Norman Manea

Aesthetics as East Ethics

by Claudiu Turcuș (Author)
©2016 Monographs 260 Pages


The book offers the very first critical biography on Norman Manea, a widely respected writer and multiple Nobel Prize Nominee. It follows two main objectives: an aesthetic interpretation of his literature and a contextualization of his ethical discourse. Manea's aesthetics is seen also as an Eastern European ethics, significant for the writer’s status while living and working under the Communist censorship in a totalitarian state and in the global context of World literature.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Argument
  • Introduction. The Odyssey of Augustus the Skeptic
  • 1. The Hallmarks of Manea’s Creation
  • 2. The Complementarity of the Ethical and the Aesthetic
  • 3. Non-Narrative Reality
  • 4. The Morphology of Subversiveness
  • 5. The Thread of History
  • 6. Becoming Jewish
  • Part One: Aesthetics
  • Chapter I. Happenings in Ruined Reality
  • 1. The Long Side of Initiation (Night on the Long Side, 1969)
  • 2. The Subversiveness of Obscurity (Captives, 1970)
  • 3. The Subversiveness of Failure (Atrium, 1974)
  • 4. The Subversiveness of the Burlesque (The Book of the Son, 1976)
  • 5. The Interlude of Normality (The Days and the Game, 1977)
  • 6. Red October, Black October (October, Eight O’Clock, 1981)
  • 6.1. The Atrophy of the Human
  • 6.2. Just a Sweater
  • 6.3. Proust in Transnistria
  • 6.4. The Project of Solitude
  • 6.5. Alterocentrism
  • Chapter II. Socialist Reality outside Socialist Realism
  • 1. The Antinovel of the “Obsessive Decade” (The Apprenticeship Years of Augustus the Fool, 1979)
  • 1.1. Augustus the Fool – The Inconspicuous Eccentric
  • 1.2. The Farces of Apprenticeship
  • 2. A Society without Narrative Impetus (The Black Envelope, 1986)
  • 2.1. The Messengers’ Voices
  • 2.2. Neurasthenia, Defiance, Derision
  • 2.3. The Communities of the Underworld
  • 2.4. Suspicion, Surveillance, Terror
  • 2.5. The Faces of Seclusion
  • Chapter III. The (Un)reality of Exile
  • 1. The (Im)possible Return (The Hooligan’s Return, 2003)
  • 1.1. A Foreign Soil
  • 1.2. The Testimonial Pact
  • 1.3. The Hooligan avant la lettre
  • 1.4. A Symptomatologist of Memory
  • 1.5. The Ghosts of Posterity
  • 2. Turning Fiction into Biography (The Lair, 2009)
  • 3. The Other Genealogy (On the Edge, 1984 & Envelopes and Portraits, 2004)
  • 3.1. An Ethical Way of Conceiving Literature
  • 3.2. Empathetic Epitaphs
  • Part Two: East Ethics
  • Chapter I. The Inopportune Archive
  • 1. One Interview, Two Identitarian Guilts
  • 1.1. The Regime of Near Normality
  • 1.2. Diversion as a Method
  • 1.3. The Lovinescian Adrian Păunescu
  • 1.4. The Discernment of Corneliu Vadim Tudor
  • 2. The Failure of a Crucial Debate
  • 2.1. The Hierarchy of Guilt
  • 2.2. Manea the “Dilettante” and Eliade the “Pro-Semite”
  • 2.3. Point – Counterpoint
  • 2.4. The Generation of the Past
  • 3. An Ignored Cause
  • 3.1. The Dissolution of Solidarity
  • 3.2. Some Incompatibilities
  • 3.3. “Rhinos” and “Honorable People”
  • Chapter II. The Separation from Totalitarianism (On Clowns: The Dictator and the Artist, 1992)
  • 1. Masks. Substitutes
  • 2. The Ghost
  • 3. The Carnivalization of Blasphemy
  • Conclusions
  • Works Cited
  • Index

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Athens and Jerusalem
 (Norman Manea)


