Good Company: Conversations With Norman Manea

By Paul MandelbaumFebruary 2, 2014

Good Company: Conversations With Norman Manea

Saul Bellow by Saul Bellow and Norman Manea
Paradise Found by Hannes Stein and Norman Manea

Photo by Paul Mandelbaum

“THERE WERE ABORTIONS, too.” So confesses the renowned Romanian-language author Norman Manea while recalling the big love affair of his youth. Perhaps it’s an unusual line to single out for praise, but I find remarkable the compression with which it conveys the affair’s turmoil, the desperation of living in a closed society without access to contraception, and, above all, Manea’s refusal to employ evasion or cant, his dedication to the truth. “There were abortions, too”: a harrowing one-line poem.

It appears as part of a lengthy interview — originally conducted in 2009 by the German correspondent Hannes Stein — and published now in English by The Sheep Meadow Press as Paradise Found, an appropriate enough title for Manea’s extraordinary life path. At the age of five, he was deported along with his family across the Romanian border to Transnistria and held for two and a half years in a World War II labor camp. He and his parents — though not his maternal grandparents, who died of typhus while in captivity — were liberated by the Soviet army, which promptly conscripted his father. Later, “we were reunited,” Manea recounts, “by sheer luck.” After the war, his family returned to a Romania locked behind the Iron Curtain, where he remained four decades, before finding his way to the faculty of Bard College — paradise, presumably.

All of this was covered with singular beauty, detail, and insight in Manea’s 2003 memoir The Hooligan’s Return. But whereas Hooligan reads like a haunting dream, Paradise Found offers its own, more straightforward pleasures, including the give and take of conversation. Stein asks smart, direct questions, and — except for his brief obsession with the Israeli poet Dan Pagis — allows the dialogue to flower naturally. One should say dialogues, since the book is divided into discreet chapters, beginning with “Disorder and Early Sorrow” then traveling through such diverse topics as “Comrade Stalin,” “About Women” (see above), “The Right to Stupidity,” and 13 other well chosen windows into the author’s life.

In the chapter on Stalinism, Manea describes his early zeal as a postwar Bolshevik and his appointment to lead his school’s chapter of the Young Pioneers. “The communist fairy tale excited me at the ripe old age of thirteen.” But after he was tasked with leading a “trial” against three classmates (including a close friend), designed to exclude them from the youth organization in a kind of purification ritual, Manea could no longer stomach his role as “a little Stalin.” He declined the invitation to continue his leadership role once he went to college.

In “The Scandal,” Manea recounts the fraught reaction after The New Republic published his 1991 essay on the late Mircea Eliade. A fellow émigré who preceded Manea to America, Eliade had become a prestigious scholar of religion at the University of Chicago and remained an intellectual hero to many Romanians. As a young man, however, he’d shown solidarity with the country’s fascist Iron Guard, a disturbing affiliation he never adequately explained. Though the essay explores this with delicacy and a sense of fair play (overly fair, claimed The Los Angeles Times), in the Romanian press Manea was widely vilified — an alarming response, given that one of the last people to undertake serious criticism of Eliade had been shot dead in a Chicago bathroom stall.

Furthermore, L’Affaire Eliade reopened old wounds about Manea’s cultural standing, even his right to identify himself as a Romanian writer. His early position on that subject had been simple: language being paramount, his writing in Romanian made him a Romanian writer. But the country’s nationalism has sometimes begged to differ, even when he lived there. “They had nothing against a Jewish writer’s writing about Jews,” he says, recalling the position of the secret police. “‘Write about Jews — or, even better, leave the country and go to Palestine! Don’t write about us. Don’t think you are a Romanian writer, that you are Romanian. Don’t delude yourself.’” Now, he says, he’s ready to entertain the idea they might have been right. “I’m really not sure at all.” Living abroad for more than two decades can only have complicated the issue. Nonetheless, just a few days ago the country's Writers' Union included his name on their short list of Nobel nominees, and he is acknowledged to be the most translated contemporary author writing in Romanian.

It was, in fact, a German edition that led Bard President Leon Botstein to first take note and invite the author for a campus interview. Manea recounts the complex hiring process with bemused good humor, and several chapters cover his assimilation to America, which he has often compared to living in a hotel. The relative elasticity of the political system, the diversity of a “country of exiles,” even the “incoherence” of a national ethos he counts among America’s pluses; less so its provincial boosterism and reduction of serious affairs to a sports competition. Upon arriving, his personal idea of the American dream was to find a hole to hide in. But Philip Roth soon disabused him of that notion: “In America there are a lot of things that you can’t even imagine now,” he said, “but a hole to hide yourself in you will not find.”

The chapter titled, somewhat pessimistically, “A Letter to No One,” addresses the author’s own process and oeuvre, including “The Trenchcoat,” one of his personal favorites. Set during a time when Romania’s secret police are rumored to have debriefed informants at arbitrary residences (without even the homeowner’s knowledge), the novella delves into the equally Byzantine politics of a simple dinner party. An unaccounted-for raincoat, discovered a day later by the hostess, is enough to drive her mad with paranoia. (If ever there was any question about the enduring relevance of Cold War literature, such doubts have surely been put to rest by the NSA, whose recent antics have generously reaffirmed the vision of writers like Manea.)

Though it can be difficult to analyze specific works without an interview becoming esoteric, I would have loved to hear further exploration of Manea’s genius for paradox. A student incensed by the generosity of her grade, a frail interrogator who doesn’t allow his subject a word in edgewise — such elegant ironies seem to me a vital part of Manea’s imagination, and they go unremarked here.

