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  • Ilinca Stroe

Romania’s Treasures: the Writers

Once upon a time, Romanians put pen to paper... To be more specific, it was 1521 when the first known piece of writing in Romanian (with Cyrillic letters) was produced. It was a letter from Wallachian [1] boyar Neacşu Lupu, a resident of Câmpulung, to the mayor of today’s city of Braşov, “warning him of an imminent attack” of the Ottomans on Transylvania. [2]

The text was no fiction, its author – not a professional writer. Indeed, over the following two centuries most of the writing produced on Romanian territory (in Slavonic, rather than Romanian) was non-fiction: psalters, catechisms and many other religious texts, along with chronicles and histories, besides an array of translations of similar Western and Eastern works.

Aiming to foreground specifically Romanian fiction and fiction writers, this post will therefore fast-forward to two centuries after Neacşu. And then take up the tricky mission of grouping together historical/thematic “chunks” of Romanian literature, with a special view to stirring the gracious reader’s curiosity about the latter, while facilitating his or her access to works available in English. (Or at least to some films based on them.) Deal?

If that sounds just about alright, let’s take a brave plunge into the18th century. That’s when Dimitrie Cantemir, prince of Moldavia and a truly encyclopaedic scholar (in 1714 he was granted member status in the Royal Academy of Berlin) lived and produced his roman à clef, A Hieroglyphic History (1705). It was the first Romanian novel, in which its author, not unlike Irish Jonathan Swift, blended sarcasm and allegory to depict the boyar families’ intricate and consuming craving for the thrones of Wallachia and Moldavia.

To learners of Romanian, one special word in that work should be particularly interesting: struţocămilă. You won’t find it in dictionaries, yet Romanians use it a lot in everyday language to refer humorously to what/whoever has non-definite or mixed identity traits (for example, such and such car is a struţocămilă because it has great design but poor technical performance). For more of Cantemir’s Hieroglyphic History, why not watch this 3-minute public reading in English, courtesy of the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York?

As for the rest of the 18th century in Romanian literature, there was some more brazenness, but of a different kind: the “love songs (1769–99) in the tradition of the ancient Greek poet Anacreon” [3], composed by the likes

of Costache Conachi or Alecu Văcărescu, Phanariote Greek poets descending from affluent boyar clans. Students of the Faculty of Letters used to be warned about the “ruling triad” of such poetry: “amorul, filomela şi narghileaua”, i.e. lustful love, nightingales and hookas – mirroring an overt pleasure-seeking (and fairly Phanariote) approach to life. Indeed, critics like Andrei Oişteanu point out that the connection between impudent eroticism and the not-just-tobacco contents of the shishas was more than merely casual... [4]

On we go, to the golden 19th century. That’s when writer Nicolae Filimon published the first “novel proper”, Ciocoii vechi şi noi/The Old and the New Parvenus (1862), a realist masterpiece comparable to French Balzac's and Stendhal’s works, centred on a remarkably despicable upstart. (Again, learners of Romanian should be aware that when natives say someone is “a Dinu Păturică”, which is the name of Filimon’s main character, they mean that person is a bad-taste and/or mean arriviste whom you’d better avoid.)

The golden century also yielded modern Romania’s “foundation myth”, a folk ballad called Mioriţa/The Ewe Lamb, which poet and politician Vasile Alecsandri first discovered and published in 1850. The piece, according to many Romanians, has to do with the generosity of forgiving those who wrong you (badly), protecting your dear ones against pain (even if that implies hiding the truth), and transgressing death (at the hands of your mates) via a fantasy “cosmic wedding”. The more critical of us, however, can’t help wondering why that shepherd passively allowed himself to be killed out of envy, instead of laying hands on some club or cudgel and fighting back to defend himself. (Read the whole poem here in English, or listen to the storyline here, summed up by the former British Ambassador to Bucharest.)

Finally, the golden century produced the literary canon of Romanian literature, made up of three major writers: Mihai Eminescu, an exceptionally gifted poet dubbed “the last great Romantic of Europe”, who took previously clumsy Romanian, along with Romanticism’s typical load of nostalgia, to exquisite heights of poetic beauty (sample a poem of his, “One Wish Alone I Have”, in English here); Ion Creangă, who, quite the opposite, brought Saint Peter and God Himself down to Earth among Romanian peasants, in his witty fairy tales; and Ion Luca Caragiale, the pungent satirist whose surgical humorous insights into some of the Romanians’ perennial weaknesses and soft spots would make for terribly useful cross-cultural orientation training.

