Hot off the presses (actually not even off the presses yet), here is the first chapter of Mihail Sebastian’s novel The Accident, translated into English from Romanian for the first time by Stephen Henighan and about to be published by Biblioasis (in just a few weeks). Numéro Cinq readers are already familiar with Stephen’s fiction (see his story “After the Hurricane” earlier published on NC). He is also an indefatigable globetrotter, critic and translator. Here is his own short intro to the chapter that follows.
Mihail Sebastian (1907-1945) was one of the major Central European writers of the 1930s. Born in southeastern Romania, he worked in Bucharest as a lawyer, journalist, novelist and playwright until anti-semitic legislation forced him to abandon his public career. His long-lost diary, Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years, was published in seven countries between 1996 and 2007, launching an international revival of his work. Sebastian’s novels and plays are available in translation throughout Europe, and also have been published in Chinese, Hindi, Bengali and Hebrew.
The Accident is Sebastian’s first work of fiction to appear in English.
In spite of what his death date might suggest, Sebastian was not liquidated by the Iron Guard (Romania’s Nazis). He survived the Holocaust (in gruelling circumstances), resumed his public career in early 1945 and was run over by a truck in May 1945, at the age of thirty-seven, while on his way to give a lecture on Balzac. On the basis of the four novels and five plays he left behind, it’s hard not to conclude that Europe lost one of its major writers.
By Mihail Sebastian
Translated from the Romanian by Stephen Henighan
She didn’t know how much time had passed. A few seconds? A few long minutes?
She felt nothing. Around her she heard voices, footsteps, people calling out, but all muted and grey, like a sort of auditory paste, from which occasionally a tram bell or a shout shook loose with unexpected clarity, only to fade away again into the suffocated commotion.
The thought made her feel neither alarmed nor hurried. She had a very vague impression that she must be stretched out next to the sidewalk with her head in the snow. But she didn’t try to move.
A stupid, senseless question passed through her mind: What time is it?
She strained to listen to the tick-tock of her wristwatch, but couldn’t hear it. It must have been smashed. Then, in an effort to concentrate, as though immersed in herself, she observed that in fact she heard nothing of her own being; not her pulse, not her heart, not her breath.
I’m…, she reflected. I’m like a clock. And it seemed to her that she was smiling, although she couldn’t feel her lips, for whose outline she searched in vain somewhere in that familiar yet vanished space that was her unfeeling body.
She remembered suddenly the moment of the fall, so suddenly that she had the impression that she was falling again, and she heard again the brief noise, like that of a shattered spring, that she had heard then.
She hadn’t dwelt on it at the time, but now it returned with an absurd precision: the dry sound of a tearing ligament, of a snapping bow. In truth it seemed to her that somewhere in the intimacy of this body that she no longer felt, something had been ripped out of its natural place.
She tried to review her being, with a brisk inward glance, in order to identify, as though on an X-ray screen, the exact spot of the dislocation.
The collar bone? The aorta? The kneecap?
For each word, it seemed to her that she had to find a response in her inert body, which she listened to again, forcing herself to explore it with her hearing down to its most remote fibres.
All right, something’s broken. But what?
Voices rose and fell on the street around her in noisy outbreaks that suddenly became distant. They reached her as though passing through mist or steam.
All at once she overcame the penetrating cold and at the same time she felt her right knee naked against the snow, as though it alone in all her body had awoken her from a powerful anaesthetic. So far away, yet how intensely she felt it! She concentrated her thoughts on this sensation for a moment. This single sensitive point felt extremely strange to her, detached from her swoon like a little island of life.
Then, like a wave of blood, the cold rose above her knees and spread like a fine net through her calf, calling back to life new regions of her flesh. The snow was fluffy, soothing, and it had the softness of chilled bedclothes. She plunged her leg with caution straight into that snow and felt its utter nakedness, her stocking having fallen to her ankle.
In that moment, the tearing sensation of a few seconds earlier flashed through her again. Her mind, which had hesitated until now, located the exact point of the torn piece of her anatomy: her garter. Having broken loose, its metallic spring pressed up against her calf like a small round signet.
I must be half naked, she thought without panic. She had barely lifted her head when the voices grew clearer, as though the mist had suddenly dispersed.
“Criminals!” an old man shouted. He blustered, suffocated by the violence of his anger, at a tram driver, who stood in dazed silence. “You don’t look in front of you, you don’t look around you, you don’t give a hoot about your passengers, about women or children…”
The tram driver gestured, trying to explain.
“Well, if she’s getting off….”
“So what if she’s getting off? Doesn’t she have the right?”
“She doesn’t have the right because this isn’t a stop,” somebody else said, in a tone of indifference.
From the ground, she tried to see the person who had spoken, but in the darkness she could only make out an expression lacking in curiosity.
“Of course it’s not a stop,” the driver repeated, mildly encouraged.
The elderly gentleman, indignant, refused to back down.
“It’s a damned shame it isn’t. It should be. We pay for this service. You know they take our money, but they don’t lend a hand to build new stops. Criminals, bandits…. You’ve got rich on the money from our pockets.”
