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“Art is whatever I say it is”, exclaimed French painter, sculptor and artist Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp, before proceeding to exhibit a urinal at an art show. The prism with which a writer views the world need not, and, and in fact in many an instance, does not match the same colours informing the lens employed by the reader to understand that very world. Auden understood this paradox more than anyone else. For him an alignment of the interests of both reader and writer constituted a ‘lucky accident’.
Mihail Sebastian’s much acclaimed “Women” leaves me in a state of unsureness in so far has happy accidents between the writer and the read go. Ironically, the very aspects of the book that defines its quintessence, also seem to be the ones causing extreme consternation. In fact, irony is what defines the life of Mihail Sebastian. Born in Romania in 1907 as Iosif Mendel Hechter, Sebastian survived the bloodiest war of the 20th century, and the Holocaust before being unfortunately run down by an Allied vehicle, as he was crossing the street to teach his first class, in 1945.
“Women” is a concise and unabashed chronicle of a set of amorous dalliances a young and lanky medical student from Romania engages in with women of varying ages and disposition. Stefan Valeriu lolls around in a scenic Alpine guesthouse where is whiling away a lethargic summer after many years of rigorous toil at medical school. A youth in the prime of health and eager for love, he finds the lure of Cupid in myriad forms and experienced its power in various degrees in the bewitching company of a troika of women. Renee, Marthe and Odette all are fellow occupants of the same guest house and their relationship with Stefan teeters between the rapturous and the Platonic.
The wife of an avid photographer and a farm owner in Tunisia, Renee allows herself to be physically manipulated by Stefan in a willing and desperate manner. As Stefan explores the deep meaning of feminine sensuality, he also nurses a disparaging notion about the physical features of the woman he regularly beds. This is a recurrent theme that threads through the book. “Renee has a very ugly body. Very delicate hands with weak wrists, thin legs, tanned cheeks, lips burning from a perpetual fever, and rings under her eyes. She has an awkward way of wearing her well cut dresses….”
The second Chapter of the book deals with an unfortunate woman named Emilie Vignou. A meek and passive woman perpetually banished to introversion and reclusion, Emilie marries Stefan’s Romanian friend Irimia C. Irimia (a simpleton lawyer) in circumstances that are peculiar to say the least. Walking in torrential rain for about ten kilometres, Emilie and Irimia spend the night under the same roof and upon discovering that Emilie is still a virgin, Irimia immediately accepts her as his wife. Stefan has nothing but pity for Emilie’s looks and physical attributes “But I’ve nothing more to say about how Emilie looked. I’ve said she was ugly and that will suffice. There was something so gentle and homely about her, like a household object that’s no longer any use, yet you don’t throw it away because you are fond of it for some reason.”
Initially I wondered whether such a revolting sense of patriarchy and misogyny was a result of a dearth of substitutable phrases between two different languages. This turned out to be a very meek and wishful attempt at redemption since the translator of the book, Philip O’ Ceallaigh, is himself an adroit practitioner of his craft and an award winning author in his own right. Even if Sebastian would have mellowed his acerbic descriptions of Renee and Emilie by positing that they were not beautiful instead of embellishing their ‘ugliness’, the disservice to both language and gender would neither stay tempered nor diminished.
The justification that Sebastian was merely following the mores of his time would also fall flat on its face. Even though gender disparity is evident even today (an estimate emanating out of a study claims that if current trends were to continue it would take a whopping 250 more years to eviscerate gender inequality), Sebastian did not write “Women” when ‘witches’ were being burnt at the stake for fun! A man whose prose has been compared to that of Chekov could not have been under an elementary illusion regarding the futility of external appearances and misshapen physiologies.
In the only chapter, which is narrated by a woman, instead of Stefan, Maria sternly rebuffs Stefan’s advances, and wishes to continue living with her husband Andrei, a compulsive and confirmed philanderer. A vain and unconvincing foray in elevating the dignity and prestige of women is resorted to in the last Chapter titled Arabela , in which Stefan works up an affair with a trapeze artist turned singer/stage performer.
Kirkus Reviews termed “Women” ‘a compelling portrait of desire’. Respectfully begging to differ, I prefer to view Stefan’s ‘exploits’ as frivolous incursions into debauchery.