Norman Manea

Again I’ve been absent a while in the unreal yet inconceivably populous virtual spaces of the web.

I was in NYC for the first day of the July 27-28 celebration of the 75th birthday of the great Romanian fiction writer and essayist Norman Manea.  (I had been mispronouncing his last name for years, and he was too polite to correct me, and now finally I’ve learned how to do it—when Romanians say “Manea,” it sounds like “monya”; the “e” is very fleeting.)  The announcement for this can be found at:

This tribute seemed to me to have required the emergence of two generations of Romanian writers and readers younger than Manea.  Literary culture in Romania, after so long under Nazi and then Communist dictatorship, is still fraught with nationalist rigidities of attitude, extremism, and a history that even now can scarcely be discussed fully.  Manea kicked a hornets’ nest when he published his essay “Felix Culpa,” an unmasking of Mircea Eliade’s fascist years in Romania and of others connected with him whose mentality and program remains fascist to this day.  The vitriolic response was anti-Semitic, nationalistic, and dangerous.  (The essay first appeared in The New Republic, and Manea included a fuller version in his 1992 American collection On Clowns: The Dictator and the Artist.)

At the tribute, among the first of these two younger Romanian generations who are trying to open Romanian culture were Silviu Lupescu, the director of the Romanian publisher Polirom, which is now issuing all of Manea’s work in a uniform edition; Corina Suteu, the director of the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York; Carmen Musat, the editor of Observator Cultural, a weekly publication in Romania; and Bogdan-Alexander Sta Nescu, the editorial director of Polirom.  (On the occasion of this tribune to Manea, Polirom published a bilingual Romanian-English book in his honor, edited by Cella Manea and George Onofrei, Obsesia Incertitudinii / The Obsession of Uncertainty.)  Among these and also among several Romanians in their twenties with whom I spoke, there was great reverence for Manea, not only because of his writings, but also because of his having refused to make an existential trade-off with the twenty-four-year-long Ceaucescu regime: he would not go along with the regime in order to avoid pressures, threats of imprisonment or worse, and very effective censorship.  He somehow held his own, having to accept the limited publication for which he was eligible in that society deliberately distorted by its government.  (In the title essay of On Clowns, Manea’s description of submitting his typewriter for its annual required inspection at a government office—absurd ritual of an absurd state—is funny, creepy, and all too meaningful.)

Among the Americans speaking on the first day of the tribute was the president of Bard College, Leon Botstein, whose work as an orchestral conductor took him to Romania in 1997 and provided the occasion for Manea’s first return visit to the nation he had been forced to flee.  His meditation on that trip, his parents, Romania, and the course of his own life, took the form of The Hooligan’s Return: A Memoir (Farrar Straus, 2003).  Also speaking were Robert Boyers, who has often published Manea’s writing in his invaluable and (happily) long-lived literary journal, Salmagundi, and the novelist Francine Prose, among others.

In English translation there are several works by Manea.  October, Eight O’Clock (1992) contains the first (and unforgettable) story he published in the USA (in TriQuarterly), “The Sweater.”  Manea and his wife Cella arrived here in 1987 via Germany, bringing with them only what they could carry, after Manea was told by the Securitate of Romania that he had permission to accept a fellowship offered to him in Germany, and that he should take it, and that he should not come back.  October, Eight O’Clock and On Clowns are both in print, published by Grove Press.  Published very recently by Trinity University Press is the collection Manea has edited of Romanian Writers on Writing (2011), one of those books that opens up a whole world that overflows the banks of the present nation of Romania.  It’s a world previously unavailable to all who must wait for translations into English.  We have had bright flashes of that world in the amazing work of those who left Romania during the twentieth century and found readers and audiences elsewhere—driven out or voluntarily withdrawing from that oppressed place—including Paul Celan, E. M. Cioran, Eugene Ionesco, Mircea Eliade, Andrei Codrescu, and Manea himself (to say nothing of the artists Constantin Brancusi and Saul Steinberg, the pianists Dinu Lupati and Radu Lupu, the composer Georges Enescu).  Only a few Romanian poets have been translated into English, among them Tudor Arghezi, Ion Caraion, and Benjamin Fondane (who wrote in French).   Now Manea’s edited collection of Romanian writings on writing give us a fuller sense of how much we are missing.  Also, two other, earlier, books by Manea have been published in English—the collection of stories Compulsory Happiness and the novel The Black Envelope (both by Northwestern University Press).  And earlier this year, Sheep Meadow Press published The Correspondence of Paul Celan and Ilana Shmueli, which includes a brief essay by Manea and his lengthy interview with Shmueli; she too was from Romania, and has much to say about the world that formed Celan and herself, and the somewhat younger Manea, too, and about Celan himself, to whom she remained close until the end of his life.

Manea’s stature, as a fiction writer and a thinker about human destiny, is that of a world artist.  I wish more of us would read his work!

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