his dour family.
Why does it fall flat? Why does the novel seem so half-hearted? The Journal makes the answer clear. Sebastian was being torn between bourgeois comfort and political horror, and the novel reflects that conflict in its very construction. The novel portrays of Sebastian’s own inability to commit to an emotional, Romantic liberation of the soul, even as he clings to it as an ideal of hope. Paul’s guided journey through Brasov was the greatest self-actualization that Sebastian could envision, but Sebastian couldn’t believe in his own happy ending.
Sebastian’s doubts are explicit and incessant in the Journal, but they are there in The Accident as well, if one knows the context. The novel presents the self-actualization at face value, but it gains real meaning only if it is taken ironically, with Paul and Nora clinging to threads of life that they don’t understand. The mixture of settings don’t represent alternative possibilities in life, but nonthreatening, innocuous fantasies. Their ineffectiveness evokes real horror, turning this light, unsatisfying book into a cenotaph.
Two other, better-known writers of the period worked in with the material of bourgeois life set upon by crisis: Stefan Zweig and Sandor Marai. Both have seen revivals recently and both remain mediocre, falling prey to collapsing complicated socio-political issues into banal psychological portraits, thinking they had discovered the real reason that explains why humans are the way that they are. Sebastian and Szerb are superior, ironically, because they do not stretch themselves quite so far. By remaining within the realm of the bourgeois and Romantic, they reveal its cracks far more visibly.
Szerb’s is the greater novel, however, because Sebastian’s is too compromised by its very nature, requiring background knowledge of its composition to have its greatest effect. Sebastian did not think himself a great artist, and the Journal records his many doubts about his skills. Yet that clarity turns to an edifying muddle in The Accident, which bears strong moral weight behind its text, in its construction. Read in tandem with the Journal, it is a powerful experience
David Auerbach writes about literature and philosophy at Waggish. He has been a graduate student in English and philosophy, a software engineer at Google, and a feuilletoniste. He continues to write fiction and criticism.
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