Skiing and Melodrama


by Jeff Bursey

If you like skiing, The Accident may interest you.
Most of the last one hundred or so pages of this 1940 novel features the two lead characters, Paul and Nora, skiing this or that hill, occasionally repairing to rest in a cabin–whose occupants, Gunther and Hagen, behave oddly–before they ski some more. The physical activity affects Paul, a lawyer, who’s doing it for the first time:

He pushed off without waiting for her [Nora] to signal their departure. Again he had the sensation that his skis were losing their weight and that he was rushing before them, floating or falling. There was a sensation of intense brightness. Something struck him in the face and blinded him. For a moment he didn’t know whether he was still floating, or whether he had fallen. Then he felt that he was rolling down the valley, his head in the snow, his feet in the air and his skis locked together.

His attachment to the sport deepens in spiritual significance the more he skis:

He felt a kind of childish exultation. He didn’t know exactly what he might want to do now. There were strengths in him with which he wasn’t familiar, impulses that were awaking from a long slumber.

“Nora, do you think that skiing can save a person? Can it change his life?”

“Dear Paul, I think that our lives are full of bad habits, compulsions and obsessions. Skiing cleanses us of them. In the end, the important thing is not to let ourselves be defeated again.”

“No, Nora. Never.”

He uttered the vow passionately, with exaggerated firmness.

He made his amends alone, repeating the words more calmly and decisively in his mind: Never. Never.

Because it’s summer, because Mihail Sebastian has failed in the attempt to create rounded characters, and because this is a melodrama without the drama, I hoped for an Ethan Frome-like encounter with a tree for Paul and Nora. Sadly, that is not the accident of the title. Skiing is given more weight than it can carry, making it a preposterous device. In this respect, Pasha Malla’s description of basketball in “Dizzy When You Look Down” is less tedious, though Sebastian doesn’t quite match the dullness of Steven Galloway’s description of wire-walking in Ascension.

Sebastian (1907-1945), born Iosif Hechter in a Jewish family living near the Danube, has a reputation in his native Romania and internationally for his novels, plays, and war diaries. The translator, Stephen Henighan, says that the “present edition, astonishingly, marks the first publication of Sebastian’s fiction in English,” yet a few lines later says it’s “not surprising that the diary… should have been the first of his works to appear in English.” If it’s not surprising, why is it astonishing?

In English, the diaries were published in English as Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years (2000). Reviewing it in The New Criterion, Anne Applebaum declared it “…a genuinely original literary achievement, whose first Romanian publication in 1996 sparked off a tormented national debate about anti-Semitism, the Romanian intellectual tradition, and Romania’s role in the war.” The New York Times critic agreed on its quality: “Whatever the reason, it is precisely his capacity to remain in touch with men and women who should have been his enemies that makes Mihail Sebastian an unparalleled diarist…. But finally, the importance of his diary is not extraliterary; it is in Sebastian’s language, and in the miracle he records: the emergence of a profoundly intelligent literary voice in the midst of political disempowerment, corruption and carnage.”

A few words should be said about the menacing environment Sebastian wrote in, and about some of the “enemies” mentioned above. Raised in a secular Jewish family, Sebastian had peculiar and, as it turned out, false friends who, with the rise of Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s, revealed intolerance and bigotry. A strong influence on Sebastian and many others, one of Romania’s “most mesmerizing and dangerous intellects” in Henighan’s words, was the philosopher and mathematician Nae Ionescu (1890-1940), who contributed an anti-Semitic preface to an earlier Sebastian novel about Jewish assimilation into Romanian life, It’s Been Two Thousand Years (1934). Apart from this public attack in a book that “caused possibly the most violent scandal in Romanian literary history,” Ionescu’s example and teachings contributed to the country’s far-right sentiments and its anti-Semitism, significant elements in Romania’s Iron Guard, a fascist organization supported by two notable friends of Sebastian who were also indebted to Ionescu: the historian and professor of religion Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) and the philosopher Emil Cioran (1911-1995). With friends like these, Sebastian had very few places to turn when things began to get ugly for Romanian Jews. None of this shows itself in The Accident, though at the end a reference is made to the 1935 Treaty of Rome between France and Italy, which was, as Henighan puts it, a “capitulation of the values of civilization to those of fascism.”

Biblioasis, then, is capitalizing, at least partially, on the popularity of Sebastian’s diary. Translating works from other languages is important, and commendable, for a nation that relies only on its own literary output cuts itself off from new points of view and ideas, as well as insights into the country of origin.

