Sunday, May 26, 2013

Existential Skiing in Romania: Mihail Sebastian’s The Accident

Mihail Sebastian’s 1940 novel Accidentul (The Accident), which I read in Stephen Henighan’s translation from the original Romanian, is a peculiar and often absorbing book about a chance meeting that evolves into romance and a skiing adventure. Nora, a French teacher, and Paul, an attorney, meet after Nora falls while exiting a moving tram. Time stops, symbolically, when Nora’s watch is smashed, and Nora sees herself as resembling the clock because she “heard nothing of her own being.” Her knee is just scraped but her life has shifted.

Though The Accident suffers from some serious pacing problems—I thought accounts of Paul’s previous infatuation with an artist named Ann were both too long and too, well, boringly typical without having a reason to be… though the image of Paul staring at large photos of Ann on the street are (blurb word alert!) poignant—its disparate elements manage to meld enough to form a novel that is, to borrow a phrase from M.A. Orthofer on The Complete Review, a “solid, interesting period piece.” I’m glad Canadian publisher Biblioasis brought it out in English.

One of the most interesting aspects of The Accident is Nora’s use of skiing to save Paul from himself. Paul’s “himself” is, in a way, a sort of not-Paul, since he has a suicidal bent and can be remote and self-destructively surly. Lucky for Paul, Nora’s teaching skills extend to skiing: she spontaneously proposes spending the winter holidays in the Carpathians, they buy him some skis, get on a train, and go. Skiing gives Paul new perspectives on nothingness:

“He tried to explain to [Nora] the sensation of nothingness from which he had just emerged. He felt as though he were on the outer edges of human life.”

When Nora tells Paul his speed is under control, Paul says, “Under whose control? I felt like I was in a whirlpool, a chaos. I couldn’t see anything.” On the next pages, he closes his eyes while skiing, “Only for a few second. He felt weightless, without memory, without a past…” And a few paragraphs later he calls skiing “a kind of bliss.” As someone who gave up on skiing because I never felt enough control or bliss and once saw someone taken off the mountain with fatal injuries, I thought the skiing passages made a nice metaphor for exploring risk, control, and purpose, but I’m not as optimistic as Ann that skiing is a real cure for Paul or that, “He who has been in the mountains is a free man.” David Auerbach’s piece for The Quarterly Conversation includes a nice discussion of this line; Auerbach writes that, “Paul’s guided journey through Brasov was the greatest self-actualization that Sebastian could envision, but Sebastian couldn’t believe in his own happy ending.”

Another chance occurrence in The Accident brings Paul and Ann to the mountain chalet of a young man named Gunther Grodeck. That meeting felt particularly programmed to me, though the Gothic element it brings to the book felt almost like (tragi?)comic relief among some of the rather earnest skiing scenes: Gunther lives in the chalet with a sheepdog named Faffner, a blurry portrait of his mother, and a man in a black cape whom Gunther calls Hagen for the character in The Götterdämmerung.

If I sound a little uninspired, it’s because I am: The Accident is interesting and I’m glad I read it, but it feels a little lumpy. The Accident generated a fair number of reviews when it was released in Henighan’s English translation. I’ve linked to a few below; some contain interesting background on Sebastian’s life and Romanian history.

The Quarterly Conversation -- this review discusses the plot problems in The Accident, noting that Sebastian lost part of his manuscript and had to rewrite it.

Up Next: I have a bit of a backlog that includes Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home and Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Fear and Loathing in Mongolia: Tea of Ulaanbaatar

Christopher R. Howard’s Tea of Ulaanbaatar is, hmm, a gritty account of a Peace Corps volunteer’s life in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Writing “life and work” just doesn’t seem to fit here because Warren, our anti-hero, doesn’t appear to spend much time at his job teaching English: he’s too busy going to bars, spending time with his Mongolian girlfriend, and (ab)using tsus, a red tea rumored to inspire all sorts of madness.

Though Tea of Ulaanbaatar doesn’t quite feel fully realized, it does some things very well. Howard succeeds nicely at showing the disaffection of Warren and his fellow Peace Corps volunteers, most of whom seem to be engaged in ongoing attempts to escape something or somebody, whether through travel or tea. They are a grotesque lot, led by Samantha, the over-mascaraed and overwrought medical officer for the Peace Corps who oversees the volunteers. And then there’s the atmosphere: urban decay, moral decay, discos, desperation (public and private), and, of course, crime. Oh, and Warren is phobic about germs. Very phobic. He scrubs and he’s a little obsessed with the bubonic plague.

It’s more difficult to explain what didn’t quite come together in Tea of Ulaanbaatar. The nihilism and nastiness seemed real enough but the appearance of the criminal aspect of the book—which begins with the idea of exporting lots of tsus to the United States—felt a bit too much like an attempt to amp up the book with action. Some elements, particularly the grotesqueness, the hallucinations (or realities?), and Warren’s memories of a girlfriend, felt a little too easy. Still, I have to give Howard credit for writing such a vivid book. Tea of Ulaanbaatar is apparently based, to some degree, on Howard’s own experiences: according to the bio on the book, Howard “spent a few months of an aborted Peace Corps sojourn in Mongolia in the late 1990s.”

Up Next: Mihail Sebastian’s The Accident then Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home and Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel. I have quite a few books piled up, particularly after skipping last week because I grated off the tip of my finger and couldn’t type!