Category Archives: communist Romania

The suffering of innocents: Romanian orphanages during Ceausescu’s regime

romanianorphanagesbluenred.com

One of the most distressing aspects of the Holocaust is the fact that millions of children starved, fell ill and died as a result of Hitler’s genocidal policies. Even before studying the history of the Holocaust in greater depth, I became sensitized to the issue of children’s suffering during communism in the infamous orphages of my native country, Romania.

From the beginning of his rule, Romania’s dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, made rapid industrialization a cornerstone of his domestic policy. During the 1960’s, however, the country approximated zero population growth, which meant, in the long run, a reduced labor force. In response, Ceausescu abolished abortion in 1966, except for cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother or if the mother was over 45 years old and had given birth to at least four children. Later, he introduced more punitive pronatalist measures to offer Romanian citizens further incentives to have more children. The government increased taxes for men and women who remained childless after the age of 25. In 1967 Ceausescu practically abolished divorce. A miniscule quota of maximum 28 divorces was allowed in the whole country that year. The government also offered some positive incentives. Mothers received a monetary reward upon the birth of their third child and the income taxes of couples with three or more children were lowered by 30 percent.

The policy that proved to have disastrous consequences for the country was the abolition of birth control. Contraceptives, which were not manufactured in Romania, were banned, making effective birth control extremely difficult. Initially, the birth rate rose dramatically, but then quickly declined again as women began resorting to dangerous, illegal abortions, which could sometimes be obtained in exchange for a carton of Kent cigarettes. By the early 1980’s, the government took more intrusive measures to regulate women’s reproductive cycles. Doctors performed mandatory monthly gynecological exams on all women of reproductive age to detect and monitor pregnancies. The government also launched a propaganda campaign praising “patriotic” couples that had several children. These measures, however, failed to achieve the desired results. After decades of repressive policies, birthrates in Romania were only slightly higher than those of nations where abortion was legal. However, these draconian measures did manage to increase the number of unwanted children, many of whom were put up for adoption in Romania’s infamous orphanages, which began to receive international media attention during the 1980’s.

By the end of Ceausescu’s dictatorship, there were approximately 100,000 children in Romania’s orphanages. Given the regime’s pronatalist policies and the country’s low standard of living, many families were placed in the impossible position of choosing between food and their newborn babies. Thousands of children were placed in orphanages whose living conditions resembled those of concentration camps. SoRelle notes that even older children were not potty trained and were left to wallow in their own waste. Children slept huddled together on cots or on the floor, covered by the soiled blankets. Many lacked shoes or appropriate clothing for the cold winters. Many were also lice infested because of the unhygienic conditions and lack of proper cleaning supplies. Dunlap observes that orphanages didn’t have disinfectant, soap and hot water. Diseases were rampant and medical care insufficient. Instead of playing with toys, the orphans played with dirty needles. Babies lacked proper attention and children were left unattended and uneducated, remaining illiterate into their teens. Even the international attention such a blatant human rights violation received did nothing to change the dictator’s pronatalist policies or the appalling conditions of the Romanian orphanages.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: A Portrait of the Communist Era

a)    Thank God for Cannes!

In an interview with Domenico La Porta given on May 19, 2012, Cristian Mungiu, winner of the Palme D’Or for feature film at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 for his movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, explains the reason why his movies are more popular abroad than in his native country, Romania: “Our industry’s problem is not funding, it’s cultural. Films that are not entertainment are not popular in Romania. This is why we receive less money from the state for arthouse films, and why I had to look for international funding. My film will be seen much more abroad than it will be at home. That’s just how it is. We have to hold on and continue to produce good quality films also aimed at the Romanian people.”

This problem, unfortunately, is global.  In popular culture, it’s easy to make fun of Cannes and the movies it features, awards and promotes. Often described as political, boring and pretentious in its consecration of avant-garde cinema, the Cannes Film Festival is very prestigious (with movie critics and directors) yet… oddly unpopular with the general public. There’s even a (pretty good) joke about it in Romania that one of the movies that received an award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 was shot by accident on surveillance cameras. And yet… let’s turn it around. Take a moment to imagine how much easier it would be to make fun of today’s popular Hollywood movies! Formulaic plots, broomstick, one-dimensional characterizations, weak acting, lots of special effects as a distraction for lack of substance: for the most part, these are the movies that draw the public make hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, internationally.

