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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Most Obscure on my Bookshelves – the Romanian Poets

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. When it comes to poetry, there is a saying that ‘Romanians are born poets’ – a double-edged sword in the original Romanian, akin to the Irish kissing the Blarney stone. It means we are eloquent and make full use of our musical language and romantic/ fiery Latin disposition. But it can also mean that we have little of substance to say, but we are able to say it beautifully.

This is not the case with the three poets I mention below. They combine style with substance. They are perhaps not as famous as our ‘national’ poet, the arch-Romantic Mihai Eminescu, but they are my favourites. I’ve had to limit myself, however, to those that you can find (albeit with some difficulty) in English translation. I hope you will get a chance to discover at least one or two of them!

The Poets

Lucian Blaga – Complete Works

My favourite Romanian poet (and certainly in my Top 10 worldwide), Lucian Blaga was a philosopher, writer, diplomat and translator, best known for the poetry he published between the two world wars. When the Communists came to power after WW2, he lost his position as a university professor because he refused to pledge allegiance to the new government. His philosophy was also considered too idealistic and suspect, so he was sidelined and not allowed to publish anything other than translated works. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in the mid 1950s but the Romanian state protested against it. Luckily, by the 1980s when I went to school, he was once more studied in school, although we avoided discussing his philosophy. His poetry is best described as lyrical, highly spiritual, searching for the transcendence of self. He has a nostalgia for village life, for folklore, nature and the past, a Jungian yearning towards something greater than one’s conscious self. The language is musical and sensuous. This is an old volume of his all his poetical work, translated by Brenda Walker. And you can get a brief taster of my favourite poem as a teen, translated on my blog here.

George Bacovia – the grey poet

Bacovia is more of an acquired taste. Back in school, most of my classmates hated him, his gloomy depression, his seemingly endless rain-soaked landscapes. The one poem they could relate to was ‘Liceu’:

High school, graveyard of my youth,

Pedantic teachers,
Hardcore exams,
You still make shiver…

This might sound light-hearted, but on the whole he is the poet of melancholia, a symbolist, a modernist, even a surrealist – fitting in well with other contemporaries of his such as Eugene Ionescu or Tristan Tzara. [Blaga was also a contemporary, but very different.] Bacovia is the poet of the urban landscape, of industrialisation, of smog and dirt. Unsurprisingly, he suffered from lung disease most of his adult life, which may have coloured his perceptions. There is a lot of talk of spitting blood, of decay both of the body and of nature, in his work. Naturally, it appealed to my dark, dramatic teenage self.

There is no full translation of his works in English, but you can get a flavour of his work, plus a short critique, here.

Nichita Stanescu

Younger than the other two, Nichita Stanescu lived through the tumultuous post-war world and the ascent of Communism. He chose not to go into exile, but never became a spokesperson for socialist realism either. His poetry is relentlessly soul-searching, scathing, at times enigmatic, at times openly angry. Intense and personal, unashamedly romantic yet at the same time political in the way that any meditation about a human’s place in the world is political. His lifestyle was the stuff of legends: a rebel who refused to play the literary awards game (although he won several, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1980), he spent most of his life in a grubby little flat, with a mattress on the floor and at least two bottles of vodka a day. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he died in 1983 at the age of 50 of cirrhosis. The last great self-destructive Bohemian, one might say.  Here is a poem of his which every single Romanian person seems to know:

Tell me, if I caught you one day
and kissed the sole of your foot,
wouldn’t you limp a little after,
afraid to crush my kiss?…

You can find a selection of his poems translated by Sean Cotter reviewed on Words without Borders.

 

 

 

 

 

Coming of Age: Then and Now, in Many Countries

I was amused and charmed by the somewhat meandering vignettes of the millenial generation in Lisa Owen’s recent release Not Working. As luck would have it, I had just recently read some other books about growing up and youthful malaise, although all of them took place in other countries and other decades, so I decided to have some fun comparing all of these.

notworkingLisa Owens: Not Working

I expected this to be a bit aimless and self-pitying – the comparison with Bridget Jones did it no favours in my eyes. But I found it sharply observed, funny and perfectly encapsulating the vacancy and emptiness of much of what we take for ‘desirable, sensible goals’ in contemporary life. It is a great portrait of a generation who has (had to?) become cynical before its time.

Claire is in her mid 20s and has quit her meaningless office job to find her ‘true passion’ in life. The problem is, she is not quite sure what that might be, and fears that she may not be cut out for ‘great passions’ at all. Content to amble around, stay in a reasonably comfortable relationship, not embark on anything too adventurous, procrastinate for hours – Claire is our own worst self, someone we can all relate to (if we are being completely honest). She is also much brighter and more self-aware than the hapless being she appears to be, which makes her self-mockery endearing rather than infuriating.

The book has no plot to speak of (although there is some character development, as Claire realises just how important her family is to her and makes up her own mind about the buddleia in her garden), but it really is fun to read, full of acerbic observations, great wit and accurate observations, such as:

Economics
What actually becomes of all this terrible art for sale in cafes, costing the earth?

Job description
Words like ‘maestro’ and ‘superstar’, twinned with ‘administrator’ and ‘volunteer’.

