Freud deciphered our dreams; Proust and Proustian fiction make sense of our fantasies. In some ways, the latter are far more important than the former. Our fantasies shape in a tangible and real way our identities. They determine how we perceive ourselves and others; give us so much to look forward to; help us glance back at the past with nostalgia, and offer us a much-needed escape from the grind of daily reality. Proust’s works stand the test of time partly because they delve so deeply into our fantasy life, the blueprint of our beings. Yet exploring how our fantasies determine who we are and how we live was not, for Proust, an escape from reality. The author simultaneously placed a magnifying glass on the world of 20th-century French aristocracy–studying them as an entomologist would examine insects–to magnify the neuroses, deviancy and intrigue that lie beneath a thin veneer of worldliness and respectability.
This is what the Romanian-American writer, Dumitru Radu Popa, does for contemporary American society in his Proustian novel Crossing Washington Square (1999), which I’ve had the pleasure of translating into English. The author of several novels and short story collections, including Fisura (1985), Panic Syndrome! (1997), Inchide ochii! Povestirile Semintei (1998), Sabrina si Alte Suspiciuni (2003) translated as Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions (2011) and Lady V. si Alte Povestiri (2006) translated as Lady V. and Other Stories (2007) among others, Dumitru Radu Popa continues the genre of psychological fiction for our times. Psychological fiction is, in some respects, timeless. As much as our social and political institutions may change, arguably the basics of human nature remain more or less the same. However, the challenge for a fiction writer is to render basic human fears, emotions, obsessions and desires interesting and engaging for a contemporary audience. Dumitru Radu Popa relies upon his broad cultural training in literature, philosophy, philology and law–as well as his keen poetic sensibility–to accomplish this task, in his short stories, novellas and novels that have won critical acclaim both in his native Romania and in his host country, the United States.
Of all his works, Crossing Washington Square is, at least in my opinion, the closest in style and introspective bent to Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. The first part of the novel traces the (potential) affair between a professor and his young, beautiful and assertive Swedish graduate student, Linda Magnusson. The second part of the novel offers a parallel story about that same male narrator voyeuristically following the correspondence between two secret lovers who furtively exchange letters in a tree hole. These letters, in turn, discuss at length the love affair of Abelard and Eloise. While in the first part of the novel we are privy mostly to the male perspective, in the second part the converse is true. We only get to speculate about the male perspective through reading Cara’s letters to her male interlocutor.
Although Crossing Washington Square could be loosely described as two parallel love stories, the plot is treated with some irony and becomes secondary to a rich and nuanced philosophical reflection. When one delves deeper into the text, one discovers a profound, existential, meditation about the nature of time; a psychological analysis about how poignant childhood experiences infiltrate our memory in unexpected ways and shape our identities as adults, as well as a lyrical description of love and mortality. More concerned with ontology than with ethics, this novel takes away some of the moral implications of the extramarital affair (or affairs) it describes. Ultimately, we don’t even know if they are real or just fantasies. The novel retains a sense of poetic purity; no moral judgments can be justifiably leveled against it or its characters. The line between speculation and truth, reality and fantasy is so often crossed that, in the end, readers are obliged to reach an even stronger conclusion than the observation that fantasy shapes our lives. In reading Crossing Washington Square we realize the more profound truth that our lives and identities would be empty without a rich fantasy life.
Claudia Moscovici, Ann Arbor, Michigan 2012