Sometimes, revisions are euphoric. Having become entrenched as a genre in Romanian culture after the 1920s, when Eugen Lovinescu grounded his theories about the synchronization of the Romanian and the Western European cultural canons on the notion that aesthetic values undergo mutations, revisions continued to dominate the Romanian cultural landscape for an entire decade after the cataclysmic Revolution of 1989. However, while Eugen Lovinescu, author of The History of Modern Romanian Civilization [Istoria civilizației române moderne, 1924] conceived of revision as a renewal of the critical spirit or as an attempt to reassess the validity of aesthetic judgments, the Romanian postcommunist transition to democracy has often prompted manifestations of politically oriented cultural revisionism. Naturally, the disappearance of a unique center of influence generated a struggle for the redistribution of power, the agendas of various cultural movements relying heavily on revision as a strategy of moral-axiological replenishment. After 1989, there were two key revisionist goals: ethical radicalism (in reconsidering canonical writers who had made a complicitous pact with the communist power) and aesthetic recuperation (of writers who had been marginalized under communism). Thus, while the collaboration of some writers with the communist dictatorial regime justified the need for an ethical recontextualization of postwar Romanian literature, the revaluation – in particular by the representatives of the 1980s generation – of certain postwar literary phenomena (like the Târgoviște School, Oneirism, or Textualism, driven into eclipse or suppressed by the socialist regime), appeared to justify a project of postcommunist aesthetic rehierarchization. Despite their importance at that time, these efforts eventually led to inconclusive results, since the criterion of double standards undermined their worthy intentions. Whereas the revaluations of aesthetically prominent works demanded comprehensive contextual reinterpretations, the literary critics were generally oblivious of the wider perspective.

Without belonging to either of these groups – for neither was he a “duplicitous” canonical writer, nor a marginal one by definition – Norman Manea bore the brunt of Romanian revisionism, even though or, rather, because he proposed an alternative revisionism, which could by no means be deemed as euphoric. Re-edited sporadically in the 1990s, the author’s works were not so much the subject of critical appraisal as the object of contest in Romanian culture. Notwithstanding all this, ← 9 | 10 → the turn of the twenty-first century ushered in a revaluation of Norman Manea’s importance as a writer, based on a more objective and effective examination of his works. And yet, the stereotypical view that Manea’s lack of style/talent has allegedly prevented him from becoming a great writer, as well as the certainty espoused by some, according to whom the writer’s fame is based on his Jewishness, still take center stage on the Romanian horizons of perception. These deleterious views continue to be cultivated at the expense of knowledgeable, unbiased interpretations.

In light of the above, the methodological, nay, the ethical motivation of my book derives from an awareness that, regardless of the literary critics’ tastes or idiosyncrasies, writers should be approached solely on the grounds of their works. This is the overriding rule that any literary critic, even without aspiring to that name, ought to observe. These are also the only grounds on which exacting admiration can be expressed, empathetic scrutiny can be undertaken, or attempts at reputation destruction can be launched.

The extensive bibliography comprising the reception of Norman Manea’s works is well in excess of four hundred articles and studies (written in Romanian, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, as well as in other, less widely-circulated languages). Thus, the contention that the writer’s work resembles an insufficiently explored iceberg is a quantitative distortion. The truth of the matter is that despite numerous critical contributions produced by analysts ranging from Lucian Raicu, Valeriu Cristea, Mircea Iorgulescu, Liviu Petrescu, Paul Georgescu, Ovid S. Crohmălniceanu and Ion Simuţ to Paul Bailey, Robert Boyers, Reginald Gibbons, Richard Eder, Claudio Magris, Matei Călinescu, Victor Ivanovici, Carmen Muşat, Sanda Cordoș and Paul Cernat, a systematic approach to the writings of Norman Manea is yet to be undertaken. While much has been written about the author of The Black Envelope, most of the critical responses have charted piecemeal analyses of his work. The literary critics included in the first series above have inevitably focused their commentaries on Manea’s writings from his Bucharest years (the period 1966–1986), while the others have examined the books he has published during his New York exile. In any case, the volumes that came out before 1979 are virtually unknown in Western Europe or the United States, only October, Eight O’Clock [Octombrie ora opt, 1981] and The Black Envelope [Plicul negru, 1986] having been translated into English thus far.