Frankly, I can’t understand how viewers manage to stay awake, much less laugh, during yet another formulaic romantic comedy about one-night stands becoming love of one’s life; another Las Vegas vacation gone wrong; or another “friends with benefits” scenario that ends up, predictably, becoming a hot and heavy, meaningful romance. In its prejudicial preference for hyper-promoted, over-funded and, frankly, silly films as “real entertainment,” the general public risks missing out on well-acted, beautifully shot, and incredibly moving and entertaining movies, made both by independent and by some Hollywood filmmakers.

b)  4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: A Portait of the Communist Era

In the same interview I cited above, with Domenico La Porta, Cristian Mungiu discusses his recent movie, Beyond the Hills (which won an award for “best screenplay” at the Cannes Film Festival 2012, and for which the leading actresses, Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan, shared the “best actress” award). Mungiu states that his movies are not intended to be portraits of an era. He states that Beyond the Hills in particular doesn’t make any general comments against religion: “There is no generalization, and I’m not describing Romanian society through this little community. A film is not able to be all-encompassing.” I would beg to differ with the last statement. I find  that the movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days–which, along with The Lives of Others (2006) is one of my favorite movies–is an accurate and sweeping portrait of the drab and repressive communist era. In fact, I remember thinking of Mungiu’s movie and of The Lives of Others as I was writing my novel about the communist epoch under Ceausescu, Velvet Totalitarianism (translated into Romanian as Intre Doua Lumi, Editura Curtea Veche 2011). These two  movies showed me that you don’t have to try to describe all aspects of a society or of a historical period to offer a sweeping portrayal of that epoch.

In fact, it can be much more effective to show compellingly and in-depth a slice of life, as Mungiu does in  4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, that offers viewers (or readers) a glimpse upon the vaster forces—of repression and corruption—that governed society and culture in Ceausescu’s Romania. A. O. Scott from The New York Times declared this movie the “number one film of the year”. The high praise is well-deserved. The movie describes how two close friends—Otilia, played by Anamaria Marinca, and Gabita Dragut, played by Laura Vasiliu, cope with the practical and moral difficulties of one of them getting an abortion during the 1980’s. This is not an easy decision, morally or practically, given the fact that birth control and abortion are outlawed at this time in Romania and those who violate the law risk facing severe penalties. I’d like to offer a little background into the period, which the movie captures so well.

c) “Pronatalist” Policies in Communist Romania

From the beginning, Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s tyrannical communist dictaor, made rapid industrialization a cornerstone of his domestic policy. During the 1960’s, however, the country approximated zero population growth, which meant, in the long run, a reduced labor force. In response, Ceausescu abolished abortion in 1966, except for cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother or if the mother was over 45 years old and had given birth to at least four children. Later, he introduced more punitive pronatalist measures to offer Romanian citizens further incentives to have more children. The government increased taxes for men and women who remained childless after the age of 25. In 1967 Ceausescu practically abolished divorce. A miniscule quota of maximum 28 divorces was allowed in the whole country that year. The government also offered some positive incentives. Mothers received a monetary reward upon the birth of their third child and the income taxes of couples with three or more children were lowered by 30 percent.

The policy that proved to have disastrous consequences for the country was the abolition of birth control. Contraceptives, which were not manufactured in Romania, were banned, making effective birth control extremely difficult. Initially, the birth rate rose dramatically, but then quickly declined again as women began resorting to dangerous, illegal abortions, which could sometimes be obtained in exchange for a carton of Kent cigarettes. By the early 1980’s, the government took more intrusive measures to regulate women’s reproductive cycles. As Mungiu’s movie illustrates as well, doctors performed mandatory monthly gynecological exams on all women of reproductive age to detect and monitor pregnancies. The government also launched a propaganda campaign praising “patriotic” couples that had several children. These measures, however, failed to achieve the desired results. After decades of repressive policies, birthrates in Romania were only slightly higher than those of nations where abortion was legal. However, these draconian measures did manage to increase the number of unwanted children, many of whom were put up for adoption in Romania’s infamous orphanages, which began to receive international media attention during the 1980’s.

d) 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: Compelling characterizations and stunning cinematography

So what did women do when they got pregnant and did not want to raise children in such dire conditions? They often made the difficult choice that Gabriela Dragut was forced to make in the movie 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days: getting an illegal abortion. This choice carried with it two inherent risks. First, there was the obvious one of violating the law and getting caught, which could result in loss of job and status and even long jail sentences.  But as the movie illustrates, there was an even greater danger of falling into the hands of those who habitually violate laws: unscrupulous sociopathic predators. This is precisely what Gabriela and Otilia encounter in the man they desperately appeal to for help: the illegal abortionist that goes by the name of “Mr. Bebe”. From the beginning, we get the sense that there’s something not quite right, psychologically, with Mr. Bebe. He takes charge of every situation and appears as a bully even when he doesn’t raise his voice. He’s also exceedingly controlling. For instance, he forbids his own mother from exiting the apartment to buy sugar. We know that’s a red flag, since sociopaths foster isolation and minutely control their victims.

