Mircea Cărtărescu is Romania’s best-known contemporary author. Most of the country’s readers will have at some point picked up one of his works, whether that’s his 80s playful, postmodern poems that get taught in schools, or his ambitious novels Solenoid, or The Blinding.
English-language readers, however, have only just started to discover the writer on a wider scale. Last month, Cărtărescu’s Nostalgia was issued as part of the Penguin’s Modern Classics series. First published in Romanian in 1989, his debut prose collection is filled with enthralling, magical realist (or, as some call them, “magical unrealist”) short stories, and is already in its 11th edition at home. The English language translation by Julian Semilian first appeared in the United States in 2005, from the independent publisher New Directions. But its selection for the prestigious Penguin Classics series is set to give the book a new lease of life, as well as its well-deserved place in the world literature canon.
Is this early or late to be published as a modern classic, I ask Cărtărescu? “Of course, it’s very late,” he tells me. “Everything, regarding Romanian literature and regarding me, has happened with a terrible slowness. For the most insignificant progress, for the smallest success, we authors from obscure cultures have to make 10 times the effort of Western authors.” It’s true that just 3.5 per cent of the books available in English are translations, while publishing markets in Eastern Europe and beyond are dominated by translations from English. Yet, to be made a classic, next to Franz Kafka and Bohumil Hrabal, by a major UK publisher is no small achievement — especially when the only other Romanian authors in the series are interwar writers Emil Cioran and Mihail Sebastian.
Nostalgia fully deserves this new life. The book has a timeless, mythical quality, although at times retains a strong sense of location: there are the trenches outside communist apartment blocks in Bucharest, where children become enchanted by a Messiah-like figure, or in the Romanian capital’s pre-war underworld, where dubious figures try their luck at the Russian roulette.
In the five stories that make up the collection, Cărtărescu explores daring themes, ranging from child politics and sexuality to drag and androgyneity. He delves into each topic with the author’s poetic, obsessive, dreamlike prose — a landmark style developed in the chunky novels and short stories that followed his debut. “Nostalgia remains a fundamental sound in my writing until today,” Cărtărescu says.
“I intoxicated myself with books, like a good part of the people who withstood dictatorship”
The stories in Nostalgia were Cărtărescu’s first attempts at prose, presented in the order in which he conceived them. By then, he was known as a poet, having published three books of poetry to great acclaim. But he had never tried his hand at prose — not even in writing exercises. “Even now, I think that this book wrote itself, in a trance, just as it happened with my other books that followed it,” he says. “I am never proud of my writing and books, only infinitely grateful for it.” To this day, Cărtărescu never revises his writing.
The 29-year-old Cărtărescu was teaching literature in the suburbs of Bucharest when he wrote Nostalgia in the mid-80s, in the mornings before work, and on Sundays. Living in a flat on the eighth floor of a socialist high rise, where the summers felt too hot and the winters were too cold to bear, Cărtărescu says that writing the collection was “a great consolation” for him “in those years of shortage and humiliation, when Romania became a great prison.”
Like most authors, Cărtărescu’s passion for writing was born from a love for reading. Yet, in his case, this interest was partly driven by the state’s monopoly over culture, and the absence of today’s wide offer of entertainment. (In communist Romania, television was only available for four hours a day, and largely aired propaganda.) “I lived in an era in which you couldn’t do anything else but read,” he says. “People intoxicated themselves with whatever they could. I intoxicated myself with books, like a good part of the people who withstood dictatorship.”
Perhaps more so than others, Cărtărescu’s escape was also into a metaphysical, onerous world. His scepticism of material reality and the belief that all is consciousness is a recurrent theme in his writing. In one of Nostalgia’s five stories, “REM”, which unfolds the memories of a woman revisiting her younger self, we find out that “REM is an infinite machine, a colossal brain that regulates and coordinates, after a certain plan and for a certain purpose, all the dreams of all living beings. Others see in REM a kind of kaleidoscope in which you can read all at once the entire universe.”
With slight echoes from Borges, strangely paired with sci-fi elements, Cărtărescu’s literature goes far beyond the mundanity of everyday life and deep inside the darkest rooms of the human psyche. “I am not interested in the kind of writing that is successful today, about ordinary people who speak like they do on the street. It is not my cup of tea,” he explains. “A writer should on every page express the human condition, with its realist areas but also the oniric, psychoanalytical, mystical, ecstatic, or in other words —the poetic. Poetry is the highest form of art and each artistic object — be it music, painting, or prose writing — should take its light from it, otherwise it stays in the dark.”
Despite being sent to publishers in 1985, Nostalgia was only printed in 1989 — and then in a censored state, under the title The Dream. The unabridged version was finally published in 1993. The book gained cult status in Romania and, following the fall of communism, Cărtărescu’s notoriety kept growing thanks to his ambitious novels, Orbitor and Solenoid, his diaries, and his magazine columns.
With more than 100,000 followers on Facebook and an extended presence in the press, today Cărtărescu is considered among Romania’s most successful writers. Recent translations have propelled him on the bestselling lists of the Spanish and French language book markets, leading Nouvel Observateur to run the headline “And what if Mircea Cărtărescu is the best writer in the world?”
I have often heard from other Romanian writers that Cărtărescu is perhaps the country’s only author who can actually live off writing. Yet, he debunks this myth. “I don’t live just off literature, and I never have done,” he explains. In addition to writing, Cărtărescu also teaches literature at the University of Bucharest, and has been a guest lecturer across other European institutions, in Berlin, Vienna, and Amsterdam. “Writers are among the worst paid people for their work,” he says. “Of course, adequate cultural policies would change the situation but for our state, culture is the fifth wheel. Our politicians are poorly educated and don’t understand art. The [cultural] budget gets smaller and smaller each year, and institutions are ever more politicised and incompetent.” For all his political scepticism, Cărtărescu is committed to staying in Romania, and often takes public stances on current affairs, criticising last year’s bill banning gender studies, for instance, or demanding the depoliticisation of the Romanian Cultural Institute.
But doing other jobs alongside literature also comes in handy for someone who says that he hates the word “writer”. “It is charged with snobbery and falsity,” he explains. “A person who writes is just that: a person who lives a normal life and who, on top of that, has the undeserved gift that books come through him into the world.”
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