Most Obscure on My Bookshelves – Romanian Prose

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

I’ve had to break this down into two posts, one for poetry, one for prose, for fear of it becoming a post as long as a novella. I have the sneaking suspicion that anything that I mention here will be obscure, as Romanian novels are not widely translated and very little known beyond the borders. There are some contemporary writers that are starting to find some recognition: Mircea Cartarescu, Dumitru Tsepeneag, Dan Lungu, but there are many more that have failed to penetrate foreign markets (especially the English-speaking ones, they seem to do better in French, German, Italian etc.) I am focusing on the classics rather than on contemporary writers for this post. Once again, I’ve tried to find ones that are available in translation.


I. L. Caragiale – A Lost Letter – election time comedy – for a taster 

I have mentioned Caragiale before in a writing exercise: I am awestruck and intimidated by his impeccable comedic timing, exquisite precision with language and ability to convey characters with just a few of their stock words and phrases. Think Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Chekhov all rolled into one. His short stories/flash fictions paint a discomfiting picture of all the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of Romanian society in the late 19th century. He was a razor-sharp, merciless journalist with a cruel tongue. Above all, his plays are masterclasses in combining farcical situations with a serious message. For instance, A Lost  Letter is ostensibly a comedy about adultery, a missing letter and misunderstandings, but there is a lot of political satire here, very much like Beaumarchais with his Figaro plays. Back in high school we had a group of friends nicknamed after the main characters here. And in fact my cat is partly named after the main female character here: Zoe.

You may not be able to understand the following brief fragment, but it’s a typical political scenario. The head of the committee is making a speech and summarising (once he finds the right page): ‘If you allow me, we need to decide one or the other…. In conclusion, either we are going to revise this decision completely, I agree, but then nothing must change. Or else we don’t revise it, I agree, but then we should make a few changes here and there, in the essential parts.’

Liviu Rebreanu – The Forest of the Hanged 

I keep repeating myself, for I’ve mentioned this writer and this book before. It is one of the most moving accounts of the First World War that I have ever read, based partially on the true story of Rebreanu’s brother, who was conscripted into the Imperial Austro-Hungarian Army in Transylvania and forced to fight against his fellow Romanians from across the Carpathians. This is not just a war novel, but a brilliant psychological thriller. Rebreanu also wrote one of the defining novels about Romanian peasants and the love of the land Ion, which might remind you of Hardy but with a lot more Latin passion.

Mateiu Caragiale – The Gallants of the Old Court

The son of I.L. Caragiale was also a writer, but in very different style from his father. He was much more wedded to nostalgia, heraldry and a glorious past, which his father saw as something to despise or make fun of. Influenced by Proust, this is a richly descriptive paen to the fast disappearing oriental influence and decadence on Bucharest in the years before the First World War. Full of sensual descriptions, virtually plotless, by turns gothic and Mediterranean, it has all the indolence and voluptuous charm of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. It is perhaps too rich to enjoy all in one go, but tremendously evocative, very much like a prose poem. It’s a bit of a cult book, with some readers passionate about it and writing fan fiction, while others find it very slow going.

So there you have it, three writers representing all the different aspects of Romanian literary (and perhaps national) style: wit and sarcasm, drama and psychological torment, poetic fantasy.


17 thoughts on “Most Obscure on My Bookshelves – Romanian Prose”

  1. Both Rebreanu and Caragiale sound well worth seeking out, perhaps best read in that order. The Forest of the Hanged is a devastating title. Is it a literal translation?

    1. Yes, it is. There were at least a couple of those places during WW1, where the army would execute deserters or those who refused to fight by hanging and leave them up there in a small copse or forest as a lesson for all. You can apparently also stream the 1964 Romanian film based on this book (hopefully it’s translated).

        1. The difference being that these were ethnic Romanian soldiers who were forced to fight for the Austro-Hungarian Empire against the Romanians on the other side of the mountains (who were on the side of the British, French etc. during WW1). Imagine people in Northern Ireland having to fight against those in the Republic of Ireland…

  2. Such interesting books, Marina Sofia! And they cover a wide range of topics, too. I’m especially interested in The Forest of the Hanged, and it’s available in English, too ; I’l have to check that out.

  3. I have just bought my first Romanian novel. Although it was written in German. Dana Grigorcea’s Das primaere Gefuehl der Schuldlosigkeit. She won the 3Sat Preis during the Ingeborg Bachmann Wettbewerb.

  4. This is brilliant. I think it’s great to show the vast array of writers. I.L. Caragiale is now on the TBR list. But, why do you think father and son not only had so different of opinion when it came to subject matter, but seems like their writing style is different as well. Or have I missed something?

    1. Sorry, I just realised that I replied directly only to FF below, but I had some tentative explanation of the difference between father and son. The Wikipedia entry on Mateiu Caragiale explains some of the differences as well.

  5. Like lesserknowngems, I’m intrigued as to why the son would be more backward-looking and nostalgic than his father. Was that something to do with the respective political situations at the time of writing, or just a matter of personality, I wonder?

    1. A mix of both, I suspect. Mateiu was illegitimate so was obsessed with ancestry and heraldry and trying to find a noble background for himself (which his father dismissed as nonsense and wishful thinking, stating quite clearly that they were probably from humble background). But he also lived after WW1 and tried to get involved in politics (not very successfully), so it must have been disappointment with the period he was living in as well.

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