The Imagination of Norman Manea

By Reginald GibbonsJuly 11, 2012

    The Imagination of Norman Manea

    Compulsory Happiness by Norman Manea. Yale University Press. 272 pages.The Black Envelope by Norman Manea. Yale University Press. 336 pages.The Fifth Impossibility by Norman Manea. Yale University Press. 368 pages.The Lair by Norman Manea. Yale University Press. 336 pages.

    Cover photo for The Lair

    IN 1987, WHEN I WAS the editor of the American literary journal TriQuarterly, I received in the mail the typescript of a short story from a writer whose name I did not yet know. Titled “The Sweater,” this brief, memorable piece is a startling reminder of the deftness with which a vivid tragic imagination can create, even in a small space, an unforgettable narrative meditation by only alluding in a muted way to off-stage scenes of the most inhuman oppression. The story is quiet; it depicts one family's disaster at the edges of an immense political and historical calamity. The story also depicts the wondering, wounded, disoriented spirit of the child who survives. In “The Sweater,” ordinary human beings with too little to eat, under constant mortal threat, and beset by physical exhaustion and illness, are sustained by a heroic mother. Their cultural matrix, on the other hand, has been destroyed, dissolved in the acid of a relentless, systematic, general persecution. “The Sweater” was the first short story Norman Manea published in the United States, and it contains, at least by implication, many of this writer's characteristic preoccupations, including the person who is effaced or even erased by history, brutalized by bureaucratic inhumanity, and distorted by the unreality of individual identity within the extreme prison-reality of dictators and their agents.

    After Manea came to the United States, I learned from him of the tiny room in Manhattan in which he and his wife Cella were living for a while, trying to adjust to the milder, but nevertheless deeply unsettling, nightmare of exile and the difficulties of surviving in Manhattan with neither work nor network. Norman told me on the telephone that their room was scarcely bigger than their bed, and their neighborhood was frightening at night and dispiriting by day. But soon, his literary brilliance, his new friends, and his successes in the United States brought him far better and more peaceful lodgings, academic distinction, and a great broadening of the international recognition of his writing.

    The movement of imagination in his work has continued to be that same restless motion which (in deportation, migration, exile, and the mobility of thought itself) searches ceaselessly among places, ideas, hopes, and survivals for an angle of vision, a connection, a way of making artistic and intellectual sense of disruptions and suffering. This is very evident in Manea's autobiographical work of nonfiction, The Hooligan's Return, which narrates a journey back to and through Romania in 1997. Movement itself — physical, mental, emotional — is the subject of this book. Manea shows that only a kind of thought that goes out and returns, that establishes and cancels; that contradicts itself and then rethinks; that asserts and also questions its own assertions; can imagine the extraordinary, baffling complexity of life, above all in a society as distorted as that of Romania from the 1930s to the present.

    Kafka is reported to have said about the poet Georg Trakl's suicide in 1914: “He had too much imagination, so he could not endure the war, which arose above all from a monstrous lack of imagination.” I understand Kafka to mean that Trakl was unable not to imagine what was really happening, both outwardly and in people's inner lives. Meanwhile, the puny imaginations, the incurious fantasies of personal power and chauvinistic triumph of all those who took their nations into that war, conveniently allowed them to avoid seeing or grasping the reality of what they would cause to happen: the real effects and after-effects of war on soldiers and civilians, farms and cities, societies, cultures and nations.

    A few years ago, I heard Aleksandar Hemon say that what is hardest to imagine, and therefore what most writers have great trouble imagining, is reality. I understood him to oppose the common view that the most difficult feat for the writer is to invent fantastical scenarios. From this statement and others, I take him to mean reality as what really is — not what we see when we habitually filter it through a concept or a compulsion (for example, nation or desire or fear or piousness), simplifying it and making it more comprehensible.

    I don't mean that imagining reality means necessarily describing it with the conventions of fictional realism. Great books in such a vein are plentiful. But, like Kafka himself, Norman Manea has imagined reality by molding it, by following the contours of the absurd, even insane distortions of ordinary life in the midst of war, dictatorship, and deprivation. Manea has evoked, and in his way memorialized, human suffering in a society “haunted,” as he has written, “by the demon of sadism and sly, stubborn stupidity,” a “social condition whose paradoxically destructive coherence mocked all attempts at logical explanation” — or of realistic fiction, we might add. “Paradoxically destructive coherence” is a fine example of how Manea (and his translators) find a phrase that compresses meaning enormously. Manea has written that the totalitarian experience “remains incomparable in its pathology, in its masks and mendacity.” Not only in Romania, of course. Since leaving Romania and coming to the United States, Manea has also mentioned “the often stupefying spectacle of man in freedom,” in which “nothing seems visible unless it is scandalous and nothing is scandalous enough to be memorable.” And yet he has remained faithful to the idea that democratic societies “imply a commitment to liberty that is fundamental to humankind no matter how baffling its contradictions may sometimes be.” The energy of narrating such lived contradictions is a salient virtue of Manea's work.