Taking charge of the two young women as soon as he finds himself alone in the hotel room with them, he bullies them into accepting to sleep with him. Typical of a sociopath, he presents this act of rape as a moral highground. Turning the tables on them, Mr. Bebe makes them feel immoral and cheap. He screams at them that that he’s not a beggar and that he’s not going to perform an illegal action which may result in the loss of his freedom for a mere 3000 lei, the amount of money the girls were able to scrounge up to pay for the illegal abortion.  Not seeing any way out, the young women agree to his price, which emotionally is far heavier than they had anticipated. While they are very traumatized by this experience of prostituting themselves for an abortion, Mr. Bebe takes it all in stride. After he sleeps with them, he even begins to address them in a familiar and friendly fashion, as if nothing happened. The sociopath’s shallow emotions contrasts sharply with the emotionally charged, devastated response of the two young women.

The movie captures the darkness of the communist era not just in its compelling characterizations and realistic plot, but also in its spectacular cinematography. Almost every shot is gray or dark, with the exception of the clinical, white images of the medical scenes. Otilia is usually shot from the back, to suggest that she lacks agency when the choices she is forced to make are so limited and abject. After Mr. Bebe leaves their hotel room, the two young women ruminate about the situation, going over their mistakes and what they could have done differently to avoid the deep humiliation they just endured. Otilia blames her friend for getting her into such a difficult and dreadful situation, almost shifting the blame from the sociopathic predator beyond her control to her sweet, helpless and passive friend Gabita, who is a fellow victim. Yet their situation is symptomatic of what practically every Romanian citizen endured at the time in many life decisions: a severe limitation of one’s freedom, of one’s choices and the repeated violation of one’s moral and emotional boundaries. When most normal aspects of human life are forbidden, as they were during Ceausescu’s repressive regime, one is forced to take drastic—and often illegal—measures, which are often the domain of the most unscrupulous and usurious people on earth: of sociopaths like Domnu Bebe.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has skilled and stunning cinematography appropriate to the subject and period it depicts; historical accuracy; realistic and moving characterizations; wonderful acting and above all great directing. If this is not  real entertainment—from which viewers will also learn something about history and about human nature—then I don’t know what is! Before Hollywood embarks on yet another predictable romantic comedy or cartoonish action movie, I think it should take a few notes from Cannes.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, abortion, book review, Cannes, Cannes Film Festival, Claudia Moscovici, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, Cristian Mungiu, fiction, film review 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Intre Doua Lumi Editura Curtea Veche, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Mungiu, Saga Film, Velvet Totalitarianism

Review of Radu Ulmeanu’s Chermeza Sinucigasilor

Chermeza Sinucigasilor, a novel by Radu Ulmeanu

Radu Ulmeanu’s novel, Chermeza Sinucigasilor (Editura Pleiade, 2009) could be called an epopée of (anti)heroism that depicts the period immediately following the 1989 anti-communist revolution in Romania. The title itself, at least in Romanian, captures the mixture of lyrical abandon and cynical historicism that we find expressed in the novel through an intoxicatingly sensual and poetic style. The word “chermeza” is borrowed from the Dutch kermesse—whose roots are kermis or kerk (church) and mis (mass)– and refers to the mass that celebrates the foundation of a church or parish. Historically, the term also has a sinister connotation, as one of the first kermesse was the medieval parade in Brussels that occurred around 1370, when the town’s Jewish population was burned alive.

Ulmeanu’s novel shows with accuracy and depth the chaotic atmosphere around the Romanian revolution, with its mixture of idealism, hope and the cynical lust for power that kept many of the former Secret Police (Securitate) members and informants  in influential political and cultural positions even after the revolution. The most odious representative of this group is the sociopathic character Dragnea, who takes advantage of his political power to satisfy his perverse desire for hunting and raping young women.

Monica, a high school student who tries to resist the hedonist leanings of her mother and friends, falls victim to Dragnea’s predatory inclinations. Can the romance that develops between her and the main character, the hopelessly idealistic teacher, Grigore, save her? Or will she be another incarnation of Grigore’s first obsessive love—one that borders on idolatry—for the formerly untouchable Marta who has also been profaned by another?

There is, after all, a strong resemblance between the two young women. Both of them lose their virginity in painful and senseless ways to men who take advantage of them. Grigore’s love for both of them takes the form of a Platonic idealism that finds its literary echoes in the Abélard/Héloïse love story: a love that in its exalted form expresses a poetic and emotional ideal; while in its stereotyped form borders on the Madonna/Whore complex that feminists have criticized during the past few decades.

