#1940Club: The Secret of Dr Honigberger

Mircea Eliade: Secretul doctorului Honigberger (The Secret of Dr Honigberger)

Original cover of the novella.

Before Mircea Eliade became a philosopher and historian of religions, he was primarily known as a fiction writer (and playwright) in his birth country, Romania. 1940 was a bit of an odd year for him – he had recently been released from prison for his support of the right-wing Iron Guard, but was then rehabilitated and even sent to London and then Lisbon as cultural attaché when Romania lurched to the right and later became military dictatorship during the Second World War.

This slim novella was written during this troubled period and perhaps that’s why it contains hardly any references to the politics of its time: it is pure escapism, with the future professor of religions very much in evidence. It is a story within a story and features mysterious disappearances, dusty and potentially dangerous manuscripts, time shifts and surreal/ghostly elements that are now common-place in fantasy literature, but which were perhaps rarer at the time.

The narrator is a young scholar of Oriental Studies (like Eliade himself), who has recently returned from a lengthy trip to India. He is invited to the house of Mrs Zerlendi, a widow, who would like him to examine her husband’s extensive library of Oriental treasures and determine if it might be possible to complete the monography he was writing about Dr Honigberger, who had travelled throughout India and the Arabic countries in the first half of the 19th century and was believed to have attained a transcendental state and special psychic powers.

The narrator is somewhat sceptical at first, and considers the deceased Mr Zerlendi a rank amateur. However, as he grows familiar with the valuable collection and even stumbles across a secret journal, he realises that things are not quite what they seem. Zerlendi did not die, but mysteriously disappeared all of a sudden in 1910, without a word to his family or friends, without taking any of his papers or clothes or money with him. From his journal, it emerges that he was following many of the ascetic and yogic practices described by Dr Honigberger in an attempt to reach the hidden world of Shambala, which some scholars thought was an actual location somewhere in the north of India, but which the narrator is starting to think is something like Enlightenment.

Just as the narrator thinks he might be uncovering the secret, he is suddenly kicked out of the house and library (under the pretext of spring-cleaning and that Mrs Zerlendi has fallen ill). He keeps trying to get past the gatekeeper, the fierce, limping housekeeper, but no luck. And then, when he passes by the house again after a few months, he discovers something very strange indeed: the Zerlendi family (still without the father of the household) in something resembling the future or perhaps an alternative universe.

There is no resolution to the mystery of what actually happened to the narrator or to Zerlendi, and readers often asked Eliade for an explanation, which he refused to give. Clearly the author’s professional interests in esoteric practices got the better of him, for there are far too many lengthy descriptions of those. There are times when the narrator seems to be critical of the fascination with all things Oriental that Zerlendi displays, but I wonder if Eliade the author is aware that he and his narrator are displaying all the same symptoms.

If anyone could manage to make an exciting premise boring (even in a short novella), then it is Eliade here. After he became a lecturer in religious studies, his literary output decreased dramatically. On the other hand, his academic works often read like novels, so…

For an updated and even more intriguing take on this story, with a science-fiction twist, I would recommend Paul Doru Mugur’s short story ‘zerlendi@shambhala.com’, the first in his short story collection Psychonautica, recently published in the US by New Meridian. (And I say that not only because I translated that book).

A translation of Eliade’s novella by Ana Cartianu was published in 1992 under the title ‘Doctor Honigberger’s Secret’, as part of an omnibus edition of Eliade’s Mystic Stories. Probably only worth seeking out if you are deeply interested in the subject or in the author. However, you can see an entirely different (and funnier) side to Eliade by reading his barely disguised youthful memoirs translated and published by Istros Books.

I know that officially the #1940Club is over, but I just wanted to add this fairly obscure book to the list. It didn’t take me long to read but it has taken me far too long to review. More about the reasons for that perhaps in another post.

Winding Down and Wrapping Up (Part 2)

It’s amazing how the colours on the covers of the most memorable books I read in the second part of the year also match my mood during that period: much more colourful, even pinkish and coy, although normally I am not a fan of pink. Yes, this was the most optimistic part of the year.

In my teens I was (sort of) diagnosed with bipolar disorder: for me (everyone is slightly different) this typically manifests itself as periods of intense activity, almost manic energy and optimism which has no bearing to reality (the ‘up’ periods), to be followed by far longer periods of utter hopelessness and despondency (the ‘depressive’ periods). I was given lithium to even out these wild mood swings, but that made me feel like it was benumbing me, so I lost all of the positives of being on a high and only very slightly had the edge taken off my depression. Over the next few decades, I learnt to manage my moods with a cocktail of home-made and medical remedies, and over the past decade, I thought I had moved more into depression (partly sparked by external circumstances).

However, this year the manic period reasserted itself with a vengeance, perhaps because I travelled to see my parents for the first time in 2.5 years, or perhaps because I briefly thought I might like to have a relationship again. It was kind of lovely having the energy back, even though I knew about its dangers and limitations. For a couple of months, I felt invincible: I survived on very little sleep, had so many new ideas, wrote love poetry (which I had not done since high school) and so many other things, submitted regularly, took my boys on a trip to Brighton, went to plays and exhibitions, joined the Society of Authors, attended the Translation Day in Oxford, reconnected with old friends, investigated a possible collaboration with a theatre in London and so much more. Helped by the wonderful weather and by better news on the creative front, I was able to handle the growing anxiety about my mother’s incipient dementia or my cat Zoe’s state of health (she had started vomiting far too frequently, but we had not yet diagnosed her with cancer).