As for the 20th century, literature by Romanians flourished. Abroad, Anna de Noailles/Ana Elisabeta Brâncoveanu, a novelist, poet, memoir writer and friend of Proust’s, Gide’s and Valéry’s, had Paris at her feet,

as they say – so much so that she became the first female Commander of the Légion d’Honneur. Avant-garde poet Tristan Tzara made a splendid figure at the onset of Surrealism, co-founding its arguably most spectacular branch, the Dada movement. And Paul Celan survived persecution, exile and labour camp imprisonment to become one of Germany’s most important poets (Georg Büchner Prize in 1960).

At home, around 1945-48, pre-WWII writers were forced to transit, together with their themes and style, from a free to an oppressive (communist) regime ruled by the “wooden language”, Party-imposed topics and censorship. Some made the necessary compromises only to be allowed to go on publishing (or because they really believed in the new regime), some others were “lucky” enough to pass away before the compromising choice.

The latter include Austria-Hungary-born Liviu Rebreanu, a Faulkner-style realist novelist whose best known work in English (available here) is Forest of the Hanged (1965): the story of his brother’s execution under the charge of desertion from the Austro-Hungarian army. (Read the eponymous film storyline here.)

As for those who survived into the new regime, novelist, playwright and poet Camil Petrescu initiated modernism in Romanian literature and is our best shot at Proust-quality writing. Petrescu believed in authenticity and “stream of consciousness” in writing, and his best known work in English is The Bed of Procrustes (translated in 2008 by Ileana Orlich), an intriguing love story whose female main character has the rare quality of staying with the reader’s senses like a fine perfume on a mysterious alleyway at dusk...

Not unimportantly, it was Petrescu, as well as Rebreanu, who supported a young female writer of socialist

leanings, Cella Serghi, on her way to successful publishing. Intelligent and beautiful, Serghi brought about a totally new “species” in Romanian fiction, especially in her novel Mirona’s Book: the independent female heroine who, very much like the author, explores social, intellectual and spiritual life in a rather patriarchal society on her own, from a down-to-earth feminist perspective. Serghi’s credo? “I’ve been sincere in everything I’ve written.” [5]

No better figure could be found to end up a 20th-century Romanian literature summary with than Mihail Sadoveanu. Highly prolific, with majestic (social-)realist prose, Sadoveanu debuted just before the turn of the century and made it wonderfully well under the new regime both culturally and politically: a Grand Master of the Romanian Freemasonry [6] and twice acting head of state during communism (1947-48 and 1958) [7], Sadoveanu authored around 90 volumes of prose having, undoubtedly, all the ingredients that make a great writer great. Of those works, English-speaking readers tend to prefer The Hatchet, a clever sequel to Mioriţa (see paragraph 8, above) in which the killed shepherd’s wife (Vitoria Lipan) takes up detective work to identify and prove the murderers guilty.

And so here we are, in the 21st century, when Romanian literature, very much alive and in the making, is experiencing tremendous diversity. Ex-corporatist Simona Antonescu (Debut Book Award from the Romanian Writers’ Union/2015) writes historical novels bringing to life Romania’s Ottoman past, for instance, around specific places like Hanul lui Manuc/Manuc’s Inn, a tourist attraction in Bucharest’s old quarter, Lipscani. PhD (in manele!) Adrian Şchiop ventured to publish one of the very rare “gay stories” in Romanian fiction, tackling highly sensitive issues of race, social status and… love in Soldaţii. Poveste din Ferentari/The Soldiers. Story from Ferentari (2013) [9]. And Sociology Lecturer Dan Lungu authored Sînt o babă comunistă!/I’m a Communist Biddy! (2007), which vividly captures the ethos, lifestyles and daily facts of the former regime (“the queues for food, the food rations, terribly long queues especially in freezing winter” [10]) and inspired a film “where you don’t quite know whether to laugh or weep.” [11]

Abroad, Diaspora writer Andrei Codrescu has produced some brilliantly irreverent fiction, of which Messi@h and The Blood Countess stand out through their flabbergasting plot and the fabulously cruel profile of Elizabeth Báthory, respectively. And Switzerland-based novelist Cătălin Dorian Florescu (Eichendorff-Literaturpreis 2012) has authored eight volumes in German, the latest of which, Bărbatul care aduce fericirea (2018)/ Der Mann, der das Glück bringt connects The Danube Delta in Romania to early 20th-century New York, when “Europe is throwing up and that reaches our coasts” [8], in a fantastic and insightful story of (unwanted) migration.

