It’s hard to believe the author was the same age as his diarist when he wrote this playful, ludicrous and very good teen journal, in English for the first time.
The plangently self-pitying teenager is a comic creation we are very familiar with: so now I ask you to imagine an Adrian Mole from 1920s Romania, more literate, more ridiculous, more histrionic and yet more self-aware; funnier, in short – yet written by someone who is the same age (17) as his protagonist.
Mircea Eliade is mostly remembered as an influential and respected Chicago-based professor of comparative religion; Saul Bellow read at his funeral. Eliade was also a novelist, but this novel was found in a Bucharest attic in 1986 (the year of his death), a circumstance so fitting – his narrator is fond of his own attic room, where he composes his diary – that I almost suspect some fabrication at work, as if the book were not by a 17-year-old but had been contrived by a much older, wiser and more cunning author. Another reason I entertained this suspicion was that, quite simply, it is too good.
Mostly remembered as a respected professor of comparative religion … Mircea Eliade
For a start, there is its mise-en-abyme quality, its circular self-reference. It begins: “As I was all alone I decided to begin writing The Novel of the Short-Sighted Adolescent this very day … I don’t need inspiration; I only need to record my life, the life I know …” So we see the narrator stepping outside his life while also being immersed in it, indistinguishable from it. The diary exists as both work of art and journal, and the way the front cover of this edition has the word “Diary” crossed out and replaced, in red ink, with the word “Novel” is a nod to its own ambiguous, shifting status.
But, my word, it is plausible. The smooth translation by Christopher Moncrieff helps, too. Eliade may be describing the life of a student in a Romanian lycée of almost a century ago, but anyone who has ever been at school, full of ideals but also too shy to speak to the opposite sex, or incapable of revising for an exam until the very last minute, will relate to this. As will anyone who has ever committed their private thoughts to paper, as the true record of their soul and a rebuke to posterity. “My Diary flatters me, satisfies my longing for revenge; just revenge on those who misunderstand me.”
The joke behind Adrian Mole and, indeed, most fictional diaries, is that in trying to seem wiser and more grown-up, the narrator inadvertently reveals truths that are withheld from his or her own scrutiny. But because the author is the diarist, the same can’t be confidently said here. The grandiosity and scope of our author’s self-pity is, of course, ludicrous, as when he says he will kill himself if he doesn’t pass his exams (the phrase he uses – “from the heights of despair” – was a standard formula in Romanian newspaper reports of suicides, which were appreciated with perverse relish by the public in those days); but there is also the sense that he knows exactly what he’s doing and is, moreover, quite playful about the whole exercise. “I don’t know my neighbours. Why should I? None of them have a daughter. No, I can’t put that in the novel. Instead I’ll say that it’s because I despise them.”
I was worried, at one point, that there might be unpleasant moments of antisemitism. Eliade’s political beliefs in the runup to the second world war do not cover him with glory (not that he was alone; to be a Romanian with lofty and romantic longings around this time often meant a flirtation with fascism: Eliade’s friend, the philosopher and aphorist Emil Cioran, who would also renounce such views after the war). The first Jewish student mentioned is not sympathetically observed, but subsequent ones are. And how literate these kids are! When they don’t do their homework, it’s because they are reading Balzac or Dostoevsky – in French. I’m not sure that happens any more.
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