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 toThe 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.