Tag Archives: literature

Famous couples: Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald was one of the representative couples for America between the two world wars. Both were beautiful and famous. He, a writer that made it young, even though he was not fully recognized by the critics for his real value. She, an ambitious woman, who desired an accomplished man.  Hemingway, Fitzgerald’s good friend, didn’t like Zelda and blamed her for Scott’s failures. He wasn’t the only one. Often, however–especially during the last 20 years–Zelda Fitzgerald was considered a victim: a talented woman that lived in the shadow of a talented man. As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Zelda Sayre, the daughter of a judge from Alabama, was a beautiful, ambition woman who, it seems, wasn’t lacking in literary talent. Her letters, a journal and a novel is all we have left from her: all of it included in the 480 page volume edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. The first biographers attributed to her a secondary role in Scott Fitzgerald’s literary career. In spite of this, Fitzgerald recognized that, aside from his own self, Zelda was his main inspiration. “I truly have married the heroine of my novels,” the author of The Great Gatsby confessed in an interview in 1921.

In 1917, F. Scott Fitzgerald enrolled as a lieutenant, but he quickly realized that he wasn’t made for the army. During this period he wrote his first novel, named (in the first version) The Romantic Egoists, which later became This Side of Paradise. When the novel was published in 1920, the author was 23 years old. In 1918, he met Zelda at a ball close to Montgomery, Alabama. He asked her to marry him but she refused. To entice her, he tried to become rich and famous. It wasn’t easy. His first novel was refused by a big publisher because it was incomplete. He took a job at an advertising firm and created, for 90 dollars a month, slogans for various ad campaigns. Finally, the novel was published by the same publisher that initially refused it. This success won Zelda’s hand in marriage. She excitedly wrote to Scott: “Scott, my darling, Everything seems so easy and simple; this golden dawn. The fact I know I’ll be yours forever–that I belong to you–is truly liberating after all the tensions during the past month…. Waiting doesn’t seem so hard. I love you, my treasure…” Scott was in New York, where he was trying to become well-known to secure a decent living for his future wife. Zelda was still in Montgomery, so her enthusiastic tone can be partly explained by the distance that separated them.

Alexander McKaig, one of Scott’s friends, wrote the following observation in his journal about the new couple: “I visited Scott Fitz and his wife, a very dramatic, provincial Southern belle. She chews gum and shows her knees. I don’t think this marriage can last. Both of them get drunk. I think in a few years they’ll be divorced. Scott will write something important and die at the age of 23 in an attic…”. McKaig later wrote in his journal, after visiting the married couple: “Fitz should leave Zelda alone and stop chasing her…. The sad thing is that Fitz is completely overwhelmed by Zelda’s personality…. She’s the role model for all the feminine characters in his novels…”. Despite these critical remarks, even the author of the journal was eventually seduced by Zelda’s charisma: “She’s, without a doubt, the most beautiful and intelligent woman I’ve met”. Arriving in New York to be close to her husband, Zelda created quite a sensation among her husband’s acquaintances. The couple prospered, also thanks to Scott’s literary success.

In 1925, The Great Gatsby was published.  This novel took care of the 7,000 dollar debt Scott owed, with which the couple travelled to Europe.  The literary reviews weren’t exactly positive; on the contrary. The novel was received with reticence by the critics. To cover his debts, Scott wrote many short stories. Hemingway blamed his wife for the fact Scott become an alcoholic. He also thought Scott was wasting his talent on short stories because of Zelda, writing about his friend: “He represents the greatest tragedy of a talent in our cursed generation”.

In 1929 things didn’t look  good for the Fitzgerald couple. Scott made slow progress on his fourth novel, which exacerbated his depression. He described this situation  in a letter in 1929: “Even so, it’s possible, God willing, that the five years between my realease from the army and finishing Gatsby, thus the years between 1919 and 1924 during which I published three novels, approximately fifty short stories that sold well, a play, plus numerous articles and movie scripts, took everything out of me. On top of this, during this time we also mingled, with great energy, in the most entertaining social circles. … That’s what bothers me, au fond”.  Zelda herself was affected by numerous psychological crises, which become more and more acute. She took refuge in art. She also tried to publish a few short stories.  It seems that some of them were published in both her name and his. Several were signed  by him alone, however, since those paid more. In 1930, the couple grew apart. Zelda isolated herself in her own world and behaved inexplicably, from Scott’s point of view. She couldn’t even bear to have Scottie, their daughter, around her anymore. In 1932, Zelda’s condition worsened.  That same year her own novel, Save Me the Waltz, was published. In 1934, Zelda was sent, following a nervous breakdown, to a hospital near Baltimore.

It was the beginning of the end. Zelda remained hospitalized while, in 1940, Scott Fitzgerald died suddenly from a cardiovascular accident. He was 44 years old and left behind an unfinished novel, Another death in Hollywood. The author was buried discretely, in the presence of a few friends. On March 10, 1948, a fire burst out in the kitchen of the Highland hospital where Zelda was staying. Nine patients lost their lives, including Zelda.

The two of them remain, however, the mythical couple of America between the wars: “two people impossible to unite, whose bond can never be undone,” as Kyra Stromberg writes in her monograph,  Zelda & F. Scott Fitzgerald, published by Editura Paralela 45 in 2004 (translated by Iunia Martin): a book that serves as the inspiration for the story I have told.  Zelda is also the main character of Gilles Leroy’s French novel, Alabama Song, that won the  Prix Goncourt  in 2007 : a novel that brings to the forefront Zelda’s literary talent, which was long overshadowed by her more famous husband.

article by Adina Dinitoiu, Editor of Catchy.ro and of Observator Cultural

(originally published in Romanian on Catchy.ro):

translated from Romanian by Claudia Moscovici

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Filed under Adina Dinitoiu, Famous couples: Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Literatura de Azi (Today’s Literature): Perpetuating culture in the Internet age

design by Laurentiu Midvichi

design by Laurentiu Midvichi

Literatura de Azi (Today’s Literature): Perpetuating culture in the Internet age

by Claudia Moscovici

The notable Romanian literary critic Daniel Cristea-Enache recently launched Literatura de Azi, a  literary and culture blog that features essays by Romanian critics, fiction writers and artists.  The blog includes sections on literary criticism by Daniel Cristea-Enache himself, Alex Stefanescu, Dan-Liviu Boeriu, Ovidiu Nimigean, Lia Faur and Anca Goja; poetry by Emil Brumaru and Radu Vancu; creative writing by Selian Turlea; artwork selected by the painter Laurentiu Midvichi, music selected by Gabriela Pop, and my own section of book reviews on the Holocaust.   The list of contributors will continue to grow as the blog expands. Literatura de Azi also benefits from an excellent and energetic team of editors: Odilia Rosianu (Editor-in-Chief), Anca Goja and Romina Hamzeu (Managing Editors), Irina Ionita (Editor), Nona Carmen Rapotan (Junior Editor) and Adrian Pop (Web Master). Promoting culture via the Internet is no easy task: first of all because many consider “culture” and “the Internet” to be a contradiction in terms; secondly because it’s easy for whatever is considered “culture” to get lost in the deluge of all kinds of information. In fact, this is a problem the world of publishing faces in general.

