Romanian Literature as World Literature

It doesn’t hurt that every once in a while, contemporary art history and theory get a glimpse into the world of literary homologous. One such example could be the recent launch of Romanian Literature as World Literature, coordinated by Mircea Martin, Christian Moraru and Andrei Terian, published by Bloomsbury Academic in New York, as part of the renowned series „Literatures as World Literature”, coordinated by Thomas O. Beebee, the same publishing house that launched Delia Ungureanu’s book, From Paris to Tlön. Surrealism as World Literature, a year ago, of which I will talk about another time.

For starters, I’d suggest a small recap. Right after 1989, literary history and theory witnessed two grand paradigm shifts, two grand narratives for post-legitimacy, if I may, which have evolved together, sometimes intersecting each other, but rarely determining one another. It is, on one hand, about a stringent revisionist rereading of the literary corpus produced before 1989 in the conditions of planed economy with the goal of re-curriculating the literary canon, thus resulting in a cleaner, more accessible body of work, worthy of such an ablution. On the other hand, it is about the immediate marketing of the contemporary literary corpus, produced after 1989, in the new context of the free-market economy, with the goal of “western” exporting of local literary culture, along with the massive import of “foreign literature”.

Free from any intentions, the book we are discussing is also derived from the tradition of the two grand re-writings, yet it seems to be escaping this tradition as well, with the chance of concluding it, moving on and taking a step forward for contemporary literary studies. Besides, the volume’s rhetoric performs various transgressions which are, at the same time, polemics, resignations and beneficial revisions, but it also leaves behind a trail of hard to overlook perplexities. Thus, the rewriting of literary history and theory is also a critical stance against a certain predeceasing direction, placing the general discourse produced in the last decade by the Bucharest school of literary history and theory in a privileged position. The book’s explicit manifesto, however, remains concerned with showing the world that Romania had and still has literature that is just as relevant as the world itself.

The first part of the book, “The Making and Remaking of a World Literature: Revisiting Romanian Literary and Cultural History”, makes a compelling case of commentaries and approaches regarding the local and regional literary and ideological evolution, starting with the 18th century to present time.

The sub-chapter begins with a very exciting and welcomed reinterpretation, by Andrei Terian, entitled “Mihai Eminescu: From National Mythology to the World Pantheon”, of the Eminescu cultural substratum and the way in which the poet, contrary to contemporary national mantras, assumes and adapts elements of Hindu Mythology to a personal version of national mythology. On the same note of de-nationalization, in his text “Aux portes de l’Orient, and Through: Nicolae Milescu, Dimitrie Cantemir, and the «Oriental» Legacy of Early Romanian Literature” Bogdan Crețu puts forward an active re-reading of the cultural heritage of the aforementioned authors with a much needed redefinition of certain terms, like authorship and originality in the pre-national era. Following through, Caius Dobrescu continues the tale of the pre-national adventure which becomes national in “«Soft» Commerce and the Thinning of Empires: Four Steps Toward Modernity”, with the four steps of identity nesting being inter-imperialism, para-imperialism, meta-imperialism and trans-metropolitanism. There is no room here for an extended definition of the terms put to work by Caius Dobrescu, but their function is that of offering imperialist derivatives a positive connotation, or at least allowing the possibility of such optical distortions.

In his contribution to the book, “Beyond Nation Building: Literary History as Transnational Geolocation”, Alex Goldiș explores literary history as a national project, the cultural complexity of this project, the discreet spatiality and the cultural homologous of Romanian literature, at the same time pleading for an interactive historiography and encouraging translations and trans-cultural inter-textuality. In good Bucharest postmodern tradition, Carmen Mușat questions not so much the criteria for mapping literary historiography, but a certain rescaling of the relative aesthetic value of literary works in “After «Imitation»: Aesthetic Intersections, Geocultural Networks, and the Rise of Modern Romanian Literature”. In her contribution, the author considers it is very beneficial to revisit the works of Tudor Vianu, who would have deserved a more ample framing within the book.

