Mircea Eliade's 1924 classic is now available in English translation, offering a rare glimpse into the often unseen Romania.
by Sorin Alexandrescu
Mircea Eliade wrote his first book, Romanul adolescentului miop (1924) (literally, The Novel of the Short-Sighted Adolescent), when he was seventeen years old. He described it not as a novel – as the Romanian title would suggest – but as the literary account of a failed attempt to write a novel. And yet, the word “novel” is used in the original title (the English edition has opted for ‘Diary’, thereby emphasizing its incipient nature, and encouraging comparisons to other well-known diarists such as Holden Caufield and Adrian Mole). The last sentence of the book coincides with the first one: “As I was all alone I decided to begin writing The Novel of the Short-Sighted Adolescent this very day”, providing the already read text with a circular and paradoxical structure that is simultaneously finite and in the process of being finalized, organized and chaotic. Similarly, the narrator is both a character and his interpreter. The short-sighted adolescent is not someone who does not see well – on the contrary, he is a keen observer of people – but someone who is afraid of being seen as an ugly, indecisive, good-for-nothing young man particularly because he is short-sighted. While the other boys in his classroom are machos– as we would call them nowadays –, constantly boasting about their success with women, the short-sighted adolescent is an introverted non-macho who is, however, ironic and surprisingly inscrutable.
The author feels at home in this knot of contradictions. As he frequently mentions, the process he employs is that of transcribing excerpts from the journal started by him a few years before – a fact which is biographically accurate. Eliade regularly kept a journal while he was in Romania and in India, but he left it in the care of some friends when he went to London in 1940, hoping to recover it upon his return. However, the war and ensuing communist period prevented him from ever coming back and the journal was (probably irrevocably) lost. What is known as Fragments d´un Journal – the French Gallimard edition of 1973 – refers to the period that Eliade spent in Portugal and then France, subsequent to the London years. Hence, The Novel of the Short-Sighted Adolescent incorporates fragments proclaimed as having been taken from a journal that currently no longer exists! Therefore, there is no way of knowing the extent of the author’s peculiar efforts with respect to making the transition from diary to novel.
Yet there are two other, parallel sources of the latter: Memoriile (The Memoirs) referring to the same period, but published separately and the edition of Scrieri de Tinerețe (Writings of Youth) published in four volumes by Mircea Handoca in Bucharest. The latter encompass articles published by Eliade in different newspapers of the time, between 1921 and 1925 – i.e. exactly the period referred to in The Novel of the Short-Sighted Adolescent. Nevertheless, Eliade calls a few other essays in this volume the “unpublished writings”, dated 1923, meaning they never came out in any newspaper in that time yet their titles were very significant: “Journal Fragments”, “The Journal of the Guys in My Classroom” and “Journal and Memoirs”. In this case, the author mentions the names of his colleagues and best friends, such as Haig Acterian, Dinu Sighireanu, Polihroniade, Vojen and many others. All of them are referred to by their authentic names, unlike the slightly altered names in the novel.
Therefore, The Novel of the Short-Sighted Adolescent is neither an autobiography, nor a proper fictional narration. The author and main character, who is also a narrator, do not have the same name in the text – the other characters address him as “doctor!”, not Mircea – which implies, according to Philippe Lejeune, that the reader accept a type of “autobiographical pact” by means of which he or she is led to believe that the author of the book refers to himself. However, the identification of the two instances, narrator and character, at the level of the text’s enunciation (writing) is perceived at the level of the utterance (the text itself) only as similarity between them. This enables the reader to acquire a “phantasmatic” perspective upon the character by means of which something beyond authorial intent can be inferred from the text – namely “his unknown soul”.
Playing with the conventions of various literary genres is part of an entire intellectual world in which Eliade seeks, but also builds himself, soars into different domains of knowledge, but also leaves them, struggles with scholar obligations, despises them, but also strains to solve them when nothing else can be done.
