"The film would have to be about many things - time, memory, second chances, the illusion of the new man, European history, love and using the one we love, language - and I knew that the only sensible way to deal with this dilemma was to become young again, to forget everything I knew and to try to have the mind of a student. To reinvent myself by forgetting I even had any film career at all and instead to dream about having one."
The voice is that of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. He is talking about what was required for him to turn Mircea Eliade's novella Youth Without Youth into a 2007 film with the same title. I am intrigued by how closely Coppola identified with Eliade's semi-autobiographical protagonist. In Youth Without Youth, Dominic Matei is a scholar in his later 60s who is ready to kill himself because he thinks he will never complete his life work, a book on the origin of language. He leaves the provincial town where he lives and teaches Latin and Italian for the capital, Bucharest, with a blue envelope filled with strychnine. Before he can take the poison, he is struck by lightning. The effect is a medical miracle. As he recovers, he has the body of a vigorous young man and is even able to grow a a full set of new teeth. His mental acuity is greatly increased; he absorbs books in a flash.
When he came on this story, Coppola had not made a film in a decade and was about the same age as Dominic Matei. He took Eliade's story, which fills less than 140 pages but is intricate and complex and brought it to the screen with remarkable fidelity. Themes central to Eliade's life and imagination are limned with great care.
There is the yearning to escape from linear time. There is the fascination with a second self, depicted as a double, neither dark nor light.
"The double. He always answers the questions I'm ready to ask him. Like a true guardian angel."
There is Eliade's love of his native Romania, shadowed by the horror of its history in the mid-twentieth century and the horrible choices many Romanians (including the young Eliade) were driven to make. There is the dream of a car that augurs a troubling event in the future. There are perennial issues of love and betrayal.
There are such small questions as these: What is the price for being given a second life? What happens if you jump from one body to another, through metempsychosis? Is the dreamworld more real than the physical world?
After another lightning strike, a young Swiss woman named Veronica starts speaking fluent Sanskrit. She seems to be hosting the spirit of a certain Rupini, a seventh-century female ascetic from Central India. A Sanskrit scholar called from Rome to examine her offers the Rupini personality this explanation of how she comes to find herself in a different time and a different world from the one she remembers:
[This world] is not, properly speaking, a dream...but it participates in the illusory nature of dreaming because it is a matter of the future, therefore of time; now, time is par excellence unreal.
"I'd be interested to know what my chances are now," says Dominic Matei as his lightning-gifted powers reveal their full strength.
"What kind of chances?" asks the professor who is monitoring him at a secure facility.
"My chances for continuing the life I recently began, without the risk of reintegrating it into my previous biography."
Eliade died in 1986, two years before the first American edition of Youth Without Youth. The translator was the tireless Mac Linscott Ricketts, whose dedication has brought many of Eliade's books to anglophone readers, including his long novel The Forbidden Forest (where a dream car is a major plot element) and most recently the Portugal Journal (in an edition from one of my own publishers, SUNY Press).
Coppola's film of "Youth Without Youth" received mixed reviews. But I think Mircea Eliade would be pleased by what Coppola made, and by Tim Roth's brilliant performance as his alter ego and his double. Above all, Eliade would surely applaud Coppola's courage in choosing to reinvent himself in this cause: to set aside his previous career and accomplishments and dream something new into being.
Watching the film version of "Youth Without Youth" again last night, I spotted a possible allusion to the Flitcraft Shift I recently discussed here. When Matei and his lover escape to Malta, she asks what kind of bird she is watching from the terrace. "A Maltese falcon." Of course. This exchange is in the movie, but not in the book.
Quotations are from Mircea Eliade, Youth Without Youth translated by Mac Linscott Ricketts with a Foreword by Francis Ford Coppola. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
Top photo: Mircea Eliade as an aging professor, in the snow.