All this is reflected in my top reading choices. In April, I chose to focus on Romanian writers, because I spent two weeks in Romania, although some of the reading was entirely serendipitous since I just happened to come across Martha Bibescu’s journals set just before and during the Second World War in my parents’ house. I was also smitten with the two plays by Mihail Sebastian that I had not previously read (one was seldom performed during Communist times, perhaps because it talked about lies being published in newspapers, while the other was unfinished at the time of his death). I also reconnected with the work of surrealist, absurdist writer Urmuz, whose work was published largely posthumously when he committed suicide at the age of 40 and translated a couple of his short pieces (they are all very short, more like flash fiction, even a novella in flash). One of them, I am happy to say, will appear in Firmament, the literary journal issued by Sublunary Editions.

May was all about life in Berlin, often written by expats. The only one that impressed me and which gave me a bit of insight into the history and society of Berlin was The Undercurrents by Kirsty Bell, but I was intrigued by a different kind of expat, namely the anthropologist, in Mischa Berlinski’s rather epic, occasionally uneven but fascinating look at the ‘outsider going native’ Fieldwork.

June was my month for catching up with French writing, and I’d forgotten how eloquent and impressive Simone de Beauvoir can be in describing women’s experiences. Gael Faye’s Petit Pays taught me so much about Rwanda and Burundi and trying to integrate into French life. I also enjoyed books that fell outside my original reading plan (I’ve always been flexible about allowing others in): I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed the relatively simple story about a love affair set in Japan, Emily Itami’s Fault Lines and yearning for love and companionship in Seoul in Sang Young Park’s Love in the Big City.

As I said, I might have been susceptible to love stories that trimester, even though mine never got off the ground (with the wisdom of hindsight, I’m inclined to say: thank goodness it didn’t!).

Finally, one crime novel that stuck with me because it was so post-modern and different and sly: True Crime Story by Joseph Knox. The danger with these seasonal summaries (rather than those done by genre, for example), is that crime fiction often gets sidelined. So, several crime novels might have made my ‘best of the year’ list among others of its genre, but they might struggle to compete with Simone de Beauvoir or Mihail Sebastian.

December Diva: Solenoid by Mircea Cărtărescu

I was looking for a good alliteration for December with the meaning of ‘chunky’, ‘lengthy’ read, but all I could find was ‘drawn-out’, which doesn’t sound very complimentary. Not sure that Diva sounds very flattering either, but at least it promises something dramatic, exciting, with flair… Besides, it’s all nonsense about creating a memorable alliteration with ‘D’, since in truth I read Solenoid in November, thanks to the wonderful Reem and her read-along. Deep Vellum recently released Sean Cotter’s translation of this book, often considered Cărtărescu’s masterpiece, but I read it in the original, having bought the book back in 2019 on my last visit to Bucharest before the pandemic.

I am familiar with much of Cărtărescu’s work, and even went a couple of times to the writing circle he organised for students (one of my friends was a devoted Cărtărescu acolyte and took me along). At the time, I liked his poetry more than his prose, but since then I have enjoyed his diaries (which show him to be quite an insecure person, like many other writers, despite his considerable national and international success), was not overly impressed with his short stories, really liked Nostalgia and Blinding, so was curious to see how I would feel about Solenoid.

Perhaps I should state upfront that I don’t think it’s his best work.

It treads over much of the same ground that he covered with more brilliance and gusto in the trilogy Blinding (although here it covers mostly the 1960s and 70s, while in Blinding there is a much longer time span from the 1950s to 1989 and the fall of Communism): his childhood experiences of health scares, his extensive reading, Bucharest as a city in decay, the shape of an individual life and how it comes to represent any life, the fallibility of memory. Autobiographical elements combined with surrealist flights of fantasy. Solenoid is more rambling, less inventive and surprising than Nostalgia. The problem is that Nostalgia is not translated particularly well in English by Iulian Semilian, so it doesn’t do justice to Cărtărescu’s style, while Sean Cotter does a much better job with the first volume of Blinding, but volumes 2 and 3 never made it into English.

However, Solenoid is a good compromise if you want to discover the work of this Romanian writer who has been occasionally tipped for the Nobel Prize. I found myself enjoying it quite a bit, in spite of my reservations. There is much more humour and self-deprecation than I expected, for example, when the narrator describes the ambitious epic poem about everything which he wrote at the age of 17, which is openly derided at the writing circle, thus making him renounce his literary ambitions and go into teaching, a job he despises and only does half-heartedly.

Bottomless ambition made the poem ridiculous. You have to learn to walk first before running. The poet who read tonight was like a child in a baby walker who wants to take part in a marathon and even win it.

[About teaching] It’s only for a year, till I get taken on at a publisher or literary magazine… [then he stayed on] 40 more years and I’ll retire from here. It hasn’t been that bad. I even had some lice-free periods!

I think it excels particularly in the realistic details of life in 1970s Romania which sound so absurd that they almost become surreal (and therefore are a good match for the magical and surrealist elements the author introduces into the story). Oone memorable scene is about the spitting on icons competition in the classroom, to determine who is the best atheist.

We’d go early in the morning, sometimes before it even got light, to queue up in the freezing cold, like a herd of animals, for a chicken carcase or a bottle of milk diluted with water.

The only thing the children learn from weekly Constitution class is the name of the person whose portrait hangs above the blackboard in every class. This person, who appears on TV frequently, speaking some strange language, is someone about whom we can’t tell jokes.

There are also some beautiful phrases and memorable passages, some of which remind me of scenes from Tarkovsky films and which will stay with me forever: the abandoned factory where the narrator and another schoolteacher go to search for their older pupils; the nameless fear that the narrator experiences as a child when he leaves his aunt’s house on the outskirts of town one night with his mother and they see a heavily starlit sky; the gathering of the Picketer protestors in something resembling Dante’s circles of Inferno.

