Anca L. Szilágyi
The Accident, by Mihail Sebastian, trans. Stephen Henighan (Biblioasis, 2011)
What gets imprinted upon a work of fiction when society is unraveling all around the writer? This is a question I grappled with while reading Mihail Sebastian’s fourth and last novel, The Accident, his first work of fiction to appear in English. Sebastian (1907-1945) first made waves in the English reading world when his Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years was translated in 2000. In that work, the novelist, playwright, and lawyer observed the literati around him growing increasingly right-wing as anti-Semitic legislation passed, legislation that (as Henighan helpfully explains in his Afterword to The Accident) expelled him from the bar association and the Romanian Academy, and took away his right to publish.
In The Accident, set in 1934 and originally published in 1940, Paul, a suicidal lawyer tries to forget Anna, a blond, blue-eyed waif of a painter. Instead, he meets Nora, a sturdy French teacher, after she falls off a tram – in a scene rendered with incredibly precise aural and tactile detail. Paul helps Nora, and despite his insufferable, depressed shrugs, their carefully-etched love story is off with a lurch. Nora convinces him to take a holiday to shake off his despair. They leave Bucharest to ski in Transylvania, except Paul has never skied before and Nora must teach him. There’s something transcendental to Paul’s hurtling through the blinding snow – he would be content to hurtle and continue a sensation of floating and brightness – but, irritatingly, Nora forces him to learn control.
The opposition of a waifish, scatterbrained, younger Anna with the sensitive, wanting-to-be-noticed and almost-a-spinster-but-not Nora risks veering toward stereotype, but Sebastian avoids this through carefully considered interior monologues that alternate at satisfying intervals between Nora and Paul. And, the story might have felt a bit thin if it centered solely on this trio, but it gathers richness up in the forested mountains, where Nora and Paul encounter the young Gunther Grodek and his family, of the Saxon minority in Transylvania. The Grodeks are a tight-lipped bunch, but a parallel story of love, ambition, obligation, and loss slowly arises, one more difficult to grasp because we only enter the minds of Nora and Paul, but one whose mystery adds an important texture to the story. When Nora and Paul return to Braşov, the regional capital at the base of the mountains, and when Paul encounters and misunderstands the import of Hungarian headlines (Hungarians are another minority in Transylvania), the sense of the story widens out, casting a darker edge to the novel.
The Accident glimpses a lost world of inter-war, pre-Communist Romania, and it also delicately foreshadows the war. Celebratory imagery is often eerily militaristic, such as when popping champagne corks are described as “detonation” and droves of holiday skiers, dressed in similar ski suits and piled into special skiers’ train cars, are compared to troops.
Even setting historical background aside, The Accident remains a powerful work of art. Descriptions of landscape are lush (“Clouds flowed down towards Poiana like buoyant lava”), encounters with local fauna glint with incandescent magic, and the reader is intimately engaged with Nora and Paul – the undulations of their fears and their doubts, their desires and, however ephemeral, their exaltations.