Mircea Eliade’s Gaudeamus, written in 1928, is loosely a sequel to the successful Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent, whose title speaks sufficiently for itself. The story’s continuation’s also a journal presented as a novel, this time a constellation of moral struggles and desires during the protagonist’s three university years as a philosophy student in interwar Bucharest, a place where society’s most impressionable members are imbibed with, and react to, the pressing matters of politics, religion and aesthetics of the era.
The interested reader must know that Eliade has better novels, not to mention the fact that his erudition’s truly astounding in his scholarly works on religion. In consideration of his fiction, which is both approachable and varied enough to make an appealing addition to the corpus of books translated into English, Gaudeamusis a paler – though not pale in itself, beware – sequel to the Diary of the Short-Sighted Adolescent. On that note, Gaudeamus remains an enjoyable book for the readers who seek the elegant atmosphere of interwar Bucharest and the fascinating mentality that took root there – indeed, this is Eliade’s biggest quality: he breathes and expires, makes a mirage of a world he knew and himself developed. The inner world harmonizes with the charming and mystical exterior setting, and the novel itself’s a continuous act of winding and unwinding of individual vision. He seems to have created this microcosm with utmost ease.
There’s something immediately salient about the syntax of the book that draws it apart from the narrative style readers are used to. Sentences and thoughts are often fragmentary: there’s a deliberate diary-like tone and the fact that this is a personal journal becomes clear early on, despite Eliade’s best efforts to convey it isn’t autobiographical. This style takes some getting used to for those familiar with the dogma of ‘show don’t tell’: so much self-reflection as is found in this book’s a rarity in contemporary novels, and can seem either anachronic or refreshing, and occasionally both. In a similar idea, I’d evaluate Christopher Bartholomew’s translation as less of a menial task than it would seem, deeming it a fully decent work that obediently adheres to original intent. A few gems of veritable elegance stand out in Eliade’s descriptions and in Bartholomew’s respective renditions: ‘I rediscovered the austere voluptuousness of a day concluded in silence, at a wooden table, unknown and unwanted by anyone’. Some moments of introspection – and it’s a predominantly philosophical book – like this one are genuinely relatable. On the other hand, the absolutism of this mystically focused 1930’s Romania’s suffocating, a world away from what we experience today. So the perhaps genuine product of his time seems to us a bit of a sentimental poseur in his most zealous moments, despite his novel-long efforts to portray himself as the opposite. Here’s effectively a portrait of a person who’s interesting for the very certitude with which he sees things as black or white. My more straightforward self wondered if this bloke wasn’t depressed from being hypoxic, spending all of his time in an attic. Still, an unexpected quality of the novel lies in its productive presentation of self-seeking as a good thing, as not necessarily edifying but intelligently communicated. This is reflective of a society that’s far less career-oriented and secular than ours, the discovery of which lends perspective, showing us that while people in the past suffered from certain types of repressions, we too do so in different ways. More precisely, ‘lifestyle’ questions that no longer pose moral problems for us did so very sincerely for youth in the 1930s, but this shift hasn’t made us any more courageous in our interpersonal bonds compared to our great-grandparents.
It’s certain that anyone reading the book today will take umbrage at some painfully dated attitudes: ‘pretty and uncultured’ seem to be Siamese-twin synonyms in Eliade’s understanding of women, which is rather bizarre considering his links to not onebrilliant, unjustly obscured, woman of the literary world. Despite the often irritatingly over-analytical attitude pervading the book that often surpasses the limits of reason, and that the narrator and author seem to be blissfully unaware of in equal measure, this double-faced, fundamentally self-obsessed, or self-mirroring, protagonist still manages to gain sympathy with sarcastic observations that bring a genuine smile to the face of the reader with Gaudeamusin their hand on the tube.
One wonders what Eliade’s purpose is in showing us the preoccupations of people so deeply-rooted in their world: the love story that predominates the narrative’s alienating through its sticklerism to the ideal, curiously the subplot of sexual tension seems more natural, and yet neither inspires a truly relatable understanding of love. In a wider context, the history lover’s inclined to read the book as they’d watch a period piece, and I hasten to add that it should be read in the same sense with an ominous foreshadowing: it’s remarkable to catch a glimpse of a society that doesn’t suspect its upcoming spiritual decapitation. During the rise of communism, Eliade was one of the luckiest of his caste, seizing his opportunity of self-exile. Others that wrote of similar ideals were subject to torture, which remains a taboo subject until this day.
Unsuspecting this future turn, the 1928 book’s worthy in its amusing moments: never excessive, always ironic. While its philosophical conviction falters not in itself but in the face of 2018 pragmatism, the humour which often surprises does so by successfully understating itself. I’d dare to call the book amusing enough to be worth reading, even though – or especially because – it’s unconsciously so.
Do I agree with Eliade’s own evaluation of the book as ‘lyrical and frenzied, too pretentious, timidly indiscreet, and quite lacking in grandeur’? Yes, and I nevertheless savoured reading it. I’d recommend this as a Young Adult book, for sophisticated teenagers in their late adolescence, and raise an eyebrow pleasantly in consideration of the fact that the book was written by a twenty-one year old author. It’s an imperfect but enjoyable, and impressionistic, atmospheric book.