Show Less
Open access

Recherche littéraire/Literary Research

Fall 2019


Edited By Marc Maufort

Daniel Acke, Mark Anderson, Eugene L. Arva, Franca Bellarsi, Valérie-Anne Belleflamme, Thomas Buffet, Ipshita Chanda, Mateusz Chmurski, Wiebke Denecke, Christophe Den Tandt, Lieven D’hulst, César Domínguez, Manfred Engel, Dorothy Figueira, John B. Forster, Massimo Fusillo, Gerald Gillespie, Marie Herbillon, S. Satish Kumar, François Lecercle, Ursula Lindqvist, Jocelyn Martin, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Sam McCracken, Isabelle Meuret, Delphine Munos, Daniel-Henri Pageaux, Danielle Perrot-Corpet, Frank Schulze-Engler, Monica Spiridon, Jüri Talvet, Daria Tunca, Cyril Vettorato, Hein Viljoen, Jenny Webb

Show Summary Details
Open access

Monica Spiridon: Mircea Martin, Christian Moraru and Andrei Terian, eds. Romanian Literature as World Literature. New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2018. Pp. 357. ISBN: 9781501327919.

←326 | 327→

Mircea Martin, Christian Moraru and Andrei Terian, eds. Romanian Literature as World Literature. New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2018. Pp. 357. ISBN: 9781501327919.

Published by Bloomsbury in the series Literatures as World Literature, this is a well-timed book looking to reshape the history of Romanian literature and culture for the twenty-first century. For all its diversity, the book has a common drive: its contributors – the youngest generation of Romanian literary scholars – are devising tools and coining analytical categories with which to revisit the scenarios of the existing Romanian literary histories and to (re)chart modern Romanian literature. As it makes clear, the book ties up with the actual “state of the art” in literary research, both with the world literature space in comparative studies and with the ongoing critique of methodological nationalism in literary history (Christian Moraru, Andrei Terian, “Introduction: The Worlds of Romanian Literature and the Geopolitics of Reading”).

The authors concur in their effort to deconstruct the interpretive model of the authoritarian, militant Grand Narratives of Romanian literary histories epitomized by George Calinescu’s History of Romanian Literature from its Origins to the Present Times. Endorsed in schools, quasi-institutionalized in text-books and academic curricula, Calinescu’s strategic interpretive narrative of unbroken national literary continuity from remote and glorious origins fills any gaps, misreads, and, when necessary, resorts to invention, in a drive to compensate for the belatedness and lack of a core tradition in Romanian literature. The book under review should be seen as a firm reply to the stout analytic scenario fostered by Calinescu, a scenario that outlasted him to be promoted by the cultural and educational institutions to this day.

In an attempt to highlight pluralism and worldliness in the areas previously dominated by nationalist essentialism, the team makes new theoretical departures and develops a particular discursive logic of literary ←327 | 328→research. This is especially clear in two of the most daring studies in the volume, devoted to early modern Romanian literature and, respectively, to the national poet Mihai Eminescu.

Caius Dobrescu’s contribution, “ ‘Soft’ Commerce and the Thinning of Empires: Four Steps toward Modernity,” is a tentative reverse-interpretation of a persistent syndrome in Romanian cultural pathology. The author revisits the thorny and overrated issue of empires, engraved in the national past as an emotional obsession of Romanian identity, turning a historic and geopolitical destiny into a cultural opportunity. One of the few foreign researchers specializing in Romanian history, Catherine Durandin, maintains that the Roman conquest of Dacia triggered an emotional imperial obsession, later reinforced by the assimilation of Romania by one empire after another, from Turkey to the later Soviet Russia (Durandin 12). As a result of its particular location, a genuine “imperial syndrome” was permanently in the background of the Romanian cultural mentality, as a rich source of prejudice and stereotype. Sailing against the mainstream, Dobrescu reevaluates the literary outcomes of the allegedly colonizing and assimilationist imperial pressures in South-Eastern Europe. Underlining the significant part played by the imperial forces in opening up local cultures towards transnational, universal and trans-metropolitan horizons, Dobrescu detects in the new anti-imperialist cultural forms a catalyst of the national self.

Andrei Terian’s approach to the work of the romantic poet Mihai Eminescu (“National Mythology to the World Pantheon”) puts forward a fresh and programmatic alternative to the traditional study of the national myth. In Calinescu’s monumental literary history, the canonical figure of the national poet takes on the role of Shakespeare in Harold Bloom’s Western Canon. Viewed from Eminescu’s standpoint, pre-classical writers gain a strictly relational value not through what they were in themselves, but through what they symbolically herald. Terian reverses Eminescu’s traditional image as the quintessential entity of Romanian-ness, and digs up the mainspring of his poetic universe in the transnational Eurasian space, dominated by Hindu mythological-philosophical energies. In doing this, he reveals a deep cosmopolitan and universalist dimension of Romanian culture: its Eastern legacy, the so-called Orientalism, firmly opposed to Occidentalism as the response from a nation looking for cunning strategies to gain acceptance as a fully-fledged member of the “Western European club.”

←328 | 329→

This polarisation is present in most Romanian cultural models, and is due to the attachment of peripheral cultures to strong, even authoritarian explanatory criteria, which can create order in the confusing and unquiet plurality of their semantic areas. Consequently, antinomies such as Orient versus Occident, European versus Non-European or Modern versus Traditional were extremely appealing to the Romanian agents in charge of national identity.

