The Wound That Won’t Heal: On Norman Manea’s “Exiled Shadow”

By Cory OldweilerSeptember 16, 2023

The Wound That Won’t Heal: On Norman Manea’s “Exiled Shadow”

Exiled Shadow by Norman Manea

IN SUMMER 1989, the year after he arrived in the United States, Romanian-born author Norman Manea penned an essay on circus clowns. It might seem an uncharacteristically lowbrow subject for someone who would go on to write frequently about fellow intellectuals like Mircea Eliade and Emil Cioran, yet “On Clowns: The Dictator and the Artist,” translated by Anselm Hollo and included in Manea’s 2012 collection The Fifth Impossibility: Essays on Exile and Language, uses the circus and its clowns in the way that Manea’s countryman Eugène Ionesco used the zoo and rhinoceroses—as metaphors to aid in understanding the terror and absurdity of life in Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania.

Opening with the juxtaposition of Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler, Manea touches on his love of the poet Eugenio Montale, parses a text on clowns written by Federico Fellini, and sorts various personalities into two camps: the artistic “Augustus the Fool,” a label Manea “was forced to accept […] as an autobiographical reality”; and the tyrannical “White Clown,” a category that includes Romania’s “great clown” Ceaușescu. Manea concludes that the past has infected him “like a wound that won’t heal.” Life under a White Clown’s regime “distorts your perceptions and frequently tempts you to make risky and farfetched associations. No matter how far you have removed yourself from that existence in both time and space, it is impossible to rid yourself of your dark obsessions.”

When he wrote those lines, Manea was only recently removed from “existence under terror,” having left communist Romania just three years earlier, in 1986, on a writing fellowship to West Germany that quickly turned into interminable exile. Seeking to put more distance between themselves and the past, he and his wife headed to the United States two years later, landing in New York, where Manea soon took up a position teaching at Bard College, a post he would hold until his retirement in 2017. Manea is now 87 years old, and while the cycle of the seasons and his transatlantic displacement have created a buffer from the terrors of his first half century, his dark obsessions have persisted throughout his prolific career. Further evidence of this endurance can be found in his latest work, Exiled Shadow, published in Romanian in 2021 and now available in Carla Baricz’s adept English-language translation. The novel dramatically expands on Manea’s ideas, introduced in “On Clowns,” on the intricate interdependence and entwined fates of the oppressed and the oppressor, but it considers them from the vantage point of more than three decades of reflection and exile.

Exiled Shadow is labeled “a novel in collage,” and it comprises a patchwork of parts that could act as a syllabus for a literature course taught by the author. A loosely autobiographical narrative, following an unnamed narrator from Romania to Germany to the United States, acts as the glue holding this collage together. The journey is embellished with episodes that may or may not be drawn from Manea’s experiences, such as a stint teaching about clowns “under terror” at the fictional Buster Keaton College, after which the narrator settles into life at the novel’s Bard College stand-in, an unidentified “prestigious” East Coast school, where his existence becomes increasingly interior. Onto this canvas are pasted excerpts of literary theory, philosophy, history, and poetry; a thorough consideration of a 200-year-old fairy tale; paragraphs of essays purportedly written by the narrator’s students; a discourse on Empress Elisabeth of 19th-century Austria; various musings on September 11; lots of stuff about snails; the American job search of Ceaușescu’s son’s Jewish ex-wife; an exploration of the relationship between the poet Montale and his muse Irma Brandeis (who is buried at Bard and in whose home Manea—and the narrator—lived); and fragments of a 2016 essay that Manea wrote for this very publication, about Swedish writer and journalist Göran Rosenberg’s memoir A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz (a book that, incidentally, was translated into English that year by Sarah Death, who is mentioned nowhere in the piece, nor for that matter on the book publisher’s website or the book’s cover).

Baricz, who previously translated The Fifth Impossibility’s titular essay, does a tremendous job differentiating the tones across various parts of Manea’s consistently thought-provoking and studiously intellectual latest work—especially the student essays, each of which maintains a distinctive voice. In its best moments, her translation even evokes another great exiled author in Nabokov, with lines like “Handsome Günther had gone gray, thatʼs all that could be glimpsed from his growing bald spot.” Or when the narrator is alluding to his years spent in the shadow of Ceaușescu: “My isolation in the red cell sires infinite imaginary vistas, and they are boundless and inaccessible to the poor conquerors of the quotidian, dizzy as they are with the smoke of gilded cigarettes.”

