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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Mihail Sebastian

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To purchase Women

Title: Women
Author: Mihail Sebastian
Genre: Novel
Written: 1933 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 186 pages
Original in: Romanian
Availability: Women - US
Women - UK
Women - Canada
Femmes - France
Mujeres - España
  • Romanian title: Femei
  • Translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh

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Our Assessment:

A- : nicely multi-faceted presentation; neat life-in-stories novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
El mundo . 24/6/2008 Julia Girón
TLS . 8/5/2020 Marci Shore

  From the Reviews:
  • "Historias de conquistas y separaciones, de reencuentros y de partidas, que dejan en el lector el sabor metálico y agreste de las pasiones equivocadas, y la certeza de que el amor es algo voluble, desordenado y agridulce que nada tiene que ver con el destino." - Julia Girón, El mundo

  • "The choice for or against bourgeois life is a Kierkegaardian either/or. And everything is at stake precisely when one is too young to make the best decisions. Too much of what is felt can never be grasped at the moment; if it can be understood at all, then only in retrospect, when decisions have already been made. In any case, Sebastian suggests, there is no perfect answer." - Marci Shore, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Women is a work in four parts -- an album, as it were, of the life of Stefan Valeriu, presented in chronological order, with each focusing on a different stage and time of (and different women from and in) his life; like leafing through the snapshots in a well-arranged photo album, it adds up to a surprisingly deep portrait-of-a-life (in between-the-wars Europe).
       Cleverly, Sebastian shifts perspective and voice in the four movements of his composition. The first, 'Renée, Marthe, Odette', introduces Stefan as a young medical student, escaping to the Alps for a vacation after his exams in Paris; the narrator here is omniscient. Stefan himself narrates the next episode, the second part, 'Émilie', while in the third, 'Maria', the eponymous narrator addresses Stefan in a letter, i.e. writes in the second person. Finally, Stefan himself bring his story to a close in the final episode, 'Arabela'.
       This is no mere collection of female conquests; Women is more subtle and complex. In each part, Stefan has a love-interest -- but that relationship isn't necessarily the predominant one: in 'Émilie', Stefan has an affair with Mado, but that's mostly in the background of a story that focuses on the title-figure, whom he has no (romantic or sexual) interest in, while in 'Maria' the letter-writing Maria focuses on her own complex relationship with Andrei (who is also a friend of Stefan's, and provides some assistance years later, when Stefan gets himself in a professional jam).
       The collection is also selective -- episodes from a life, but only some. So, for example, there's the cruel tease of an exciting interlude near the conclusion of 'Émilie':

I'd left Paris in August for a small town in the Midi where I worked as a substitute doctor. I returned late, in November, with tens of thousands of francs and the wife of the doctor I'd substituted for, a pathetic, ugly woman. (But that's another story ...)
       It's another story, and it remains untold here, beyond this brief summary -- a hint of yet more to Stefan, without the details being revealed. It's just another example of how very well composed this work is, especially in these vivid, incidental little-more-than-brushstrokes.
       In the first part, Stefan is still a student. He's pleased to overhear the comment: "Tiens, un nouveau jeune homme ! upon his arrival at the vacation resort -- grateful for both the 'new' and the 'young man' because, Sebastian explains, he had been feeling old and weary. Of course there's a completely different meaning behind the words as well, and Sebastian doesn't need to spell that out: Stefan is being eyed as the fresh meat in town. He has an affair with a woman who is there with her husband -- with whom he plays chess -- and daughter; she is, in every respect, an awkward lover -- typical for Sebastian, in making these affairs more true to life than fantasy-romantic.
       When the young -- eighteen-year-old -- Odette Mignon shows up, Stefan is unsurprisingly drawn to her, a more appropriate partner in every respect, and more intriguing too -- but she remains elusive. Here Stefan finds the kind of encounter that he wants, a romantic ideal -- but despite finding satisfaction and release in it, Odette -- puzzlingly and disappointingly, to him -- doesn't want the more from Stefan that he is obviously eager to give:
     Why doesn't she cry, why doesn't she ask him to make her stay, why doesn't she cling to him more desperately, why does she stay so close behind him and why does she love him as though it's forever and not just for an hour ?
       The different sections of Women are only loosely connected -- but small details and memories waft from one to the next, and so also in the final section Odette and this experience remain a haunting little presence:
     One day, before our return to Paris and our debut at the Empire, I recalled a vacation I'd spent a long time before, in my student days, in a village in the Alps, where I had met and loved a young girl for one night. The girl then disappeared utterly from my life.
       From promising Romanian student abroad in Paris to doctor to government official, Stefan's course is never quite true and certain, and he easily slips off track in the end. In the second section, about hapless Émilie and Stefan's countryman who marries her, Stefan has an example of a hopeless would-be settling down into domesticity (ending, unsurprisingly, in messy tragedy) -- neatly contrasted with his own passionate but empty affair with Mado. In the third section, Maria writes about her devotion to the not always worthy Andrei as she explains why she rebuffed Stefan's declaration of love, stating already early in her letter to him that:
I just think our wonderful friendship could have done without this accident and that your loving me or wishing to love me or thinking you love me is an unnecessary complication in a relationship which I value and for a long time believed possible.
       Finally, in the last section, many years later, Stefan describes how he encountered and came to share a life with the remarkably adaptable Arabela, abandoning his professional duties and any semblance of a medical career along the way. It's a remarkable transformation for this: "bachelor by nature", with Arabela not exactly seducing him, but he finding himself completely in thrall to her unusual personality; even he can't quite explain to himself how she: "made me abandon my vocation as a vagabond in love from our first moment together". She inspires him -- though arguably less than ideally, providing an escape for him of the sort that he should have long outgrown:
     I was grateful to Arabela for unintentionally knocking me off my reasonable, predestined course and turning the serious gentleman she'd met that November night into somebody who forgot he was a doctor, adviser, and diplomat and became again what he had always wanted to be: a young man.
       Arabela is all the more remarkable for her seeming ordinariness; even Stefan isn't blind to the limitations of her talents -- yet there's also something there that allows her to achieve great success (including wise choices as to what she chooses to succeed with). She is, in a way, his great love -- and yet there's an aromantic streak to it too; their relationship is close and comfortable -- but also ultimately no sturdier than the ties she originally broke to join Stefan. The end, then, is entirely anticlimactic -- and as natural as can be.
       Women is a neatly developed story of cherchez la femme -- the women behind him, who made and defined Stefan, as Stefan ultimately perhaps does not have clear contours of his own.
       This life-story is well conceived and presented, and particularly well-observed, including small details, as when Stefan notes:
     Whenever Émilie was troubled or unhappy, or enraged, I would observe her running her hands down her dress, as though looking for a place to hide them or to grip onto something. Many times since, I've thought Émilie's life would have been much simpler had her dress just had pockets.
       This life-story built on the women in the protagonist's life -- with Sebastian revealing just enough, and leaving so much unsaid -- is an impressive work of fiction. Sebastian is particularly good in striking a balance between sentimentality -- carefully dosed here --, romance, and passions (empty and not). Women is a love-story -- of a quite different sort than usual --, with its protagonist, almost surprisingly, coming across neither as unsympathetic cad nor sap.
       All in all, it's quite a remarkable achievement.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 February 2019

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Women: Reviews: Other books by Mihail Sebastian under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Romanian author Mihail Sebastian (born Iosif Hechter) lived 1907 to 1945.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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