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.

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.