Playing with the conventions of various literary genres is part of an entire intellectual world in which Eliade seeks, but also builds himself, soars into different domains of knowledge, but also leaves them, struggles with scholar obligations, despises them, but also strains to solve them when nothing else can be done. Moreover, in many chapters, he depicts himself as a clear-headed observer of his classmates although there are strong affective and conceptual links that bind them; as such, he ironically deflates the pretensions of great erotic conquerors that they put on. Hence, we could analyze this book from the perspective of the conflict between the characters’ real identity and the one they put on; in other words, between being someone and pretending to be someone else, between authenticity and fiction. Just as in the case of a vanity fair, albeit not one as bitter as Thackeray’s, some characters have an “inflated” view of themselves, only to be “deflated” by the narrator who is simultaneously their friend and their detached observer. He concludes that they are not what they pretend to be and wonders whether he might be mistaken with respect to his own self-image in a similar manner in which his characters are. Consequently, the narrator seems to be doubled by a second observer – whom we may call metanarrative – who oversees his own pretentions, not of vanity but of lucidity. The second observer drives the narrator towards endless self-examination or merciless secret encounters with his own phantasms. The narrator distinguishes himself from his friends particularly by means of self-reflection, since the latter seem untouched by this illness. The narrator is different, he has to be different. The characters’ uncertainty with respect to the discrepancy between appearance and reality is taken on by the narrator, although with a different meaning: not of womanizer, but of thorough analyst of his own person. He depicts himself in a negative light, as an ugly short-sighted individual who is ignored by everyone – a description which is not in conformity with the narration – but he is a short-sighted character who constantly questions his true identity. The narrator knows that the others are not as they portray themselves to be, but he does not know how they really are, just as he does not know how he really is, but merely how he thinks he is. Hence, this is a strange intertwining of narrative perspectives: the characters boast about their success, the narrator invalidates it, although he acknowledges the fact that he is a chasm of uncertainty and lack of knowledge. Therefore, the novel “must be a mirror of my soul, without being psychoanalytical; because I don’t want it distorted by analysis.” Who am I? Neither have I ever had an estate nor can I associate myself with the “happy young people of Medeleni” (characters from a big estate in a novel by the Romanian writer Ionel Teodoreanu, 1897-1954). “I’d like to know who I am, because I don’t know. I’ve filled a great many notebooks trying to find out, but I haven’t succeeded. My novel is going to be full of strange heroes. Their souls won’t be one-dimensional, or all of a piece. Up till now I’ve never met an adolescent with a soul like this. But I won’t analyze my characters because I don’t know them. I can’t understand them deep down. I look at myself. I look within myself and I see so many foreign, contradictory features.” “I ask myself: would someone else be capable of producing a novel like mine, one that is a complete and accurate reflection of my adolescence, of our adolescence? More than anything I wanted to write a book that would give a full account of the inner life that I have lived on the fringe of the school, of adolescence, an adolescence that I believed I was about to leave behind. I’ll never succeed.”
This ambition towards self-knowledge is what distinguishes Mircea Eliade’s novel from many others about adolescents. While the authors of such novels usually narrate events that reveal the hero’s uncertainty with respect to himself, they do not depict the permanent self-questioning and the analysis of the mystery of identity as Mircea Eliade does. Moreover, Eliade surprisingly finds an alter-ego in Giovanni Papini’s Un uomo finite (1912) ; therefore he must change, “I have to, or people will accuse me of being like Giovanni Papini”. Is he right? This is where the meta-narrator comes in once again, instilling the character’s ambition of being different, not as a matter of course, but through self-struggle and self-construction, through the ambition of finding out who he really is and, even more so, through the aspiration of singlehandedly building a strong identity by means of an implacable will, therefore proving his true virility, which is spiritual, not sexual in nature.