Both publishers and authors are becoming increasingly concerned with the question of how to promote books effectively, capture the interest of readers and generate sales. Given the number of books out there, without an outstanding publicity campaign, each given book risks passing unnoticed. The competition for readers is tremendous given that an astronomical number of books are published each year. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) cites that roughly 2,200,000 books are published annually. Out of curiosity, I looked up the two countries I write about most which, not coincidentally, are also those where I’ve lived: the U.S. and Romania. In 2010, 328,259 were published in the U.S. and in 2008 14,984 books were published in Romania. Given this large number of books published in the U.S. alone, it’s difficult to believe how difficult and competitive the process of publishing can be (as I explain in an earlier article on the subject):

in English:

in Romanian:

And yet publishing your manuscript is only the beginning of the gargantuan task of rising to the surface in an ocean of information. On the one hand, the mass media and the Internet in particular makes sharing our cultural products easier in some ways, by facilitating access to an audience. For instance, anyone can self-publish and promote a novel nowadays, through blogs, twitter,  youtube and other popular venues on the internet. But this apparent democratization of culture also makes it a lot tougher to stand out from the crowd. Each cultural product–be it a novel, a collection of poems, a song, a film or a painting–competes with tens of millions of others. It’s hard to find or discern anymore what we value and what we don’t in this tidal wave of information that assails us from all directions on a daily basis. So how do quality books, and culture in general, rise to the surface? 

noise

To draw another analogy, it’s as if we heard talented classical musicians playing their instruments at the same time as others howl, scream, talk and yell in various languages. Or, if you prefer to avoid making any value judgments, as if we heard them playing at the same time as other talented musicians practice other songs. Either way you look at it, what reaches our ears will sound like a maddening cacophony, to the point that we can no longer discern the music we prefer from  the surrounding noise we’d like to ignore.

Daniel Cristea-Enache

Daniel Cristea-Enache

In a world of information (and publication) overload, publicizing culture becomes both a necessity and a challenge. This is precisely what Daniel Cristea-Enache explains in an editorial called  “Romania of the Year 2014″ (Romania Anului 2014) on Literatura de Azi (Literature of Today): 

in English translation:

“Today, almost a quarter of a century after the anti-communist revolution, it’s clear that the Romanian people and their social sphere have changed. The internet first registered this transformation, then it accelerated it. Readers–especially the younger generations–don’t obtain their information from traditional channels (it’s noteworthy that newspapers have declined even more dramatically than cultural journals) but from the Internet. We can protest this reality; we can be nostalgic; we can pull our hair out; we can laugh with a sense of superiority; we can sigh with regret: but this is the reality we face and it won’t change just because we want it to. It’s not reality that will adapt to us, in an open and pluralist society. We have to adapt to the increasing predominance of the Internet. The immediate question that arises is: if we notice this predominance, do we oppose it or do we make use of it?” (Daniel Cristea-Enache)

in Romanian:

“Astăzi, la aproape un sfert de secol de la Revoluție, e limpede că lumea românească și spațiul ei social s-au schimbat. Internetul întîi a constatat schimbarea, apoi a accelerat-o. Cititorii – mai ales cei tineri – nu își mai iau informația de pe canalele tradiționale (e semnificativ că ziarele au căzut încă mai dramatic decît revistele culturale), ci de pe net. Putem să protestăm împotriva acestei realități, putem să fim nostalgici, putem să ne smulgem părul din cap, putem să rîdem cu superioritate, putem să suspinăm cu jale: aceasta este realitatea și ea nu se schimbă după cum vrem noi. Nu realitatea are a se adapta la noi, într-o societate deschisă și pluralistă. Noi avem a ne adapta la realitatea dominației, tot mai accentuate, a internetului. Întrebarea care se pune imediat este dacă, o dată ce constatăm această dominație, ne împotrivim ei sau o folosim.” (Daniel Cristea-Enache)

Daniel Cristea-Enache goes on to argue that the first strategy is utopic. Literary production can’t avoid the Internet. Nor can it combat singlehandedly its vast and growing influence. He states that perhaps with great effort a single writer can impose upon himself isolation from the contemporary world of mass media; a kind of Rip VanWinkle hibernation. But the whole field of cultural production–literature in itself–certainly can’t follow this strategy. What Daniel Cristea-Enache proposes, and what the entire project of Literatura de Azi epitomizes, is the adaptation of “high culture” to the age of the Internet. This goal abandons the binary opposition between Culture (with all the implicit hierarchies of judgment and value that Pierre Bourdieu and others analyzed) and the Internet (mass media, without standards of value). Cristea-Enache adopts a pragmatic and modern approach to cultural value: namely, that of “transforming the Internet not in the goal of literature but in its cultural instrument, through which literature can reach as many readers as possible.” (“Chestiunea, după mine, este să transformăm internetul nu în scopul literaturii, în ținta ei – ci în instrumentul cultural prin care literatura poate ajunge la cît mai mulți cititori.”)

Being a practical person, Daniel Cristea-Enache practices what he preaches. Literatura de Azi, a blog that has already become in a matter of months a very prominent conduit of literature and culture in Romania (and that has the potential of growth internationally through syndicated columns in several languages) shows that literature, art, film and poetry can, indeed, survive the age of mass media information. But they won’t reach readers and viewers on their own. Holding on to the past or hoping for the best in the present aren’t workable strategies for promoting culture in our times. Promoting culture takes a lot of organization, energy and team work by editors, critics, authors, publishers and readers who still believe in the value of good books and do their best to help them rise to the surface in the sea of information. For more information, see Literatura de Azi‘s website, http://www.literaturadeazi.ro/

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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Filed under Adrian Pop, Alex Stefanescu, Anca Goja, book review, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Dan-Liviu Boeriu, Daniel Cristea-Enache, Emil Brumaru, fiction, Gabriela Pop, Irina Ionita, Laurentiu Midvichi, Lia Faur, literary criticism, Literatura de Azi, Literatura de Azi (Today's Literature): Perpetuating culture in the Internet age, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Nona Carmen Rapotan, Odilia Rosianu, Ovidiu Nimigean, Radu Vancu, Romina Hamzeu, Stelian Turlea

Finding (the elusive) Room of one’s own: Interview with Bookblog about being a writer

A room of onee's own

Finding (the elusive) Room of one’s own: Interview with Bookblog about being a writer

Claudia Moscovici

In 1929 Virginia Woolf published a series of lectures that she delivered in 1928 at Newnham and Girton colleges (the women’s colleges at Cambridge University), which we  know under the title “A Room of One’s Own”. She argued that women don’t have their own creative space, both figuratively, in the male-dominated tradition of male writing, and literally, meaning the time and space to write. I think that nowadays few writers, both male and female, have a room of one’s own. For the vast majority of creative writers, writing is a passion, a talent, even an identity, but it is no longer a profession. To put it bluntly, most writers can’t earn a consistent living from it. Even journalism is barely hanging on, as the major newspapers in the U.S. are bought at low prices and blogging has taken over what used to be professional journalism. Ever since I was in college, at Princeton University, I’ve dreamt of being a fiction writer. Knowing, however, that writing isn’t a full-fledged profession, I didn’t take the plunge until my family and I achieved some level of financial stability. I studied and got a doctorate in Comparative Literature at Brown University and became a literary critic and professor for nearly 15 years. Although I had some financial stability at that point, I wouldn’t say that I had a room of my own, either literally or figuratively. I was busy raising a young family, my lovely kids Sophie and Alex, so I didn’t have much time to write fiction.bookbloginterview3

Professionally, for many years I wrote scholarly essays and books. To give voice to my creative side, in  2002 I founded an art movement called postromanticism (http://postromanticism.com), devoted to some of the aesthetic values that I thought were being neglected in contemporary art: verisimilitude, passion, sensuality and beauty.Cover of Romanticism and Postromanticism

The internet became, to some extent, a room of my own: a space where I could discover and interact with artists from all over the world (France, the U.S., Switzerland, Taiwan, Romania, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, etc.) who shared my aesthetic vision. But I still didn’t have the time and space to fully express my own creativity as a writer until I became a full-time writer in 2008 and subsequently published my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, in 2009 (translated as Intre Doua Lumi, Editura Curtea Veche, 2011) and my second novel, The Seducer (2011). At that point in my life, my children were old enough that they no longer needed to be nurtured in the same way, or in the same space with me at all times. My space as a writer changed again and I could finally have the time and place to write.

