The Depths of the I: Christina Tudor-Sideri on Mihail Sebastian’s Fragments from a Found Notebook

The following is taken from Christina Tudor-Sideri’s introduction to her translation of Mihail Sebastian’s Fragments from a Found Notebook, which is out December 8 from Sublunary Editions.

As readers, we often dwell on the personal lives of authors, at times before we engage with their work, or even when we have no intention in doing so. We are intrigued by everything that could provide a glimpse behind the words; we rummage through diary entries and interviews, and we collect in our minds the notes and correspondence they leave behind. Lured by the details of personal affairs, we seek traits and events that form the connection we need in order to dive into the work, the connection we need to justify our infatuation with a book. Authorship takes on a form of mysticism, more so in the case of anonymous or pseudonymous works, and being able to attribute more than just a name to a book or an oeuvre, more than just a time period, and more than just a genre, is what makes us engage with its pages beyond the scope of mere literary analysis.

The myth that one must know the author in order to fully comprehend the oeuvre is not a modern one, and people have dedicated entire lives to researching anonymous authors since the beginning of the publishing trade, not just as a manner by which to further classify the works, but also to provide readers with the comforting thought of knowing their creators. Wielding a pen is creating, and the creator’s presence in the work can often be a more sought-after trait than what we expect from the text itself. One seeks to know the author—whether alongside the text or independent of it—to understand and classify not just the name, but also the voice of the author. And the reader? As Roland Barthes writes, influenced by the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, the reader

is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.

Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”, Image. Music. Text., trans. by Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 148.

Nevertheless, being without a history does not mean disremembering the connections one pursues, and thus oftentimes as readers we hunt down the history of the author on the page and outside of it in order to recapture our own, or even write a new one. The reader therefore becomes the creator of the author, an author we create for the text we are reading, a surrogate author who, emerging from our interpretative creation, often replaces the historical author.

Beyond the pseudonyms and the interpretations his readers gave to his works, what defined the mysticism that would later be referenced with generosity in reviews, critical analyses, and biographies is the fact that his work seemed to always position itself one step ahead of his personal life. A striking example is Sebastian’s coincidental choice of the title of the novel dearest to him, The Accident, and later passing in a traffic accident.

Born in 1907 to a Jewish family as Iosif M. Hechter, in Brăila, Romania, the writer would remain eternally fascinated by the ancient port on the Danube where he spent his childhood, by its people and traditions, a region to which he would dedicate ample pages throughout the years. In 1925, Mihail Sebastian wrote a thesis on poetry that drew the attention of Romanian literary circles and, after moving to Bucharest, he would begin his collaboration with the Romanian newspaper Cuvântul (The word) under various pseudonyms, the newspaper in which he also published the series “Scrisori din Paris” (Letters from Paris) at the same time he was writing Fragments from a Found Notebook, while studying for a doctorate in the French city. A prominent member of The Criterion Association, Sebastian’s contributions to the literary and social life of interwar Romania are vast and cover a phenomenal range of genres, from poems to theater chronicles. His study of Marcel Proust’s correspondence remains to this day one of the most comprehensive texts on the French author. The study conceals beautiful paragraphs of self-introspection, lines that allow his readers to understand the role books have played in his life, and also what nurtured his love for reading and writing: seeing oneself in the works of others, more lucidly than in a mirror:

There are pages in which we recognize ourselves to the point of identity—and we are frightened of the fact that someone has lived before our time with the same intensity, a feeling that seemed to us exclusively personal.

Mihail Sebastian, Corespondenţa lui Proust (Bucharest: Fundația pentru Literatură și Artă “Regele Carol II”, 1939). Translated from the Romanian by Christina Tudor-Sideri.

Written in his early twenties, the debut book of Mihail Sebastian, Fragments from a Found Notebook, augured a question that would later mark his career as a playwright: Who is the author?, even though the authorship of the fragments was never truly under examination. This particular text also plays a role in emphasizing the symbolism surrounding his authorial persona by the mystical connection it creates with his novel The Accident. In September 1937, while in Paris, Sebastian would lose or be robbed of the first five chapters of the manuscript, a book that became his most admired novel. The same Paris where he had allegedly found the black notebook with oilcloth covers and pages inscribed in French, abounding in existential snares, autoscopy, tiny essays, and thoughts pouring from the depths of the I and the pain of passing through life as mere commentator. He would later chronicle in his journal the anguish of rewriting those five chapters and feeling like his initial voice was lost forever:

I have lost hours and hours on a single word, on a nuance, on the hint of a taste. It is clear that I will not regain anything if I were to try and remember phrase by phrase. And if, on the contrary, I shall write with some freedom—without worrying about remaining faithful to the first version—I shall suffer the thought of being far inferior to what I had initially achieved and will no longer find again.

Mihail Sebastian, Jurnal 1935-1944 (Bucharest: Humanitas, 1996), 126. Translated from the Romanian by Christina Tudor-Sideri.

Structured as a volume of twenty-four nonlinear entries—throughout which Mihail Sebastian has inserted translator’s notes meant as a testimony to the text’s French authenticity and to the self-proclaimed clumsiness of the Romanian text—Fragments from a Found Notebook, although one of his least discussed works, shelters among its pages a voice and motifs that would frequently resurface in his other works. As a writer who often expresses his personal opinions through his work, Sebastian has shaped the fragments into statements encountered far and wide in the writings of his generation. For him, writing must always seek truth and express sincerity, and thus, it is no surprise that the fragments presented to his readers as journal entries of an anonymous young man chronicling his day-to-day life speak also of the influence of authors who have marked the beginnings of Mihail Sebastian. Particularly, a line from The Journal of a Disappointed Man, a vastly circulated book in interwar Romania, written by W.N.P Barbellion, “to have life as it really is” arises from each page of the notebook as an unsung hymn. In fact, Barbellion’s influence on Mihail Sebastian is outstanding and one can observe it throughout the pages of the journal—from the entries demonstrating the narrator’s ability to see what other people miss, to the confessional snares and the deep dives into the alcoves of human consciousness.

—Christina Tudor-Sideri

Order Fragments from a Found Notebook here.