In terms of the events presented, the novel is autobiographical: the high-school, the friends, the fact that the main character flunked Mathematics, the difficulties with learning German, the readings, the first entomological passion, the herbarium at home, the attic, the Bucharest scenery, the short-sightedness, the battle with sleep, the late night readings and many others are based on reality. But what is the meaning of all these? The manner in which the main character of the book, a young man of seventeen years of age, experiences these events is revealed to us by the narrator, but the manner in which the character reflects upon them, and whether he does it properly, is put forth by the meta-narrator by means of an entirely negative (self)portrait. The “short-sighted adolescent” is ugly, shy, good at intellectual debates, yet unskillful with respect to mundane or erotic discussions, fairly good at performing on stage or at playing Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries on the piano, but incapable of nurturing an affective relationship and forced to visit a brothel in order to move beyond the sexual barrier that holds him back.
The manner in which the main character of the book, a young man of seventeen years of age, experiences these events is revealed to us by the narrator, but the manner in which the character reflects upon them, and whether he does it properly, is put forth by the meta-narrator by means of an entirely negative (self)portrait.
However, nowadays, this (self) portrait can be interpreted in an entirely different manner. Why couldn’t the “short-sighted adolescent” be the equivalent of a non-macho, a young man who refuses to take on the macho role and positively legitimizes himself particularly by means of this refusal, turning a negative characteristic into a positive one? To some of his Romanian contemporaries, young Mircea Eliade himself appeared to be a shy person, while to others he seemed to be a youth of uncompromising views who was eager to be the catalyst of great changes in the mentality of those around him. Later in life, for instance during his stay in America, he proved to be rather shy once again, incapable of making practical decisions and fighting academic battles. Who was “the true” Eliade? Could we really assert that his views remained unchanged throughout his entire life? Changes were bound to intervene in the life of a person who moved from Romania, to India and then to Portugal and France, subsequently ending up in the United States for the remainder of his life.
Essentially, such roles are either true or false solely when perceived in relation to a certain place and time in history. I believe this can be the starting point of a more fruitful discussion than the strictly biographical one tackled thus far. The Novel of the Short-Sighted Adolescent should not be seen merely as a few years’ autobiography, like the Memoirs, but also as the history of a long struggle with oneself and the self-construction of a young man who is dissatisfied with his initial weakness: the short-sighted individual who is unsure of himself and asocial must become a strong, willful and great intellectual young man. He is not ambitious in the same manner in which the great heroes of the nineteenth century Western novels are – as Eliade himself admitted, in those times he would read one Balzac novel each day – but he is passionate about knowledge. I believe this is the most significant distinction between this novel and other novels about adolescents such as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), in which the main character, Holden Caulfield, struggles in the face of profound loneliness, comforted only by his sister Phoebe and where even his colleagues and teachers seem to be dominated solely by sexuality. Equally different is Raymond Radiguet’s famous novel Le Diable au corps (The Devil in the Flesh) published shortly before the death of its author at twenty years of age, in 1923, one year before Eliade’s concluding his novel; in the case of Radiguet, it is the mystery of human and social relations that seems to dominate the life of the main character.
On the contrary, Eliade is obsessed with his own identity based on his extensive readings, first in the domains of Botany and Biology and later in the fields of History, Philosophy, Literature and the History of Religions. The same can be asserted about his friends: Robert Vojen was passionate about D’Annunzio and above all Marcu (= Mărculescu, his best friend) was a Jewish admirer of Balzac as well, while also being a left-wing intellectual and a reader of Marx, Kautzky, Kropotkin, Bakunin and even Gherea. Together, they go through the same passionate quest for the self through readings, regardless of whether the latter touch upon sexuality and its failure or not. This would be an example of what Habermas called Öffentlichkeit (Public sphere), the sphere of public interest situated between the State and the citizens’ private interest in the context of a liberal society, although the purely cultural and non-political discussions seem to unravel a rather private subarea of the public sphere. According to Habermas, this space is nonetheless public, since people discuss topics of mutual interest without taking into consideration the social status of those involved, everyone can participate and the officials never intervene. Examples of the above-mentioned spaces would be the French salons or German coffee houses of the eighteenth and respectively nineteenth centuries.