Without a doubt, there’s a strong idealist undercurrent in this novel, similar to the Hegelian dialectic traced by Julien Gracq in Au Chåteau d’Argol (1938). Only for Ulmeanu these philosophical echoes go back to the Platonic roots of idealism, in its dual depiction of love. Plato famously delineated two largely contradictory models of love: in The Symposium, he depicts eros as an abandoned, sensual, daemonic source of inspiration; while in The Republic and most of his other dialogues he depicts agape as a rational  mirror of the perfect, ideal Forms (of beauty, humanity, virtue, etc). In Chermeza Sinucigasilor we find the main character, Grigore, oscillating between these two largely antithetical forms of love. The young teacher is torn between his desincarnated Platonic love for the (formerly) untouchable Marta and his carnal desire for other young women, including Monica.

With psychological subtlety and stylistic finesse, Ulmeanu depicts Monica’s predicament. Harassed by the sociopath who raped her and desperate to find justice and respite; literally still haunted by Doru, her deceased boyfriend and first love who comes  back to her in nightmares and visions; embarrassed by insinuations of her mother’s affairs with her schoolmates; tempted by the libertine sensuality of her girlfriends, Monica seeks a way out of the tangled web which has become her life. In Grigore she hopes to find her salvation: a father-figure and a friend; a mentor and a lover; a kindred spirit and a savior, all in the same man.

In some respects, through her characterization, Ulmeanu picks up the themes from Nabokov’s legendary novel Lolita (1955), not only in subject matter but also in an exquisite literary style.  Last but not least, there are elements of magical realism in Ulmeanu’s complex and beautifully written novel. Discussing the works of Nobel-winning writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose novels One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) play with myth and fantasy to offer a deeper representation of reality, the critic Matthew Strecher defines magical realism as “what happens wheen a highly detaild, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.”

That something, in Ulmeanu’s novel, is the figure of the vampire. Only in Chermeza Sinucigasilor we don’t encounter the crude vampires of genre fiction, but more subtle, liminal figures, neither dead nor alive, which haunt the characters’ conscience and consciousness. Interweaving historical fiction, magical realism and love story that explores and transgresses the limits of both carnal love and the aspirations to a philosophical and political idealism, Radu Ulmeanu’s novel, Chermeza Sinucigasilor, is a contemporary masterpiece.

Excerpt from the novel:

“He reproached Martha something. And, of course, he reproached her exactly what he allowed any other woman. The fact that Marta had slept with another drove him crazy, electrified him, even paralyzing him for a period of time. Afterwards, he distanced himself from her and began to look at their past with an increasingly cold condescendence. More precisely, the cataclysm lingered within, in his subconscious, remaining active underneath, which precluded any overture towards her. He longed to return to her, but Marta no longer offered the demon—or maybe the angel—before which lay prostrate in the past. Any other woman became superior to Marta solely in her latent capacity to re-electrify him; to stir in him a horrible deception; to propell him once more—as he now desired–to the limits of despair.” (Chermeza Sinucigasilor, 18)

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

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My Interview about Velvet Totalitarianism and The Seducer in Celebrity Dialogue

Claudia Moscovici: Novelist, Non-Fiction Author & Art Critic PDF Print E-mail
March 11th, 2012
Interview of Claudia Moscovici on CelebrityDialgoue.com
Claudia Moscovici is an American Romanian Novelist, non-fiction author and art critic. Her latest novel “The Seducer” is a psychological story of a married woman trapped in the love of an unassuming psychopath. Claudia is the author of “Velvet Totalitarianism,” a critically acclaimed novel about a Romanian family’s survival in an oppressive communist regime due to the strength of their love.

CelebrityDialogue: What is the basic plot of your latest novel “The Seducer”?Claudia: “The Seducer,” my new psychological thriller, shows both the hypnotic appeal and the deadly danger of psychopathic seduction. This novel traces the downfall of a married woman, Ana, who, feeling trapped in a lackluster marriage, has a torrid affair with Michael, a man who initially seems to be her soul mate and her dream come true. Although initially torn between love for her family and her passion for Michael, Ana eventually gives in to her lover’s pressure and asks her husband for divorce. That’s when Michael’s “mask of sanity” unpeels to reveal the monstrously selfish psychopath underneath. Written in the tradition of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” my novel shows that true love can be found in our ordinary lives and relationships rather than in flimsy fantasies masquerading as great passions.
CelebrityDialogue: What inspired you to write this novel?