Above all, I enjoyed the author’s riffs on reality and whether the human mind has the capacity to transcend it. Dreams appear to be the only means of escape from a grim and grey world (and yet I found the long descriptions of dreams quite repetitive and wearisome).

We search foolishly, in places where it’s impossible to find anything, like spiders weaving webs in bathrooms where no fly or mosquito will ever get in. We shrivel up in our webs, but we never lose our need for truth.

But the enormous, real world around us cannot be described by the senses, even if we had a million of them like a sea anemone swaying in the ocean current. The world is all around us, crushing us in its embrace, bone by bone.

The old man was clearly delusional, but I knew better than anyone that delusions are not the waste byproduct of reality, but form part of it, indeed are sometimes the most precious part of reality.

Maybe I’m the last human left on earth, maybe this labyrinth I am entering is being generated moment after moment just for me, maybe my conscience itself is a mere projection of a mind far greater than my own…

There were many erudite asides and mini-biographies of real life characters to explore along the way. While most of them were fun to google (the Voynich manuscript and the novel The Gadfly by Ethel Lilian Voynich), not all of them were strictly necessary, some of them felt self-indulgent. There is no excuse really for 11 pages (in my edition) of the word ‘Help’ repeated over and over again. A couple of pages would have been just as effective. But I suppose no one dares to edit the demi-god of contemporary Romanian letters.

The six solenoids that lie buried at different points under the ugly city of Bucharest are an attempt to link together the disparate stories of an author who never knowingly avoids a tangential thought or an opportunity to show off a bit of research. I suppose the author himself and many of his dedicated readers will say that each anecdote fully deserves its place and adds something to the book, but many of them felt like red herrings to me.

The Uranus neighbourhood was entirely demolished to make room for the building of Ceausescu’s House of the People. The author repeatedly refers to lost/demolished areas.

And yet there was a lot that I loved about the book. The atmosphere of a city in an advanced state of decay (and yet a strange kind of love for this city) reminded me of the descriptions in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. The self-critical humour about the budding writer and his lack of skills, combined with a huge ego and a streak of cruelty towards others (especially about their appearance or intelligence – many of the female teachers feel like caricatures, for example) reminded me of Karl Ove Knausgård. The hallucinatory long sentences, with an incantatory quality and spot-on satirical observations (plus sudden bursts of violence) were reminiscent of Javier Marias. I know that Cărtărescu greatly admires Kafka, but although the sense of absurdity and anxiety might be similar, Kafka’s style is far more concise and minimalist, so it’s not a comparison that would naturally come to mind. However, as Andrei from The Untranslated blog said about the book when he read it in Spanish long before it was translated into English, it is an excellent addition to and perhaps a crowning of the surrealist canon: unashamedly ambitious and what some may even call ‘elitist’.

But I still think I prefer my masterpieces to be more concise and allow me to do most of the thought-provoking.

#1929Club: Mateiu Caragiale

There were so many great books published in 1929 (Rilke, Faulkner, Elizabeth Bowen, Nella Larsen and so much more). A favourite decade of mine anyway, and I have read quite a few of them in the past, but I am going to go quite obscure with my contribution to the #1929Club hosted by Simon’s Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. This is my only contribution to this week’s extravaganza but I do urge you to read some of the other reviews and books.

Mateiu I. Caragiale

In Romanian, the book is called ‘Craii de Curtea Veche’ and it has been translated as either Gallants of the Old Court by Cristian Baciu in 2011 or Rakes of the Old Court by Sean Cotter in 2021. The author, Mateiu Caragiale, was the illegitimate son of one of the best-known Romanian playwrights and authors, a master of the prose style, Ion Luca Caragiale. His father was very much influenced by German and French literature, and mocks the affected use of French phrases in the Romanian bourgeois vocabulary of the late 19th century, but Mateiu seems to have been influenced more by the Levantine style, his work has been described as quite baroque and ornate, and he uses Turkish expressions extensively.

Although it was voted the best Romanian novel in 2001 in Romania (in a rather upmarket cultural publication), I have the feeling that it lives on more in the nostalgia of readers because of its style and subject matter, rather than that it is widely read and discussed. Published in 1929, the author took over twenty years to write it, so it is firmly set in the pre-WW1 period in Bucharest and describes a vanished world in a rather dream-like haze yet not entirely devoid of a critical eye. It has been compared stylistically to Proust (although much, much shorter), but the atmosphere evoked in the book reminds me more of fin de siècle Vienna, with endless discussions in coffee houses, lush parties, and a schizophrenic feel of looking to the future while desperately clinging to the past.

But the real pleasure came in our idle conversation, the palaver that embraced only the beautiful: travel, the arts, letters, history — history especially — gliding through the calm of academic heights.

Let’s not forget that Vienna too was often at the very border with the Ottoman Empire, and some of that languorous indolence that people have associated (rightly or wrongly) with the Ottomans has certainly sweetened the disciplined Germanic spirit of the Viennese. The Bucharest described by Caragiale is caught up even more between Western and Eastern cultural influences, but there are very many attractive details in the decadence that he describes. We don’t need to know that Mateiu Caragiale was also a keen genealogist and designer of coats of arms (who believed he might have been descended from an aristocratic family) to guess that he was quite wedded to the past and regretted its demise. Of course, there is a certain element of ‘Orientalism’ in this approach, the exoticism of something which had disappeared, although no doubt Mateiu would have hated to live during the period when the Ottoman Empire was controlling parts of the Romanian principalities or attacking and laying siege to them.

