By Alta Ifland
The stories we enjoy as children and teenagers mark us in a much stronger way than those we read as adults, maybe because what we read when we are not yet fully formed informs us permanently. These stories are like braids that weave our emotional core, and because they are intertwined with the language we read them in—usually, our mother tongue—they end up linked in our minds with our motherland. This is the reason why, when I held in my hands Mihail Sebastian’s The Town with Acacia Trees, which I had read in Romanian as Orasul cu Salcâmi (1935) at fifteen—the same age as the age of the novel’s protagonist, Adriana Dunea, at the beginning of the story—I experienced the strange feeling that something from my youth had been uncannily carried and displaced from my native land into my adoptive language, English.
The Town with Acacia Trees is a coming-of-age story that takes place in the provincial town of D. in interwar Romania. The description of D. is modeled on the author’s hometown, Braila, a port on the Black Sea famous for its acacia-lined streets. The other setting where parts of the novel are located is Romania’s capital, Bucharest, at the time known as “little Paris,” a modern city where Adriana is free to roam the streets unchaperoned, attend concerts and enjoy the company of a mysterious composer, Cello Viorin.
The novel is written in the third person and its perspective oscillates between free indirect discourse and direct, omniscient narration. Perspective is one of the main features that define a modern novel: when Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary, he used free indirect discourse throughout the novel, a narrative technique that presents the character’s point of view without quotes, as if it were the author’s, thus mixing the latter’s point of view with the character’s and creating an ambivalence that represents the essence of high literary style. Since the 19th century, this new way of narrating has replaced the omniscient perspective in which previous authors used to present their characters’ thoughts in a God-like manner. In The Town with Acacia Trees, Sebastian mixes free (subjective) indirect narration with omniscient style, thus creating a novel at the crossroads of the old world and modernity.
The novel begins with a rite of passage that marks Adriana’s becoming a woman: her first period. I confess that the description of a girl’s “first blood” by a male writer from the early 20th century left me with an ambivalent feeling. On the one hand, Adriana is a very strong character: the reader can see her in the flesh, so to speak, and this can only happen if the writer is able to identify with his character to such a degree that he can breathe life into her the way Geppetto did with Pinocchio. On the other hand, Adriana displays a certain emotional volatility close to hysteria that, very likely, would not have been part of her experience had the “first blood” episode been described by a woman. She feels elevated above her classmates (all women) by the experience, and uses the following rhetorical question, which becomes a code and a metaphor for her rite of passage, to address another classmate, Margareta, who had already had her first menstruation: “But can’t you see the acacias have flowered?” This emotional volatility and the theatricality of the manner in which she processes her first period aestheticize her experience and ignore its more prosaic but very real aspects: cramps and bloating, to name just two. Interestingly enough, I remember clearly that when I read this novel as a teenager I still identified with Adriana and her inner life in spite of the fact that I didn’t recognize myself in the way this particular experience had been described. This is proof of Sebastian’s great gift: I identified with Adriana because the writer was capable of making me do it.
In light of the above, I believe that Sebastian’s novel was ahead of its time: a novel written by a male writer from the perspective of a female adolescent is extremely rare for the time—at least, I cannot think of any other one. It should be said that while the protagonist and most other characters are teenagers, this is not a young adult novel: in the past, teenagers were treated almost like adults, while today they are still considered children. I also realized, while reading this novel, that Romanian literature has a whole subgenre of novels about teenagers, intended for adults. The most important contemporary Romanian writer, Mircea Cartarescu, whose novels are extremely complex and “difficult,” often chooses teenagers or even children as his protagonists.
The Town with Acacia Trees focuses on a group of four adolescent friends: Adriana is dating a young man several years older, Gelu, who is Cecilia’s cousin, while Cecilia, who is Adriana’s classmate, is dating Victor. The description of Adriana and Gelu’s love story is masterfully done, Sebastian proving to be a subtle psychologist able to inhabit the mind of an adolescent girl whose only life experience comes from the novels she’s read. When she first meets Gelu, his gloomy mood causes her to (naively) imagine that he is the victim of a spurned passion à la Madame Bovary. Little by little, the meetings between the four of them at Adriana’s home become regular, and they all share a quiet harmony tinged with nostalgia characteristic of the adolescent novels for adults I mentioned above—a trait present in other novels of the early 20th century, Le Grand Meaulnes (1913) by the French writer Alain Fournier being the greatest example of the genre.
This harmony is occasionally broken by Gelu, who, like a misunderstood, tormented genius—a frequent topos of Romanian interwar literature—occasionally disappears, leaving Adriana to wonder and fill the void with imagined stories that could explain his mysterious outings. Sebastian’s main model here is Proust, in whose masterpiece Remembrance of Things Past every single romantic couple is built on an imbalance of power: whether heterosexual or homosexual, in all Proustian couples, there is a tormented lover whose object of affection escapes his/her control and leads a mysterious, parallel life that the lover is struggling to, but cannot, uncover—it is as if the one in love were in love with the enigma and the unknown rather than another person. The other literary model is Romanian lore, according to which a nubile girl is often subject to mysterious, unnamed longings that cause her to have night visions of an elusive, ghost-like young man born of her own desire. This legend represents the core of a famous 19th-century poem, “Zburatorul,” by the Romanian writer Ion Heliade Radulescu and seems to be a direct influence on the way Sebastian chooses to portray the inner life and first love of his female protagonist:
The new season had stirred in her an old longing with its familiar mixture of pleasures, premonitions and inchoate desires. If her eyes watered for no reason, if her eyes sank under a nameless burden, if her breasts shivered as they swelled, the girl understood nothing, expected nothing. (61)
The way Adriana and Gelu’s love story ends is a clear sign that Sebastian offers us, through his female protagonist, a strong critique of the way society treats women. This critique is also present in the drama of the couple Lucretia (another classmate of Adriana) and Paul (Adriana’s cousin, who marries, then divorces Lucretia, after it turns out that she’d had a liaison with sister Denise, who ends up committing suicide). It is likely that Sebastian introduces the lesbian element here under Proust’s influence—this is only one of the novel’s many themes that are Proustian in nature. As the translator, Gabi Reigh, rightly points out in her excellent preface, the references to Cello Viorin’s musical masterpiece, Song for the Fair Agnes, are all Proustian in nature. I congratulate the translator for a translation that, through tone, rhythm and word choice, does justice to the original, and, knowing that she is at the beginning of her career, I predict that she will become one of the major scholars and translators of Romanian literature into English in the years to come.
Sebastian, Mihail. The Town with Acacia Trees. Translated by Gabi Reigh. Aurora Metro Books, 2019.
Alta Ifland is a Romanian-born writer and translator who lives in Northern California. She is the author of two collections of prose poems and two collections of short stories. She has translated numerous authors from/into French, English and Romanian.