Bookbloginterview1

I write at my desk on a Mac computer, with my cat Jewel serving as a constant companion (and, I’d say, also muse). As all my Facebook friends know from the cat pictures I post, I’m a big cat lover. This is why I chose a picture of Jewel in my library as one of the photos included for this interview. This picture of my cat perched on my books also shows that even when I write fiction I still follow some of the research habits  that I acquired as a scholar. I research throughly every novel I write. To write Velvet Totalitarianism, for instance, I read dozens of books on communism, the Ceausescu dictatorship, the political history of Romania and the revolution of 1989. To write The Seducer, a novel about psychopathic seduction that follows the structure of my favorite novel, Anna Karenina, I researched psychopathy, narcissism and other personality disorders. The plots of my novels may be fiction, but to write about anything that has a basis in history, psychology or sociology I believe that one has to have some foundation in facts.

Seducer Cover

We are used to thinking of writers as being occupied mostly with writing. I believe this too has become a fiction. If the writer has a family, then a large part of his or her life revolves around that family’s needs. Second, a writer has to wear many hats, so to speak: researcher, writer, and publicity director all in one. As a literary critic, fiction writer and founder of an international art movement, the publicity hat is very large for me. I not only have to publicize my own books, but also the postromantic movement and the art of the dozens of artists I collaborate with (you can see some of my essays about them on my art blog, http://fineartebooks.wordpress.com).bookbloginterview2

This is why for this interview I’ve included a press photo of me during my visit to Romania, taken by Claudiu Ciprian Popa, for the launch of my novel Intre Doua Lumi, in 2011. Book publicity has become almost as important to me as the computer at which I write. And this isn’t just because nowadays publicity has become a necessity: without effective publicity most writers wouldn’t be read. It’s also because I’m trying to find a place in the publishing industry that isn’t that of simply being a writer. I’ve witnessed enormous changes in this industry in the U.S., as most of the small and medium publishing houses have died, or been swallowed by the large publishers. Even the large publishing houses have had to merge to survive. Most authors are left without a publicity budget, which means with less consecration and access to readers and reviewers. The final picture I’m including of this room of my own is a still shot from the movie video book trailer for my novel “Velvet Totalitarianism,” called “Velvet Love,” made by Andy Platon.

bookbloginterview4

This photo indicates the direction I believe the publishing industry will take: namely, producing relatively inexpensive, creative and cutting-edge ways in which individual authors and publishers will publicize books in the future. In the past few years my writing space, or room of my own, has changed yet again, to encompass a network of collaborations among the various arts, including music, film and literature, which I believe will become increasingly important to authors and publishers alike.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under A Room of one's own, Andy Platon Velvet Love, book review, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, fiction, interview with Bookblog, Intre Doua Lumi Claudia Moscovici, Intre Doua Lumi Curtea Veche Publishing, literary criticism, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Velvet Love, Virginia Woolf A room of one's own

Staying a Step Ahead of the Competition in Publishing: Music Video Book Trailers

Velvet Love by Andy Platon

Velvet Love by Andy Platon

MUSIC VIDEO BOOK TRAILERS: Staying a Step Ahead of the Competition in Publishing

by Claudia Moscovici

Both publishers and authors are becoming increasingly concerned with the question of how to promote books effectively, capture the interest of readers and generate sales. Given the number of books out there, without an outstanding publicity campaign, each given book risks passing unnoticed. Currently, the competition for readers is tremendous. An  astronomical number of books are published each year. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) cites that roughly 2,200,000 books are published annually. Out of curiosity, I looked up the two countries I write about most which, not coincidentally, are also those where I’ve lived: the U.S. and Romania. In 2010, 328,259 were published in the U.S. and in 2008 14,984 books were published in Romania. Given this large number of books published in the U.S. alone, it’s difficult to believe how difficult and competitive the process of publishing can be (as I explain in an earlier article on the subject):

in English:

in Romanian:

And yet publishing your manuscript is only the beginning of the gargantuan task of rising to the surface in an ocean of books. In fact, the UNESCO study probably doesn’t even count the number of self-published books via Amazon Kindle, Lulu and many other self-publishing options. On the one hand, the mass media makes sharing our cultural products easier in some ways, by facilitating access to an audience. For instance, anyone can self-publish and promote a novel nowadays, through blogs, twitter,  youtube and other popular venues on the internet. But this apparent democratization of culture also makes it a lot tougher to stand out from the crowd. Each cultural product–be it a novel, a collection of poems, a song, a film or a painting–competes with tens of millions of others. It’s hard to find or discern anymore what we value and what we don’t in this tidal wave of information that assails us from all directions on a daily basis.

noise

To draw another analogy, it’s as if we heard talented classical musicians playing their instruments at the same time as others howl, scream, talk and yell in various languages. Or, if you prefer to avoid making any value judgments, as if we heard them playing at the same time as other talented musicians practice other songs. Either way you look at it, what reaches our ears will sound like a maddening cacophony, to the point that we can no longer discern the music we prefer from  the surrounding noise we’d like to ignore. In a world of information (and publication) overload, effective publicity and keeping up with the rapid changes in the mass media can make the difference between success and failure.

bordersbooks

When I taught literature and aesthetics at the University of Michigan, I also helped organize a few  panels in the Ann Arbor Book Festival for several years. In this function, I witnessed up close and personal the struggles of one of the biggest book stores internationally, the Borders Group Inc., which was one of our main sponsors for the book festival. As is well-known, Borders faltered in the face of growing competition from Amazon.com as well as its direct competitor, Barnes & Noble. After downsizing for a few  years, the company eventually declared bankruptcy in February 2011. Barnes & Noble swallowed its former rival, taking over Borders’ trademarks and customers.

penguin_books_random_house_a_l

A similar phenomenon can be witnessed in the world of publishing. Two decades ago, when I first began creative writing, there were dozens of small presses in the U.S. Now there are hardly any left, both because they can’t compete with the major publishing houses and because self-publishing has taken a big bite out of their sales. Many of those that survive have been assimilated into larger publishing houses. And they are not alone. During the past decade, even the mainstream publishers often group together into larger conglomerates. For instance, one of my favorite publishers of literary fiction, Farrar Straus & Giroux, which has published internationally renowned authors such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Franzen and  Jeffrey Eugenides, forms a conglomerate with the MacMillan Publishing group. On July 1st 2013, two of the biggest publishing houses, Penguin and Random House, joined forces to form Penguin Random House. This megapublisher is predicted to account for a quarter of book sales in the U.S., as  Julie Bosman explains in her July 1, 2013 article on the subject in The New York Times:

This merger may be partly in response to the fact that starting in 2009, Amazon.com, the biggest online book seller in the U.S., launched several (selective, as opposed to self-publishing) imprints of  foreign and genre fiction. These include AmazonEncore (out-of-pront or self-published books that sell well), AmazonCrossing (books in translation), Montlake Romance and Thomas & Mercer (mystery novels). In May 2011, Larry Kirshbaum, the former CEO of Time Warner Book Group, took over Amazon Publishing to create a new general-interest imprint.

amazonpublishing

To summarize the increasingly competitive and volatile environment of the publishing industry: many authors are choosing self-publishing rather than wallowing indefinitely in the “slush piles” of highly selective and largely inaccessible literary agents; small presses have been swallowed by bigger ones (or gone out of business); large book sellers have faced bankruptcy and even mainstream publishers have had to merge to continue to thrive in the industry. But even these changes may not be enough. More publishers will sink and more publicity is needed–for authors, book sellers and publishers alike–to survive in such a highly competitive environment, where mainstream success is almost as statistically rare as winning the lottery.

