The Great Work and the Compromised Man: An Interview with Norman Manea

Carla Baricz interviews Norman Manea

The Great Work and the Compromised Man: An Interview with Norman Manea

February 2nd, 2014 reset - +

CARLA BARICZ: Tell me a little bit about writing The Hooligan’s Return. When did you decide to write a memoir? Did you know right off the bat that it was going to be a memoir? Had you decided to write before you visited Romania in 1997?

NORMAN MANEA: I didn’t want to write this book. I didn’t want to write a memoir, in any case. I didn’t like the idea of a memoir, but that’s what I ended up with. I happened to visit an editor, and I told him a few stories about Romania. He was very interested, that’s how people are sometimes, when you tell them stories about that other world, the Old World with its scandals and exoticism. He was very taken with my story, and he encouraged me to write it down. I then received a small note from that same editor. He wrote to say that he saw a book in the making, that he would be willing to publish it. I fought with him for six months; I wasn’t in the business of writing memoirs. I wanted it to be a novel. I told him that I wanted to write with ink rather than blood. And he said, “No, Norman, it’s better in blood!” I spent a long time thinking about the book, and it took me a long time to write it — years. Things got easier when I finally decided what I wanted to do with the structure. The book is a hybrid. It’s not exactly a memoir. It’s a hybrid form. It includes a section in which I retell the lives of my parents, before they had me: the past as fiction. Another section is a travel journal, which documents my 10 days in Romania, in 1997. So, it’s really a combination of things. My American editor labeled it a “memoir,” but in Germany it came out with the subtitle “self-portrait,” in Italy it was called “a life,” and in Spain they thought it was a “novel.” It can be read in a lot of ways. In Romania, where I had a say in these decisions, I told them not to use a subtitle, just “The Hooligan’s Return.” I leave it up to the reader. Think of it as you see fit.

What is it like to write your own life? 

The book has also been labeled a “novelistic memoir.” Nothing that has anything to do with the past — and yesterday is already the past — can be recalled perfectly. It’s already somehow foggy. Processes of memory are at work, and memory is fictive, weak, and ambiguous. What I wrote wasn’t a perfect document. It was difficult. A memoir or a journal needs to be authentic and truthful. You shouldn’t lie or wiggle around. You can lie as much as you want when you write a novel, but not in this case. Yet, the book is partially novelistic; I write about things that I think happened or that I know happened because documents told me, but which I did not experience myself. And even certain other parts of the book, like my description of childhood … Well, that was 70 years ago! Memory is a process which you cannot really own. You do what you can, you use whatever memories are still available to you, but the past is never exactly what you think it is.

The year 2013 marked the 10th anniversary of The Hooligan’s Return. If you were to sit down now, would you have written the same memoir? Would it have taken the same shape? 

I can’t take any responsibility for possible actions. I cannot tell what would have happened … 10 years is a long time. That was another moment in my life and in my writing. Perhaps, I would still reject the idea of writing a memoir. The whole thing was a surprise for me. And, somehow, it was also a kind of … sadness. It’s a sad time in the life of a writer when one book takes over all the other books, and you feel as you do when you have a number of children, and some of your children are handsome, accomplished, and social, while others are more isolated, quiet, and disliked. As a parent, you might be drawn to the latter, which are at a disadvantage. I, too, am drawn to my lesser-known works. Of course, I was shocked that the memoir received such great reviews in the American press. My memoir was not the sort of thing that people usually think of when they talk about the genre. It was partially fictional, and it was a complicated, Central European fiction. That type of writing can often seem coded and obscure, it belongs to another tradition. You have to learn how to read it. So I was very, very shocked and surprised that the book became successful. I received the MacArthur and the Guggenheim shortly thereafter, so I felt a bit like I was living the American dream, which is not a very comfortable thing for a writer. But that was that. Subject closed.

I’m sorry that I’m going to continue asking about the favorite child, but what prompted you to call your memoir The Hooligan’s Return?

