SOME PEOPLE MAY THINK that Magda Cârneci’s FEM belongs to the philosophical essay genre rather than that of fiction under which it is marketed. Others in the Anglophone world may call it an “experimental” novel. But for those familiar with modern French culture and literature, it is obvious that Cârneci writes within a French tradition. A historian of art, Cârneci has a PhD from the prestigious École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, and between 2007 and 2010 she led the Romanian Cultural Institute in Paris. She is the author of numerous collections of essays and poetry, two of which have been translated into English by Adam Sorkin in collaboration with the author, and a single book of prose: FEM, originally published in Romanian in 2011.

The novel is made up of short chapters written in the voice of a female narrator who calls herself Scheherazade — a “tamer” Scheherazade, who is looking for “visions.” Some of the chapters are typed in italics and appear to be letters to a romantic male partner, while others, with titles such as “My First Enlightenment” or “My Second Enlightenment,” seem to be autobiographical narrations about the narrator’s younger self. The letters are essay-like and include feminist digressions on sexual difference: “Darling, I must tell you stories, I must discharge my strange visions.”

While Cârneci seems to draw upon Hélène Cixous’s and Luce Irigaray’s post-structuralist feminism, she also reiterates Simone de Beauvoir’s idea that one isn’t born a woman, but one becomes one through the role imposed upon her by society. Thus, womanhood is a “fleshly uniform” one has to wear: “[T]he glossy gazes of the men I encountered on the street each morning abruptly reminded me to play the part again, to identify myself with the uniform I brought from home.” In other instances, mostly in the letters to the romantic partner, Cârneci challenges the male perception, which, like Luce Irigaray, she believes to be the result of our sexual difference (I have a different body, therefore I am different):

What do you know about women? You don’t know anything, you have no clue, although you think you know everything. For you, the body is not that important, it is a simple tool, a kind of knife, an uncomplicated weapon, it is an appendix you use to excite your mind. To believe you possess something, another being, reality, power. For me, the body is almost every-thing. You men, you are born almost completely made, your packaging is more or less the same from start to finish, while we women, we keep changing, like insect pupae, like butterflies, like the seasons and planets; periodically something happens to us, our bodies will not leave us alone, we cannot forget we exist while they enclose us. This body is a suffering that I for one don’t understand, it is an enigma whose key has been lost, it is a mystery I don’t know what to do with. Your understanding, darling, is on the level of calculations, rationalizations, mental projections — my understanding happens through the body, through flesh and blood, through a strange assemblage of sensations-emotions-perceptions, closer or farther away, and sometimes even through sur-perceptions.

Like her French predecessors, Cârneci attempts to challenge not only the rapport between man and woman, but an entire mode of perception. In this sense, her feminism seems to be her own (personal) creation — at times, existentialist, at times, mystic, her goal is, ultimately, to understand the infinite of the universe, which encompasses the small and insignificant body of the narrator:

My small brain struggled to understand what “infinite” meant, where the end of the universe was, what the earth was in this sea of stars, and what I was, a girl, a minuscule being, a kind of intelligent microbe, as I learned at school, a kind of unsteady red globule of blood inside a cell, itself part of a wide tissue in a giant body, on this giant planet.

There are numerous pages where the young narrator experiences pantheist-like ecstatic sensations of melting within, or becoming one with, nature: “I am suddenly inside a daisy. No, I become a daisy, a day-a-zee.”

“The First Enlightenment” recounts the narrator’s first love at 13, when she was at a school summer camp in Transylvania. The story starts with a graphic and poignant description of the girl’s period, a description one cannot help but contrast with another description of a girl’s (first) period in one of the classics of Romanian literature, The Town with Acacia Trees by Mihail Sebastian (recently released in English in Gabi Reigh’s excellent translation). While Sebastian’s description has enormous literary power and seems paradoxically true in spite of the fact that most contemporary female readers would be rather unconvinced that a teenage girl welcomes this event with nothing but pride, Cârneci’s description is much closer to the experience of most women, at least women who have grown up in countries like Romania where pills aren’t used as generously as in Western countries:

I can see what’s coming. It will last an hour, with the precision of an invisible clock, as it has at the start of every month for the past six months; I will suffer through atrocious pains in my lower stomach, so strong I think I’ll die, or simply lose my mind. After an hour, the pains will pass, as though they had never been.

The same chapter describes the girl’s first love, her falling in love with a boy, Radu, who is two years older:

For a moment, I feel paralyzed. It’s like I am waking from sleep, from a kind of torpor, and I see myself much better, more clearly. I see the chubbiness and pudginess in my body now, and I don’t like it, not at all, the way I’m standing, still and ridiculous, thunderstruck, in the middle of the path, trying to understand what is happening to me. The boy has passed already …

Falling in love is depicted here as the same irrational experience we are familiar with from famous (first) love stories by male writers, though the bodily response of Cârneci’s heroine is more visceral: “I was sick, I was nauseous, I was so scared my blood froze in my arteries and veins, my chest became painful and rigid, as it began to roundup into breasts. It was as though something inside me became scared to death by the sight of his gangly shadow.” The boy doesn’t pay the girl any attention and, “as could have been expected, I started to speak in verse and to write poetry.” However, falling in love isn’t simply an experience that unites two mortal beings, separating them from the rest of the world; on the contrary, it connects the one in love to the cosmic laws of the universe:

The sun across the bolt of heaven bathed our young, raw heads in heat, but through Radu I discovered another kind of sun. My short, chubby body, the one I had so hated up to then, suddenly appeared worthy of love, because it hid an unknown warmth inside, a tiny sun that began to vibrate, communicating silently with the tiny sun inside Radu’s body and with the giant sun outside.