Effective book publicity has become a necessity. Unfortunately, even for authors publishing with the big mainstream publishers, a decent publicity budget is not easy to come by. Ebooks continue to grow in popularity, which may be great news for readers but not necessarily for writers and publishers. Even taking into account the fact they largely eliminate the distribution cost and entirely eliminate the shipping and handling cost, ebooks generate smaller revenues than print books, which means, overall, fewer profits. This, in turn, means a general decrease in publicity budgets. Also, please keep in mind that publicity budgets aren’t equally distributed among authors. The major publishing houses allocate most of their annual publicity budget on a handful of books they predict will sell that year, most of which are written by celebrities (like Paris Hilton or George Bush) or authors who already have proven sales. This leaves the vast majority of published authors to fend for themselves and generate their own publicity: through blogs, social networks, twitter, contacting libraries and bookstores, however they can.

This discussion brings us full-circle to the initial problem I broached in this article: the difficulty of standing out in this deluge of mass media communication, where pretty much every author does his or her best to be heard and read. So how can you stand out if you aren’t one of the lucky few who get a major publisher’s annual publicity budget? I’d like to propose a new method–music video book trailers–that is innovative, cutting-edge and appeals to potential readers’ senses and imagination, to awaken their interest books.

I came upon the idea of music video book trailers partly through good fortune (of working with a cutting-edge major publishing house in my native country, Romania, Curtea Veche Publishing)–and partly because I was actively seeking opportunities of getting involved in such a project. Ever since I’ve been a teenager I loved pop music and jazz and was intrigued by the power of music videos to capture viewers’ attention not only through catchy music, but also through spectacular filmic scenes that can rival the best movie trailers.

Cover Intre Doua Lumi

Once I found out from my publisher that  my first novel,Velvet Totalitarianism, would be launched in Romanian translation (under the title Intre Doua Lumi) in September of 2011, I began exploring the possibility of collaborating with talented Romanian composers and musicians for a music video/book trailer of my novel. Via LinkedIn, I met the Romanian singer, composer, director and producer Andy “Soundland” Platon, who ended up doing a wonderful music video based on my novel, called Velvet Love:

 

Andy Platon is a Romanian pop music prodigy.  I say “pop music” only because that’s what he excells at best. But Andy has enormous range both in terms of the scope of his talents–as a composermusic video director and producer andsinger–and in the versatility of his musical abilities, from classical music to pop music and everything in between. Andy made his debut while still only a teenager in 2009 with the song Lost Without You, which became a finalist in the competition Battle of Songs. This show  was featured not only in Romania, but also in France, Russia and Turkey. Lost Without You was also nominated for the Shockwave NME Music Awards 2010. More recently, he’s known for his collaborations with Troy Lynch – The BeatBoyz (T.I.Gucci Mane, 112), Loredana Groza and  Marius Nedelcu  featuring  Alexandra UngureanuIrina PopaXoniaAnthony Icuagu (ex. Insane), Ianna Novac (ex. ASIA, Ladies). Recently, he has established his own production company, called Fonogram Studios and is collaborating with internationally renowned musicians, such as Kris Searle.

Andy Platon’s new single and music video,  Velvet Love,  performed by the talented singer Marcel Lovin, captures with feeling and sensibility some of the most poignant scenes of my novel  Velvet Totalitarianism, including the complex dynamics between the main characters, Radu and Ioana, as they struggle with the tension between their love for each other and harassment by the Secret Police. As an art critic I found the video to be very artistic–almost photographic in feel–showing clearly Andy’s eye for capturing each scene in a single image, as well as the talent of his co-producer and Director of PhotographyAnthony Icuagu. The main actors–Ioana Picos as Ioana and Mihai Marin as Radu–did a wonderful job playing the romantic couple in the novel, whose risky love for each other may be saved by their parental love for their son, Lucian, played by Alia Anastasiei.

velvetmoscovici

In general, music video book trailers have the following advantages for generating publicity for both authors and publishers:

1. They appeal to most of our senses. At their best, they’re musically catchy, visually stimulating and dramatic enough to stage a narrative that leaves viewers eager to find out more about your book.

2. They’re international. If posted on youtube, vimeo and other public venues, music video book trailers can quickly reach an international audience. If you wish to target only readers who speak a certain language, such as Romanian, French or Russian, then you can do them in that language.

Seducer Cover

3. Music video book trailers allow for a flexible budget. They can be as expensive as you can afford or as inexpensive as you desire. Before meeting the music composer and producer Andy Platon, I did my own music video book trailers and posted them on youtube. Though they certainly lacked professional filming equipment and original music, they still reached thousands of readers and were effective advertising tools. I’m including below my music video book trailer for my second novel, The Seducer:

4. They involve fruitful collaborations among the arts–music, film, acting and literature–so they’re by nature artistically complex and interesting.

5. They are amenable to various sources of funding, such as donors, investors and crowd funding, which do not depend strictly on the publicity budget your publisher is willing to allocate for your book. In fact, crowd funding has become an increasingly popular and effective way of raising revenues for artistic projects. For information about some of the most promising crowd funding options, I’m including below Chance Barnett‘s article on the subject, published in Forbes Magazine:

6. Best of all, like crowd funding itself, music video book trailers offer a more or less democratic means of advertising. This doesn’t mean, of course, that this method generates equal results for all authors. But it does mean that it’s accessible to every author: whether or not they published with a mainstream publisher, independent publisher, or self-published; whether or not their publisher invested their annual publicity budget in their work; whether or not they have connections in the entertainment industry, and whether or not they have a lot of money at their disposal for book publicity. Moreover, since this method of advertising is relatively new, music video book trailers offer can offer authors and publishers a way of staying ahead of the competition.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Interview about my novels The Seducer and Velvet Totalitarianism with Ziare.com (in English)

photo credit Romani Celebri

photo credit Romani Celebri

I’ve translated below parts of my interview with Diana Robu, which was originally published in Romanian in Ziare.com (Newspapers.com).

1. Tell us a little bit about when and under what circumstances you left Romania.

1. I left Romania in 1981, at the age of 11. I haven’t returned until 2011, for the launch of my first novel Velvet Totalitarianism in Romanian translation, Intre Doua Lumi (Editura Curtea Veche). My father defected from the country two years before my mother and I legally immigrated to the U.S. He was a world-class mathematician and his boss was Zoia Ceausescu. She had let it be known that he wouldn’t be able to travel abroad to mathematical conferences anymore (because Nicolae Ceausescu was tightening the Iron Curtain). So he decided to take his chances, as several mathematicians had before him, and defect to the U.S. in the hopes that we would rejoin him soon. I filter aspects of our struggles to unite our family in my first novel, Intre Doua Lumi, as well as describing aspects of the adaptation to the U.S. (even though I fictionalize everything, of course, since I wrote a novel not a memoir).