Keeping the shoptalk broad, Stein inquires about what motivates an author to write. He wonders, referencing Orwell’s essay on the subject, whether it often boils down to less-than-noble pursuits, such as a hunger for retribution, which Manea counters in several important ways. The quest for vengeance, he reminds us, can so easily turn against an author on the page. And surely mountains of socialist propaganda were penned by writers possessed of the noblest intentions.

As to his own motivation, he says:

I still believe that one of the principle reasons for writing is a profound discontent with what daily chaos has to offer us. We need something else that transcends this chaos, either to give it a meaning or to add another reality to reality.

As an addendum to Stein’s interview, the book republishes Manea’s 2009 conversation with Ilana Shmueli, a longtime confidant of Paul Celan. Best known for the holocaust poem “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”), Celan spent the postwar years in Paris until 1970, when, wracked with survivor’s guilt, he drowned himself in the Seine, and he has remained of abiding interest to Manea. Though his interview with Shmueli already appeared as part of Sheep Meadow Press’s 2010 title The Correspondence of Paul Celan and Ilana Shmueli, where it was a more natural fit, it is interesting to contrast Manea the respondent with Manea the questioner. At his most probing, he asks, “Do you think if you had succeeded in getting to Paris two or three days before his suicide that it would have been possible to save him?” Overall a tone of reverence pervades much of the conversation, which, we’re told, was filled with significant silences, perhaps to accommodate the ghost of Celan hovering in the background.

By contrast, in Manea’s interview of Saul Bellow — a third Sheep Meadow title, published last summer — he is considerably more voluble. Recorded over a two-day period in 1999, the two friends wend their way through a great many subjects, including émigré Jewish life in North America and Bellow’s innovations to the American sentence. Then there’s the fantastical anecdote in which Bellow recounts as a young man taking $500 his mother had left him from her life insurance policy and, instead of splitting it with his father, who urgently needed it, deciding to go with a friend to Mexico, to “have some conversation with Leon Trotsky.”

We had an appointment with Trotsky, and we came to the door of the house: an unusual amount of excitement. We asked for Trotsky, and they said who are you, and we said we were newspapermen. They said Trotsky’s in the hospital. He was taken away. So we went to the hospital and we asked to see Trotsky and they opened the door and said, he’s in there, so we went in and there was Trotsky. He had just died. He had been assassinated that morning. He was covered in blood and bloody bandages and his white beard was full of blood. Well, I remained a Trotskyite for a time after that but I soon turned away from all that stuff.

Not lacking for literary gossip, the interview goes on to include an amusing if pathetic recollection about I. B. Singer’s unwillingness to let Bellow translate more of his work. (“They’ll say it’s you and not me who wrote this,” worried Singer.) Eugene Ionesco, author of Rhinoceros — the iconic cautionary play about conformity — apparently lived in fear of his bullying wife. And, in a poignant lament about Ralph Ellison’s writer’s block, Bellow says:

If Ralph had a fault, it was to take all the expectations and all the criticism seriously. […] I was forever saying, ‘Don’t bother with it, just […] write your books. But no, he could only concentrate on writing the successor to Invisible Man, which would answer all questions. All in one sweep. It just didn’t work this way. Now what I fail to understand is how a writer can persist in writing a novel that doesn’t let itself be written. You could do it for a year, you could do it for two years, but you can’t do it for forty years!

Bellow’s trip to Sweden to accept the 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature provides plenty of good interview fodder as well. The Stockholm scene quickly descended into a “family circus,” he recalls, when a throng of his relatives — including a brother in trouble with the law —filled the Grand Hotel, misbehaving and embarrassing the author. The prize itself Bellow claims indifference toward, which Manea finds hard to believe, if only for the opportunity it leant to act out a delicious narrative: the Jew and the King.

“My mother would have liked it very much,” admits Bellow. “She was the one person who I would’ve been interested in telling it to. Or my father — he would have liked it. Of course, he always thought I was a jerk.” Oh, the whiplash of that word — not “jerk” so much as “always.” Even Nobel Prize winners must carry the eternal wounds of childhood.

“Nobody grows up!” says Manea later in the interview, as part of an anecdote involving the French author André Gide. “Gide said at some point that he went to a Catholic priest, an older man, and he said, look, you had so many confessions from people — what did you learn from this? And the guy said, I will tell you what I learned: that there are no grown up people.”

“That’s right,” Bellow concurs.

“Is it true? Do you have the same feeling?”

“Yes, I do. But I don’t want to put people down for being immature.”

“Let’s say innocence.”

“Innocence. Yeah,” allows Bellow, though he’s quick to clarify he doesn’t mean the brand of innocence deformed by Romanticism, “as if it were some kind of escapism, a disease that realists don’t like to buy.”

On virtually every topic, he and Manea stimulate and build upon one another’s thoughts. On those few occasions when the Nobel laureate seems at a loss for words, Manea is there to help nudge him along. “I’d have to sit down and think about it,” demurs Bellow at one point, in reply to which Manea reminds him, “You’re sitting down.” He takes his job as interviewer seriously.

Two years ago, while visiting Bucharest, I had the good fortune to cross paths with Manea myself. He indulged my desire to converse one morning over breakfast, during which he shared a great many insights about his homeland with memorable graciousness. Such opportunities of course don’t pop up very often, but while we’re waiting, these recent titles offer a brilliant and personable surrogate.


Paul Mandelbaum is a novelist and a frequent contributor to LARB.

LARB Contributor

Paul Mandelbaum teaches the literature of Los Angeles at Emerson College’s L.A. Center. His books include the novels Garrett in Wedlock and Adriane on the Edge and the anthology 12 Short Stories and Their Making.


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