The title itself is clearly ironical. The Old Court is the neighbourhood in Bucharest situated around the former royal residence, one of the oldest parts of town which had become by Mateiu’s time a largely messy and noisy commercial area. ‘Crai’ in Romanian originally meant king/leader (and is still used as such in folk tales), but its meaning has now morphed into ‘philanderer’ or ‘vagabond’. Mateiu himself said that the title was inspired by an anecdote his father told about a band of ruffians who stole the symbols of power (fancy clothes, coronets, jewels) from the ruling classes following an uprising, then paraded through town wearing them, astride on donkeys and filthily drunk. So there is clearly a carnavalesque atmosphere of role reversal there, but is it condoned or lamented? Well, the epigraph to the book might demonstrate that it is neither: simply, it is different, and the rules you are used to do not apply:

“Que voulez-vous, nous sommes ici aux portes de l’Orient, ou tout est pris à la légère…”
Raymond Poincaré

The illustrations of Razvan Luscov for the 2015 edition of the book.

But what is the book about? Largely plotless, it is in fact the narrator reminiscing about his three friends, Pantazi, Paşadia and Pirgu, and the life of wine, women and elaborate food that they enjoy in Bucharest. Pantazi is the romantic nobleman who reads Cervantes in the original and who suffered from an ill-fated first love and therefore commits to a life of a rake, travelling all over the world, in an attempt to drown his sorrows. Paşadia is charismatic, handsome, wealthy, clever, passionate about history: the world seems to be at his feet, but for some reason he has become disenchanted and cynical about it all and leads a double life: the finest of intellects in the daytime, the lowest of animal instincts at night. Pirgu is low-born and keen to climb the social ranks (or at least make a lot of money): a scrounger, a bossy-boots, resourceful and resilient, the typical nouveau riche who despises the old traditions or fine intellect. Guess which one of the three thrives at the end of the novel?

The friendship between the four, if you can call it a friendship, is in fact quite dysfunctional: Pantazi mocks Pirgu’s uncouth manners, while Paşadia allows himself to be manipulated by Pirgu as if in an act of self-loathing or self-destruction. Meanwhile, the narrator observes it all but seems unable to intervene.

A strange little book, which I think must be nearly impossible to translate. I have not read either of the translations, but from what I’ve read from other reviews, Sean Cotter has done his best to convey some of the faded glamour and over-the-top flavour of the original, although I am not sure that his use of extravagant Latinate words works best as a substitute for words of Turkish origin (which are often used in a slightly pejorative sense in Romanian). The book is very funny because of its intentionally over-opulent use of language, despite its overall melancholic, dissolute feel.

In his review of the book, M.A. Orthofer singles out this particular passage as almost a description of what the author hopes to achieve with his storytelling style, and I would agree with that:

The narration undulated languidly, braiding a rich garland of notable literary blossoms from all peoples. Master of the craft of painting with words, he effortlessly found means to express, in a tongue whose familiarity he claimed to have lost, even the most slippery and uncertain forms of being, of time, of distance, such that the illusion was always complete. As though bespelled, I undertook long imaginary journeys with him, journeys such as no dream ever provided … the man spoke. Before my eyes unrolled charming throngs of tangible visions.

There is a film adaptation of this book from 1995 (which I haven’t seen), but above all, it was lovely to reread the book for the 1929 Club. It felt like opening an old perfume bottle and refamiliarising myself with some long-lost, slightly too-sweet but not cloying scent. This time around, I was also far less disposed to be lulled by the stylistic fireworks and give a free pass to this annoying bunch of men, who see women largely as fantasies, victims or sluts.

For your information, I prefer the father’s style, but nevertheless Craii remains a landmark book showing the tension between Occident and Orient in the Romanian psyche.

Back from Holidays – and Books Acquired!

There is no such thing as a relaxing holiday with the extended family back in the home country… but there were many pleasant moments, and a complete break from the treadmill, so I can’t complain! I’ve been boring everyone with endless holiday pictures on Twitter, but here are a few of my favourites, to give you a flavour of the landscapes and ‘vibes’. I will share more in my next few Friday Fun posts. [None tomorrow, though, as I have a lot of catching up to do still]

Barajul Vidraru – reservoir and dam

The Black Sea coast

The Bran-Rucar pass in the Carpathians

Although I had no time to browse in bookshops (unbelievable, I know!), I brought back a whole pile of books with me, some were old favourites languishing on my parents’ bookshelves, others that I had ordered online a few months ago and got delivered to their address. Meanwhile, a few books made their way into my letterbox here in the UK while I was away.

Here’s the result!

Romanian books:

  • As part of my search for contemporary Romanian authors to read and possibly translate, particularly women authors, I’ll be reading Raluca Nagy, Nora Iuga, Magda Cârneci (this one has been translated by Sean Cotter) and Diana Bădică. All recommendations via Romanian newsletters to which I subscribe.
  • A mix of contemporary and more classic male authors as well: Gellu Naum is better known for his avantgarde poetry and prose in the 1930s and 40s, or his wonderful children’s book about the wandering penguin Apolodor in the 1950s, and this is his only novel as far as I am aware (this too has been translated into English, see some reviews here); Max Blecher’s Scarred Hearts, which I previously read and reviewed in English, but wanted to own in Romanian; one of my favourite modern poets, Nicolae Labiș, who died tragically young; an English translation by Gabi Reigh of my favourite play by one of my favourite writers, Mihail Sebastian; finally, two young writers that I want to explore further, Tudor Ganea and Bogdan Coșa.
  • Last but not least, a dictionary of Romanian proverbs translated into English – just to remind myself of some of the old folk sayings.