Well, it was because I wrote that article about [Mircea] Eliade, and probably for other reasons, too. I was vehemently attacked in Romania when I published that essay; I was called horrible names. I was a guy who felt very Romanian at heart, for better or worse. I had never wanted to leave Romania. Then, later on, I didn’t want to go back. I had all of these complicated feelings about my homeland. And then, at that point, when I was attacked by everyone, I felt hurt. And I felt hurt that so few people stood by me. Even my close friends, people who knew me very well, didn’t defend me.

There was no public refutation of any kind?

Not really. Look, when the press attacked me in ’82, people told me — and they were right — that they couldn’t defend me, that they couldn’t say anything because no one would publish any sort of defense. Which is true, the press was censored. But later, in in ’90 and ’91, the situation had changed. It’s true that in the first years after the revolution, life was very chaotic, and everyone was enraged with everyone else, so perhaps an explanation can be found. Nevertheless, I suddenly felt like a hooligan. I felt that, in a way, and only in a way, of course, my situation resembled Sebastian’s, who had also been an assimilated Jew who loved Romania very much. His famous sentence, remember? “No anti-Semitic law can stop me from loving my country.” The cases were very different, but they felt similar. His best friends in Romania were not Jews, they were Romanian, and they didn’t defend him. 

Friends like Mircae Eliade?

Like Eliade, like [E. M.] Cioran, like Nae Ionescu, who was Sebastian’s tutor, his mentor. Sebastian couldn’t separate himself from all of this. He was very much part of it all. At the end of his journal, he writes about an encounter with a Jewish captain in the American army, who was stationed in Bucharest. And thinking about this captain, Sebastian suddenly came up with an idea: “I have to go to America, and I have to work for Hollywood!” I don’t know what he knew about Hollywood, but anyway, he had the feeling that what had happened to him should not leave him unchanged. Now, during the war, things were very bad for Sebastian, they were terrible, but he wasn’t arrested, and he was not sent to a camp. He was not in Transnistria. I was in a camp, and I wasn’t a Jew, I was just a little boy. I was a boy, I didn’t know what a Jew was, at that point. But, there are still reasons to compare the two cases. I felt that I should appropriate Sebastian’s rather scandalous title and name, and that I had to tell his story.

Let’s go back, for a second. You mentioned that you had been persecuted in ’82 and ’83. Can you say a few words about what happened?

I published an interview in a provincial magazine in Oradea; it was a very good magazine, Familia [The Family]. I did an interview with a tough literary critic, who asked me several questions to which I replied honestly. I was honest, I said exactly what I thought about the official writers, who wrote exactly what the Party asked them to write, and I commented on the underlying communist anti-Semitism, which wasn’t exactly the type of anti-Semitism the Legionaries had practiced. And it’s interesting that all of this happened because the editor-in-chief of the review was on an official visit to North Korea at the time. The assistant editor published the interview because his boss wasn’t there. Afterwards, when the guy came back, he was fired. And the piece caused a huge scandal. These writers who wrote for Saptamana [The Weekly] and for the other nationalist magazines felt attacked, and they answered in turn. They had the Romanian press in their hands, and an entire campaign was launched against me. I was not allowed to write and reply in my own defense. I must say that, though this interview was published in Oradea, which is in Transylvania, and even though this smear campaign spread to the entire country, the papers in Transylvania never attacked me. In Bucharest it was a circus. In Cluj, Oradea, and Timișoara, no one attacked me.

Why do you think that is?

For better or worse, it’s a part of Romania that is, in my opinion, more western. 

You wrote in your memoir that “in 1935, the year before I was born, I was the hooligan Sebastian — and so I would be fifty years after and then ten more years after that and another ten and all the years between.” What do you mean by that?

Did I say that in ’35 I was Sebastian? I wasn’t born in ’35, so it’s possible. In any case, I felt close to Sebastian, I felt that he was almost myself, that I embodied this phantom called Sebastian. I was moved by his story. He was completely assimilated into Romanian culture. He had many friends who were Christians, and despite what happened to him between ’39 and ’44, he did not become bitter. This was the interesting thing about his Journal. Compared to other books by Jews, books written in the same period, he maintained a type of detachment and a type of gentleness with which I very much sympathized. As I said, I was idiotic enough to not want to leave Romania. I could have immigrated if I had wanted to. My family remained in Romania because of me. I felt very rooted in the Romanian language and culture. This was my only home. And where should I have gone? Where? What should I have done? Things reached a point in 1986, when the situation in Romania became so bleak and unbearable that I had to leave.