She became aware of a smile that fluttered in the dark and, without raising her head far enough to receive this smile full in the face, was certain that it belonged to the indifferent voice of a moment earlier.
“…Yes, that’s how they get us, we deserve it, we’re dumb and we don’t respond…”
He was stupid, certainly, but she realized that, sprawled there in the snow, she wasn’t listening to the strident voice of the outraged old man, but rather to the other man’s distant silences.
“…Yes, gentlemen, we fail to respond. Let’s call a police officer and we’ll send you off to see a judge, you lawbreaker….”
Finally she heard again the other man’s voice, that slightly deaf, slightly lazy voice. He was probably speaking to the tram driver.
“Hit the road, lad. Get back into your tram and hit the road.”
“Sure, let him hit the road and leave her there dead in the snow.”
Everyone gazed in her direction. In the heat of the argument she had been forgotten, but now she once again became the central character in the drama.
She felt ridiculous, sprawled out as she was –who knew how long she’d been there?– in the middle of the street amid a group of curious bystanders. She would have liked to get up, but she knew she couldn’t do it alone.
She glanced around in a circle, seeking a familiar figure among those grey faces, and stopped at the man whose lazy voice had caught her attention. She recognized him by his uncaring gaze, which bore a strong resemblance to his voice.
“Rather than having a fight, why don’t you help me get up?”
The man didn’t look at all surprised. Without haste, he took a step towards her, paused, kneeled, placed his hand beneath her right arm and lifted her firmly, if without great deftness.
She was unable to suppress a small cry of pain when, reaching a standing position, she was left with her full weight on her right leg.
“Does it hurt?”
“I don’t know. I’ll see later.”
What should she do now? The circle of curious bystanders tightened around her. Her hat slipped onto the nape of her neck, her right stocking had slid down her leg, her overcoat was covered with snow, her gloves were soaked….
She felt that getting up had been a mistake: she had been more comfortable lying in the snow. For a moment she was tempted to tumble back down on the spot, a thought that made her smile and recover her calm. I’ve got to escape from this, she said to herself, confronting the group’s curiosity with courage.
She returned to the man at her side, who also seemed rather embarrassed by the spectacle.
“Would you like to take a few steps with me?” The suggestion seemed to bore him. She hastened to calm him. “Just a few, as far as the car.”
She didn’t wait for his reply. She took his arm and set out alongside him, treading with care in order not to reawaken the pain of a few moments earlier.
Neither a car nor a taxi could be seen. The young gentleman made no effort to conceal his boredom. He remained stubbornly silent, distracted.
She would have been happy to leave him and continue on her way alone, but she didn’t trust her right leg. Twice she tried to tread with her full weight, and the pain sliced into her ankle like a blade.
He’s been badly brought up, but I need him. She took his arm more firmly, as though she wished to show him that she wasn’t going to allow herself to be intimidated by his bad upbringing and that she wasn’t giving up.
She walked a little behind him, not daring to tell him to take shorter steps. She was able to scowl at him in profile without his noticing. A drab guy, with undefinable features, young-looking, although not of any precise age; his hair looked blonde, although it wasn’t of any clearly defined colour. Maybe I’ve seen him before somewhere.
Was he tall? Short? She wouldn’t have known what to say. He looked tall in that loose, grey overcoat with large pockets into which he had thrust his hands with a self-assured air.
He remained silent, in the silence of a long journey, reserved, enduring, expressionless.
It’s as if he were alone. As if I weren’t here by his side. As if he had forgotten that I was by his side. What if he really has forgotten? What if he wakes up and finds us arm-in-arm and asks me what I’m doing here, hanging onto his arm?
She decided to break the silence.
“I don’t know how it happened. I slipped, you see, on the step of the tram. I was trying to get off.”
“While the tram was moving?”
Hearing his voice surprised her. She thought he hadn’t heard her, that he wasn’t going to respond. Her surprise made her animated.
“Yes, while the tram was moving. I always get off when the tram’s moving. Otherwise it doesn’t work. I live near here, on Bulevardul Dacia, and the number 16 tram only stops on Donici or on Vasile Lascăr. It’s too far away. That’s why I get off at the turn, where the tram goes onto Orientul. Not just me. Everybody who lives around here does it. And nothing ever happens. Except for today… I don’t
know how it happened.”
They were passing beneath the pulsing of a streetlight. In the light, his face again looked distracted.
What an unpleasant guy! Even so, she summoned the courage to stop.
“Don’t be troubled by what I’m about to ask you. I want you to pull up my stocking. I’m completely frozen.”
She bent over, realizing only now that she was bleeding: her right knee was red, but lower down, towards her ankle, where the scrape was deeper, frozen blood plastered the stocking’s fabric to the wound.
“Is it serious?”
“I don’t know. For the time being it’s not hurting. I should go to the pharmacy. Will you come with me?”
He didn’t reply, but he took her arm and asked with his eyes: Which way?
“It’s not far. Look, over there on the other sidewalk.”