Mystery, the mystery of the universe, is, in fact, the red thread of this novel — a thread that may be called an “atheist mysticism” in the tradition of Clarice Lispector, who, although Brazilian, happens to have been a major influence on Hélène Cixous and maybe, as this reviewer suspects, also on Cârneci.

In “The Second Enlightenment,” the narrator meets Radu again three years later, at the same Transylvanian summer camp, and the same imbalance of power resumes:

[H]e always talkative while I fell into long silences, speechless with the avalanche of feelings that blocked my mouth, my breathing, my mind. […] Although being around him made me suffer terribly, with a trembling that filled me with fear, sometimes with horror, it also attracted me with a powerful force, to which I could only submit, as though to an implacable, irreversible decision, because in it I could sense, I do not know how, an unexpected possibility for my being, an escape from limitation, a dizzying openness.

But even now, the couple isn’t separate from the outside world; rather, their complementary existence, side by side, is a part of the planet’s mystery: “My excessive ardor beside his detached cool. My presence beside his absence. A nonmeeting, an absence, a distance. That is where the planet’s magical loneliness seems horrifying to me, its fearful and sacred greatness. I tremble, it is more than I can stand.” The boy and the girl of this love story “are actually small gods but also children, infant gods, created by a greater force, planted here in a vast, receptive uterus, thrown into the loneliness of a planet of immense, impersonal power, in order to grow and to understand.”

Many years later, the narrator sees Radu again, completely by chance. This is the part where the novel switches to elaborate dream scenes that resemble long, surrealist-inflected episodes from the writings of another contemporary Romanian novelist, Mircea Cărtărescu, whose magnum opus, Solenoid, will be published by Deep Vellum in 2022, also Sean Cotter’s translation. The female narrator dreams of an old scholar, a venerable savant who has a theory that bodies may return to life after death: she finds herself led by him through a narrow maze in a basement of twisting hallways, with hidden niches and dark rooms. The old scholar is a sort of inverted Beatrice, Dante’s muse, who plays the role of initiator; or a reversed Eurydice who leads the narrator-poet into the otherworld. This is one of the moments in the novel that make Cârneci’s feminism very personal: an American feminist would never choose an old male scholar to play the role of initiator to a young woman (who voices her perfect “agreement” with him). Moreover, the old scholar has an important mission: like Beatrice, he is an initiator into the mystery of love, but an initiator who wants to protect its mystery.

Like Cărtărescu, Cârneci is an admirer of Novalis, Hölderlin, and Nerval, and like him, she has been associated with postmodernism, but in the end, both are modernists with a foot in romanticism: “I am looking for a coherent image of the world, one that will fit into my mind, one where I can find my place. Or maybe a coherent magic of the world.” In one particular dream, the narrator holds her own hand and, as in Cărtărescu’s “The Twins” (from Nostalgia, originally published by New Directions in 2005, to be reissued by Penguin Modern Classics UK in 2021, Julian Semilian translation), she is a boy and a girl at the same time, until the boy-girl becomes only a boy who is invited by a woman in a supine position to sexually penetrate her. This scene takes place after the description of the 7.5 Richter-scale earthquake, an event that happened in Romania on March 4, 1977, and which initiates the narrator into the mystery of Death and the experience of Desolation. It is after the earthquake that the narrator “sees herself in all [her] ignorance and disarray” by placing a round mirror between her legs: “And what I saw amazed me, horrified me, and I fell into a kind of void.” The raw obscenity of this scene is reminiscent of Lispector, whose scenes of transgressions are themselves reminiscent of the French philosopher Georges Bataille, and who was discovered much earlier by the French publishing establishment than the American one. Already in the early ’90s, writers like Cixous had popularized Lispector in France, while in the States it was only after Benjamin Moser’s biography in 2012 that Lispector had become wildly known. This mystical feminism — in which the woman is part of something bigger than her, and her womanhood is inseparable from the laws of cosmos — combined with what the narrator (and, likely, the author herself) sees as essential biological differences between man and woman, create a very different feminism from its American counterpart. A feminism that posits that, because their bodies are different, men and women are essentially different, is not the same as a feminism that claims that there is no difference, including biological difference, between men and women. In FEM, the sexual organ, whether male or female, is seen as both animal and divine, instrument of creation and biology, immanent presence and transcendent enigma. These are reflections triggered by the contemplation of a penis:

As happens each time, I see something that is like this world: beautiful and horrible at the time, animal and holy, a body member and an instrument of visionary exhilaration, that understands in the end this fact: what is both created and creative is just as much a hunk of meat as it is an enigma, an escape, a path. [emphasis mine]

Feminism aside, Cârneci is, in the end, an original writer and a masterful stylist, whose mastery of language comes vividly across through Sean Cotter’s dexterous translation. Her stylistic ingenuity is felicitously rendered by her translator, as in this case: “You taste me, I distaste you” (the translation of a pun in Romanian, in which “dezgusti” means both “dis-taste” and “disgust”). Her novel transgresses feminist ideology, proposing a vision that implies a change in human perception, a vision attempting to unify the outside and the inside, the object and the subject of all human experience: “My being is a mystery and a tool [emphasis mine] at the same time, it is the investigator and the test subject, with it I have to manage and with it I must pay for my progress.” In this vision, both man and woman keep their mystery within a universe that remains equally mysterious: “The world, the whole world is a long, rich vestment. A female-male dress.”

¤

Alta Ifland is a Romanian-born writer, whose novel, The Wife Who Wasn’t, and translation (with Eireene Nealand) of Marguerite Duras (The Darkroom) will be published in spring 2021.