Tell me about your first reading of Sebastian. Were you surprised? Were you inflamed like your mother’s cousin, Ariel?

First of all, Sebastian’s books were not available in Romania at the time. How I Became a Hooligan was not available; For Two Thousand Years was not available. What was available, and this was later, in the period of liberalization during the thaw, when the system began to rehabilitate a lot of Romanian writers who had been banned before were the plays and some essays. Then, his novel The Accident appeared. But that was it. His first novel, The Town with the Black Locust Trees had not been republished, How I Became a Hooligan had not been republished, For Two Thousand Years hand not been republished. I read these books in old editions. I was very much impressed by the latter two. Though For Two Thousand Years is not a great novel, it’s a very interesting one. Sebastian deals with the Jewish question, and his point of view is not very different from that of his mentor, actually. Putting aside the anti-Semitism, what Nae Ionescu wrote in the preface was not completely different from what the book said. The book tries to demonstrate that there is no solution to the Jewish problem. The Marxist solution, with its Utopian dreams, the Yiddish solution of staying within the parameters of Jewish folklore, the Hebrew solution of reading the Torah and moving to Israel, the Stalinist solution — none of these solutions worked! And assimilation didn’t work either, because you would always remain more or less a suspect in your own homeland. This problem appealed to me. Anything that doesn’t have a solution appeals to me.

You wrote in your memoir that you had read Proust and Joyce when you were younger. Was it in this thaw period?

No, I read Proust earlier. There were two or three very good libraries in Bucharest. I found Cioculescu’s extraordinary translation of Proust at the Institute for Foreign Relations. I read it there, before it was republished, in the early ’70s, for the popular Everyman’s Library.

You say in your essay, “The Incompatibilities” that Sebastian’s Journal is an account of the “rhinocerization” of certain Romanian intellectuals, whom Sebastian counted among his friends. You discuss Mircea Eliade, E. M. Cioran and Constantin Noica. Can you elaborate on the term “rhinocerization?”

The word comes from one of Eugene Ionesco’s plays, and Ionesco is an interesting case. He was not very political. In fact, he was one of the very few intellectuals in this group who did not condone this sort of right-wing nationalism. He said somewhere that when he left Romania, around 1939, and reached the Hungarian border, he felt that he was finally saved. At the end of the war, in ’44, he wrote in his diary that he would never shake hands with Eliade, Ionescu, Cioran any of those people. Of course, later they became friends. That’s exile. In exile, they suddenly felt like Romanians in Paris. And they were reconciled, and they started talking again. But as I said before, Ionesco felt differently during and right after the war. He says in his diary that “I could have become anything — I could have become a legionary, I could have become a dog, I could have become a base beast in that atmosphere.” And then he wrote this play, Rhinoceros, which discusses the slow transformation of human beings into rhinoceros, meaning beasts. The only person who remains human is the guy who is not virtuous, who is a drunk, who is lazy, who doesn’t work. All these other guys who display great principles, moral principles, become rhinoceros. But this man, who is human in his defects, remains human. This is the metaphor of the play.

The play was presented in the late ’60s or early ’70s in Romania, in a wonderful production with [Radu] Beligan in the leading role. For us, of course, it was anti-totalitarian and anti-communist, but it applies to all totalitarian systems. It’s about the slow degradation and loss of real humanness. Up to the very end, the rhinoceros maintain that they are the very best, that they are patriots. It should be said that, in Romania, the right-wing movement that gained support in the ’30s was very different from Nazism and fascism. Nazism and Fascism were atheistic movements, movements against the church. The Legionary movement was religious — Christian Orthodox. It was a different thought process: “The Jews have to be eliminated because we have to have this pure life, the life God wants us to lead, or Jesus, or whatever.” In that way, it was similar to what the communist movement advocated. The communist utopian ideology was based on the idea of “the new man.” This was a very dangerous idea, because real life is imperfect, we are imperfect, and when you ask us to be perfect, well, that’s the first step towards terror and tyranny.