Claudia: I have always been a big fan of nineteenth-century fiction that focuses on the theme of seduction: I’m thinking of classic novels like Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”. I also read with great interest the libertine novel tradition of the eighteenth-century: my favorite in this genre being Laclos’ epistolary novel, “Dangerous Liaisons”. I think in his depiction of Valmont, Laclos gets the seducer profile exactly right: he is a dangerous psychopath—essentially a social predator who plays games with the lives of others, having malicious fun at their expense– rather than a libertine maverick (as in Casanova) or a tragic romantic hero (as in Tolstoy). I did four years of psychology research of the most dangerous personality disorders—psychopathy and narcissism—to create a realistic and up-to-date psychological profile of the seducer in my new novel by the same name.
CelebrityDialogue: Would you like to introduce our readers to a non-fiction book, “Dangerous Liaisons”, that you wrote in 2011?

Claudia: Although the theme of psychopathy comes up mostly when we hear about (psychopathic) serial killers, it is actually much more commonplace and pervasive, in both fact and fiction. What do O. J. Simpson, Scott Peterson and the timeless seducers of literature epitomized by the figures of Don Juan and Casanova have in common? They are charismatic, glib and seductive men who also embody the most dangerous human qualities: a breathtaking callousness, shallowness of emotion and the incapacity to love. In other words, these men are psychopaths. Unfortunately, most psychopaths don’t advertise themselves as heartless social predators. They come across as charming, intelligent, friendly, generous, romantic and kind. Through their believable “mask of sanity,” they lure many of us into their dangerous nets. My nonfiction book, “Dangerous Liaisons,” explains clearly, for a general audience, what psychopaths are, why they act the way they do, how they attract us and whom they tend to target. Above all, this book helps victims find the strength to end their toxic relationships with psychopaths and move on, stronger and wiser, with the rest of their lives.

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CelebrityDialogue: What exactly is psychopathic seduction?

Claudia: Psychopathic seduction happens when someone is seduced (targeted, lured with false promises or under false premises, deceived, manipulated, isolated and brainwashed) by a psychopathic social predator. Psychopaths are far more common than one thinks. Experts estimate that between 1 and 4 percent of the population is psychopathic. This means that there are millions of psychopaths in the United States alone. The influence of these very dangerous individuals extends far beyond this percentage however. Psychopaths are generally very sociable, highly promiscuous and con countless people: sexually, emotionally and/or financially. They poison tens of millions of lives in this country and far more, of course, internationally.

Claudia Moscovici The Seducer

CelebrityDialogue: Your novel “Velvet Totalitarianism” is about a Romanian family’s survival against communist regime. Since you have Romanian roots, did any true life events prompt you to write this novel?

Claudia: “Velvet Totalitarianism”, which was recently launched in Romanian translation (“Intre Doua Lumi,” Curtea Veche Publishing, 2011), is inspired in part by events in Romanian history as well as by elements from my life and my parents’ lives: including my father’s defection to the U.S., our dealings with the Securitate and our immigration. Nevertheless, I fictionalized both the historical and the biographical elements to give the novel a tighter and more dramatic structure.
CelebrityDialogue: You must have felt proud when this novel was published in Romanian language?

Claudia: I was delighted that “Velvet Totalitarianism” was published in Romania, both because it was written about the history and struggles of the Romanian people and because I have a sentimental attachment and cultural ties to my native country. I was especially happy to see how well-received the novel in translation (“Intre Doua Lumi”) was by the mainstream media in Romania, where it was featured not only in literary and culture magazines such as Scrisul Romanesc and Viata Romaneasca, but also in Forbes.ro, women’s glossy magazines (such as Revista Avantaje), and general interest blogs like Catchy.ro and VIP.net. Since I aspire to being a public writer and intellectual, I wish to reach a wide community of readers, internationally.
CelebrityDialogue: Which are your other major published works?

Claudia: I have published several scholarly books, but I’d consider “major” works only those books that I wrote for a general audience. These include my art criticism book “Romanticism and Postromanticism”, on the Romantic tradition in art and literature and its postromantic survival; my novels “Velvet Totalitarianism” and “The Seducer”, and my psychology book about psychopaths and dangerous relationships, “Dangerous Liaisons”.
CelebrityDialogue: You are the co-founder of” Postromanticism”. For those who may not know, please shed some light on this movement.

Claudia: I believe that art movements are not only diachronic, emerging one after the other, as they tend to be taught in art history, but also synchronic, in that each new art movement borrows from many aesthetic traditions of the past. Postromanticism, the international art movement I co-launched in 2002 with the Mexican sculptor Leonardo Pereznieto, is no exception. It is inspired by several traditions in art history, including Neoclassicism, Romanticism and art nouveau. Postromanticism places emphasis upon beauty, sensuality and passion in contemporary art. You can see samples of postromantic art on my website, http://postromanticism.com.
CelebrityDialogue: Since you write about love, beauty and passion, what does love mean to you in real life? Were you able to find love in your life?