However, The Accident is a thorough fizzle. The plot makes a case that Paul, a lawyer dumped by Ann, a painter, then meets Nora, who’s older than he is, and that they can be a couple. Nora believes she can help him get over whatever sorrow he carries, even though, throughout the book, he never tells her what pains him. We’re told over and over what they each feel, but questions mount with each page. Why would she think she could help him when he doesn’t speak about what bothers him? What is in his character that makes Nora and Ann afraid of him? What’s in this mope that attracts women? These are all mysteries, and Sebastian can’t be bothered to design an attractive side to Paul. Nora’s actions seem to stem from a mix of curiosity and charity at the beginning, then, as his misery remains and he alternates between putting himself in her hands and wrenching himself away, she becomes more and more obsessed with rescuing him. Codependence sprang to mind the further I read.

Ann, who Paul feuds with (we’re never quite told why) when they’re not in love, starts off as a minor artist but soon gets her career going. We rarely hear her side of anything–of her art, her feelings, her past, her desires–but we’re told by a male painter envious of her financial success that she’s making too much money (“I thought she wanted to be a painter–and she could have been, you know? she could have if she’d wanted it–but she wants a career…”), and that she “‘sleeps with this one and she sleeps with that one….’” The narrative sets this up, so that the walk-on character, Old Man Fănică, can say what Sebastian, through Paul, wants us to believe.

There’s no proof of the assertion, and no argument against the impression that jibes with what Paul fears is the truth. That she gets ahead clearly threatens him, though the narrative seems oblivious to this. (Henighan tells us Sebastian loved Proust’s work, but he seems not to have learned Proust’s ability to see on multiple levels at the same time.) If Ann has slept around on a boyfriend who frightens her and whom she regularly fights with, who would be surprised? And whose property is her body, anyway?

Apart from frightening the women with his personality, Paul, as a lawyer, represents Authority, or the State, and his profession encourages order; a female painter aiming for success and a free life on her own rules, whatever they may be, for him embodies disorder and causes resentment. In sleeping with Nora–who “evokes the motherland, the nation in female form,” according to Henighan–the first night they meet, Paul doesn’t brand her as promiscuous (nor does he fault himself), because she slept with him and not some other man. Nora is almost a stock figure, the comely, older, experienced and wiser French teacher. In Romania French is “the language that Romanian intellectuals saw as the bridge to their culture’s ancestral home in the Latin West.” Her vagina, so to speak, is the bridge Paul must use–put differently, the path Authority must take–to get back to the motherland (pregnant thought, there), leading him safely away from the anarchy and licentiousness Ann represents.

There’s no true motivation behind Paul being with Ann, or with Nora; Sebastian simply insists on these two relationships, which makes the novel a crude, heavy-handed and manipulative piece of writing. The Accident notably lacks two things, one serious, one not: first, an elevation of creativity, or even chance discovery, that wards off schematic fiction where mere words never become art (and there’s no faulting the translation here); second, raised lettering on the cover. That may seem a low remark, but what else is this but a Romance? Nora is after a seemingly unattainable man (except to sleep with) occupying a position of power, who makes her unsure and frightened, and whose troubles she wants to take on as her own, a man she wants to cure. As for Paul, his thoughts, to exaggerate a little, are ripe with bathos that we’re meant to view as earnest. Here’s how he speaks to Nora, in the company of Gunther and Hagen, when for the first time they see her in a black dress:

Paul approached Nora. “Gunther’s right. You really are beautiful. Skiing made you look like a boy as long as we were dressing boyishly. But look now, you’re intimidating us. We’d like to kiss your hand and we don’t know how. We’ve taught ourselves to let you fall in the snow without stopping to check on you. You always manage on your own, and we go on ahead. We’ve taught ourselves to answer you with grunts, or sometimes not to answer at all. You’re patience, Nora. You’re obedience. You’re simplicity. We receive it all with indifference, as if we were owed it, as if we had an ancestral right to it. But tonight you’ve suddenly reminded us that you’re beautiful, and your beauty is a gift too great for us. You disarm us, you give us the jitters, you make us babble all sorts of nonsense.”

Nora regards the emotion behind this as “unpretentious, untroubled,” but it is gush fit for a soap opera. Sebastian words Nora’s inner response carefully to make that speech acceptable to readers, instead of laughable. If Paul was the kind of fellow who bowed, this is where he would. Placing Nora on a pedestal–Patience on a monument, as one expression goes–is no less objectifying than if Mihail Sebastian had him call her a whore with a heart of gold.

Biblioasis | 320 pages |  $19.95 | paper | ISBN #978-1926845166

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Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is the author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His latest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that has appeared in various publications.