A first encounter with the Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian (1907-1945), and his novel The Accident, might benefit from some personal context—a little of mine, and a good bit of the author’s. I was born in Romania in 1979, emigrated when I was a child, and returned to the country in 2004 to work in film. One of the fondest memories I have of the two years I lived in Bucharest is of the evening a friend treated me to a gramophone recording of Sebastian’s play The Star Without a Name. A vinyl record has the textured quality and depth of celluloid, the vividness of events captured in time, with all the surrounding air. As with the movies I love, what I remembered afterward, more than plot, characters or dialogue, was the play’s rich (in this case, distinctly Chekovian) atmosphere.
The house in which my friend lived also played an important role. It was built in the early 1930s, and its gilded beauty had long since oxidized into a heavyset and broody presence, lightened only slightly by the Art Deco flourishes that characterized the architecture of that period. It belonged to my friend’s great aunt and uncle and very much to the interbellum Bucharest that shaped Sebastian’s literary career, grievously short as it was. Born Iosif Hechter to a secular, Romanian-speaking Jewish family from Braila, Sebastian was hit by a truck and killed at the age of thirty-seven, a year after publishing The Star Without a Name.
At the time, I didn’t grasp the gravity of the context surrounding the publication of the work, or the irony of the title itself; The Star Without a Name is now a Romanian classic, but its first staging in March of 1944 credited another writer, since the official state policy of that period suppressed works by Jewish authors. Eerily prophetic in its title, The Accident was the last work Sebastian published under his own name (itself a pseudonym that failed to protect him), in 1940; it is also the first of his novels to appear in English. If one hasn’t already read Sebastian’s Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years (published in 2000), Stephen Henighan’s translation of The Accident—along with his insightful endnotes—provide an intriguing introduction to the Romanian essayist, journalist, playwright, and novelist.
The Accident begins inside the mind of a woman as she regains her consciousness in the aftermath of a tram accident. It’s an effectively dramatic conceit, to meet her—in her own mind, as it were—as she herself materializes; the language (Sebastian’s and Henighan’s both) is evocative and lyrical:
Then, like a wave of blood, the cold rose above her knees and spread like a fine net through her calf, calling back to life new regions of her flesh. The snow was fluffy, soothing, and it had the softness of chilled bedclothes.
As a consequence of the accident, Nora meets Paul, a mysterious and apathetic witness who helps her home—begrudgingly, it seems. A strained but passionate romance begins, eventually leading them out of Bucharest, to the ski resorts in the Carpathian Mountains, near the city of Brasov. (As Henighan points out in his notes, the mountains and skiing were important refuges for Sebastian; also, Nora’s last name “Munteanu,” means “of the mountains,” which makes her an agent of redemption). While Nora and Paul become more intimate, and as they grow closer to their hosts in the mountains (the secretive and troubled Grodeck family), it becomes clear that Paul is suicidal and obsessively preoccupied with a former lover, a painter named Ann, who betrayed him in her own obsessive lust for success.
The Accident is far from a perfect novel. The narrative wanders somewhat aimlessly at points, and the characters cave sometimes under the pressure of their overdetermined motivations and identities. (Paul is the intellectual precariously removed from his own emotions, and Nora, the relentlessly maternal, self-chiding angel who means to return Paul to his senses). The couple’s story hinges on various important cusps: a fateful accident, the closing of the year, the eve of Paul’s thirtieth birthday, changes in the weather. Often it feels as if the characters have woefully little agency in driving the plot. It’s a story about coincidence, fortuitous or not, and about lives subjugated to the whims of fortune, much like the author’s own.
Mihail Sebastian’s death, no less hideous for being accidental, was not an assassination, as it might be possible to assume. But the ten years leading up to his death were in every way like a prolonged assassination; once part of an influential circle that included the novelist and scholar of religious studies Mircea Eliade, the philosopher Emil Cioran, and the playwright Eugen Ionescu, Sebastian saw himself systematically disenfranchised from the literary scene, betrayed and abandoned by one friend after another, as the fascist, anti-Semitic Iron Guard rose to power.
The most crucial blow came in 1934, when Sebastian asked his one-time mentor Nae Ionescu to write the preface to his second novel It’s Been Two Thousand Years, a story informed specifically by Sebastian’s experience as a Romanian Jew. Ionescu, twenty years Sebastian’s senior and also from Braila, edited the ultra-nationalist daily Cuvantul/ The Word, the newspaper that eventually became the official voice of the Iron Guard, to which Eliade, Cioran and Sebastian himself contributed. He agreed to write the preface, but it was an incendiary attack on the author and the work, about which he said: “It is an assimilationist illusion, it is the illusion of so many Jews who sincerely believe they are Romanian [ . . .] Are you Iosef Hechter, a human being from Braila on the Danube? No, you are a Jew from Braila on the Danube.” Under the circumstances, Sebastian saw no other course of action than to publish the book, with Ionescu’s unaltered preface.
In retrospect, opting to publish the preface seems like an unfathomable show of rectitude, or pride, or desperation. In any event, it was a dizzyingly torturous decision, one that might throw even the brightest intellect into profound depression. Although Sebastian published The Accident in 1940, the time of the action is specifically December 1934, the same year as the Ionescu scandal.
There is a point in The Accident where one stops seeing the seams of the autobiographical and just absorbs the story on its own terms. It is the first day that Nora takes Paul down the mountain on skis. Part freedom, part freefall, his first descent restores his capacity to feel, if not exactly his will to live, and what one feels reading this chapter, beyond style, beyond character development, comes very close to what I’d felt in that house in Bucharest when I first heard The Star Without a Name: the atmosphere of what it was like to be alive in Romania when you could descend the summit of Poiana and enter Brasov on skis.