 Of course, Eliade’s Hooligans is also all about creating the “new man.” That’s the goal of all the young people in the novel. They want to embody “the new man.” And to do that, they constantly refer to Nae Ionescu. 

The Romanian extreme right emphasized the cult of death. Death was seen as man’s greatest achievement. The moment of culmination was death. All in all, this was very different from the hypocritical, humanist socialist ideology. The left borrowed its humanism from the French Revolution. The right was completely against it; they had a much darker view of things. The Legionaries were the only ones who resisted in the communist jails and didn’t compromise. Similarly, the communists were the only ones who survived the Nazi jails and didn’t compromise. Both the far left and the far right had beliefs to which they fully dedicated themselves, for better or for worse. We, in a democracy, are told every day to be pragmatic, to find a way to get by, to compromise between the Democrats and the Republicans. And now, when both parties have become extremely ideological, they cannot reach an agreement. That’s a problem. Nevertheless, even though democracy is not perfectly pure or moral, it is more human. 

I want to broaden the scope a little and ask about the many intellectual figures that you name in your work, people who made terrible, unforgivable compromises. I’m thinking of the young Mircea Eliade, of Emil Cioran, of Constantin Noica, and under communism, of Paul Georgescu, “the flying elephant.” Do you think the work can stand independent of the writer? Or is aesthetic merit undermined by ideological compromise? 

The work can and should stand independently, in my opinion. There are cases when the work still has merit, despite the shortcomings of its writer. Human beings are not perfect, and there is something redeeming in the human being who, imperfect as he or she is, nevertheless struggles for a perfect work and creates a masterpiece. In my opinion, this redeems the flawed person a little bit. I think that the work should be judged for itself, and the defects of the writer should never be ignored. We can think of the writer as a teaching example. He or she can help us understand difficult periods in human history; what the writer has to say should be dealt with, it should be debated. The great work and the compromised man are a human contradiction, and I am always for contradictions. They’re more interesting than coherences. Of course, sometimes, it’s very difficult to separate one from the other.

Does this view hold up when pressure is exerted by those in power? I am thinking of the physically and mentally tortured woman in your short story, “The Interrogation.” She agrees to the subject she is to paint because, otherwise, she will not be allowed to paint. Is this a different type of compromise?

There is a big difference, in my opinion, between the choices you make as a free man and the choices you make under a totalitarian system. Eliade made his choice freely. At that point, Romania was still governed by a parliamentary system, the liberal bourgeoisie parties still existed; you could be in the Liberal party, or in the Peasant party. Or you could still choose to be completely apolitical. Eliade had a choice. If you are living under a totalitarian system, the decision is different. Your hand is forced. This is why I don’t point fingers at people who were coopted by the communist government, because I can understand human weakness, and I can understand the difficulties of a human life in that type of system. What I cannot forgive or forget are the people who did terrible, horrifying things to other people. But if you compromised simply by going along, if you had a family, or sick brother, or mother, or a child, or you desperately needed a job, and you didn’t hurt anyone, then that’s something else. In my opinion, people are not destined to be heroes, and you should never force people to be heroes. We are human beings. Heroes make up a very small percentage of humanity, and even then, they’re not human, they’re one-dimensional. Not all people are courageous. I had this discussion a number of times in Romania. What do you ask of a poet? You ask him to write good poems. You don’t ask him if he’s betrayed his wife, or what political party he’s voting for, or where he’s having dinner. If he’s a good poet, that’s it. What do you ask of a human being? That’s a hard question.

If you live in that type of society, then your choices are limited. If you are in jail, if you are under interrogation, it’s very hard … I can tell you that I had a couple of meetings with the agents from the Securitate [the secret police], and they pressured me to collaborate, and I behaved well and resisted. But, when I went out into the street, I thought: “My God, if this would have gone on another 10 minutes, I would have broken down. I would have given them what they wanted.” As a frail human being, you don’t always know your limits. The main thing is not to put people in that kind of situation. Life is a continuous compromise, and when you impose rigid criteria, you cannot judge anything properly. There are some criteria that only computers can fulfill. In Romania, I heard the following definition of what a computer is: “A computer is that thing which cannot deal with vague ideas.” But we should deal with vague ideas and compromises. For better or worse, we are not computers, or we aren’t yet. Thank God, I won’t be around if and when that happens. 