Other books:

  • Another expat in Berlin story, imaginatively entitled Berlin by Bea Sutton. I read Susan’s review on her blog A Life in Books and couldn’t resist.
  • Two Japanese crime novels: Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Onda Riku (I was bowled over by The Aosawa Murders by the same author) and an older crime classic by Matsumoto Seicho entitled Tokyo Express.
  • Two volumes of poetry, Reckless Paper Birds and Panic Response by the English poet John McCullough. I recently attended a workshop with him and found him very inspiring indeed.
  • Last but by no means list: a whole flurry of chapbooks of Swiss literature, translated from all four official languages of Switzerland, published by the wonderful Strangers Press at the UEA. I am hoping to convince them to do a series on Romanian literature too someday, fingers crossed!

Surrealism from Estonia and Romania

Kristiina Ehin: Walker on Water, trans. Ilmar Lehtpere, Unnamed Press, 2014.

There is not much literature from Estonia available in translation, unfortunately, so when the London Reads the World Book Club was looking for an Estonian book for May, we only managed to find two, of which one was out of print. However, I think we chose well, since Kristiina Ehin is contemporary and comes highly recommended by Estonian readers. She is a poet, translator, singer and songwriter, and this preference for the brief form shows clearly in this collection of very short stories – linked flash fiction – or novella-in-flash, I suppose you could call it. She also has an interest (and M.A.) in folklore, and this too is obvious in her work. Well-worn tropes are inverted; the plain storytelling style becomes playful or deadpan; an intimate chat between friends around a campfire veers off into the fantastical and impossible.

The title story ‘Walker on Water’ is a typical example of this. It starts off fairly innocuously with the narrator stating that she had to see off the female competition to win over the man who became her husband. ‘There’s nothing more exciting than desiring a man who doesn’t even notice you.’

However, once this prize morsel has been won, you need to be able to keep him and the narrator describes how she starts to indulge in her favourite pastime, walking on water, which she compares to marriage itself: ‘It’s a game with little danger when everything is just starting out and the little waves lick your shoreline with pleasure.’ But is it enough to keep afloat on the water when your intelligent and educated husband literally opens the hatch at the back of his head when he comes back from work and takes his brains out?

There were so many instances of droll humour or satirical asides, which remind me of Finnish authors I have read previously. In Ehin’s case, these revolve around the often absurd lengths to which people will go in their relationships with the other sex: the woman whose husbands were all called Jaan and all have their arms bitten off, the narrator who hires a Love Organizer to keep her love from freezing at the edges but ends up having to do everything herself, a Surrealist’s Daughter who turns into a dragon and ultimately has two pairs of three-headed twins… On and on it goes, from one absurd story to the next, from one metaphor taken to extremes to another hyperbole, usually with a feminist twist that brought a wry smile to my face.

I wasn’t quite sure that I understood all of the metaphors or cultural references, but I did enjoy the retelling of Snow White from the point of view of the apple painted by a Princely Paintbrush, or the collection of the (possibly?) souls of former husbands portrayed as dried apricots, or the Sheherezade style of storytelling, blending myths and family tales, in ‘Lena of the Drifting Isle’.

Urmuz: Pagini Bizare (Bizarre Pages), MondoRo Press, 2013.

Urmuz is the pen name of one of the most unusual yet influential writers Romania has ever had. Born Ionescu Demetrescu-Buzău in 1883 in Curtea de Arges, he spent most of his schoolyears in Bucharest, studied law and became a county court judge and, after the war (in which he fought largely in Moldova), he became a registrar at the High Court in Bucharest. He started writing his proto-Dadaist pre-surrealist stories around 1913, but didn’t publish anything until1922. Hypersensitive to most things, leading the life of a recluse, he ended his life with a gunshot and was found behind the famous buffet (now restaurant) on Kiseleff Boulevard on the 23rd of November 1923.

Vintage postcard of the buffet.

His contemporaries were shocked by his apparently motiveless death, and the poet Tudor Arghezi (the first to recognise his talent and offer to publish him) always reproached himself afterwards for not being closer to him and preventing this tragedy. Yet, despite his brief literary career and the meagre output (he left behind at most fifty pages of writing), he had a huge influence on the Romanian literature that followed. While some compare him to the tragic absurdity of Kafka, others emphasise his comic tour de force a la Lewis Carroll or his links to folklore, but to me he is far more clearly linked to Tristan Tzara and the Dadaists, and produced a whole vein of direct descendants in Romanian literature like Eugen Ionescu, Leonid Dimov, Mircea Cartarescu.

In the preface, one of the leading literary critics of Romanian literature, Nicolae Manolescu, says: ‘Can you imagine the reaction of readers in 1922 – used to epic novels like Ion – when they were confronted with the opening lines of the mini-novel The Funnel and Stamate?’ Indeed, a startling contrast to everything else that was being written at the time.

A well-ventilated apartment, made up of three main rooms, not forgetting a terrace with a glass partition and a doorbell.

A table with no legs in the middle of the room, based on intense calculations and probability, upon which there is a vase containing the eternal essence of the ‘thing in itself’, a clove of garlic, a figurine of a (Transylvanian) priest holding a grammar book and 20 pennies change… The rest is unimportant.

However, you should be aware that this room, forever darkened, has no doors or windows and only communicates with the outside world via a tube, through which you occasionally see smoke or, at night, the seven hemispheres of Ptolemy, or, during the day, two humans descending from the apes alongside a finite row of dried okra, reflecting the endless and useless Auto-Cosmos…

The Dadaists were also playing around with language and concepts at that time, but they had the additional benefit of combining their poetry with decoupage and other artistic methods, making their poems very visual (you can see an example by Tristan Tzara here). Urmuz has to bring all of the playfulness and experimentation, the sense of joy and freedom, but also the futility, into his prose using nothing but words.

