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.

Prose

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.

 

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Old Pal Poetry and Capricious Prose

When I thought about the different effect that prose and poetry have on me, and how I feel about writing both, it surprised me to discover that I used the pronouns ‘she’ for prose and ‘he’ for poetry. At this moment in real life, I seek out female companionship, which I find more nurturing, but in writing I seem to find a home in poetry when I am unable to write prose.  I wonder what Jung would make of that?

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Prose taunts and haunts me – she blows hot and cold. Sometimes I love her to bits, sometimes I feel close to strangling her. I can never approach  her unprepared. She requires, nay, she demands a lot of love and attention; I often don’t have the time to give her all that she deserves. Then she neglects me, slams the door in my face, throws a tantrum. I spend weeks, even months, trying to woo her back, but there is no sign of life from her capricious majesty.

She is also the mistress of comparisons. She has no qualms about telling me that her other suitors are better, tidier, more organised, more romantic, more dashing, more, more, more…

I have tried to flirt with her younger sister, Short Story, or her niece, Flash Fiction, but it’s Prose the Novel whom I love best. She knows it, I know it. No amount of success with the others would ever make up for the loss of her.

Poetry is my refuge when Prose refuses to cooperate.

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When I cannot find the words, Poetry takes over like an old chum. Knows me best, understands the unspoken, the wildest metaphors and similes. I say a carrot is like a star and Poetry smiles in his gentle, light-filled way and only ever replies: ‘Why not?’

Poetry is the one who soothes my nightmares, unknots the wrinkles on my face and in my mind. He encourages me to discover myself, and if I don’t come back with answers… well, so what? He’ll still be there for me.

Poetry and Prose

Neuroscience is such a new and rapidly developing area of research that they are discovering fascinating new aspects of our brains every week or so. Most recently, I read that a different part of the brain is engaged when reading poetry and prose. Something that poets have perhaps always referred to as a different pair of eyes (poetic eyes) through which they see the world.

It’s a different brain

a sharper brain

which syncopates the rhythms

sees flash volleys of sounds

words cometing in the void

surprises neighbours out of their comfort

and wraps scalds in gentle gauze

to render palatable to others

what scrapes one soul to rawness.

.Do you find my brain? - Auf der Suche nach mei...

It is a brain with zoom lense

fast forwarding to galaxies

or else microscopically slow

switching on-off-on at random

a mutant caught in stasis

perplexity in motion

translation misdirection

and underneath the burning

forever contradiction.

 

 

Birth of a Class Clown

marblesAfter all that, he’d forgotten the frigging marbles at home!  He knew there’d be a price to pay for that at break-time.  Two weeks at this school had been enough to teach him that no one, not even Jacques with the kind eyes and shy smile, no one got away unharmed when they promised something to Noah… and failed to deliver.

There was only one way out of it.  Miss break-time.  Fake an illness.  Would it work?  Would the teacher grasp enough of his stuttering French?

The teacher finally looked up, just before his arm went to sleep.  He hadn’t wanted to speak up.

‘Yes?’

‘Je peux sortir?  J’ai mal au…’ What was the word for it again?  Never mind, he’d say it with a French accent. ‘Au… tummeee.’

‘Je peux sortir, Madame,’ the teacher corrected him sternly.

‘Madame… tummee.’ He didn’t know what possessed him to repeat the word.  Perhaps he thought it would inspire some sense of urgency.  Instead, laughter rose like waves on a dried and sunken beach.  Some of it was abandoned, hysterical.  The teacher’s frown deepened.  Some of it was derision, as usual, at his lack of language skills, but for once he could live with that.

Of course he wasn’t allowed out.  Not then, not later.  But that day he discovered his weapon of choice: disarming through laughter.

 

Writing Exercise

This was a 5 minute writing exercise that I was set in a writing group, based on a photo prompt.  I’ve been unable to find this picture again, so you will have to take my word for it: it was a beautiful black-and-white photograph of a Cuban woman in white traditional dress, smoking a cigar, looking out of the window.  She is flashing an insolent smile straight at the camera.  Some makeshift flowerpots are teetering precariously on her windowsill.

The thyme is doing well this year.  Grown all over, in a hurry like a virgin about to be married, all ready to jump into the nearest pot.  Majoram, now that was a tricky one, hasn’t sprung the smallest green shoot. Rowdy waste of time. But who said aloe vera would never make it in a tin? Just bore’em and stuff’em, I always say.  Look at it now: it’s tall, it’s spiky, it sucks up my smoke like a greedy suitor.

Speaking of suitors, it’s nearly time for him to pass by again for the day.  He can’t keep away.  He thinks he’s so irresistable in his shuffling walk-by, with his fancy hat, his spit-polished shoes, his thin moustache. I’m sure he can dance and gaze into my eyes for days.  All he needs is a little feeding, watering, to grow into the man he could become. Do me proud, like my plants, every day.

This time there will be a pause in his shuffle.  This time he will look up. And learn to linger.

About Inspiration and Awards

Who or what inspires you as a writer? What fuels your passion and your life?  What makes you forget about time, eating, an aching back or even your friends and your children’s supper?  Not that I would recommend the last of these.  And I have only done it very occasionally.  Hardly worth pointing out, really.  Even if afore-mentioned children and friends do remind me of it on a regular basis.

So here are some of my favourite sources of inspiration in random order (ah, but is ‘off the top of my head’ really random?):

1) mountains and seascapes, preferably both together, as in the picture above

2) Shakespeare, especially ‘The Tempest’

3) the music of Brazil, almost any kind of jazz, plus David Bowie and a few other heroes

4) reciting or hearing poetry, the rhythm and roll of the images flooding your ears

5) when reading, finding the perfect phrase, the thought-stretching twist, the heartbreaking confession or the remarkable plot which makes me think:’yes, this is it, this is what life is all about’ and turn slightly green with envy that I could never write anything like that myself

6) the beauty of small creatures and shy buds, everyday things that are the last to be noticed and the first to be forgotten

7) the kindness of strangers, given without forethought or afterthought: things that make me believe once more in the generosity of the human spirit

All this is leading up to the Versatile Blogger Award that Polly Robinson has so kindly insisted I should have.  Thank you, Polly, you are one of the most encouraging people I have had the pleasure of meeting on the Internet.  I can always count on her to read my poems and make some comments.  I don’t know when she does it all, write her own poetry, organise events in her local area in Worcester, United Kingdom, setting up writers’ groups and open mic evenings… she is just amazing!

The rules for this award are typical of many others: share 7 things about yourself (my sources of inspiration, above), thank the person who nominated you and nominate 15 bloggers whom you recommend unreservedly.  I know that to some of them these awards (because they receive so many of them) can be a pain, so there is no obligation.  Unless they wish to leave a small comment below sharing perhaps not seven, but at least one thing that inspires them.  That would be wonderful!

I would so love to hear that from you all, and not just the people I am nominating below.  I am trying to nominate some that I haven’t mentioned before, so they are all fairly recent discoveries to me, although some of them are very well known.

Poetic magic

The Thread Is Red

Marousia

The Wheel and the Star

KD DeFehr

Jeannie Leflar

Stars Rain Sun Moon

Anything but prosaic

Andy’s Words and Pictures

Eric Alagan

Lisa Ahn

Write What You Know

Thought-provoking skullduggery

Crime Fiction Lover – and I loved them even before I started reviewing books for them!

It’s a Crime

Nicci French

Jeff Goins

A picture says more than a thousand words

From the Right Bank

An Afternoon With…

Shedworking