My book, therefore, has two major objectives. On the one hand, it aims to provide a unified interpretation of Norman Manea’s works by systematically collating his narrative poetics, his worldview and the thematic and stylistic hallmarks associated with the two – Romanian and American – stages in his creation. A chronological approach will enable me to capture the process of morphological change and the turning points that have shaped the imagery of Manea’s fictional world. ← 10 | 11 →

The first chapter (Happenings in Ruined Reality) includes commentaries on the novels and short stories written before 1981, in which the overriding concern is with the preservation of humanity, threatened by the cruelest process of atrophy.

The initial section reviews the reception of the writer’s debut work, laying emphasis on the narratives of a lost childhood that is retrieved into the present through the aid of a regenerated affective memory (a theme resumed in Manea’s subsequent volumes of short fiction) and the loosely biographical, absurd imagery of vulnerable youth (further developed in his novels). The following three sections of the first chapter describe particular instances of the political subversiveness that pervades Norman Manea’s writings, focusing successively on three analytical tiers: the narratological tier, often permeated by the technical obscurity of the French nouveau roman; the thematic tier, featuring failure as the defensive strategy of choice against one’s dispossession of the self; and the psycho-stylistic tier, characterized by a burlesque carnivalization of conscience, parodying the totalitarian circus of the communist regime. The analysis of the novel The Days and the Game [Zilele şi jocul, 1977] brings to the fore an interlude of normality. It is a book in which the protagonist discovers the apolitical naturalness of existence, erotic games and maternal candor. However, October, Eight O’Clock, his next book, will obsessively resume exploring these happenings in ruined reality.

The second chapter (Socialist Reality outside Socialist Realism) outlines the shift of the narrative focus from inner experiences of trauma, alienation and defeat onto an absurd, unbearable social existence, marking the protagonist’s youth and adulthood. A genuine anti-novel of the so-called obsessive decade of the 1950s, The Apprenticeship Years of Augustus the Fool [Anii de ucenicie ai lui August Prostul, 1979] casts a recalibrated perspective on Romanian Stalinism, outlining an archetypal image of the artist’s condition under totalitarianism. The Black Envelope is analyzed here as a wry, scathing Joycean allegory of socialist quotidian life, entombed in a universe dominated by suspicion and surveillance.

The chapter entitled The (Im)possible Return examines the problem of the autobiographical perspective consecrated by Manea’s novels of exile – The Hooligan’s Return [Întoarcerea huliganului, 1999] and The Lair [Vizuina, 2009]. Two fundamental concepts considered here are the testimonial pact and fiction as biography. Without the insights these concepts may provide, the metamorphosis of Manea’s fictional universe would simply eschew any systematization attempt. The 1986 volume of essays On the Edge [Pe contur] is a genuine survey of Romanian prose written in the 1980s, which reveals Manea’s intimate cultural connections with Musil, Canetti, Sabato and Thomas Mann in the essays he devotes to these writers. On the Edge is analyzed in connection with his volume of memoirs Envelopes and Portraits [Plicuri şi portrete, 2004], where the writer evokes, from ← 11 | 12 → the vantage point of an exiled man, the figures of his close friends, most of whom passed away. As attested by these volumes, the originality of Manea’s imaginary universe derives from a profound interplay between reflections on literature, explorations of biographical memory and an acute need to relate himself to others.

On the other hand, the second major aim of my book is to contextualize Norman Manea’s ethical discourse, which generated hostile press campaigns both during the last decade of communist dictatorship and after 1990. Three polemical debates, sparked by an interview the author gave to the Familia review (1981) and by the essays he published as “Felix culpa” (1992) and, respectively, “Incompatibilities” (1998), are the subject of a socio-ideological investigation in the chapter The Inopportune Archive. This close-reading of the three press scandals is followed, in the chapter entitled The Separation from Totalitarianism, by an examination of his narrative essays from the volume On Clowns: The Dictator and the Artist [Despre clovni: Dictatorul și Artistul, 1997], which are symptomatic of Norman Manea’s ethical stance and reveal the identity he assumes. My attempt to shed light on the tense, somewhat muddled reception of Manea’s works in Romanian culture marks the second stage in describing his complex portrait, comprising myriad artistic, essayistic, ethical or dialogical facets.