To wrap up this centenary-style tour of literature by Romanians, let’s zoom in on a fine, fine trio.

George Călinescu – novelist, literary critic and author of The History of Romanian Literature from its Origins to the Present (1941)

Born: 19 June 1899 in Bucharest, Romania

Died: 12 March 1965 in Otopeni, near Bucharest

Career highlights

* 1923: graduated from the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy, the University of Bucharest, strongly influenced by Italian Professor Ramiro Ortiz, from whom he confessed “having learned everything I know” [12]

* 1923-25: studied at the Accademia di Romania a Roma, where he researched Catholic missionary work in 17th- and 18th-century Moldavia

* 1926: moved to Bucharest, started living modestly in a rented house and made his debut as a poet in Universul literar magazine

* 1929: married Alice Vera

* 1933: published Cartea nunţii/The Wedding Book, a lyrical novel based on his love story with wife Alice

* 1936: PhD at the University of Iaşi (north-east Romania)

* 1937: became Professor of Literature at the University of Iaşi

* 1938: published Enigma Otiliei/Otilia’s Riddle, a novel inhabited by intriguingly quirky characters

* 1941: published The History of Romanian Literature from its Origins to the Present, his exceptional masterpiece (948 pages in quarto)

* 1945: was appointed Professor of Literature at the University of Bucharest

* 1946: was elected (and then re-elected repeatedly until his death) a member of the Romanian Parliament

* 1949: became a member of the Academy of the Popular Republic of Romania, travelled around the Soviet Union and published Kiev, Moscow, Leningrad (travel memoirs)

* 1953: published Bietul Ioanide/Poor Ioanide (a novel picturing a society dominated by intellectuals), travelled around China and published I’ve Been to New China (travel memoirs)

* 1965: Scrinul Negru/The Black Chest of Drawers was published, a novel staging the fate of Romanian aristocracy and bourgeoisie during the proletarian regime


* George Călinescu bust sculpture in Chişinău, The Republic of Moldova

* “Felix şi Otilia”/”Felix and Otilia”, a 1972 film based on his 1938 novel, available here

He was...

a gifted writer; an encyclopaedic scholar; a brilliant professor; an ascetic personality totally dedicated to his writing, yet extremely vain about his looks (about a month before his death, while receiving visitors in hospital, “he was unhappy because his haircut was too short” [13]); and... a problematic husband: “The initiatives were his. I didn’t have my own will. Our household was divided into two. I was in charge of everything material: going to the marketplace, cooking, doing the shopping, fetching wood for the stoves. He was very carefree. Besides writing, he had no other concerns.” [14]

To listen to Călinescu lecture an audience in his unique mesmerising (and a mite funny) chanting style, click here.

Mircea Cărtărescu – poet, novelist and Nobel Prize for Literature favourite since 2011

Born: 1 June 1956 in Bucharest, Romania

Career highlights

* 1978: made his debut in România Literară magazine

* 1980: graduated from the Faculty of Letters, the University of Bucharest and published Headlights, shop windows, photographs... (poetry volume)

* 1990: published The Levant, a James Joyce-style epic poem describing a group of Wallachian adventurers’ return to their homeland while using poetic styles from mediaeval to postmodern times

* 1991: became a Lecturer in the Romanian Literary History Department at the Faculty of Letters

* 1993: published Nostalgia (a novel translated into English in 2005 and “received with rave reviews by critics across the United States” [15])

* 1994: Travesti, which was awarded the Romanian Writers’ Union Prize 1994

* 1994-95: was appointed visiting Lecturer at the University of Amsterdam

* 1996: published Orbitor/Blinding, volume I

* 1999: Romanian postmodernism, PhD thesis

* 2001: Jurnal/Diary volume I

* 2002: Orbitor/Blinding, volume II

* 2004: De ce iubim femeile/Why We Love Women, a bestselling collection of short stories about women originally published by Elle magazine (translated into English in 2011)

* 2005: published Jurnal/Diary volume II and Baroane!/You Baron! (political criticism)

* 2006: was appointed Grand Officer of the Cultural Merit Order by the Romanian Presidency

* 2007: Orbitor/Blinding, volume III (translated into English by Sean Cotter)

* 2010: became an Associate Professor in the Romanian Literary History Department at the Faculty of Letters

* 2012: International literature prize "Haus der Kulturen der Welt 2012”, Berlin

* 2013: Grand Prix of the Novi Sad International Poetry Festival

* 2015: published Solenoid and won the Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding for Blinding, and the Austrian State Prize for European Literature