The development of Romanian Modernism(s), its many facets and the fundamental role assigned to Romanian cultural modernization scenarios are investigated by two contributors to the book: Carmen Musat (“After ‘Imitation’ ”: Aesthetic Intersections, Geocultural Networks and the Rise of Modern Romanian Literature”) and Paul Cernat (“Communicating Vessels: The Avant-Garde, Antimodernity and Radical Culture in Romania between the First and the Second World Wars”). In inter-war Romania, cultural elites tried to develop a set of creative strategies and of interpretive cultural techniques to counteract a conspicuously assumed cultural marginality. Among them, the strategy of imitation and the – semantically overloaded – cultural and ideological categories of Modernism, Anti-Modernism and Avant-Garde, embraced by writers in their attempt to keep up with the dynamics of European cultural history.

In her study, Musat addresses imitation, revealing the international core and the intercultural outcomes of the Romanian mimetic syndrome, while Cernat summons the metaphor of the “communicating vessels” to tackle the unique paradigm underlying the two polar opposite engines that drove interwar culture locally: the ideological and discursive models of avant-garde, on the one hand, and existentialist-spiritualism, on the other.

Uncovering a colonial paradigm in the scenario of Soviet-driven modernization, Bogdan Stefanescu stresses the opening of Romanian culture towards the geo-cultural models of other colonial spaces in the so-called Second and Third Worlds. In theoretical terms, this allows the author to reinterpret the accepted idea of a vacuum in the area and to embark on a genuine “comparative post colonialism,” drawing on the category of nodal cultural convergence. Stefanescu’s contribution is in step with the current thinking in literary studies, which sees world literature and geopolitics as two sides of the same coin, as Theo D’haen puts it (D’haen 7–24).

←329 | 330→

The world-system analysis is applied by Teodora Dumitru to the controversial Romanian literature of the eighties – the so-called “textualist” production of the late Cold War period. Her insightful close readings support the argument that we should see in this atypical postmodern “literature without Postmodernism” a blend of the anti-systemic Beat rhetoric of resistance and subversion with genuine Americanophilia and enthusiasm for the culture of the free-market economy.

The two distinct key levels of this book are easy to identify. On the one hand, the authors develop and set off a wide range of analytic devices intended to counteract the preexisting interpretive scenarios of modern Romanian criticism and literary histories, underpinned by a national essentialism which has been playing the card of ethnic difference and linguistic isolation. Although very much overrated, their hypersignificant stock of categories – see for instance meta-, para-, inter- and trans-imperialism, recursive globalization, interactional historiography, transnational geolocation etc. – helps detect the small latent openings toward worldliness in a culture permanently haunted by an over-arching fear of belatedness and isolation.

On the other hand, the object of their interpretation – Romanian literature – is widened considerably, to incorporate various areas previously excluded from national literature. They claim back the regional or minority literatures (Imre Jozseph Balasz, “Trees, Waves, Whirpools: Nation, Region and the Reterritorialization of Romania’s Hungarian Literature”), the great diaspora Romanian-born writers – Eliade, Cioran, Ionesco (Mihai Iovanel, “Temporal Webs of World Literature: Rebranding Games and Global Relevance after the Second World War”), the emigrés of the communist period (Doris Mironescu, “How Does Exile Makes Space? Contemporary émigré Literature and the Worldedness of Place: Herta Muller, Andrei Codrescu, Norman Manea”) and the “outsider” writers from Bessarabia, Bukovina and the Serbian Banat (Mircea Diaconu, “Reading Microliterature: Language, Ethnicity, Polyterritoriality”).

I have deliberately left out the excellent study by Mihaela Ursa, “Made in Translation: A National Poetics for the Transnational World,” which epitomizes the recent efforts by literary scholars to redefine translation studies as a transdisciplinary area, bringing together comparative literature, imagology, linguistics, anthropology, philosophy and cultural studies, in a sustained effort to show that “translation isn’t just translating” – to quote ←330 | 331→Haun Saussy (Saussy 43–57). After a pertinent review of the ongoing debate in Romania around the cultural roles assigned to translation, the author defines it as a stepping stone for any nation building, and argues that in Romania it was closely tied into the national project.

The effort from the youngest generation of Romanian scholars – the Millennials – to put forward their particular views on the history of Romanian literature and its interpretation strategies brings an opportune conceptual reshuffle, intended to problematize particular facets of literary production and interpretation, either overlooked or deemed unproblematic until now. Overall, this study stands out first and foremost through its ability to ask the most pressing questions on the subject, to single out the key dilemmas and to open up relevant paths for future research. The convergent effort of the contributors to bring together literary history and comparative literature with cultural studies, translation studies and imagology is worth noting.

The authors are successful throughout in deconstructing the discourse of national and ethnic essentialism, in step with the most recent developments in literary research: the replacement of the national-modular categorization of literary traditions, the “intersectional” notions of identity formation, the demise of Eurocentrism and the rise of post nationalism (Leersen 13–32).

However, in spite of the authors’ advocacy for generational “Difference,” their product clearly displays the unmistakable common denominator of all previous Romanian literary histories: the militant drive, which turns the book into a Manifesto.


Monica Spiridon

University of Bucarest

Works Cited

D’haen, Theo. “Worlding World Literature.” Recherche Littéraire/Literary Research 32 (Eté 2016/Summer 2016): 7–24.

Durandin, Catherine. Istoria Romanilor. Iasi: Institutul European, 1998.

←331 | 332→

Leersen, Jeep. “Imagology: On Using Ethnicity to Make Sense of the World.” Revue d’études ibériques et ibéro-américaines 10 (Automne 2016): 13–32.

Saussy, Haun. “When Translation Isn’t Just Translating: Between Languages and Disciplines.” Recherche Littéraire/Literary Research 34 (Été 2018/Summer 2018): 43–57.