Exiled Shadow is saturated in reflections, dualities, and shadows, starting with the parallels between Manea and the novel’s unnamed narrator, referred to as the wanderer, the exile, the nomad, the walking stick, Suitcase, the Misanthrope, and the Nomadic Misanthrope. Throughout the novel, exile is posited and probed as the cure for that “wound that won’t heal” identified by the younger Manea newly seeking refuge in “the country of all possibilities.” During a class lecture, the narrator asserts that “[f]or the former captive and experimental lab rat of a dictatorship, exile becomes the much-awaited liberation from oneʼs ever-present Shadow, from the interlocutor-hound, the neighbor at the disposal of the repressive apparatus.”

Exile is also “the definitive cure” that the narrator’s Romanian psychiatrist had prescribed years earlier for what he diagnosed as “Reality Phobia.” The novel ultimately pushes back on exile’s efficacy, as one shadow is simply replaced by another and another, while the “dark obsessions” linger ever longer.

Manea and the Nomadic Misanthrope share numerous biographical particulars, including their adult journeys and a childhood internment in a Transnistrian concentration camp during World War II. Both men become professors in the United States, and both have a scholarly interest in clowns. Their synchronicity is made explicit in a clever bit of winking metatextual commentary halfway through the novel when the narrator mentions reading The Apprenticeship Years of Augustus the Fool, an early book by Manea, published in 1979 but never translated into English. The narrator says that he found a kinship with that youthful Manea: “Seen as a luckless and marginalized individual, the subject of the text, a writer, finds in the reader a brotherly witness. A kind of double without whom he cannot maintain his inner defenses.” (The ties between the two titles were also highlighted in 2016, when Manea, in an interview with the Romanian National News Agency, said he was writing “a novel with a certain correspondence” to his earlier Augustus the Fool.)

Another authorial avatar comes courtesy of Adelbert von Chamisso’s The Man Who Sold His Shadow (1814). Chamisso, who lived from 1781 to 1838, was a French nobleman whose parents fled France during the revolution, leading to a succession of sojourns across Europe and an eventual landing in Berlin, where he spent the latter half of his life overseeing the city’s botanical gardens. Written in the early 19th century, Peter Schlemihl: The Man Who Sold His Shadow introduces the title character, who sells his shadow to “the man in the gray suit” for a purse containing inexhaustible wealth. Schlemihl, like Manea and the narrator, is another exiled clown, a concatenation of Jesus’s disciple Saint Peter and a surname “connot[ing] the doltish Jew, both unlucky and in dire straits, a bewildered jester fit for public mockery. A harmless Auguste the Fool and Patches the Clown.” Schlemihl’s story is recounted dozens of times throughout the novel and interpreted by Manea, Manea’s narrator, the narrator’s students, and numerous thinkers, such as Thomas Mann and Junʼichirō Tanizaki. At the end of the novel, Schlemihl himself, clad in a University of Iowa T-shirt, appears to the hallucinating, solitary narrator to converse, and perhaps, at last, to set him free.

The narrator also shadows, and is shadowed by, his half sister, Tamar, with whom he has a romantic relationship explicated in flashback. After the narrator’s mother dies in the concentration camp, his father starts an affair with his aunt, which leads to the conception of Tamar. When their father dies shortly after the end of the war, Tamar and the narrator take comfort in each other’s arms. “What happened to us, so early on, led to this, too,” Tamar tells him. “Alone, orphans, the two of us were left alone in the world. We burrowed into one another.” Their relationship continues until she moves to the United States and marries an American. She had asked the narrator to come too, but he refused, opting for the familiar devil he knew: “Iʼm staying put, in the squalor and terror. Among friends, spies, and policemen whose deportment equips them to play the quadrille of adaptation. Iʼm used to them now, and I donʼt have enough strength left to learn the manners of prosperity.”

Years later, when the book’s narrator does arrive in the United States, Tamar has just gotten divorced. The narrator assumes that perhaps they will return to their previous arrangement, but after one night together, Tamar reveals that she has different ideas. Eventually, they both move on with different partners, though their connection is never completely severed until near the novel’s conclusion. In yet another layer of doubling, the narrator refers to Tamar as Agatha during their years in Romania, an allusion to Robert Musil’s gargantuan three-volume novel The Man Without Qualities (1930–43), in which the protagonist has incestuous feelings for his sister Agathe. The narrator and Tamar use the code name to try to elude scrutiny by both the Securitate, Romania’s shadowy secret police, and the web of omnipresent informers that feed it secrets—“The shadow was always among us, silent and feverish, all eyes and ears.”

One of the narrator’s greatest fears heading into exile is having to learn a new language and thus losing the comforting escape of literature. (For a novel so earnestly learned, characters repeatedly stress how much they read.) Exile “would impose reality on me,” he says. “Because Iʼd lose my language, and therefore the books. Reality would become inevitable.” The generally fantastical nature of many of the novel’s later episodes indicates that perhaps exile does not preclude slipping reality’s bonds. Recalling an encounter at the “prestigious university” with Miss Fannie, “the brunette with wind-blown tresses and the fluid gait of an odalisque,” the narrator seems to be fantasizing before revealing that “[i]n fact, however, the events […] had not taken place exactly as they had in the Nomadic Misanthropeʼs memory.” Fannie is “extremely rare” in that she still admires her husband and does not evince any attraction toward the narrator, something that every other woman in the novel is unable to suppress.