The most attractive, useful and fertile portion of the volume is its second part, simply called “Literature in the Plural”, which finally sheds some light on what Romanian literature history and theory could be if it would own up “from its origins to the present” to the geographically marginal, ethnic or sexual microliteratures. Mircea A. Diaconu in “Reading Microliterature: Language, Ethnicity, Polyterritoriality”, for example, performs a veritable tour d’force hard to beat through its synthesis and accuracy, where he discuses the marginal relationship with the majority of Serbia’s Romanian-Serbian literature, Moldova’s Romanian-Russian writings, the Hungarian literature of Romania, the literature of German ethnics in Banat, as well as some authors from former Yugoslavia. Equally striking and exemplary is Imre József Blázs’ contribution, “Trees, Waves, Whirlpools: Nation, Region, and the Reterritorialization of Romania’s Hungarian Literature”, where the author lucidly and bluntly discusses ways in which Hungarian and Romanian literature could communicate and interact reversibly.

Of course, such a chapter could not have been written without mentioning the dangerous ties of the Romanian historical avant-garde with the national literary history and the official canon meant to justify it. In the study “Cosmopolites, Deracinated, étranjuifs: Romanian Jews in the International Avant-Garde”, Ovidiu Morar does a small curriculum recap of the local and international evolution of the avant-garde in Romania, the Jewish ethnic component and the ideological project put forward by avant-garde works. Of course, Romanian Jews had a crucial role in the evolution of international avant-garde, but neither their role, nor that of the entire movement, will never be sufficiently nor correctly highlighted until we own up to the crucial importance of the Romanian avant-garde’s involvement within the local and international anti-fascist movement. Moreover, I think that now would have been the time for the book reviewed here to recognize Romanian literary anti-fascism as a genre in itself, encapsulating both the local avant-garde, and other directions or authors of the interwar literary left-wing who were unfairly cast out from national official history. This mission would have been perhaps more suitable for Paul Cernat and his study, “Communicating Vessels: The Avant-Garde, Antimodernity, and Radical Culture in Romania between the First and the Second World Wars”, if the author wouldn’t have spent his energy on researching examples in Romanian literature which prove that opposites attract and that, somewhere, the socialist avant-garde has tangential points to the fascist rearguard and so on. In conclusion, it is worth mentioning here that another text, perhaps as ample, that contextualizes Romanian gender microliterature would have completed and harmoniously honored the book’s goals.

And yet this blend, complicated as it is, makes things even more complicated in part 3 of the book, “Over Deep Time, Across Long Space”, in which the coordinators seem to have crammed a consistent part of the unresolved traumas of Romanian literature. In “Temporal Webs of World Literature: Rebranding Games and Global Relevance after the Second World War – Mircea Eliade, E.M. Cioran, Eugène Ionesco”, Mihai Iovănel brilliantly analyzes the self promotion and proto-marketing strategies of some fetish authors belonging to Romania’s literary right-wing, thus contributing to deconstructing the myth of disproportionate relevance of said authors. By far the most captivating text from the book is that of Teodora Dumitru, “Gaming the World-System: Creativity, Politics, and Beat Influence in the Poetry of the 1980s Generation”, in which the author critically analyzes, with remarkable insight, the relationship between the Bucharest 80s literary generation with the American beat generation. And even though the evidence is clear as day, the author’s conclusion is that the 80s generation’s (self)referentiality to the Beat Generation cannot be sustained if one peels away the formalist layers of verse and takes a look at the ideology or themes. 

Doris Mironescu, on the other hand, in “How Does Exile Make Space? Contemporary Romanian Émigré Literature and the Worldedness of Place: Herta Müller, Andrei Codrescu, Norman Manea”, talks about the real implications brought on by the phenomenon of delocalization and deterritorialization of Romanian authors who have left their home countries in authoritarian conditions. Mihaela Ursa’s text, “Made in Translation: A National Poetics for the Transnational World” analyzes in detail the translation policies that tacitly determine the course of literary history, as well as the issues caused by the urgency to rewrite these histories from the perspective of translation.

I’ve saved for last some of the perplexities contained within the book.