In Eliade’s novel, we witness the emergence of a new public opinion, a new horizon of expectations of those who were then very young, yet intellectually precocious.
I believe that, to a certain extent, The Novel of the Short-Sighted Adolescent evokes the image of the Romania of those times, the new country, reunited after World War One, but still in the process of self-defining. Its young generation emerges and develops itself in a world that is much different in comparison to that of previous generations. For the first time in history, the political borders coincide with those of the nation. Greater Romania may not be perfect, but it is finally free from the domination of any neighboring empire, it is constitutionally democratic and open to all European cultures. In a way, it was similar to Italy after the Risorgimento, the unification and the advent of the modern state with Rome as its capital city, after having shortly been Papini’s Florence – all of the above-mentioned events having been experienced so intensely by the Italian writer. Suddenly in the new Romania, just as in Italy, the older political parties, the cultural models, the social and family traditions seem anachronistic, without a substitute at hand. Romanians feel free, yet isolated. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the isolation they escape renders them curious with respect to everything that surrounds them, yet they still lack the knowledge of how to change anything (fundamentally). The first reaction is the thirst for culture, which is the most striking feature of these young people. Indifferent with respect to public instruction, although not impervious to it, many times avidly and selectively sipping it, – as the high-school student Mircea Eliade himself would do – these young people read with a kind of fury and good taste that would seem astonishing by today’s standards. This novel displays an extraordinary construction of the civilization of the book, as it appears in Romania’s new modernity. If nowadays, we witness the dawn of new media questioning the role of the book, in those times, a century ago, the book alone dominated the intellectual market. As students, Eliade, Mărculescu, or Acterian are brilliant when it comes to literature and/or journalism, but they seem to know nothing with respect to sports, – with the exception of mountain-climbing and a certain sea voyage – visual arts, jazz, ballet, travelling abroad, film or public theatre. Even mundane gatherings, albeit dominated by what we can call flirting, or by amateur theatre performances, shine as a result of literary conversations. Nota bene, politics is still unknown and so is the establishment of new public groups proclaimed as political. Habermas’ analysis can be perfectly applied in this case. In Eliade’s novel, we witness the emergence of a new public opinion, a new horizon of expectations of those who were then very young, yet intellectually precocious. The subject matter discussed by them has nothing to do with the state or with politics, although it is neither strictly private nor exclusively aesthetic. Everyone is free to participate, but truly welcome is the very cultivated young man, whose views are updated by the latest French literature – which was of the essence considering its hegemony over the whole of Europe during those times. Mircea Eliade is the first among them to speak up and particularly to write about English literature, for example Samuel Butler, Italian literature (Papini), Norwegian literature (Ibsen), the old Chaldean cultures or those of the Nile. Already, we can note Mircea Eliade’s desire to “relieve a besieged Romanian culture” from the French one, opening it towards the entire world. Itinerarul spiritual (Spiritual Itinerary) which would be written in 1927 and would be seen as a manifesto of the young generation was impending.
This novel portrays the self-discovery of a new generation in a new country and, to my view, it seems that nowadays – almost a century after its publication, when, following a period of communism, Romania re-enters Europe, albeit a much changed Europe compared to the way it was in 1925 – it is even more modern than at the moment of its publication.
Sorin Alexandrescu teaches cultural and visual studies at the University of Bucharest after having taught semiotics and Romanian at the University of Amsterdam. In the eighties he publicly protested the regime of Ceauşescu in Romania. He is a Romanian born Dutch citizen living in Romania. He has published many books and essays on modern literature (Faulkner), (Mircea Eliade), semiotics (Greimas), narratology, history (The Romanian paradox), philosophy (Richard Rorty), as well as political comments and many essays on modernity (Looking back on Modernity, Broken Identity), painting, photography and art theory in Romanian, French, English and Dutch. He is currently running the Center of Excellence in Image Studies at the University of Bucharest.