Author:Mihail Sebastian

Publisher: Other Press

ISBN: 976-1-59051-954-7

Mihail Sebastian, a Romanian playwright, essayist, journalist, and novelist, was born in 1907 as Iosef Hechter. He worked as a lawyer and writer until anti-Semitic legislation forced him to abandon his public career. Having survived the war and the Holocaust, he was killed in early 1945 as he was crossing a Bucharest street teach his first class when he was hit by a truck. He's best known in English for his Journal, 1935-1944 published in 1999.

Women, originally published in Romania in 1933 when Sebastian was 26 years old, has now been translated into fluent and engaging English by Philip Ó Ceallaigh and published by Other Press. The book has four sections, all focusing on women in the protagonist's life: the first section covers Renée, Marthe, Odette; the second features Émile; the third Maria; and the last Arabela. Sebastian writes the first section in the third person: "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." Stefan, a medical student, is vacationing on an Alpine lake and has an affair with the wife of another hotel guest, Renée. However,  "As it turns out, Renée doesn't know how to love. Her first embrace is strikingly awkward; there is no reticence or delay in yielding, only a series of hesitations, more likely from awkwardness than from modesty . . . "

Sebastian writes the next section in the first person, the persona of Stefan: Here is his description of Émile: "I think making love was more a physical difficulty than a moral one for her. At the risk of using an ambiguous expression, I'd say that for her love had become a problem of balance. What must have seemed impossible for her about love was moving her center of gravity. Being a vertical creature and then assuming a horizontal position—that what I believed tortured her sensual dreams, if ever had any. I think the whole mystery of love was summed up for her in the fact, and she could't get her head around it."

The third section is written as a letter from Maria to Stefan describing her affair with Andrei. Here she describes him eating: "He was greedy, cheerful, and communicative, with a candor that suited him wonderfully and an absence of self-awareness that would have been an excuse for any crime or betrayal. I had always enjoyed watching Andrei eating and I think his greed is the only truly good thing in him, because (maybe I'm talking nonsense, but I'll tell you anyway) there's something childlike about a greedy man, something which tempers his roughness and self-importance and reduces the intimidating aspect of his masculinity."

The last section is again written in the first person, an older Stefan who presents himself as the technical adviser to the Ministry of Health of Romania in its relations with the International Commission for Medical Cooperation. He attends a circus performance in Paris in which Arabela stars. He falls in love with her, and they create their own act: "I was grateful to Arabela for unintentionally knocking me off my reasonable, predestined course and turning the serious gentleman she'd met that November night into somebody who forgot that he was a doctor, adviser, and diplomat and became again what he had always wanted to be: a young man."

The book feels very European in its attitudes, assumptions, and landscapes. As such, it's interesting for its observations and insights. Interesting that the telephone, radio, even the automobile barely exist. It does not feel as if it were written by a 26-year-old, although, having been born in a small city in Romania (Brăila on the Danube) and growing up a cultured Jew and experiencing growing anti-Semitism, Sebastian may have been more mature than his years would suggest. 

Women is a fascinating picture of a time and the relations between people. The citations above may suggest how well Sebastian is able to convey both the characters and their relationships. A novel worth reading more than once.