2. What was your reaction when you returned to Romania, so many years later?

2. When I returned to Romania for my book launch decades later, in 2011, I was shocked and impressed to see how much the country has changed in its physical aspects, in its modernization, and in the standard of living. Of course, I only caught a privileged glimpse of Bucharest, from the perspective of an author on a book tour. So I didn’t get an inside glimpse, nor a global view of the country. It was a very brief and limited, but also very positive experience.

einstein2

3. Tell us about your professional life and impression of the American academia.

3. In the academia, I taught in several departments–philosophy, art and comparative literature–since I love all of these fields. I emphasized love of art, love of literature, and clarity of expression. Personally, I subscribe to Albert Einstein‘s wise saying: “If you can’t explain something clearly, then you don’t understand it well enough.”

4. What would you advise Romanians who might be interested in moving to the U.S.?

4. I’d advise any Romanian who is thinking about immigrating to the U.S. to visit the country for a considerable period first and find out about professional opportunities and day to day life. Just as it was easy for me to idealize Romania when I was a tourist there in 2011, it’s easy for anyone visiting the U.S. as a tourist to do the same. You never know how you’ll feel in a country until you actually live there, and find a place to work and a place to live. There are some professions, like medicine, where the degrees from one country don’t automatically get accepted in another. Many doctors from Romania have had to start from square one (medical school) or do something else related to medicine. It’s always more prudent to know exactly what you’re getting into before you make any drastic move.

Cover of Romanticism and Postromanticism

5. Do you wish to visit Romania again?

5. Yes, I hope to return to Romania for the book launches of my art criticism book, Romanticism and Postromanticism, translated by the writer Dumitru Radu Popa, and for the launch of my second novel, The Seducer, which hasn’t been translated yet. During this period I hope to get to see more of the country outside of Bucharest, such as Drobeta Turnu Severin and Timisoara, where some of my family lives.

Cover Intre Doua Lumi

6. Is your first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, autobiographical? If so, in what ways?

6. Velvet Totalitarianism, translated into Romanian by Mihnea Gafita under the title of Intre Doua Lumi, does incorporate some of our family’s struggles with the Romanian Securitate and the challenges of immigrating to the U.S. However, I fictionalized the entire plot, included a fictional spy thriller element (the Radu/Ioana plot line) and changed everything structurally to make the story work as a novel. Reality was only a point of departure (and research). But the novel is, after all, fiction.

Cover of The Seducer

7. You write books in several different domains. What leads you to do so? 

7. Since I was young, I loved several fields: art, literature and philosophy. The arts are, in fact, conceptually very closely related. They’re separated only by institutions and how they’re taught. But it’s natural to look at them, and appreciate them, together, which is exactly what I do. I write about the international art I appreciate on my art blog http://fineartebooks.wordpress.com. In 2002, I founded an international art movement, called postromanticism, devoted to celebrating verisimilitude, sensuality, and beauty in art. It was intended as an alternative, not a replacement, to more abstract and conceptual traditions in art. I believe in pluralism, not dogmatism, in the art world, particularly since matters of taste and definitions of art are more or less subjective. I also spend part of each week working on my new book, Holocaust Memory. Finally, I write literary reviews from time to time about books I really like. I also enjoy learning about and writing about different fields related to my areas of specialization. My ideal is of the salonnieres and philosophes of the eighteenth century, who could write and converse about all aspects of the arts and humanities, often even mathematics, physics and natural science. I’ve lost any hope, however, in being able to know much about science or math. My parents, Henri and Elvira Moscovici, are both mathematicians, and I saw how different (and difficult) these fields are from the arts and humanities. But even in this day and age, of focused specialization, we can still do our best to expand our horizons.

8. How do you see Romania’s future?

8. I see Romania’s future as being increasingly open to international collaborations and the country as being more visible internationally. Of course, success stories like Herta Muller and Cristian Mungiu add to the country’s visibility. I predict that there will be more success stories like this. In the field of journalism and literature, Romania already has collaborations with Conde Nast Publishing, Forbes Magazine and others. I think such international collaborations in journalism will expand. Culturally, in every country groups and individuals create worthy art and literature and compete for limited consecration and power. The content of the art or literature are often inseparable from the institutions competing for influence. This is part of human nature and won’t change. The politics in Romania is the wild card. I don’t know enough about the ins and outs of politics in the country to make any predictions about it. It would be best for the country and its people, needless to say, if the infrastructure and laws of a democratic nation are taken seriously.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under book review, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Diana Robu, fiction, Henri Moscovici, Intre Doua Lumi Curtea Veche Publishing, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Velvet Totalitarianism, Ziare.com, Ziare.com Claudia Moscovici

How writers write fiction: Marching to the beat of your own drum

Seducer Cover

How writers write fiction: Marching to the beat of your own drum

by Claudia Moscovici

In an earlier article, entitled Why writers write, I explored some of the reasons why writers write fiction by looking into common misconceptions. I argued, for instance, that most writers don’t write in order to achieve fame or fortune, both of which are cosmically unlikely and therefore equally unlikely to last as primary motivations for writers past a very young (and naïve) age:

http://literaturesalon.wordpress.com/2012/09/12/why-writers-write-common-myths-about-being-a-writer/

Now I’d like to explore the process of writing (and misconceptions about it as well), by relying on my own experience as a novelist as well as by using as examples a few of my favorite fiction writers. Basically, I believe that there’s no rule, regimen or standard way of writing fiction: not only in terms of content and style (the diversity of fiction speaks for itself and renders this point quite obvious), but also in terms of the writing process itself.

The diversity in styles and approaches to fiction writing makes the job of those who teach Creative Writing un-enviably difficult. I’ve often read interviews with fiction writers and advice given writers offered by Creative Writing seminars, courses and websites that indicate certain standard procedures of writing fiction. Those usually include making a plot outline; writing a scheme for the structure of the short story or novel; disciplining and pacing yourself as a creative writer in specific ways. Some teachers, writers and courses even suggest that fiction writers need to isolate themselves from social media, email and other external “distractions” in order to concentrate better on writing fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I think such advice can be very helpful to many writers. Yet, at the same time, I still maintain that the creative writing process is as individual as writing styles. Each writer writes at his or her own pace and requires specific conditions.

Anna Karenina

There’s no doubt that all fiction writers need some uninterrupted periods of time to write fiction and a good place to do it, or A Room of One’s Own (1929), to allude to Virginia Woolf’s famous essay.  The reason for this is quite obvious: fiction writing requires stepping into imaginary situations and entering the minds of imagined characters. This delicate creative process would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in short spurts of time or with constant interruptions. Speaking from personal experience, this is part of the reason why my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism (2009), which I wrote when I was an academic teaching philosophy and literature and a young mom of two small kids, took me ten years to write. Once my children became older and more independent and (especially) once I became a full-time writer and art critic, I had the right conditions to finish The Seducer (2011), my second novel, in only three years. But I wouldn’t take this common denominator of fiction writers—needing some uninterrupted chunks of time, a space to write and periods of peace and quiet—to an extreme, to suggest that fiction writers need to isolate themselves from social media or external input in order to write fiction. There’s a delicate balance between needing external input and isolating oneself to write fiction (or to create art, a similar creative process). Nobody can dictate to any writer or artist what that balance is because it’s as individual as the personality of each writer and his or her writing style.