Claudia: Being a novelist and art/literary critic, for many years I looked mostly at fantasy—since, after all, that’s what art and fiction are–to describe love as a romantic ideal rather than as a daily lived reality. But for the past few years, particularly after studying personality disorders, I have come to appreciate much more the pragmatic and ethical dimensions of real love. To me, love implies mutual commitment, supporting one another through thick and thin, fidelity and caring about one another: everything that the wedding vows promise and that my wonderful and supportive husband, Dan Troyka, has offered me in real life for over 20 years, since we met and fell in love in college.
CelebrityDialogue: What are you working on these days?

Claudia: Since my interests are in several fields—fiction, art and psychology—I always work at several projects simultaneously. This “multitasking” keeps me from becoming bored with any one subject or stuck in a rut creatively. Right now I’m researching the psychology of cults, which will be the subject of my third novel, “The Cult”. Since cult leaders are often charismatic psychopaths, this novel will incorporate a lot of the research I’ve already done to write “The Seducer” and “Dangerous Liaisons”. In addition, I have just finished writing the preface for an exciting new science fiction novel called “The Cube”, written in the tradition of Huxley’s “Brave New World” and Orwell’s “1984”, which will be published by my publisher in a few months. At the same time, I’m working closely with the Romanian-born movie producer Bernard Salzman, whom you’ve already interviewed in Celebrity Dialogue, on the screenplay for my first novel, “Velvet Totalitarianism”. Hopefully this will be an American-Romanian production, since a large part of the plot takes place in Romania. I also continue with my art criticism and am preparing for the launch of “Romanticism and Postromanticism”, translated by the writer and critic Dumitru Radu Popa, in Romania next fall. It’s a Latin country so I’m hoping for a warm reception of postromanticism, the art of passion!
CelebrityDialogue: Thank you so much Claudia. It was a pleasure.

Claudia: Thank you for this interview, the pleasure was mine.

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Filed under book review, Claudia Moscovici, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, Dan Troyka Claudia Moscovici, fiction, Intre Doua Lumi, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Nat Karody The Cube

My fresh impressions about Romania, thirty years later

Velvet Love by Andy Platon

This is an essay about my fresh impressions about my native country, Romania, thirty years later, published in Litkicks.com and translated into Romanian on Catchy.ro.

http://www.litkicks.com/ReturnToRomania 
http://www.catchy.ro/un-scriitor-care-s-a-intors-in-romania/19370
Claudia Moscovici, Literatureasalon

http://www.amazon.com/Velvet-Totalitarianism-Post-Stalinist-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/076184693X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1323439558&sr=1-1


			

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Filed under book review, Claudia Moscovici, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, fiction, Intre Doua Lumi by Claudia Moscovici, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Velvet Love, Velvet Love by Andy Platon, Velvet Totalitarianism

Confessions of A Would-be Salonnière: My Favorite Twenty-first Century Salons

When I openened a twitter account a few months ago, it wasn’t difficult to find the phrase that best captures me: “Born in the wrong century, a would-be salonnière.” Ever since college, when I first learned about Marquise de Rambouillet–the refined hostess who led the most talented artists and writers of her day in scintillating intellectual discussions in the elegant alcove of her drawing room–I knew that I had missed my opportunity and true calling in life. Sure, women may be able to be and do whatever they want today. Society is less sexist, more democratic. But in an era when entertainment news outdoes even socio-political news in popularity and readership, what hope is there for placing art, literature and philosophy at the center of public attention again?

The main problem I encountered in being a contemporary salonnière was: Where are the salons? Most academic discourse struck me as too technical and specialized to draw a large audience. Fortunately, while an undergraduate at Princeton University, I had the enormous privilege to study with scholars who epitomized the salon tradition of worldly intellectuals: Professor Robert Fagles, translator of Homer’s epic poems, and Professor Victor Brombert,  a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, who encouraged my love for world literature and culture to the point where I decided to pursue Comparative Literature for both my undergraduate and graduate studies. Many years later, I discovered quite a number of online salons, where writers, artists and intellectuals converge to discuss their works, in a clear, interesting and sophisticated fashion. I’d like to share with you some of my favorite contemporary salons. 

Litkicks.com. I discovered Litkicks ( http://www.litkicks.com/) in October 2009, when I found on the internet an article about a fellow Romanian-born writer, Herta Müller. The article was called “Herta Who?” by Dedi Felman and it was about the dissident writer’s recently awarded Nobel Prize in Literature. At that point, the founder of Litkicks, Levi Asher, also wrote a brief note on the blog about my recently published novel on similar themes, Velvet Totalitarianism, 2009/Intre Doua Lumi, 2011. We got in touch by email and I became a regular reader and occasional contributor on the blog. Litkicks features articles on literature, poetry, art, philosophy, music, cinema and politics.