Can you tell me a little bit about the walking contradiction Paul Georgescu?

He was an extraordinary man, and we were close friends. He was a great gossiper, and he always told me, “Look, I’m going to be remembered in the history of Romanian letters for the nicknames I’ve given to people. This is my greatest achievement.” Of course, that’s not true. He wrote some great books. We were not of the same generation, and he called me “the British liberal.” We had wonderful discussions, and he was an extraordinary reader — a very sarcastic, cultivated man, who also happened to be genuinely funny. I met him through his wife, a truly beautiful woman. Their marriage was a contradiction in terms: she was this frigid, brilliant woman, and he was a complete hedonist. He liked to eat and to drink and to joke. He was very fat, a kind of Falstaff, and he had a mistress, and he took a taxi to see her. His wife would order the taxi and help him down the stairs! He moved with great difficulty, so she would even have to put him in the car! And his mistress is still alive! You can find her in the Guinness Book of World Records. She is the oldest woman to have been artificially inseminated and to have given birth to a child at, I think, 61 or 62! She was in the papers two or three days ago; she lost her home and bank account. I have no idea why. All the papers sent out appeals for donations, because she is an octogenarian, and because she is this special case … She shared Paul Georgescu’s insane courage, and she did something special with her life. 

I met Georgescu through his wife. I was in his wife’s literary circle, not in his (he had his literary salon at his mistress’ house). She read an article I wrote on Radu Petrescu, and then she called me. “I am Dina Georgescu, I read your article, you are a wonderful writer, I am a great admirer, etc. You should come over on Saturday evening, I usually have friends over.” I began to go over monthly, and it was awful. Mainly because of her mother. Her mother was a Jew, from Bessarabia, who spoke Romanian with a very thick accent. At every literary meeting, she would bring out this cake, and the cake was so sweet that you could faint.

Were you expected to eat it?!

Yes! She usually placed a glass of white wine before each of us — it was an extremely sweet white wine. When I went home, I always said: “Now, I’m in desperate need of an onion!” It was very difficult to bear. Her circle was totally apolitical, artistic. She was very beautiful, but very cold. A great reader. She told her husband about me. And then, one time, she invited me over when Paul was at home. She said: “He wants to meet you.” Later, I saw him from time to time, every month or so. From time to time, he would ask me to take him out of the city in my car, in my small Trabant. It was very hard to move him around.

I had long discussions with him about leaving or not leaving. He said, “Norman, yes, you were hurt terribly as a child, but don’t go, you won’t be happy. What will you do there, in that crazy American world?” He cursed me after I left, he said I was an American agent, but after a few years, he became sentimental and came around. He called my wife’s mother and asked about me in a very friendly manner. He became more compassionate over the years. He was a wonderful, extraordinary man, though a dogmatist. He always told me: “Norman, I am not a Stalinist, I am with Trotsky.” This was not better in my opinion; Trotsky was a bit more intelligent than Stalin, but that was about it. Anyway, his case is very different from Sebastian’s. Paul was completely Romanian, he was Orthodox, but almost all his friends were Jewish. That’s how he became a Communist! A wonderful character. He couldn’t drink, his health prevented it, especially in his last years, so he got drunk with coffee. He drank 10 to 20 cups of coffee a day, until he propelled himself into a state of mania. Politically we were complete adversaries, and we couldn’t talk about politics, he considered me a bourgeoisie, Liberal Democrat, but otherwise we were friends.

I remember that you told me once that you had some qualms about being included in that 1970 Hebrew anthology, Jewish Writers in Romanian. Do you see yourself as a Jewish Romanian writer? Or just as a Romanian writer? Or do the labels seem completely unhelpful? 