They crossed the street. From afar she found it difficult to recognize herself in the reflection in the pharmacy’s windows next to this man, who looked even stranger in the distant image on the glass. As she approached, she smiled with compassion at her own face. How pathetic I look, poor me! She took off her hat with a brisk motion and stood with it in her hand, dismayed.
“I can’t go into that shop. The pharmacist knows me, he’ll ask, I’ll have to explain…. Will you…?”
He accepted unenthusiastically, frowning with his brows.
“What do you need?”
“A little iodine and….I don’t know, a little oxygenated water.”
She was about to open her handbag to give him the money, but, without waiting, he pushed open the door of the pharmacy and went inside.
From outside, she watched him through the pane of the display window: how he entered, how he took off his hat, how he said good evening, how he approached the pharmacist in his white lab jacket. She found it odd to watch him opening his mouth and uttering words that she couldn’t hear. What a peculiar voice he had! A little muffled, a little quashed, and yet with a rough tone. The pharmacist was pouring the tincture of iodine into a bottle.
Why was he taking so long? It must be as hot as a greenhouse inside. The metal scales were still. The heavy liquids, as though drowsy, slept on the shelves in solemn crystal flasks.
The pharmacist was asking him something and he was replying with plenty of enthusiasm. He was more talkative inside in the heat than he had been out here in the cold. And if she were to leave him? If she walked away now, without waiting for him? How astonished he would be at not finding her here, but what a feeling of relief he would have, the saucy devil!
Her knee started to hurt. To sting more than to hurt. She thought again of the lovely warmth on the other side of the display window and closed her eyes. She felt as though she were slipping into a kind of slumber….
“Did I take too long?”
It was his voice. That uncertain voice, which didn’t stress his words and gave her the impression that he was walking at her side without paying attention to her.
She didn’t reply and didn’t open her eyes.
“Are you feeling ill?”
“I’m not ill. But I’d like to get home. I’m freezing.”
“You said it wasn’t far….”
“Don’t worry, it isn’t. Another twenty paces and you’re free.”
She didn’t expect even a polite denial from him. She took his arm, determined not to say anything more to him; she was impatient to be left alone. She forced herself to take ever longer strides, although her right leg was still hurting.
For the first time since that stupid accident had happened, she felt like she wanted to cry.
She finally stopped in front of a multiple-storey building, leaned against the glass front door and extended her hand….
“This is it. You can go now. Thank you.”
He squeezed her hand for a second without holding it, then touched a finger to his hat, sketching a vague half-wave.
She wanted to tell him: You’re the most unpleasant man in the world. But she was too tired to tell him anything. She left him there in front of the building, and went into the bright foyer, where an enervating wave of heat received her.
….She was alone in the elevator. She pressed the button for the top floor, the sixth, then fell onto the bench with a relieved sigh. She promised herself she would cry with all her heart once she got to her apartment. She felt that nothing could be better for her: a good cry followed by a steaming hot bath.
Somewhere between two floors the elevator stopped with a brusque shudder. At first she thought she had arrived, but she realized that in fact she was suspended in the air.
This is the day for accidents. She tried to make a joke in her mind. She pressed for a long time on the alarm button.
She remembered that last summer the old lady from the third floor had spent a whole morning locked in the elevator between two floors. The thought terrified her. She pressed again, with a long, nervous, harsh start of panic, on the red button. In the deep silence, everything was motionless; somewhere far away, as weak as a call from another world, the alarm bell rang without anyone responding to it.
She could no longer hold back her tears. She looked at herself in the elevator’s rectangular mirror and felt pity for the state she was in: dishevelled, ragged, dirty, frozen. The hot tears welled from her eyes, and she received them with a sudden pleasure, as if she had drawn near to a warm hearth.
From below someone, probably the porter, shouted: “Hey, third-floor door. Who opened the third-floor door?”
The third-floor door was closed: the elevator set off noiselessly on its way. She would have liked not to stop again, to travel like that forever, and to be able to cry peacefully to the slow, silent movements of the elevator.
On the top floor the young gentleman in the grey overcoat was waiting for her. She looked at him in astonishment, unable to understand what was going on.
“Me. I forgot to give you the iodine tincture and the oxygenated water.”
Indeed, he pulled two bottles out of his pocket enveloped in the pharmacy’s multicoloured paper.
“And how did you get up here?”
“By the stairs.”
What an odd guy! she thought, watching him for a moment, intrigued again by his lack of expression. Now, too, he had that far-away, unquestioning gaze, which she had first seen when she had raised her head from the snow.
She remembered that she had been crying. Embarrassed, she lowered her eyes; but it was too late: he had noticed.
“You were crying?”
“No…. Well, yes. A little. But it’s not important! It’s never important when I cry…”
She took the key out of her handbag.
“Do you want to come in for a moment?”
He responded by lifting his shoulders.
“Does that mean Yes, or does that mean No?”
“I don’t know what it means. It’s a habitual gesture. Let’s say Yes.”
“So come in.”
Next to the door was a small, metal plate: Nora Munteanu. He asked the question with his eyes and she confirmed: “That’s me.”
—Translated by Stephen Henighan