Indeed, with the exception of a brief mention of Hannah Arendt, the novel’s women function largely as lovers, for the narrator or other men, as with Brandeis and Montale. The most confounding character is Eva Elisabeta Lombardini, who leaps at the narrator because he is “exotic.” In addition to initiating Exiled Shadow’s most inscrutable sequence, the aforementioned discourse about Sisi, the Empress of Austria, Eva offers a jumble of motivations for her own actions. She is “a virgin,” despite having “spread [her] legs plenty of times. Maybe not enough.” She is still “waiting,” but enters a lasting relationship with the narrator even though he ghosts her for long stretches, mistreatment that she takes responsibility for: “He has an unpredictable personality, and this fits my bohemian nature; he turns me on intellectually and sexually, but I find it difficult to understand these disappearances into the void […] The magnet between my legs isnʼt as new as it used to be, what can I do.”

The other role women play in Exiled Shadow is that of mother. The novel opens with a chapter on genetics, explaining how lineage is traced through a mitochondrial sequencing mutation passed on from mothers to their offspring. A similar point is made later in the novel from the vantage point of Judaism rather than science, when the narrator tells a group of women that, for Jews who “claim their descent from their mothers,” the “father is purely incidental, he doesn’t count. Itʼs the mother who gives birth, and we begin our earthly exile in her womb.” This epochal significance is also present in several chronological references throughout the novel, where “[d]ays and nights passed, like ruined centuries.” At other moments, the narrator marks time with reference to the creation and naming of heaven in the Book of Genesis—“the evening and the morning were the second day.” The scale befits the life-altering struggle Manea sees in exile, particularly as it incorporates the Shoah, which the novel addresses most directly in a series of excerpts from Alan Berger’s writings about Elie Wiesel, including the observation that “[t]he Holocaust is the ultimate manifestation of exile.”

It is all a lot to process, and in endeavoring to do so, I kept returning to a passage about Chamisso’s fairy tale taken from David Blamires’s 2009 book Telling Tales: The Impact of Germany on English Childrenʼs Books 1780–1918, which is excerpted near the end of Exiled Shadow. Blamires writes:

The fact that many features of Schlemihlʼs story reflect key aspects of Chamissoʼs own life has led to an understandable, but unfortunate emphasis on biographical interpretations of the story, but Chamisso himself was careful to avoid answering questions about the meaning of the storyʼs symbolism.

By endowing his narrator with so many key aspects of his own life, Manea (and a slew of contemporary novelists) has laid the same trap for his readers. A similar point is made early in the novel, as part of a roundup of commentary on Chamisso’s work, by German literature scholar Hermann J. Weigand: “To read Peterʼs story in terms of an allegory is to take a false lead. We must take the shadow ‘for what it is worth.’” Do these cautions mean that, say, all of Exiled Shadow’s talk of snails is merely malacology rather than allegory? Is Manea saying something specific here in his latest, most digressive novel, or is he simply providing a wealth of information for the reader to process in their own time, through their own frame of reference?

Perhaps the best advice on interpretation should come from Fellini. In 1970, the Italian maestro filmed a faux documentary titled I clowns, the same title as the prose work that animated Manea’s essay “On Clowns.” The film’s subtext is clearly commenting on Italian life under fascism—sometimes overtly, as when a disrespected station master fetches a decorated military officer to ensure that he is saluted by a train full of schoolchildren; sometimes more subtly, as when an exiled ex-clown breaks down sobbing at his memories of Italy and the circus. Near the end of the film, after a circus routine with multiple clowns has devolved into anarchy, an interviewer asks the exasperated filmmaker, who is rubbing the bridge of his nose, “Signor Fellini, qual è il messaggio voleva dare con questo speciale televisivo?” [“Mr. Fellini, what is the message that you wanted to convey with this TV special?”] “Il messaggio che vorrei dar …” Fellini starts to respond, but before he can state what message he wanted to give, a bucket lands on his head. The interviewer, who carries on as if nothing has happened, is soon silenced by a second bucket, before the camera cuts back to the chaos of the clowns. Perhaps Manea is saying something similar, namely that …


Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.

LARB Contributor

Cory Oldweiler writes about translated fiction and nonfiction for several publications, including Words Without Borders and the Southwest Review. His criticism also appears in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Star Tribune, among other outlets. He wrote the 2015 novel Testimony of the Senses, inspired by the symphonies of Gustav Mahler.


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