When I came here I was shocked to see the bookstore shelves: women writers, gay writers, Jewish writers, Catholic writers, all the tags. In my opinion, a writer is defined by the language he or she uses. Language is the tool. This is what defines the writer. You are an American writer — gay, black, Hindu, whatever — if you write in English. The topic about which you write is your own business. So, in my opinion, I was a Romanian writer, and my ethnicity was my own business. Of course, it’s not an easy problem to deal with, but it’s my problem. Leave me alone with it. Even if I only write about Jews, as long as I write in English, I am still an American writer. I had this discussion at a conference in Brussels last year. The conference was entitled “How Do We Save Europe?” and I was on a literary panel. I said then what I am saying now. I am not a politician, but I think that, in order to give back to Europe its essence, you have to go back to the Napoleonic definition of citizenship. Napoleon was the first person to introduce the idea that you can be a citizen regardless of ethnicity or religion. This is also the American idea. The only thing that you are asked here is to respect the Constitution. Otherwise, nobody cares what you do, what you think. Everything else is your problem. Anyway, you can apply this to the writer. The writer’s citizenship is his or her language. So, my homeland is the Romanian language. Of course I live here, and we’re speaking in English, and I have an American passport, but I am still a Romanian writer. So, when I saw Jewish Writers in Romanian, I said, “What is this?! Did Moses send me here to write in Romanian? This is my home. I speak Romanian. I’ve never negated the fact that I am Jewish, but my writing belongs to the Romanian literary tradition.” Since then, I’ve grown older. I’ve begun to question myself. I’ve gone through a lot of unpleasant experiences in my life, and maybe there is a point to the tags after all. Maybe we can have sub-shelves within the main shelf of American literature, and that can be a way of sorting things, too. Now I have no idea what I think, and I am very pleased that I don’t know.

So, then, do we dismiss the idea that Jewish writers, writing in Romanian, are the inheritors of a “minor literature?” Does this term not apply? 

It depends who they are. You need to think of specific cases. You can’t generalize. What’s Jewish about me? I’ve been asked this a number of times. I am not a religious person, and sometimes I really wish that I was, I think it might have helped me. There are, of course, a number of definitions: one is Jewish if one’s mother is Jewish — the father doesn’t matter, ever, because who knows anything about the father, really — and if one is circumcised. Well, I can say “yes,” on both counts. My mother was Jewish, and I apologize for confessing to the latter requirement as well. Anyway, does this make me a Jew? I grew up in a Jewish house, with certain Jewish habits. My parents were not very religious, but we went to the synagogue two times a year. I spoke Romanian with my parents and with my grandparents. So, am I a Jew? One definition of Jewishness that I do accept — and this is from the Talmud, as I’ve understood — is that a Jew is someone who is against idolatry. I accept this! And, I must say, I like it! I would like to be able to be in the category of people who have an ideal, but who do not become idolaters, who do not let their ideal become idolatry. So, perhaps, in this sense … 

Can you say a little bit about your first novel Captives, which is being published for the first time in English by New Directions?

It’s one of my biggest mistakes. It will be a disaster here. 

Because of the translation?

No, because of the text itself. The book is extremely obscure and hermetic. I published it in 1970, and some people in Romania say that it’s my best book. At that time, I wanted to do certain things with my writing. I wanted to have my protagonists — “she,” “you” and “me” — be people who are defeated by life and by circumstances. These characters are not the great heroes of Romanian realist socialist literature. They are people who are neurotic, anxious, and depressed. I wanted them to be irredeemable. I wanted the socialist system to fail to recuperate or redeem them in any way, because the system always saw itself as moving ahead, regardless of past mistakes or bungles; it saw itself as propelling everyone into the future. And I wanted to say: “No, my characters are defeated.” The writing itself is hermetic, so it can’t really be manipulated. I realize that in this country, which is so different from the central European mindset that the book portrays, my novel may be a disaster. But it’s not the first disaster I’ve dealt with in my life. So, we’ll see. I struggled with New Directions. I wanted to give them another book, but they wanted this one. I have no idea how it will all turn out. But that’s it. I am what I am. Imperfect.


Carla Baricz is a PhD candidate in the English Department at Yale University. She is the translator and assistant editor of Romanian Writers on Writing.