Women: Mihail Sebastian (1933)

“September has arrived, lovely in its weakening light.”

Last year I read Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years–a remarkable book which covers  several years in the life of a young Romanian man who faces antisemitism at university and struggles with what it means to be a Jew. The book had a refreshing energy in spite of its introspection, and that same energy is apparent in Women: a book comprised of four connected stories which explore the various phases and complications of male/female relationships.

The first story, Renée, Marthe and Odette is my favourite of the lot. Stefan Valeriu is on holiday in the Alps. He’s a student in Paris; he’s taken his final exams, and now he’s relaxing:

It’s not yet eight. Stefan Valeriu can tell by the sunlight, which has crept only as far as the edge of his chaise longue. He can sense it climbing through 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. Then it will be eight and perhaps time to start thinking about getting up. Just like yesterday, and the day before that. But he’ll remain lying there, smiling at the thought of this sundial he constructed on the first day, using a chaise longue and a patch of terrace. 

This is how the story opens. Its evocative sensuality draws us immediately into Stefan’s life, and it’s easy to imagine the sensations he enjoys: the light, the warmth and the sheer pleasure of leisure time. And then comes the voice of a woman. …

Stefan, as it turns out, is a bit of a player. Circumstances throw him into the company of several women–hence the title. Stefan meets a married couple: Monsieur Marcel Rey and his wife Renée who are on holiday with their small daughter. The Reys, who are both from “old colonial families,” own a plantation in Tunisia. It’s not exactly a life of ease; they sleep with a gun under the pillow.  Stefan plays chess with Monsieur Rey and seduces his wife.

The intriguing thing here is just what the husband knows or doesn’t know. Is Stefan one of the perks of the holiday? The night before the Reys depart, Stefan plays chess with Monsieur Rey:

When it is completely dark, the lights of the train station far beyond the lake can be seen, and the Paris train at midnight, like a thick articulated phosphorescent snake. They pause in the middle of their game and watch it disappear.

–We have a rough life, says Monsieur Rey, breaking the silence. I don’t regret it and wouldn’t change it. But it is tough. I’m sure Renée has tears in her eyes watching that same train, which she won’t be taking again for who knows how many years. Maybe never. That doesn’t scare me, but you see, there’s something in me, a kind of affliction, that gives me pause. I know it’ll pass. It will pass for her too. Work takes care of all that. The sun, the plantations, the desert, the breeze at night, the Arabs…. But you have to understand how different things are here, how appealing it is and how a woman in particular would find it all irresistible…

So that’s Renée, the unhappy plantation owner’s wife. Then there’s Marthe, a beautiful, calm “regal, cinematic, and eternally beautiful woman,” who is pursued by Stefan. The pursuit is flavoured by the presence of another young man who appears to be a competitor for Marthe’s affections. And then there’s Odette: a free-spirited young woman who is alone at the resort.

The best scene in this wonderful section concerns Monsieur Rey’s hobby of filming the guests, and one evening the guests sit down to watch Rey’s film. The film’s revelations make Stefan extremely uncomfortable. (I thought of Alda Alda in Crimes and Misdeamours. Alda Alda plays Lester, a television producer and Clifford, played by Woody Allen makes a documentary of Lester’s life.)

In the second story, Émilie, time has moved on. Stefan is the narrator who tells the tale of a young woman who is a virgin; Stefan is a witness to her sad tale. Renée, Marthe and Odette explored many aspects of male-female relationships (flirting, pursuit, high drama, adultery, adulation) but Émilie, is almost painful in its train-wreck bleakness.

The third section, Maria, takes the form of a letter to Stefan. Stefan declared his love and the letter is Maria’s response which, in essence details of her relationship with another man. In the final section, Arabela, Stefan once more is the narrator, but in this case he tells of his prolonged, ultimately anticlimactic, love affair with an acrobat.

The first story is superb, and the others, while good, cannot match its excellence. There’s something magnificent and timeless about Renée, Marthe and Odette and the way Stefan observes and loves each woman in his own way.

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.

Review copy

Translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh

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4 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Sebastian Mihail

4 responses to “Women: Mihail Sebastian (1933)

  1. Interestingly, I find this more appealing than For Two Thousand Years, in spite of all the positive reports the latter has received. Thanks for reviewing this – the quotes give a very good feel for the style.

    • I was more sceptical about this one (and you know I love Sebastian). I see it as an early and therefore somewhat immature work, it feels ever so slightly derivative: it reminds me a little of Thomas Mann or Gide. For Two Thousand Years is perhaps harder to read in subject matter, but far more moving.

  2. I just read For Two Thousand Years, and was keen to pick up anything else by Sebastian – your take convinces me, Guy. Will be on the lookout for it.

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