* 2016: won Premio Gregor von Rezzori for Blinding

* 2018: was awarded the Thomas Mann Prize and Prix Formentor

He has been...

the best and best-selling contemporary Romanian writer; drawing a lot on his childhood, which he regards as his “main existential experience and the only one he lived thoughtfully” [16]; a lifetime fan of Edmond Dantès’s Count of Monte Cristo, because of the fascinating pupa-to-butterfly transformation the hero undergoes; often taken for someone else (most notably, a rather hunky TV host also called Mircea); a fond keeper of memories related to the 22nd of December 1989 (the Romanian Revolution), when “people had forgotten about their differences and were very happy. I believe that day was, in effect, this nation’s happiest, ever.” [17]

To watch Cărtărescu read a 3-minute prose fragment at Feria del Libro (Madrid 2018), click here.

Herta Müller – German-language novelist, poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature

Born: 17 August 1953 at Niţchidorf/Nitzkydorf, Timiş County, western Romania

Career highlights

* 1972-75: was a member of Aktionsgruppe Banat a group made up of Swabian students and writers that supported freedom of speech and were critical about (therefore persecuted by) the communist regime of the Socialist Republic of Romania

* 1973-76: majored in German Studies and minored in Romanian literature at West University of Timişoara

* 1976: started work as a translator in a factory

* 1977: became a member of the “Adam Müller-Guttenbrunn” Literaturkreis, a literary circle affiliated to the Students’ Association in Timişoara

* 1979: was fired following her refusal to collaborate with the Securitate (the repressive Secret Police operating during Nicolae Ceauşescu’s dictatorship)

* 1982: debuted with Ținuturile joase/Niederungen/Nadirs, a collection of short stories about life in the Romanian countryside and the oppressive atmosphere in communist Romania, published in its censored version in Romania

* 1984: was allowed to visit Germany three times, but returned to Romania

* 1984: published Drückender Tango/Oppressive Tango (stories) in Bucharest, and the full version of Nadirs (translated into English in 1999) in the Federal Republic of Germany, with the result that the Romanian authorities forbade her to publish any further work in Romania

* 1986: Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt ("Man is a great pheasant in the world") appeared in Berlin, a novel based on a Romanian saying, later published in English as The Passport

* 1987: emigrated to Germany and settled in Berlin

* 1989: published Reisende auf einem Bein, a novel about exile and homelands, translated into English as Travelling on One Leg

* 1994: Herztier, a novel fully depicting the life of four young people in an oppressive police-state Romania, written "in memory of my Romanian friends who were killed under the Ceauşescu regime" [18], translated into English as The Land of Green Plums

* 1995: became a member of Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung (the German Academy for Language and Poetry)

* 1999 & 2008: was nominated for the Nobel Prize by the German Government

* 2009: won the Nobel Prize for Literature for depicting in her frank prose “the landscape of the dispossessed” [19], being the 12th female writer to be awarded the Nobel [20]

* 2009: published Atemschaukel, a 304-page prose poem about a young ethnic German from Romania who lived through deportation and forced labour camp imprisonment in the Soviet Union, translated into English as The Hunger Angel

She has been...

a chainsmoker out of the need to “absorb excess electricity” [19]; proud of her grandfather’s thriving business in pre-communist Romania; and uncompromisingly critical about totalitarianism, oppression and injustice.

To watch Herta Müller talk during the Louisiana Literature Festival 2014, with a wry sense of humour, about her childhood in the west Romania countryside, click here.

Now, are you ready for a contemporary “Doina” by poet and civic activist Ana Blandiana, with Spanish subtitles and a balmy soundtrack? :)

Photo credits:

Notes & sources

[1] Wallachia and Moldavia were the two Romanian Principalities which united in 1862 to make up the basis of today’s nation state of Romania.

[2] “Neacşu’s Letter.” Wikipedia. Accessed 11 June 2018. <>

[3] “Romanian literature.” Encylopaedia Britannica. Accessed 11 June 2018. <>

[4] Andrei Oişteanu. Narcotice în cultura română. Istorie, religie şi literatură. Iaşi: Polirom, 2014.

[5] “Cella Serghi.” Wikipedia. Accessed 12 June 2018. <>

[7] “Mihail Sadoveanu.” Wikipedia. Accessed 12 June 2018. <>

[11] Ibid.

[12] “George Călinescu.” Wikipedia. Accessed 12 June 2018 <>

[15] “Nostalgia.” Wikipedia. Accessed 12 June 2018. <>

[16] “Mircea Cărtărescu.” Wikipedia. Accessed 12 June 2018. <>

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