There is, however, one poem by Urmuz that schoolchildren have always loved – a mock-fable nonsense rhyme, which reminds me of Edward Lear or Dr Seuss, and is delicious to roll about on the tongue, although hell to translate.

If I have whetted your appetite for this highly unusual writer, you can find an online translation of two of his stories here, while Dalkey Archive is bringing out his collected prose in 2024. Once again, Alistair Ian Blyth has got there before me with the translation! 😦 However, I think I might go ahead and translate one of his pieces anyway (maybe The Fuchsiad), just for fun and practice and the sheer love of it.

Reading Summary April 2022

I know it’s a bit early to summarise the month, but since I only post on Mondays and Wednesdays (and the more pictorial Friday Funs), this is my last chance to summarise the month before we embark upon May. As such, I have not quite finished two of the books I feature on my list (Nostalgia and the escapist Georgette Heyer) but expect to do so by the weekend. I also intend to review in more detail the two surrealist pieces of literature (Ehin and Urmuz) on Monday 2nd of May, when we will be discussing the Estonian book at our London Reads the World Book Club.

Eighteen books. Bit of a record reading month in terms of quantity, partly because I had so much time off – on holiday until the 11th, then university closure around Easter – and partly because I was racing through some rereads for translation funding applications for Corylus. 12 of those books were in Romanian, and I’ve already written about some of them. I have already expressed some of my dissatisfaction with the translation of Nostalgia and my mixed feelings about Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir of learning Italian.

There were two non-Romanian books that I read for book clubs – the highly unusual supernatural crime novel The Dying Squad by Adam Simcox and the even more unusual vignettes/short stories by Estonian author Kristiina Ehin, translated by Ilmar Lehtpere. I alternated my serious reads with two escapist, nearly-but-not-quite romance books from the library: Clare Chambers’ The Editor’s Wife (entertaining if rather predictable) and one of Heyer’s Regency novels The Reluctant Widow (which seems more of a crime caper than a romance, a bit of a colour by numbers effort from the author, but one of the few of her books available at the library).

My reading plans for the next few months are:

Anglos Abroad in May – American and English writers who have set their books in other countries, whether it’s fiction or a memoir, depicting some sort of culture clash – and quite a few of them will be about Berlin.

June: French literature – for no other reason than remembering how much I adored these verses by Rimbaud and the lime trees on the promenade.

On n’est pas sérieux, quand on a dix-sept ans

On va sous les tilleuls verts de la promenade.
Les tilleuls sentent bon dans les bons soirs de juin !

July – Spanish Lit Month – and I intend to focus on Latin America mostly

August – Women in Translation Month – not that I don’t love reading women in translation all year round.

Reading Romanian Literature

I have already mentioned the stash of books I brought back with me from my trip to Romania earlier this month. I also had a bit more time to read, being on holiday (although, naturally, I did spend a lot of time sorting out paperwork and chatting with my parents, which were the two main reasons for going there). So I also raided my father’s bookshelves. He is as great a reader and book collector as me, although he tends to prefer non-fiction, political biographies and history. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that I’ve managed to read ten Romanian books already this month – with more than a third of the month still to go. Since none of them have been translated into English, I will review them briefly here.

Martha Bibescu

Martha Bibescu: Berlin Journal 1938 and War Journal 1939-1941

Princess Martha Bibescu (aka Marthe Bibesco in France) was born in 1886 in a noble family in Romania (Lahovary) and married into another noble, even princely, family (Bibescu). She spoke several languages fluently and knew everyone who was anyone across most of Europe during the early part of the 20th century. She was also a popular writer, a prolific diarist and a cultural and political hostess, often engaging in ‘soft diplomacy’ with those in power.

These two diaries are fascinating for their insights into the political climate of the time. I expected Martha Bibescu to be the typical spoilt socialite complaining about declining service and the lack of respect of the working classes, but she comes across as remarkably empathetic and clear-eyed. Despite her obvious privileges, wealth, many love affairs, she was a shrewd judge of character, especially of politicians and their duplicity. She was a personal friend of Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany and in her Berlin journal, she describes the delusional hope that he and his wife harboured about every becoming essential to German life again. She also met Hermann Göring during that trip, but never succumbed to the Fascist temptation: on the contrary, she describes a handsome young officer in SS uniform as the ‘bait to reel them [Western powers] in’.

She was also profoundly loyal to Romania, although not necessarily to the constantly changing governments of the time and rapid switches in alliances. She was fully aware of the challenges of being a small country surrounded by great empires and I couldn’t help but admire her analytical abilities, how she cut through the bullshit to get to the core of problems. She was a great admirer of British diplomacy and level-headedness, although she had been brought up in a Francophile culture, and sent her grandson to be educated in England, believing that would be the most influential culture in the future.

Lavinia Braniște: Sonia ridică mâna (Sonia Raises Her Hand) and Mă găsești când vrei (You Know Where to Find Me)

Braniște is the epitome of the millennial generation in Romania, I feel, and the three novels she has written to date are excellent at describing the daily grind of life in contemporary Romania from the perspective of a young woman, well-educated but somewhat drifting between jobs, relationships and family, struggling to find a sense of purpose in a society which is still quite prescriptive about what your goals and direction should be. Both of these novels are somewhat similar in style to her first one (the one I am trying to shop around at various publishers), but address different topics: in the first, Sonia is confronting the recent Communist past and how it lives on in the memories of her parents’ and grandparents’ generations; in the second, she explores issues such as domestic violence, force control and lack of self-esteem. Both are topics that are often brushed under the carpet in Romania.