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In fact, probably many creative writers and artists find themselves in the position that Pablo Picasso describes to his  partner, Françoise Gilot: namely, that of needing external stimulation and contact with others as a rich source of inspiration for art, yet also, because of that, not having enough time to focus on each work of art. As Gilot recalls in her autobiography, Life with Picasso:

“Sometimes Pablo would begin a canvas in the morning and in the evening he would say, ‘Oh, well, it’s done, I suppose. What I had to say plastically is there, but it came almost too quickly. If I leave it like that, with only the appearance of having what I wanted to put into it, it doesn’t satisfy me. But I’m interrupted continually every day and I’m hardly ever in a position to push my thought right up to its last implication.’ […] I asked him why he didn’t shut out the world, and with it the interruptions. ‘But I can’t,’ he said. ‘What I create in painting is what comes from my interior world. But at the same time I need the contacts and exchanges I have with others.’” (Life with Picasso, Françoise Gilot, Anchor Books, New York, 1989, p. 123)

Cover of Velvet Totalitarianism

In our times, this balance between external contacts and inspiration and the solitude necessary to perfect any art form is probably even more difficult to reach because we live in an era of inundation from social media on a daily basis. Nowadays, fiction writers and artists rely upon the social media—Facebook, blogs, interviews with journalists–not only to speak about their art and share with readers (or viewers) what they’ve already produced, but also to find new sources of inspiration. For some fiction writers–particularly those who write historical fiction, true crime novels and psychological–  research and external input may be indispensable. Once again speaking from my own experience, when I wrote the historical novel Velvet Totalitarianism (Intre Doua Lumi), I had to read literally dozens of books on the history of Romania and about Romanian communism in order to be able to draw a historically accurate fictional depiction of that era. I couldn’t rely simply on inspiration or on fading childhood memories, since I had left the country at a relatively young age and wanted my novel to be partly based on actual facts, not only about invented characters and situations. When I wrote my second novel, The Seducer, on the subject of psychopathic seduction, I became even more dependent on external sources of information. I relied especially on blogs, since at the time there were relatively few books published on the subject of psychopaths and other social predators. Most of the information on the subject, particularly testimonials by victims which were extremely helpful, could be found on blogs such as lovefraud.com, which I read with great interest as background for writing fiction about a psychopathic seducer.

I believe that how you write—the process of fiction writing itself, starting from the space you right in; how fast or slow you pace yourself; the conditions and interruptions you choose or that are imposed upon you—does NOT determine the QUALITY of your fiction. But these conditions, and the balance you find as a fiction writer between isolation and external input—has a significant impact upon the QUANTITY and even the style of your fiction.  The best advice I can offer any fiction writer is to find his or her own balance that works for them rather than rely upon generic advice. I guess that’s a paradoxical way of saying the best advice I have is not to follow any general advice and choose instead what works for your situation, personality and style.  To support my case for the importance of marching to the beat of your own drum, I’d like to offer examples from some of my favorite writers.

balzac-la-comedie-humaine

1. Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) and La Comédie humaine

As a scholar of Comparative Literature specializing in 19th-century French fiction, it’s not surprising that my main examples will come mostly from the French classics. One of my favorite novelists, Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), rivaled Napoleon in his ambition. In his wide-ranging work, La Comédie humaine, Balzac aimed to paint a literary portrait of “all aspects of society” during the period of the Restoration and the July Monarchy (1815-1848).  He wrote about 91 finished stories, novels and essays that capture almost every facet of French society and culture following the fall of Napoleon in 1815. Like many writers, his creative genius was spurred on by failure. After finishing school, Balzac apprenticed to become a lawyer, but decided pretty early on that he didn’t like the field. He then experimented with publishing, printing, becoming a critic and even a politician. All of these more traditional professions didn’t suit him, however.

Ultimately, Balzac decided to follow his dream of being a fiction writer. Given the scope of his literary ambition, he set for himself an extremely rigorous routine. He wrote at all hours of the day and night, staying awake by drinking many cups of strong coffee that ultimately damaged his health.  Throughout his life, Balzac’s difficult writing schedule—and lack of financial stability—strained his relationship with his family and even with friends. Despite writing dozens of novels and short stories, Balzac didn’t write quickly. He just worked long hours. Biographers document that he wrote approximately 15 hours a day. He took a nap after supper from 6 p.m to midnight, then woke up to write during the evening and night again. The author’s novels are greatly influenced by his life experiences, even though they’re not exactly autobiographical. Like Zola did after him, Balzac uses his observations of society to create fictional characters that offer a sweeping sketch of his era. His writing is a reflection of the balance he found between living and interacting with so many people from very diverse social backgrounds and the strenuous discipline he imposed on himself in order to fulfill his vast literary ambition.

2. Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) and Madame Bovary (1856)

Of course, writing a little may take just as much discipline and time as writing a lot. At the other end of the spectrum (at least in terms of quantity of writing), my favorite French writer, Gustave Flaubert, was far less prolific than Balzac, even though he was equally ambitious. Flaubert achieved international fame for his unforgettable novel, Madame Bovary (1856), as well as for a beautiful, innovative yet starkly honest (and even cynical) mode of writing that the author polished to perfection. For Flaubert, style was everything.  Avoiding all clichés, he edited fastidiously his short stories and novels, pursuing what he called “le mot juste” (the right word). Perfecting style in a few works took as much work for Flaubert as sketching an entire era in nearly 100 works did for Balzac. In his correspondence, Flaubert states that this perfected style didn’t flow naturally out of him. He had to work hard, and edit constantly, to approximate it.

Like many writers, Flaubert encountered his share of challenges and setbacks. By the time of his death, however, he became known as the master of French realism (despite his lyrical style, which is also regarded by critics as the last echo of Romanticism). The publication of Madame Bovary (1856), the story of the disillusionment and eventual suicide of a provincial doctor’s wife who (fruitlessly) seeks love and meaning through a series of adulterous affairs, was greeted by the public with scandal rather than admiration. When chapters of the novel were published in La Revue de Paris (October 1956 to December 1956), Madame Bovary was attacked as “obscene” by the public prosecutor. Flaubert became acquitted, however, the following year. Afterwards, the novel quickly became a best seller, going far beyond a succès de scandale. By the time of his death, Flaubert was considered as one of the greatest French writers of the century (and he still is).

No rule, advice or measure could apply equally well to a writer like Balzac as to a writer like Flaubert, except perhaps the very general tenet that each found his own balance and discipline in the process of writing to suit his writing style, personality and literary ambition.

rubato1

3. Snippets of the interview with Romanian writer Razvan Petrescu: Marching to the Beat of your own Drum

Perhaps no writer shows the relativity of the writing process—and even casts doubt upon the boundary conventionally drawn between fiction and nonfiction, or fact and imagination—as my friend, the Romanian writer Razvan Petrescu. I have already written about his latest collection of short stories in the following article:

http://literaturesalon.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/razvan-petrescus-rubato-the-coordinates-of-world-class-romanian-fiction/

This article has been translated and published in Romania on Editura Curtea Veche’s blog:

http://www.curteaveche.ro/blog/2013/01/15/rubato-de-razvan-petrescu-coordonatele-unei-proze-romanesti-de-clasa-mondiala/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=rubato-de-razvan-petrescu-coordonatele-unei-proze-romanesti-de-clasa-mondiala

To continue our discussion, I recently interviewed him about his books, his life and the writing process for a series of articles published in the Romanian magazine Scrisul Romanesc and the blog Agentia de Carte. To my mind,  Razvan Petrescu exemplifies the meaning of the English expression “marching to the beat of your own drum,” both as a person and as a writer (since the two aspects are, after all, intertwined). What struck me most about his interview, from which I’m translating only a few bits and pieces here, is the fact that his nonfiction (meaning his answers to my very traditional, journalistic questions) reads like some of the best fiction I have ever read. His first answer, to my very standard question “When did you begin writing fiction?” reminds me of lines from one of my favorite novels, Lolita (1955), by the man I consider the greatest American novelist, the Russian-born Vladimir Nabokov. In this beautiful and lyrical passage of the novel, the narrator, Humbert Humbert introduces Annabel, his first love and the precursor to Lolita: “All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other; hopelessly, I should add, because the frenzy of mutual possession might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and assimilating every particle of each others soul and flesh; but there we were, unable even to mate as slum children would have so easily found an opportunity to do” (Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, New York: Vintage International, 1997, p. 12).