Three quarters of a century ago, the Romanian literary critic G. Călinescu cautioned that unlike cultural history, literary history should be a history of values, not just a history of facts or documents. By definition, a monographic approach would appear to violate this principle, for it is bound, by its very nature, to record not only the valuable features of the work it examines, but all of its relevant, even its marginal aspects. Despite this task at hand, the critic’s duty is to acquire an in-depth understanding of the analyzed object (in this case, Manea’s Protean creative subjectivity) and, then, to achieve some distance from it. All in all, while the dynamics of this undertaking are likely to be exhausting, they are absolutely necessary for an axiological assessment of the cultural phenomenon under analysis. Addressing the writings of Norman Manea from a combined historical, morphological, aesthetic and socio-ideological perspective, I will attempt to maintain a balance between a skeptical emulation of any and all methods, a propensity towards dissociations and a fascination with stylistic effects, out of a conviction that, in the words of Cioran, “we have convictions only if we have studied nothing thoroughly.”

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Introduction. The Odyssey of Augustus the Skeptic

“Are you looking back in anger?” This is the taunting Osbornian question the Romanian journalist Radu Mareş asked Norman Manea in an interview in 1977 (Manea, “Fidelitatea” 14). The writer’s digressive answer emphasized two defining aspects. On the one hand, for the author of The Black Envelope, it was inevitable that books should lag behind life, for “back means especially the years before 1969” (14). The writer’s biographical background prior to his artistic debut – his deportation as a child with a “guilt-ridden” identity to the Transnistrian gulag, his discovery of the miracle of life and books in the Eastern region of Bukovina, his conflicting identity as a teenager, the burlesque experiences and the enthusiasm of his years as a student in Bucharest, his career in engineering as an ineffective therapy – symbolically vertebrates the writer’s memory. Still, it is only through the lens of the “violent turn” (14) his existence took by immersion into writing that the act of remembering acquires meaning. Books tell the story of one’s life only when they suspend the claim that this is what they do, or when their sole claim is to their own literariness. The representation of Norman Manea tends thus to free itself from biographical references (duly valorized in his work), suggesting that existence is altogether different from memory. Moreover, in its turn, memory is dependent on acquiring expression – that literary form which presentifies absence, enshrining it as a trace of life. As the writer intimated, it is only in life that one can look back, but it is only by staying true to literary expression that one may turn a retrospective gaze into an introspective one.

Referring to the other term in Radu Mareş’s question (“anger”), Norman Manea outlined an ethics that ought to underlie any genuine aesthetics, accepting anger “only as the first impulse [of creation]; an audacious, delicate, strenuous swirl into the abyss” (14). Undermining the balance of art through irrationality, anger precludes in-depth explorations, it idiosyncratically inflames the discourse and resentfully unravels its complexity. At most, it can serve as the drive or the triggering factor of artistic manifestation, but by no means can it amount to a fertile and coherent principle of creation. Instead of such a feisty motivation, Manea opts for a comprehensive, simultaneously nostalgic and excruciatingly complex approach to existence. Genuine candor entwined with speculative reflection, the refusal of bitterness as a filter of his own memory, aggressiveness converted into skepticism, the redeployment of sarcasm in a burlesque vein and a programmatic openness to otherness, despite the writer’s ← 13 | 14 → natural reclusiveness – these are the coordinates of the existential, ethical and aesthetic project on which the author of The Hooligan’s Return has embarked.

1. The Hallmarks of Manea’s Creation


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
aesthetics ethics communism censorship Romania
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 260 pp.

Biographical notes

Claudiu Turcuș (Author)

Claudiu Turcuș is Assistant Professor at Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj, Romania. His research interests are focused on Eastern European Literature, Cinema and Criticism. He published widely on topics such as the cultural memory of Socialism, the representation of Post-communist transition and its intellectual history or the ideology of New Romanian Cinema.


Title: Norman Manea