Mircea Eliade (1907-86) wrote Gaudeamus (‘let us rejoice’) in 1928, but it was not published until 1986; only a three-page extract had appeared in 1928. It has now (2018) been published in an English translation by Istros Books, which specialises in Balkan literature. The text has been translated by Christopher Bartholomew with an informative introduction by Bryan Rennie and a lengthy afterword by Eliade’s nephew, Sorin Alexandrescu, translated by Alistair Ian Blyth, who is probably the most prolific translator of Romanian literature into English.
A portrait of Eliade’s student life, Gaudeamus is a sequel to his Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent (Romanul adolescenului miop) published in English by Istros in 2016, which deals with his time at school. Now he is at university in Bucharest (1925-28) and he wrote Gaudeamus in a couple of week-long bursts in February and March of his graduation year. Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent had already appeared in serial form, and is referred to in this book (his friends argue about their depictions in it).
Gaudeamus poses as autobiographical, but to what extent it has been fictionalised is unclear (according to the introduction checkable aspects have been shown to be accurate, while other parts are clearly fiction). It is best therefore to refer to the narrator rather than Eliade as the central character. The narrator is extremely intelligent and ambitious, but the narrative shows how the university experience does not differ much in place or time: the neuroticism generated by the relentlessness of reading and exams, the worry that one is slipping behind, the pursuit of excellence beset by distractions, desire for members of the opposite sex; such aspects of student life are constant.
The changing seasons provide the backdrop to the narrator’s academic career. He hardens, from being sociable, offering his attic living space for the formation of a student club with singing and drinking, to a semi-recluse who sees himself above the common man, his view of his peers literally a lofty one. Gradually he eschews company, to the point his friends become concerned he is mentally ill. However, he does not remain on his mountain top entirely, as even at this early stage in his career he is writing articles for the press. However, as time progresses he narrows his focus to private study instead of the communal activity of lectures, working punishing hours until his head swims. Gaudeamus is, among other things, a hymn to books and the reading obsession.
When he is socialising with his peers he engages in earnest conversations about the meaning of life, though these are of a higher tone than the usual intellectual fumblings of undergraduates. The keyword is mediocrity, the greatest sin in his eyes, yet a label he is happy to assign his peers without compunction. He may be precocious, but there is an underlying smugness in his sense of superiority. We learn less than we might expect about Bucharest in the late 1920s as the focus is relentlessly on him and the exercise of his will. He sees himself explicitly in heroic terms, with hints here of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, overcoming distractions while remaining above the bourgeois herd.
Unfortunately self-aggrandising can have unfortunate consequences for those in the hero’s orbit. His views of sex relations are drawn largely from Dante and Cervantes, not particularly useful models in the twentieth century, and expressed in a misogynistic rather than chivalric attitude. This results in the poor treatment of the two main women in his life, Nișka and Nonora, treatment he justifies in philosophical terms. In particular he sees himself as the creator and moulder of Nișka’s personality – to which worryingly she concurs (a hallmark of emotional abuse). He considers women’s education as a prelude to a lifetime of domestic concerns and therefore inevitable mediocrity, and those men weak enough to become so entangled prey to the same consequence: domesticity as the enemy of promise. While tempted, he takes pride in having the strength of character to withstand their attractions.
Incapable of seeing women on equal terms with himself, unfortunately for them he sees his ability to remain immune from banal romantic attraction as a test of his personality, whatever the emotional havoc he might wreak on anyone unfortunate enough to fall in love with him. For him romance is an intellectual exercise best conducted through lengthy correspondence (that with Nișka is reproduced verbatim, presumably written by Eliade, not the person Nișka is modelled on, at least one hopes so, in which he ignores, even revels in, her extreme emotional distress). He is blunt in his assessments of their prospects to the point of brutality, seeing himself above such pettiness.
As if emotional abuse was not bad enough, he commits what amounts to a rape simply to enphasise the primacy of his wants, though at the same time transgressing his principle of detachment. Meeting Nonora in the street he invites her back to his attic, promising to be ‘good’. Once there, despite repeated protests to stop and telling him she is engaged, he assaults her. As he describes it, ‘I was annoyed by her resistance, like that of a virginal tease … I pushed her down. With one arm I pinned her arms, with the other I parted her knees and subdued her thighs. The act took place before Nonora could even comprehend, and before I could hesitate. We pleasured our bodies.’ Not really ‘we’ when she sobs afterwards and asks why he did it.
Given Eliade’s evident approval of his alter ego’s approach to life, it is not surprising to learn he was associated with Romania’s far right in the 1930s. There are hints in Gaudeamus of widespread anti-Semitism which the narrator may not particularly like, possibly because he looks down on the individuals espousing such views rather than because he disapproves of the sentiments themselves, but does not challenge. He is evasive about his own political views.
The book ends with the narrator having graduated and setting off on his own, without emotional encumbrances – as we always knew he would be – on life’s adventure. Assuming author and narrator share characteristics, they have pretentiousness (a charge Eliade himself levelled against Gaudeamus later) and self-regard in common. The introduction confirms what I had suspected: the influence on Eliade of André Gide. It is reasonable to assume he had read at least Les Nourritures Terrestres (1897), though he was much more rigorous intellectually than Gide. We can admire Eliade’s strength of purpose while disliking his self-absorption.
On the other hand, self-absorption paid off as Gaudeamus is an assured achievement for a 21-year old. In fact it is so assured one wonders if it was reworked later. There is certainly one point, highlighted by Alexandrescu, where he must have done so. At the end he refers to the forthcoming destruction of the house, with his attic, to be replaced by a tall, grey building. This was the case, but it did not happen until 1935. There may have been other changes made to the manuscript after 1928.
Whatever changes may have been made, the book as it stands captures the personality of a remarkable, but flawed, individual at a pivotal moment. Although the narrator may no longer be an adolescent, in his way he is still short-sighted. With his obvious intellectual abilities, as he rides off on his early morning train there can be no doubt that as he, hopefully, matures emotionally, he is destined for great things. It is ironic he sees so much personal promise in the dawn when, in 1928, the same could not be said for the continent as a whole.