Mihail Sebastian: Ultima oră (Breaking News) and Insula (The Island)

Sadly, Mihail Sebastian only wrote four plays, of which only the first two are frequently performed. These are his two lesser-known ones: Breaking News is a frankly barely believable farce about a mix-up in a printing press. The historical research paper of a university professor accidentally gets published in the local paper, full of misprints, causing mayhem when an oligarch and his pet MPs and ministers believe that it is written in code, threatening to reveal some of their nefarious corrupt or even illegal deeds. Some might describe the comedy as heavy-handed, but the absurdity of censorship reminded me of Communist times (no wonder this was not performed much back then), while the lengths to which politicians are prepared to lie and obfuscate… well, quite frankly, it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched anymore.

The final play, The Island, was never finished – only two acts out of the planned three exist. It was nevertheless performed posthumously in 1947 with an ending by Sebastian’s friend Mircea Ștefănescu, but I only read it in its original state. As if to emphasise the universality of his themes, Sebastian has set this play in an unspecified country (possibly in Latin America), prone to revolution or civil war. Three travellers, Boby, a football player, Nadia, a young painter, and Manuel, a wealthy businessman, are all stuck in the country when an unspecified major war-like event breaks out. There are no ships or trains to take them out of there, banks are frozen, so they have to find some cheap accommodation and sell off their possessions in order to survive. They are so hungry that they eat a pack of aspirins that they manage to find somewhere. Although there is some witty banter, this feels much less like a comedy and more like a serious drama about the plight of refugees – which is understandable, since it was written in 1943-44, when the outcome of the war in Europe was still far from certain. As a Romanian Jew, I have no doubt that Sebastian was both more aware of and more sympathetic to the refugee stories they must have been hearing at the time.

Tony Mott: Toamna se numără cadavrele (Autumn Is the Dead Season) and Bogdan Teodorescu: Băieţi aproape buni (Nearly Good Guys) and Teodora Matei: Himere (Illusions)

I reread the first two and read the third one so I could write an application for a translation grant for Corylus Books. Fingers crossed we get some funding this time, as I think they would both appeal to an English-speaking audience. Tony Mott’s book is set in beautiful Brasov and features an indomitable, fast-talking, no-nonsense female forensic scientist, while Teodorescu’s is a more experimental novel depicting politics and social issues in recent Romanian history, under the guise of a juicy bit of police investigation. Teodora Matei’s book continues with a slightly more light-hearted entry in the police procedural series featuring the older, slightly jaded chief inspector Iordan and his young, charismatic sidekick Matache, investigating an apparently unrelated series of killings of family men all over the country.

Alina Nelega

Alina Nelega: Ca și cum nimic nu s-ar fi întâmplat (As If Nothing Happened)

At first glance, a story like thousands of others, about growing up during the 1980s in Romania, but the author is a playwright and theatre director, and it shows in the phenomenally fluid way she slips into other people’s voice and stories. The main character here is Cristina, who has to come to terms with her own sexuality as a lesbian, which was completely illegal in Ceauşescu’s Romania and punishable with jail, but there are many other experiences we hear too, in an indirect but extremely lively speech, as if we are following someone filming a speeded up documentary of tragicomic scenes. Although both the author and her main protagonist are roughly a decade older than me, there were so many descriptions of situations, people and places that I could relate to and made me laugh or wince out loud in recognition.

One unforgettable vignette is when Cristina, who lives in a small town in the north of the country, attempts to go to the seaside with her small son and her friend Nana. As they reach Bucharest on the train, she realises she forgot to take the rubbish out and that her house might be full of cockroaches when she gets back from holidays. She can’t phone her friends to take out the rubbish, because most of them don’t have a phone or else aren’t close enough to borrow a set of keys off someone and empty her bin. She can’t go back to do it herself, as the train connections are horrible and it would take her forever. So she decides it would be best to send a telegram from the Central Post and Telephone Office in Bucharest (the only place from which you could send telegrams at the time), but the girl at the counter becomes suspicious that Cristina’s laconic text ‘Please throw rubbish’ could be a code for something political, so she refuses to send it.

I hope this gives you an idea of the great variety of books being published in Romania today – and hopefully at least a couple of them will get translated into English (they seem to be doing better with French or German translations).

#PerilousDishesReadalong – delightful glimpse of a world long gone

At the beginning of this month I had the honour and pleasure to be invited to join the readalong for The Book of Perilous Dishes by Doina Ruști, translated by James Christian Brown, published recently by Neem Tree Press. You can find further information about the book’s background and how it was translated on the Neem Tree Press site. I attended a Q&A with the author and translator, which helped me understand the book better (and the vast amount of research that went into it, both at the time of writing and at the time of translating).

N.B. I have just realised that I forgot to tag this as part of the #ReadIndies initiative launched by @Kaggsy59 and @LizzySiddal.

Bucharest in the 18th century.

Set predominantly in 1798 Bucharest (although the older heroine travels to Germany and France and looks back upon the events of that year from the year 1829), this is a book that is full of colour, street noises, market aromas, as well as larger than life characters. I knew the historical research was accurate and detailed, but I was surprised to hear that many of the characters are actual historical figures.

It was a tricky time in Romanian history. This is a part of the world which has always been at the mercy of feuding empires. The dichotomy between Cartesian West (associated with modernity) and Balkanic East (associated with oppression but also the church and traditional values) has dominated all of Romanian history and culture.

Wallachia was for several centuries under the indirect rule of the Ottoman Empire, which in practice meant that money and goods had to be sent to the Sultan every year in return for a quasi-autonomy. However, the Sultan’s court couldn’t be bothered to get their hands dirty with administrative details. So instead they appointed wealthy Greeks from the Phanar quarter of the city to oversee these vassal states. It was a much sought-after position (lots of money to be earned through taxation) and there was no shortage of candidates prepared to pay money to be appointed prince of the country.

