Monday 2 May 2016

Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent - Mircea Eliade

Translated by Christopher Moncrieff

When Mircea Eliade began working on The Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent in 1921, he believed it to be the first book about adolescence written by an actual adolescent. Although the novel was finished by 1925, it was not published until after the author’s death, in 1989. The book shows, however, that the experience of adolescence has not changed greatly in the past 90 years.

In his study Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875 - 1945, Jon Savage looks beyond the image of Twenties youth culture in Britain and the US, dominated by the Bright Young Things and Hollywood starlets, to explore the rise of politically-minded youth groups in Europe, such as the German Bunde and the Woodcraft Folk. The youth of this generation, too young to have fought in the First World War, were drawn to groups which offered a sense of discipline, camaraderie, and a mystical attachment to the land. The generation gap became starkly apparent, the vitality of teenage culture contrasting with the worn-out generation which had preceded them. Savage quotes JM Barrie, writing in 1920, of 'Age and Youth the two great enemies... the two sides don't understand (admit) that they have different views of what constitutes immorality.'

There is evidence of this self-confident, resentful attitude within Eliade's writing, especially in the contempt shown for teachers, and the general institution of the school. The unnamed narrator is under threat of having to retake his school year and, like millions of adolescents before and since, ‘suffers from being misunderstood’. The primary source of his angst is the gap between his own self-image ('I know who I am') and the litany of failures that mark his school-life. Like a true Romantic hero, he is plagued by 'my soul, which suffers unbeknown to anyone, my mind that struggles on, yearning for things that the idiots around me have never even heard of'. In his mind, he is a sensitive genius surrounded by mediocrity: 'I hated these uncultured, characterless adolescents with broad foreheads who always did their homework'.

In order to assuage these feelings of alienation, and to expiate his academic failings, he dreams of achieving literary stardom, through the publication of a novel based on his diaries. His novel will ‘describe the life of an adolescent who suffers from being misunderstood. But that isn't all… [it will] satisfy my longing for revenge; just revenge on those who misunderstand me'. The desire for stardom as a form of revenge will be instantly recognisable to the modern reader. The challenge is to produce an unmediated account of the inner turmoil of teenage life, reflecting the author’s soul ‘without being psychoanalytical, because I don't want it distorted by analysis'.

Eliade’s novel, therefore, charts the life of an adolescent in a humdrum town, trying to motivate himself to revise for tests, joining a dramatic society, meeting girls and falling out with friends. While these experiences are extremely familiar for many, the book also offers specific insight into the cultural influences teenagers of the period would be exposed to. A friend, for example, stokes his own adolescent fantasies with the Romantic proto-Fascism of Gabrielle D'Annunzio's novels: 'if glory were mine, women and money would come to me effortlessly'. There is a certain irredentist quality to the narrator’s actions too; faced with the prospect of failing his final exams, he ponders whether this might be 'the very event, the spark that ignites the powder keg of my soul? Isn't this exactly what I need - a great calamity, a profound change that will set me on the right path in life?'

This tendency to equate suffering with progress is also evident in another of the strategies he adopts to confront his angst: flagellation. In a strange piece of nostalgia, he calls the days when he used to whip himself ‘the most wonderful days of my life. I kept my whip behind a bookshelf. Every night, before turning out the light, I would indulge in fifteen minutes of sweet, painful pleasure'. This self-inflicted pain filled him with an immediate sense of being, helping him to connect with the 'I' at the centre of his adolescent confusion. Of course, flogging himself might also be a term for the other form of sweet painful pleasure which an adolescent might indulge in for fifteen minutes every night.

The true obsession of the diarist’s life is literature, however. It is to novels which he and his peers turn in search of role models to emulate. The books which excite them tend to be the proto-Fascist work of authors like D’Annunzio and Giovanni Papini, characterised by their violent ultra-modern energy; other writers are rejected as being unrepresentative of the true teenage experience. Discussing the author Ionel Teodoreanu’s work, for example, he ‘cried. I cried because I'd never experienced the same emotions as the heroes in this book, I'd only ever dreamt them. I've never had a country estate and I've never had girls who come there to convalesce. When I was small I used to go to sleep shivering with cold, and played with the bootmaker's daughters from next door'.

The third section of the book is marked by the adoption of a more jaded, functionalist view. The narrator is tiring of childhood, but not yet fully mature; without the level of agency which adulthood brings, his activities seem mundane, a dull rehearsal for what is to come. His angst has been replaced with self-loathing: he describes his eyes as being 'made smaller by drooping eyelids, within the dark rings of insomnia, shedding hypocritical, myopic tears and hidden by disgusting, deforming lenses'. The influence of writers like D’Annunzio has filled him with hatred. His gaze is hostile: 'these ugly glances of mine, which steal flesh, expose bodies, bite virgins'. The play which took up much of the narrative has turned into something crueller, more adult, and the tone is increasingly spiteful: 'I'm plotting my revenge against the bodies that treat me with disdain and disgust'.

The Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent occupies a point somewhere between the anonymous Russian Novel With Cocaine, and Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books. Eliande captures the constantly changing, 'embarrassing and contradictory' nature of adolescence, mixing universally relatable experiences with culturally specific influences which shape his narrator’s thoughts. The narrator’s increasingly vicious tone appears prescient, written on the eve of the tumult of the 1930s, but this is not just a historical curiosity. As with other adolescent writers like SE Hinton, The Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent captures the teenage years with a raw energy which is hard to replicate.

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