Levi was a software developer (and culture lover) on Wall Street when he started Litkicks.com in 1994, which became, along with Salon.com, a pioneer culture blog. The website was originally launched to support Beat Generation poetry and experimental fiction. Over the years, it has expanded its scope to include contemporary literature in general, essays on nineteenth and twentieth-century French poetry and fiction (including Michael Norris‘s excellent essays on Proust), lively political articles, and Levi’s top-notch Philosophy Series. Litkicks includes articles on established authors published by the big publishing houses as well as reviews about talented independent writers published by smaller presses. The blog has thousands of readers a day, but thanks to a loyal following of regular contributors and commentators, it retains the intimate feel of a community of friends engaged in intellectual discussions and debates.

Catchy.ro. Founded in 2010 by the Romanian journalist Mihaela Carlan, Catchy.ro (http://www.catchy.ro/) is quickly catching on as Romania’s premier blog. Discussing all aspects of art, entertainment, politics and culture, Catchy.ro is inspired by the highly successful The Huffington Post, founded by Arianna Huffington in 2005 and recently acquired by AOL for a whopping 315 million dollars. Part of The Huffington Post‘s enormous success stems from Arianna Huffington’s pull and connections with wealthy investors. To offer just one notable example, in August 2006, SoftBank Capital invested 5 milliion dollars in the company. However, its success can also be attributed to the high quality of its articles and the popularity of its over 9000 contributors. Without question, The Huffington Post gathered some of the best bloggers in every field it features. Moreover, the blog has not merely adapted, but also stayed one step ahead of the curve in its use of technology, recently introducing “vlogging“–or video blogging–which is taking off and making journalism even more multimedia and interactive.

If I mention Catchy’s precursor in some detail, it’s because I believe these are also some of the features that have helped the Romanian blog grow so quickly during the past year, since its inception. Catchy “like a woman” targets primarily a female audience. But ultimately its panel of excellent journalists–with expertise ranging from art, to literature, to philosophy, to music, to fashion to pop culture and, above all, to the most fundamental aspects of human life itself, like health, love and marriage–draws a much broader audience of both genders and every age group. Like The Huffington Post, Catchy.ro also treads perfectly the line between intellectual writing and pop culture, providing intelligently written articles for a general audience. As some of the more traditional Romanian newspapers have struggled and a few even collapsed, the up-and-coming blog Catchy.ro shows that in every country adaptation is the key to success.

Agonia.net.  Started by the technology expert and culture promoter Radu Herinean in 2010, Agonia.net (http://english.agonia.net/index.php) is a rapidly expanding international literary blog. It includes sections on prose, screenplays, poetry, criticism and essays. Agonia.net has the following assets: a) it publishes well-regarded writers and intellectuals, b) it’s contributor-run so that it can grow exponentially and internationally (with sections in English, French, Spanish, Romanian and several other languages in the works) and c) it has a team of great editors that monitor its posts and maintain high quality standards. Agonia. net improves upon the model of online creative writing publishing pioneered by websites like Wattpad.com, which are contributor-run but have no editorial monitoring. Because of lack of editorial control, Wattpad.com has not been taken seriously by readers and publishers despite its vast popularity with contributors. Any literary blog that has a chance at being successful has to have the capacity for handling a large number of incoming contributions while also maintaining reliable editorial standards. Agonia.net seems to have mastered this delicate balance.

In participating in these exciting artistic, literary and intellectual forums, I’m starting to feel like my calling as a 21st century salonnière might not be an anachronism after all. I invite you to explore each of them and see which ones fit your talents and interests best. 

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

http://www.amazon.com/Seducer-Novel-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/0761858075/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1326297451&sr=1-1


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Romanian Contemporary Fiction by Dumitru Radu Popa

I have just written a post about Proust and his biographers, who attempt to render this classic 20th-century writer palatable and relevant to 21st-century readers. Proust stands the test of time partly because he delves into the depths of our dreams, desires, fears and all the hidden regions of our subconscious, which seem to have their own logic and are perennial. He also puts a writer’s magnifying glass on the world of 20th-century French aristocracy–studying them as an entomologist would insects–to magnify the neuroses, deviancy  and intrigue that lie beneath a thin veneer of worldliness and respectability.

Today I’d like to present the works of a Romanian-American fiction writer and literary critic, Dumitru Radu Popa, who continues the genre of psychological fiction in our times. Psychological fiction is, in many 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 remains 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 artistic sensibility–to accomplish this task, in his short stories, novellas and novels that have won critical acclaim both in his native Romania and in the United States.