I spend the morning planning an elaborate meal for Luke, composed of recipes from five different websites.
‘So, what have you been up to today?’ Luke asks through a mouthful of Slow-cooked Pulled Pork and Super Zingy Slaw, breaking off a chunk of the Best Jalapeno Cornbread to mop up what’s left of the sauce from the Mac ‘n’ Cheese With All the Bells ‘n’ Whistles.

The same, single article ‘How to Find Your Dream Job’ advises me to: burn all my plans, tear up the rulebook, shop around, try on different hats, county my blessings (and gifts), be kind to myself (yet realistic), listen to my dreams, follow my heart (ditto the path less travelled), move the goalposts, change gears, consider my options, watch out for signs, test the water with a toe before diving in headfirst, take the economic pulse, listen to my elders, ignore all advice.

Credit Photo: Paul Winch-Furness / www.paulwf.co.uk
Credit Photo: Paul Winch-Furness / http://www.paulwf.co.uk

Jean-Michel Guenassia: Le Club des Incorrigibles Optimistes

It’s 1959 and young Michel is discovering rock’n’roll, the first tremors of love and the war in Algeria. In the back room of a Paris bistro, he gives in to his passion for table-football and meets anti-Communist refugees from behind the Iron Curtain, as well as left-leaning philosophers such as Sartre. They loosely form a club, and they might be called optimists because, despite all the terrible news which engulfs them (deaths and desertion in Algeria, poverty and loss of trust and family in Russia and Hungary, broken dreams and love stories), they still hope in a better future.

Although we do hear details of Michel’s family and school life, his preparation for the baccalaureate, losing and making new friends, this is not so much the story of an individual coming of age. Instead, it seeks to paint a fresco of the times (late 1950s to early 1960s) and is framed by the story of the narrator meeting one of the former club members in the present day for the funeral of Sartre. Many poignant and sad personal stories are contained in its pages, but I have to admit this took me longer to read than normally. Not just because it is quite a chunky book, but it didn’t have me rushing back to it every time I put it down (although I did enjoy being transported into that world whenever I picked it up).

diaryeliadeMircea Eliade: Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent

By way of contrast, there is very little to place Eliade’s teenage narrator within a specific historical context, although the sense of place – a more leisurely-paced Bucharest – is beautifully conveyed. Surely post WW1 Romania was a hotbed of political and cultural turmoil, but the author does not choose to explore that at all. The narrator shows all the geekiness, neediness and self-absorption typical of adolescents everywhere, and anyone who has been young will recognise many of the problems he describes with school, approaching girls, grandiose plans for becoming famous, procrastination when it comes to revision, and beating one’s self up for all sorts of failures. So far, so similar to Not Working, except that the protagonist here is 15, studies insects and discusses philosophy and French romantic poets.

The spice of the story comes from the contrast between the erudite and polyglot Mircea Eliade, philosopher and professor of comparative religion at the University of Chicago, and the awkward, geeky adolescent he portrays in this lightly disguised memoir of his high-school years. Although Eliade himself never considered the book worthy of publication (only a fragment was published during his lifetime), it is fun and remains surprisingly fresh after all these years (although the English translation tends to reinforce the ‘period feel’ rather than the timeless nature of the story). A full review of this will appear in May on the Necessary Fiction website, but this is the nearest in spirit (and self-mockery) to Lisa Owen’s book.

storynewnameElena Ferrante: The Story of a New Name

It’s hard to remember that the girls populating this second volume in the Neapolitan series are only adolescents themselves as the novel opens. Just 16 and already married, Lila soon discovers her mistake. She has given up her education and ambitions for financial security and involvement in the family business. Meanwhile, the narrator Elena struggles to live up to her teacher’s expectations at school and escape from her working-class neighbourhood in Naples. So this too is very much a coming of age story, coupled with loss of innocence and expectations.

I was impressed with Elena Ferrante’s standalone novel Days of Abandonment, but resisted this tetralogy for quite some time. I was afraid that it would be the kind of ‘family saga’ of working-class girl made good type (Catherine Cookson, Barbara Taylor Bradford) which I enjoyed in my teens, but don’t read much now. After reading this book (without reading the first in the series, so perhaps I am coming to it ‘cold’), I am not quite as won over as all the hype of ‘Ferrante Fever’ would have us believe.

Not that it is bad – certainly not trashy, throwaway fiction. I loved the realistic descriptions of the ebb and flow of female friendships, the need to both escape one’s background and yet never quite fitting in anywhere else, women giving up on their dreams and yet persevering, the resilience and vulnerability of youth. What is perhaps startling and new to English readers is the passion and candour that comes across, as well as all the exotic detail of life in poor neighbourhoods of Naples in the 1950s/60s. For someone who has heard and seen first-hand the rural poverty that my mother was trying to escape from (very similar story to Elena but in Romania of the same time period), and who has listened to many similar stories of macho men and resilient women, this is all familiar ground. Furthermore, Romanian women writers of the 1930s whom I devoured in high school had already opened the way to exploration of feelings, sexuality, self-improvement and even feminism. Authors such as Cella Serghi, Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu, Martha Bibesco, or later ones such as Gabriela Adamesteanu, Dora Pavel, Doina Rusti or Nora Iuga have a similar ability to bring unbridled passion and unfettered feminine wit to a story. I’m not claiming that all these writers are better or even equal to Ferrante – merely that they are treading similar paths.