Although Petrescu has a style of his own, of course, like Nabokov, he’s a master of style, whether he writes fiction or nonfiction. Speaking of which, if you believe that any course, author or teacher can draw a sharp distinction between fiction and nonfiction or tell any creative writer how to write, you may change your mind after reading parts of this humorous, honest, chaotic and–above all—unique and original interview with the writer and editor Razvan Petrescu. Enjoy the (non)fiction!

razvan-petrescu-foto-attila-vizauer

Claudia Moscovici: When did you begin writing fiction?

Razvan Petrescu: Around the age of 15, when I fell in love for the third time. She had long, wavy red hair and well-formed breasts. My wonder knew no bounds when I was faced with this enigmatic pyramidal structure. I was fascinated by other zones and became absent-minded. Which didn’t provoke any particular happiness, given the fact that I was still expected to do various practical things, which included painting the walls, as I was dreaming with my hand shielding my forehead. I was thus overcome by a terrible love. It was autumn, the leaves were falling, the baby birds were hatching, while I was meandering in front of her house in my high school uniform with the number of my school inscribed on my left arm, my face turning melancholic-green with despair. She wasn’t in love with me yet. She would become swept in the feeling only at the moment when it left me and, because I had already read a whole slew of books (especially police thrillers and stories about submarines), I started writing her verses with an eye makeup pencil on a little notepad. I would read them alone at home and would cry seeing how much pain those words stolen from maximum suffering could provoke. When I read them again three years later, I couldn’t believe that I was able to write such idiocies and was overcome with a boundless sense of shame.

CM: What inspires you to write fiction?

RP: Almost anything. The blade of grass upon which climbs a little insect. The insect falls over, moves its little legs, I step on it with my shoe, a shoe meant for such events. The purplish clouds crossed by planes at sunset on the Paris-Slobozia route awaken in me aviatico-poetic catastrophes. I see the terrified passengers placing on their oxygen masks, screaming in them, waving their arms. The oxygen doesn’t work, the airplane changes course at the last moment exactly above IOR Park, over a little pond upon which floats a little ship with a hole in it. They all die of asphyxiation on the plane, while those on the ship drown in the greenish waters. … Usually I transform banal events with regular people into tragedies, or vice versa. I’m attracted to the dramatic, the grotesque, the painful. I describe what I observe, adding as many imagined things as possible to make the story more plausible, or conversely, more absurd.

CM: Who are the writers that inspire you most?

RP: Bach, Chekhov, Céline, Salinger, John Osborne, Raymond Carver, Mozart, Miles Davis, Donald Bartholomew,  Joyce, Faulkner, Schubert, Mahler, Lester Young, Cortazar, Buzzati, Garcia Marquez, Truman Capote, Coleman Hawkins, Chopin, Ben Webster, Oscar Peterson, Haneke, Pachelbel, Fellini, Tarkovsky, Beethoven.  The harmony of the piano. The king of the flies. Friday or the languages of the Pacific. … In order not to become mixed up, I’ve gotten into the habit of including my answer to this same question, which I’ve been asked by others and asked myself in other contexts, adding to it nonsensically titles, names, kinds, in order to leave an impression of culture pure and simple. But, above all, I do this in order to avoid boredom…

CM: No fiction is strictly autobiographical, but did you express any personal elements in your fiction. If so, which ones?

RP: I didn’t express anything, for the simple reason that everything I write and experience is fiction. In other words, if I included autobiographical elements in my fiction, they’re fictional. Example: the fact that I studied medicine. I didn’t. I wasn’t a doctor. I never lived in Bucharest. I didn’t go to high school number 43. I didn’t try to sleep with the high school beauty queen in ninth grade. I didn’t have a friend in kindergarten that died, and I didn’t go to her funeral. … I wasn’t a writer, I didn’t have a job, and thus I didn’t work at the magazines “The Word,” “Amphitheater,” the “Literature Museum,” the “Ministry of Culture,” All Publishing, Rosetti, Brukenthal and Curtea Veche Publishing….

CM: To follow-up my last question, what is the relation between your personal life and your life as a writer?

RP: It’s one of total harmony. They overlap. Any object or being that overlaps with another is happy. Given that I don’t need a job in order to make a living, I write all the time, especially at night. I’ve dedicated my life to literature for well over two decades. My personal life has been fulfilled in being a writer and vice versa. I had the good fortune of receiving good money by selling books and, also, through translations. Last month, when I signed a contract for the translation of my most recent book in Macedonia, they offered me almost 150 Euros. I had to renounce the retribution, since I know my value and it’s not quite so big. If I had accepted the payment for the author’s rights I’d have lost it completely, so I asked the editor to allow me to give him money.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Razvan Petrescu’s Rubato: The Coordinates of World-Class Romanian Fiction

rubato1

Razvan Petrescu’s Rubato: The Coordinates of World-class Romanian Fiction

by Claudia Moscovici

Despite charting very unfamiliar territories in fiction, the writer Razvan Petrescu is quite familiar—and famous—in his native country, Romania. A versatile and award-winning author, Petrescu is an essayist, fiction writer and playwright. Among his numerous literary prizes, he won the award Book of the Year at the National Salon of Books in Cluj; a fiction award for The Farce (Farsa, Editura Unitext, 1994) from the Association of Writers in Bucharest (Asociatia Scriitorilor din Bucuresti); the award UNITER for the best play of the year, Spring at the Buffet (Primavara la buffet, Editura Expansion, 1995), and the Prose Prize given by Radio Romania Cultural. Some of his works have been translated into Hebrew, Spanish and will be soon translated into English as well.

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Traddutore Traditore

I have to admit, however, that I don’t envy the translators’ job, which I’m sure is very challenging. They say that poetry is the most difficult genre to translate, but in my opinion fiction that is unique in content and employs stylistically many dialects—such as the writing of Ion Luca Caragiale, Romain Gary and Razvan Petrescu–is the most difficult kind of literature to translate. And yet, that is usually also the most noteworthy and ingenious fiction. My main goal in this review is to convey the fact that Razvan Petrescu is a world-class author to an international audience, which may not be familiar with the Romanian language or with Romanian literature. How will I go about doing that? In mathematics or geography, you pinpoint a location, however remote or difficult to find, in terms of known coordinates. There’s no equivalent precise guide in the arts and humanities, however. The best I can do to offer such coordinates is to explain the relatively unfamiliar in terms of the relatively familiar: canonized authors that everyone knows; psychological fiction; universal themes and philosophical currents. The book I’ll be discussing here is Rubato (Curtea Veche Publishing, 2011), which is a collection of several of Razvan Petrescu’s prize-winning short fiction, published from 1989 to 2003. Rubato is like an album of the author’s best hits, if you will, but it is also far more than that: it’s world-class fiction, comparable, I believe, to the works of legendary writers like Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges.