    One of the varieties of human fate that Norman Manea has repeatedly portrayed and described is that of becoming an unreal being — a condition which, bad enough under totalitarian rule, is also produced, albeit differently, by exile. Under totalitarian rule, one is living in a world that is controlled by others; in exile, the new world belongs to others, and can only be described, it would seem, in the language of those others. In a place of exile, and amidst a language of exile, one's personhood no longer exists; one is invisible. It is others who have an unproblematic status as beings. How difficult it is to articulate the reality of such an unreality! And those who do not know it firsthand can scarcely grasp what it is like. If most human experience already defies our ability to imagine and articulate it, the exile’s experience of unreality is even more elusive, contradictory, evanescent. Yet Manea has written that “imagination is a shortcut to reality,” and in precisely this sense, he has cut through the outward, expected descriptions of everyday realism and found a way to extend, to dilate, the inner life of the individual who has been nearly deprived — quite deliberately — of meaning and personal integrity in the realms of dictators and in the strange places of exile. The courage of Norman Manea's imagination is to articulate such unreality. As he has put it, the writer has the ability to “humanize his shipwreck.”

    A plasticity of fictional imagination need not offer fantasy as an alternative way of seeing reality; rather, it can create a scrupulously faithful account of daily experience, relations, effects of history, that are very nearly beyond our powers to think through. Manea has extraordinary kin among writers who work in similar ways — from Kafka himself to Bruno Schulz and Jorge Luis Borges, Danilo Kiš and Ismail Kadaré to the American/Bosnian writer Hemon, among others. These writers bring into narrative an artistic disruption of our acquiescence to the customs of fictional realism. They restore our ability to feel the shock of existence and the historical depth of human experience. Their work honors the individual who strives for — and may fail to achieve — individual meaningfulness and personal integrity (not necessarily cohesiveness or self-consistency).

    Exile seems to deplete full being — in Manea’s case, exile from Romania and the Romanian language — yet that depletion is an impossibility that can indeed be lived. Beckett, perhaps the most abstract of exiles, said — whether with melancholy or grim triumph I cannot say — that “l'artiste qui joue son être est de nulle part. Il n'a pas de pays. Et il n'a pas de frère.” The American fiction writer William Goyen, who took this statement much to heart, paraphrased it this way: “The artist who uses his life completely throws it full into the tide, is of no place. And he has no country, he has no kin.” The statement suggests an imagination especially alert to, and living especially within, language itself — certainly true of Beckett, who in fact lived in and through the resistance to the Nazis in France. But living only within language is an unrealizable ideal and an illusion. Yet for Manea, as for many writers, language itself is the first home. If I am paraphrasing correctly, Marina Tsvetaeva said that she wrote not for readers but for the Russian language. To be cut off, even in part, from one's living language as it is overheard and used every day is to be exiled to some other land of merely everyday communication. Despite its full range for its own native speakers, a foreign linguistic medium can be a vastly impoverished realm for the exiled writer. Yet Manea has continued to sustain his native language, and through translation he has found many grateful readers outside it.

    In 1996, I was able to invite Manea to visit Northwestern University to address undergraduate creative writing students. I remember how listening to his comments on human (and artistic) integrity, censorship, the marketplace, good and evil, was for me a corrective to a dark thought I had often had, a thought in the minds of many writers. Amidst the idiocy, buffoonery, and mayhem that human beings continuously inflict on each other on this planet, why continue to write at all? Manea did not answer this question, but did answer a better one: why take great care to write not only inventively but also with some kind of intellectual and emotional and historical integrity? Because, he said, one of the ways of doing a right thing is by writing in the right way. The result, for others, may seem slight or nil, but the gesture itself sustains something in us, something that one does for the sake, perhaps, of what Seamus Heaney calls “the redress of poetry.” The redress of language itself — in the face of what is otherwise often falsified, fantasized, idealized. Language is always recovering from wounds. One can write “for the sake of the language, itself!” says Tsvetaeva's ghost at the back of the darkest room.

    On our occasional walks and once in a while in cafés, I have learned some of the literary and personal gestures of Manea's thoughts and feelings. He is sardonic — but gently. He is burdened — yet he is affable. He despairs — but can wittily admit a hope. In these all too rare visits, I have heard Manea speak of the difficulty of living at the exhausting pace of American life (nowhere faster than in Manhattan), and of our vulnerability to the festivities of ruinous human folly and violence. I have felt my own regretful resignation to our fast pace (I was formed within it) and to my mere individuality on the edge of our vast remorseless carnival. Only an ability to see — to imagine — reality can sustain us. With such imagining, we can rise to the tasks that Manea says life demands: resilience and renewal.

    Days filled with ordinary responsibilities both personal and historical, and the constant unwelcome news (offered to us all as entertainment) of catastrophes and demagogues, far and near, pull us away from the accomplishments of writers. But, for me, Norman Manea remains an example of how, when the rushing and careening of life annul thought and numb feeling, writing can nevertheless slow that “speed of darkness” (in the phrase of the American poet Muriel Rukeyser). It locates us more meaningfully, more imaginatively in our unavoidable imbalance. Manea, for one, offers us courageous honesty about the worst that human beings do, and kind faithfulness to our humanity.


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    LARB Contributor

    Reginald Gibbons is Frances Hooper Professor of Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University.  A poet, fiction writer, critic, and translator, he has published nine books of poems, most recently Creatures of a Day (2008 National Book Award Finalist) and Slow Trains Overhead: Chicago Poems and Stories.  His other books include a novel, Sweetbitter, and translations of Sophocles, Selected Poems: Odes and Fragments, and (with the late Charles Segal) Euripides' Bakkhai and Sophocles' Antigone.


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