Son of Kafka, brother of Appelfeld

Clive Sinclair profiles the great, American-based Romanian Modernist, Norman Manea


By Clive Sinclair, July 6, 2012
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Norman Manea

Norman Manea

It’s Springtime for Norman Manea. Not only are Yale publishing his new novel, The Lair, but they are also reissuing two earlier works of fiction, and a collection of essays. In addition, he has recently been made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a privilege granted to very few foreign writers.

At the ceremony in the Romanian Cultural Institute, he added his name to the roll of honour using a quill once handled by Charles Dickens. Thanking the RSL, he remarked: “The genealogy of books is more important than any archive of our hereditary.” Look at his family tree, then, and you will find ancestors such as Proust, Joyce, Musil, Kafka and Bruno Schulz; great Modernists all.

The Lair is set in America, where Manea has lived for 20 or so years, but its protagonists are Romanian exiles, whose true homeland is the Romanian language. As it is for their creator. Manea was born in Bukovinia, the beautiful, melancholy corner of the Austro-Hungarian empire that became known as the “placenta of Romanian literature”. A random census offers Joseph Roth, Paul Celan, Gregor von Rezzori — and Aharon Appelfeld.
Like Appelfeld, Manea was raised in an assimilated, German-speaking household, though his beloved grandfather was Orthodox, ran a book store, and was a Hebrew and Yiddish scholar.

In 1941, aged five, Manea was deported with his family to the Ukrainian internment camp of Transnistria, where he survived thanks to the ministrations of his parents. (Being four years older, Appelfeld was just independent enough to flee captivity and endure a feral life. After the war, these different trajectories led to different futures: Manea returned to Romania, while Appelfeld began life anew in Israel.)
Both Manea and Appelfeld speak of their experiences with the same quiet but hypnotic cadence, pitched at the level of lullaby, though the stories they have to tell are anything but comforting. Manea’s are to be found in a volume called October, Eight O’clock, wherein a child’s wonderment is pitched against the reality of ubiquitous death.

But, unlike Appelfeld, he has a second tyranny to describe. Manea is adamant in refusing to equate fascism and communism; the first being a nihilist philosophy that fulfilled all its promises, the second being a humanist enterprise that failed. In communist Romania, Manea studied hydro-engineering, and became a constructor of dams. Such work can be seen as the communist ideal in action: godforsaken areas electrified. But it can also be a metaphor for communism’s darker aspects, its insistence upon homogeneity and its habitual interference with the free flow of ideas. In order to publish a book in Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania, a writer had to learn how to circumnavigate such obstacles.

Manea’s essays on his censors and his interrogators present scenarios every bit as absurd as those devised by his fellow countryman, Eugene Ionescu, except that they are real. Do not assume that the censors were buffoons or clowns, he cautions. On the contrary, they were recruited from among the country’s brightest graduates.
In 1986, Manea quit Romania with his wife; in the first instance for Berlin. He was 52, too old to try to write in a new language. This is why he did not switch to German — it may have been the language of Hitler, he says, but it was also the language of Goethe and Schiller. “Besides, what language is innocent?” So he remained true to Romanian, as he does to this day, even in New York.

The four books Yale have just published are in their Margellos World Republic of Letters series. If a republic can have an aristocracy, then Manea is among its princes.

t’s Springtime for Norman Manea. Not only are Yale publishing his new novel, The Lair, but they are also reissuing two earlier works of fiction, and a collection of essays. In addition, he has recently been made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a privilege granted to very few foreign writers.

Last updated: 4:05pm, July 6 2012