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Unique, uncategorizable fiction

Most fiction writers can be integrated rather easily into a genre, a movement or a style: be it  realism, fantasy, horror, or magical realism. There are a few writers, however, who are so quirky in style and unique in content that they’re almost impossible to categorize in terms of any neat and familiar literary labels. Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges are two of my favorite authors among those. How do you attach a label to Kafka’s psychological realism of the subconscious and dream; to what do you compare Borges’ mathematical paradoxes translated into a puzzling fiction? I think Razvan Petrescu’s Rubato fits into this uncategorizable category of fiction. Which is why I believe that the best way to describe it to those who haven’t read it yet is in terms of equally innovative and quirky authors, such as Kafka and Borges. What Rubato shares with, for instance, Kafka’s The Castle (1926) is a psychological realism that goes far beyond—and beneath—the layers of our conscious reality.

photo Herb Ritts

photo Herb Ritts

The psychological realism of the subconscious

If Kafka’s The Castle (1926) or The Trial (1925) feel so real to us it’s not because they are actually realist in either content or style. It’s because these works focus so well on our unconscious fears—of powerlessness and alienation in a modern, bureaucratic society—that they bring them to the surface of our awareness. In reading the works of Kafka, we face our  misgivings and fears, confront them and even laugh at them, since they appear absurd. Yet we no longer minimize them and are unable to shove them back  under the rug, into the unconscious, to dismiss them. That’s why the works of Kafka remain so eerie and unsettling to us. Despite their sense of the absurd and humor, they’re as far removed as possible from superficial farce. The same phenomenon is at work when you read Razvan Petrescu’s Rubato. This slice of life tale depicts a psychiatrist’s “normal” day at work, which is full of abnormalities. 

photo Vadim Stein

photo Vadim Stein

All sorts of patients come in and out of his office, including a security officer/spy, a prostitute suffering from venereal diseases and a woman with psychopathic tendencies, who likes to torture and kill birds. Though they are all quite severely disturbed, the readers can’t help but laugh when reading their plights. The security officer has stinky feet and a very shallow conscience; the prostitute takes her clothes off and asks the psychiatrist to cure her venereal diseases; while the sadistic woman that likes to torture birds is beat at her own game (cruelty), as the psychiatrist admits to being more weird than her (and better at “befriending” and then killing birds as well). The name of the game for each of the characters is a complete detachment from the elements that render us human (empathy, caring, emotion, deep and meaningful connections to others). Despite this serious psychological deficiency, the tone of the narrative is so realistic in its style—the dialect and mannerisms of speech of each character constitute in themselves masterpieces of modern fiction—that the reader too becomes somewhat detached and laughs at them. Yet in laughing at them we also laugh at ourselves. Razvan Petrescu captures the most disturbing elements of the human condition through a series of hallucinatory characters, dialogues and diatribes that simultaneously appear absurd and  implausible yet also seem more real than our daily, conscious reality. How does he do that? Through what may be called “laughter through tears,” that authors like Ion Luca Caragiale, Anton Chekhov and Shalom Aleichem are best known for. 

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Laughter through tears: Neither satire nor irony

The kind of narrative that establishes layers of psychological distance among the narrator, characters and readers in literature is usually described as “satire” or “irony”. But like Anton Chekkov, Ion Luca Caragiale or Shalom Aleichem’s fiction, Rubato provides neither: or rather, it offers much more than that.  Irony and satire are rhetorical stances that assume a position of superiority towards the characters and their actions from the narrator and/or author and readers. Authors that rely heavily on irony often ridicule the characters’ weaknesses and follies. I see no evidence of any narrative sense of superiority or authorial arrogance in Rubato. When we laugh at its characters, we realize we’re also laughing at ourselves. Hence the sense of unease that accompanies Rubato’s keen and pervasive sense of humor, which brings to light our phobias, perverse desires, abnormality and insecurities.

Even more disturbingly, Rubato constantly reminds us of the fragility of human life and of our mortality. Scenes of death and decay pervade Razvan Petrescu’s fiction. No matter how theatrical and comical the depictions of illness and death may be, unlike the scenes we see on the daily news, they still touch and disturb us psychologically. With a sense of indulgence and even love for humanity—and placing himself on the same plane as his characters and readers–the author opens up, like a doctor, the worst of our human qualities and examines them closely, one by one. We greet this complex process with mixed emotions–laughter, horror, revulsion and indulgence–because in these narratives, like in a hallway of mirrors, we see reflections of our inner lives.

photo Herb Ritts

photo Herb Ritts

Love, misogyny and women

In a recent interview with Esquire Magazine (Romania), Razvan Petrescu described himself—tongue-in-cheek, of course–as a “misogynist womanizer.” I’ve never in my life met a misogynist who admits to hating yet needing women. Misogynists tend to hide their contempt for women under the pretext of loving them (a technique common for psychopathic seducers) or of respecting certain women (such as mothers or the “virtuous” few) and hating all the rest. There’s  no trace of such underlying misogyny in any of Petrescu’s works. What we find in Rubato, for instance, is a compelling depiction of fear of the object of desire. This fear is a far cry from Arthur Schopenhauer or Henry de Montherlant’s flagrant and self-righteous misogyny. Many gorgeous, sexy women populate Petrescu’s fiction. Their erotic power is attenuated by humor; their emotional appeal is neutralized by fear.

In the short story The Door (Usa), for instance, a mother and a daughter exchange worried whispers about their husband/father, who is dying on a hospital bed in an adjacent room. The doctor, about to go to a surgery and utterly indifferent to his patient’s plight, attempts to persuade the two women to take the moribund patient back home. There’s nothing he can do for him at the hospital anymore. Rather than worrying about the poor state of health of the patient, the two women debate in hushed voices the cost of transporting the ill man home. The patient overhears the whole conversation through a slightly cracked door. He expires, in a scene as vivid but more concise than Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886), knowing that he’s neither appreciated nor loved by his wife and his daughter.  Razvan Petrescu’s fictional world is filled with such uncaring women, indifferent doctors, loveless marriages and spoiled children. They show the following thought experiment in action: When cynicism is pushed as far as it can go, it becomes psychological realism.

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Cynicism versus nihilism

There’s no doubt that Razvan Petrescu’s fiction is pervaded by an underlying sense of cynicism. Not nihilism, but cynicism. Nihilism, or the questioning and negation of human ideals and values, may be great for philosophy—think Nietzsche—but it can be awfully boring and preachy when we encounter it in fiction. Who needs a dissertation on the meaninglessness of life and human values from some uppity character delivering lectures from up high, on a pedestal? Cynicism, on the other hand, tends to be a very welcome perspective in fiction. It avoids both the unforgivable naiveté of idealism and the arrogance of nihilism. Of course, in modern usage, cynicism has little to do with the original Greek Cynics, who believed that the purpose of life was to live a virtuous and modest life, deprived of unnecessary luxuries: in other words, a life in accordance to Nature. Perhaps modern Cynicism uses as its frame of reference only the most comical and extreme of the Cynics—Diogenes of Sinope—who rejected his society, begged to survive, and lived in a stone jar in the marketplace. Either way you look at it, cynicism offers a critical perspective of the human condition and of our societies with enough humor and sense of the absurd that even humanists can take it.  Written in a dramatic, hallucinatory and utterly engaging polyphony of dialects (and characterizations); confronting our deepest fears and flaws with a disarming honesty and contagious cynicism; probing psychologically the limits of our humanity and moral values, Razvan Petrescu’s Rubato is a masterpiece of world (not just Romanian) literature.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Filed under book review of Razvan Petrescu's Rubato, Borges, contemporary fiction, Curtea Veche Publishing Rubato, Cynicism, Kafka, Razvan Petrescu's Rubato: The Coordinates of World-Class Romanian Fiction, Shalom Aleichem, The Castle, The Trial