The first would be the inability to move away from the post-communist anti-communism paradigm in prof. Mircea Martin’s “A Geoliterary Ecumene of the East: Socialist Realism – the Romanian Case”, leading to the inexcusable failure of the opportunity to theorize at last, for real, the historiography of socialist realist literature. Instead of recapping a veritable plot for the history of progressist literature, from its origins in the 19th century to the present, in which social realism has its place, with all its ups and downs, just as the Romanian antifascist literature should at least be worth mentioning, we’re witnessing a personal summary of the works from The Final Report by the Tismăneanu Committee which was politically commissioned by president Traian Băsescu in 2006. Perhaps a corroboration, even implied, with the results of the “Elie Wiesel” Committee would have salvaged the apparent disciplinary approach of this theme, or it would have at least kept the author from taking the obvious road, like the Romanian minority from within the Romanian Communist Party, deemed untrue by the archives.

Although less obvious, a postcomunist re-reading under governmental slipstream, updating the post-communist anti-communism paradigm, especially by viewing the communist regime as a colonial regime, is also perpetuated in Bogdan Ștefănescu’s contribution, “Romanian Modernity and the Rethoric of Vacuity: Toward a Comparative Postcolonialism”. It’s possible that a colonial type of politics were exercised by the USSR, following the European model, in countries like Uzbece, Kârgâze, or the Moldavian Soviet Republic, as an integrated part of the larger history of modern western colonialism, however this direction in interpretation obliterates the local autonomy of Romanian communism, and also erases Romanian fascism which constituted the main objective for a political shift towards the left-wing. Moreover, the illegal communist movement had an overwhelming role during the interwar period, giving birth to social movements and echoing all throughout the immediate postwar era. Even though USSR’ victory during the war dictated The Romanian Socialist Republic’s political orientation, the post-colonial approach to Romanian communism loses sight of the betrayals, frictions and internal complicities, as well as the rich history of disobedience towards the USSR. In turn, this approach exonerates the true colonial heritage and responsibility of the western world from a position of authorial restriction.

As we reach this unpleasant moment in the conversation, the question that begs for an answer is how does the book’s historiographical re-reading of literature relate to the equation of post-communist re-reading and literary import/export. This takes us to the third perplexity: the canonical import/export is cross-examined and evaluated using the measure of market economy, thus using its instruments on the literary interpretation system. Moreover, although it claims to reevaluate massive chunks of literary history from an implied decolonial position, self-colonial caesura is present all the way, turning a blind eye to Hobsbawm’s warning of avoiding the old views of the Versailles Treaty which split the world in net national states.

At the same time, we can not fail to notice that we are again facing, for the millionth time, a re-reading, a renewal even, of the canonical literary right-wing. It was too easy to pass up an important author such as Ion Bogdan Lefter, whose absence from the volume is regrettable, and the chance to recap the legionary movement as literary movement in itself. As I mentioned before, now was the time to talk about interwar literary anti-fascism as a robust and conclusive literary movement. Only by taking on literary history, along with its democratic cultural movements, and not just the liberal-conservative cohort of writers, will we be able to speak of Romanian literature as a world literature.

Note: As I was reading the book and writing this text, I had numerous discussion with various friends, among which I want to give special thanks to Sanda Watt and Ovidiu Țichindeleanu for their feedback.


Romanian Literature as World Literature

Edited by: Mircea Martin, Christian Moraru, Andrei Terian

Authors: Christian Moraru, Andrei Terian, Bogdan Crețu, Caius Dobrescu, Alex Goldiș, Carmen Mușat, Mircea A. Diaconu, Imre József Balázs, Ovidiu Morar, Paul Cernat, Mihai Iovănel, Mircea Martin, Bogdan Ștefănescu, Teodora Dumitru, Doris Mironescu, Mihaela Ursa

Bloomsbury Academic

New York, 2018, 357 p.


Igor Mocanu

Igor is a PhD researcher in the Art History department of the National University of the Arts Bucharest / UNARTE, with a dissertation titled Political avant-garde. The other face of Romanian avantgard...

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