Born in Târlişua (currently Bistriţa-Năsăud County), Transylvania, then part of Austria-Hungary, he was the second of thirteen children born to Vasile Rebreanu, a schoolteacher, and Ludovica Diuganu, descendants of peasants. His father had been a classmate of George Coşbuc's and was an amateur folklorist. Liviu Rebreanu went to primary school in Maieru (where he was taught by his father), and then in Năsăud and Bistriţa, to military school at Sopron and then to the military academy in Budapest. He worked as an officer in Gyula but resigned in 1908, and in 1909 illegally crossed the Transylvanian Alps into Romania, and lived in Bucharest.
He joined several literary circles, and worked as a journalist for Ordinea, then for Falanga literară şi artistică. At the request of the Austro-Hungarian government, he was arrested and extradited in 1910. Rebreanu was incarcerated in Gyula, being freed in August; he returned to Bucharest. In 1911-1912 he was secretary for the National Theater in Craiova, where he worked under the direction of short story writer Emil Gârleanu. He got married to actress Fanny Rădulescu.
His first published in 1912 with a volume of novellas gathered under the title Frământări ("Troublings"). During World War I Rebreanu was a reporter for Adevărul, and he continued publishing short stories: Golanii ("The Hooligans") and Mărturisire (Confession) in 1916 and Răfuială ("Resentfullness") in 1919. After the war, he became an important collaborator at the literary society Sburătorul led by the literary critic Eugen Lovinescu.
In 1920 Rebreanu published his novel Ion, the first modern Romanian novel, in which he depicted the struggles over land ownership in rural Transylvania. For Ion, Rebreanu received a Romanian Academy award - he became a full member of the institution in 1939. Between 1928 and 1930 he was chairman of the National Theatre of Bucharest, and from 1940 to 1944 he was President of the Romanian Writers' Society.
In 1944, aged 59, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Rebreanu shot himself in the mouth, in his country house in Valea Mare, Argeş County
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