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WOMEN by Mihail Sebastian


by Mihail Sebastian ; translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh

Pub Date: March 5th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-59051-954-7
Publisher: Other Press

A young man's romantic and sexual exploits are examined from various angles in this novel first published in 1933.

In the first section of Sebastian’s (For Two Thousand Years, 2017) second novel to appear in English, a young Romanian medical student arrives at a guesthouse in the Alps. He has just completed his exams in Paris and has come to take a rest. Instead, he becomes involved with three different women at the guesthouse—romantically and sexually—and, all in all, there’s little rest to be had. His name is Stefan Valeriu. In the novel’s second section, time shifts forward and perspective shifts sideways. Valeriu is now narrating—not his own exploits, this time, but the sad situation of a girl he once knew, with “an impoverished, joyless life.” The novel shifts twice more after this: First there is a letter to Valeriu from a woman to whom he has apparently proclaimed his love; and, last of all, Valeriu returns to the first person to describe an earlier affair with a former acrobat. Sections are titled after the women they describe: Émilie, Maria, Arabela, and so on. But even though the novel takes as its main subject the romantic entanglements of its main character, there is something else, too, seething beneath this current. The novel was written in the years between the two world wars, and though no explicit reference to politics or history is ever made, the shadows of the wars are felt quite forcefully in each discrete section. Sebastian himself was a Jew from Romania who wrote openly about his experiences. Eventually, his friends abandoned him. He survived the Second World War only to die in a freak accident in 1945. Sebastian’s other, perhaps stronger, work deals more directly with the legacy of the wars, but this novel is no throwaway, either: It’s an edgy account of sexuality, desire, and the strictures of contemporary relationships.

Not quite as dynamic as Sebastian’s more explicitly political work, the novel is still a compelling portrait of desire in its many convoluted manifestations.