One of the greatest amusements of the Sublime Porte was to fool some Greek with the notion that he could make himself lord and master over the land of Wallachia for the modest price of a mere four hundred bags of loose change. No one had any idea what the price of a country should be. But it was not the real value that counted, so much as that ‘yours for only…’ which even today makes people restless…

…there and then he became the master of Wallachia, where he fondly dreamed that he was going to spend the rest of his days with subjects falling at his feet. A year later, however, another sucker for a cut-price offer would turn up, with another four hundred bags. Consequently, when I arrived there, Bucharest had already had the pleasure of being ruled by at least thirty Greeks, not to mention the Russian army, which made its way there from time to time, and drove out whoever happened to be the ruler… Fortunately, the Russian soldiers had itchy feet and they never stayed long.

One of the Phanariot rulers, Prince Mavrogeni, trying to flee from the Austrian troops in his stag-drawn sleigh in 1789. What can I say: borders were constantly being fought over and redrawn in this part of the world. And maybe stags run faster than horses?

But fear not! This book is anything but a dry old history lesson. This is the story of the fiery fourteen-year-old Pâtcă who suddenly finds herself alone in the world when her grandmother Maxima gets arrested for witchcraft in the Transylvanian town of Brașov. She respects Maxima’s command to go back to her home town of Bucharest, seek out her great-uncle Zăval and acquire the magical recipe book of Perilous Dishes. Alas, she finds her great-uncle has been murdered and a bottle of powerful poison is missing, while the whole city is in uproar over a cook kidnapped by the Prince, who is able to cook gourmet dishes out of this world. Pâtcă soon figures out that the cook has somehow got hold of her uncle’s book, but is not aware of the dangerous powers of his recipes he is preparing, so the girl has to use all her resources to stay out of prison, recover the recipe book and keep her true identity secret. For she has been told that she is the notorious Cat O’Friday (Mâța Vinerii in Romanian, the original title of the book), the last descendant of a family of magicians who follow the cult of the great pagan god Sator.

Early photos of a market scene in Bucharest.

The book is stuffed to the gills with fascinating characters of all nationalities or ethnic backgrounds, some of them criminals and hustlers like Ismail Bina, some impossibly charismatic and naive (like the French diplomat Dubois), others simply going along with things in order to survive (like the pragmatic Caterina Greceanu, who takes the girl into her household). There are so many plot twists that your head will spin, but I advise just allowing yourself to gallop along. Some flashbacks have been tidied up to create a more logical chronological order in the translated version.

I also like the way the translation manages to convey the funny, irreverent, confessional tone of the young girl, with all of the moodiness, stubbornness and know-it-all attitude of her age. Pâtcă itself is a nickname, meaning ‘Tiny’ or ‘Little’Un’, but the girl is so used to it, she doesn’t understand why people laugh when they hear her name. It’s little details like this, plus her difficulties in summoning up Sator’s powers or finding the houses she is supposed to have inherited, which make me wonder if she is… not exactly an unreliable narrator, but rendered unreliable because her family has been withholding secrets from her.

Translator James Christian Brown has been teaching English at the university in Bucharest for a long time, and his respect for and knowledge of Romanian culture and language shows clearly in this book. However, he admitted that if he hadn’t coincidentally also been given some 18th century documents to translate at roughly the same time, it would have been a huge challenge to do this book justice. It’s not just the vocabulary, but many of the concepts themselves which have fallen into oblivion, so even if you find the ‘correct’ term in English, it would not mean much to a modern reader. I found myself sighing in relief on many a page that I didn’t have to translate this!

With its fast-paced plot and young heroine, I suspect it is being marketed as YA literature in the English-speaking world. However, it is a rollicking good read for adults as well, particularly for its vivid recreation of a vanished world. It reminded me somewhat of Carlos Ruis Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind or Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, so if you liked either of these, I would definitely try this one.

Friday Fun: Romanian Writers’ Memorial Homes

Here is just a handful of the many examples I could have picked. However, it might be worth mentioning that more recent writers would have lived in blocks of flats and therefore have a less attractive backdrop for their creativity.

Nicolae Labis (1935 -1956) showed astounding promise as a poet but died far too young. He wrote his most famous poem ‘The Death of the Deer’ in this childhood home in Suceava county. From muzeedelasat.ro
Lucian Blaga (1895-1961) was one of our most famous poets, originally from Transylvania, as you can see from the different style of architecture of his parental home. From viziteazaalbaiulia.ro
Novelist Mihail Sadoveanu (1892 – 1952) wrote about a third of his works in Falticeni, the small town where he grew up, although this is not the parental home, but a house he built after WW1. From tripadvisor.com
When Sadoveanu became one of the best-loved Romanian writers, he was able to afford this house in Iasi. After the Communists came to power, it was nationalised and is now the Museum of Romanian Literature. From muzeulliteraturiiromane.ro.
Cezar Petrescu (1892-1961) was a popular novelist in the period between the two world wars, and was thus able to afford to buy this house in the mountain resort of Busteni in 1937. From tripadvisor.com.au
Nicolae Iorga (1871-1940) was a writer and historian, who later became a politician and was assassinated by the far-right Iron Guards. He spent every summer at his house in Valenii de Munte for over thirty years. From visitprahova.ro
Mihai Codreanu (1876-1957) is now virtually forgotten, but was a popular poet (known mainly for his sonnets) and journalist. His career is all the more astonishing since he was almost completely blind from the age of about 30. He was given the piece of land by the Iasi city council, upon which he built this house, known as Villa Sonnet. From planiada.ro