Monday, September 28, 2020

Mihail Sebastian


There's something refreshing about reading the work of a novelist about whom you know nothing: there's no preoccupation with reputation or context; there's no focus on contemporaries or predecessors. There's just the book: the words. 

This was the case recently as I made my way through Women, the enticing novel by Mihail Sebastian. Jewish, Romanian, intellectual: Sebastian wrote during the interwar period, and died when he was not yet forty, in 1945. Women is the first of his two novels. 

From the start, I knew I'd enjoy this book: a sense of levity permeates Sebastian's stories; there's nothing here -- in these relationships, these trysts -- which is permanent. Characters enter and exit the stage: their love is a temporary, often comical thing. In this way, I was reminded while reading Women of Kundera, who was later to employ a similar approach to romance. 

Women does more, however, than explore love and relationships. It is a book which deals in equal measure with age and gender, and with the assumptions surrounding them, particularly in the context of sexuality. Sebastian is insightful without being overbearing; he is funny without demeaning. His stories are part Daisy Miller, part Unbearable Lightness

It was a treat to read Women because it was a relief to be rid of context, to read for the sake of the characters, for the sake, really, of reading. Not knowing much about Sebastian's life or reputation freed me to evaluate his novel on its own merits. And what I discovered was a playful, rueful book very much at ease with itself, but also aspiring for something greater. Women is a great success. 

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