#RivetingReviews: West Camel reviews THE TOWN WITH ACACIA TREES by Mihail Sebastian

The town of the title of Mihail Sebastian’s 1935 novel is a vague, uncertain place. Referred to in the text only as ‘D…’, translator Gabi Reigh’s introduction (which is as fascinating as her excellent translation) identifies it as Brălia, Sebastian’s hometown. But no streets are named, no specific landmarks described. Instead we have a sense of a relatively small place, with a well-heeled bourgeoisie and quiet politics, both municipal and social. 

For me, however, Sebastian’s title also refers to a temporal and emotional location: that of adolescence – like the town, a nebulous, ill-defined space. The novel opens with a brilliantly storming account of its female protagonist, Adriana, experiencing her first period. She’s baffled by her new emotions and physical sensations, and informs her friend of the event by telling her that ‘the acacias have flowered’. 

As we follow Adriana into womanhood, the plot of the novel seems as amorphous as both the town and her teenaged frame of mind: she has the briefest crush on an older cousin; a French piano teacher arrives to instruct the town’s young ladies; a friend of a friend goes missing and hides out in another friend’s attic – but then returns to his family. While this last event brings the friends together, it only intensifies the atmosphere of uncertainty: 

‘So many unanswered questions; what had brought them together when they were all so different? Why, when together, did they long to hide away, why, when apart, did they drift unanchored, lost? … They simply sat and waited for nightfall, watching each other as the contours of their bodies dissolved into shadows.’ 

It is only when events take Adriana and her friends to Bucharest – and to adult affairs – that the plot, the location and the characters become more defined. The capital’s streets and parks are named. Girls from the town are now young women in marriages – both unhappy and disappointing. The romantic composer the young people idolised turns out to be something of a charlatan. And, most importantly, Adriana and her former friend Gelu become lovers. 

In her new role, Adriana is now sharply described: ‘She discovered a new way to move, a new way to bend, to grow, to stretch her neck and flex her heels, a new way to stand still’; and, meeting Gelu at the station, she is ‘a young animal whose sole purpose was to defend its natural supremacy’.  

But this moment, when ‘life had passed from one world into another’ – from the uncertainty of adolescence in D… to the hard realities of adulthood in Bucharest – passes in the blink of an eye. Yet it is the apogee of the book, and apparently of Adriana and Gelu’s lives. Adriana returns to bourgeois comfort and a marriage of convenience in D…; Gelu seems destined for a string of unsatisfying romantic encounters. 

Written, Reigh tells us, during a period when Sebastian was being hounded out of his social and professional circle by rampant anti-Semites, The Town with Acacia Trees features none of the first-hand accounts of that experience seen in his previous novel, For Two Thousand Years. Perhaps, however, in this novel, Sebastian is illustrating the solace he found in his relationship with actress Leny Caler. Perhaps their love was the moment when his own life was most clearly defined. 

Reviewed by West Camel

THE TOWN WITH ACACIA TREES

by Mihail Sebastian

Translated and introduced by Gabi Reigh; afterword by Radu Ioanid

Published by Aurora Metro (2019)

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West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for new press Orenda Books. His debut novel, Attend, was shortlisted for the Polari Prize. His new novel, Fall, is published this autumn.

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