As a writer, literary critic and intellectual, Dumitru Radu Popa has been well-known since the 1970’s. His works in Romanian include a book of literary criticism about Saint-Exupery, several collections of short stories (Calatoria, 1982; Fisura, 1985 and Panic Syndrome! 1997), the anthologies Skenzemon! (2005) and Lady V. and Other Stories (2006) as well as two novels, one of which–Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions–has been recently translated into English (Outskirts Press, 2011) and the second of which, Traversind Washington Square (Crossing Washington Square), I’m currently translating into English.

One of my favorite books, Lady V. and Other Stories harks back to the talent of exquisite, well-crafted psychological fiction  reminiscent of the modernist style of Henry James and Marcel Proust. This beautifully written  collection of short stories is universal in its appeal. It is subtle, even exquisite in the way physical descriptions and details (of gestures and movements) speak volumes about the characters’ states of mind and feelings. The narrative, fluid and delicate in style, places itself in the tradition of literary fiction without being in any way arcane or pretentious. Moreover, Dumitru Radu Popa’s ironic touches are incisive and honest, without ever becoming brutal. They are  similar in tone to Chekhov’s fiction, which depicts human beings as they are–flaws and all–without hating us for our foibles and fallibility.

Dumitru Radu Popa’s newest novel, Traversind Washington Square (Crossing Washington Square) is, in my opinion, the closest in style and introspective bent to Proust’s La Recherche. On the surface this is the story–or, more like it, fantasy–of an illicit love affair between a professor and his graduate student. When one delves deeper into the text, however, one discovers a meditation on the nature of time, about how the ingrained memories of childhood infiltrate our memory in unexpected ways and shape our identities as adults as well as lyrical analysis of human mortality itself. To give you a feel for the narrative, I’m including below the first chapter of this intriguing novel.

Crossing Washington Square, by Dumitru Radu Popa

(Tr. Claudia Moscovici)

Swedish Hood

I.

Like every morning, crossing Washington Square from University Place towards 4th Street, losing myself in the anonymity of the red building, with the brick facade, of the Philosophy Building–a perfect edifice made to reduce everything to the absence of worries and metaphysical torments–I thought that time materialized, gaining a consistency difficult to pinpoint yet lacking, at core, any ambiguity.  It could be the beggar on the other side of the fence, exhibiting malodorous wounds or urinating, through his pants, on the bench where he slept all night, covered by newspapers, with a stitched together rag, or sometimes even with a torn American flag, left by God knows what Puerto Rican parade that transformed for an evening the whole neighborhood into a deplorable trash bin:  beer cans and Pepsi tumbling with an irritating noise; left-over junk food; packages and trampled cigarettes.

Or perhaps it could be the policeman with a Hispanic name, moving back and forth, on his electric scooter or astride a horse—as useless as it is traditional in the municipal annals of the institution—with a tattered leather agenda peeking from his back pocket, indifferent to the industrious marijuana vendors, who, unperturbed, accost you with the question, whistled through their teeth “Smoke? Smoke?”, but always ready to give a blistering ticket for a car parked unknowingly or carelessly in an illegal spot. Or it could be people with somber demeanors—always the same ones!—walking their dogs on the grass, with a resigned air to their daily punishment, so freely accepted. Not to mention the joggers that gallop with a regular stride, sweating in their plastic jogging suits, old or young, almost all of them with a walkman on their ears, breathing in deeply the most polluted air in New York, yet convinced, in spite of that, that they’re ameliorating their health, as if health, like time itself in a way, had become, all of a sudden, something tangible, perfectly quantifiable and, consequently, susceptible to being altered… Or, finally, it could be the hyper-realist anomaly of the landscape: the minuscule Arch of Triumph, mounted upon Fifth Avenue, the most famous street in New York,  a dwarf or an aborted child of its richer cousin from Etoile de la Paris, which the Japanese tourists, like stuffed pheasants, photograph from summer to winter, from all angles, so as not to miss its specificity.

Yes, indeed! Bucharest was dying, or was already dead within me, slowly and gradually, I can’t recall exactly which year, month or day since in such cases one no longer knows how many grains make a pile… And all this bazaar (to say bizarre would be too facile), surrounding me, neither friend nor foe, but pure and simple like a fact. All this probably gave time its material consistency, especially crossing the square, every weekday, today being no different from every other day.

Yet time, this unflappable and intangible flow from nothing to nothing, or from nowhere to nowhere, however it was—the beggar, the policeman, the jogger, the derisory Arch of Triumph, perhaps even the empty, abandoned cigarette packs, and the left-over junk food on the ground—it all seemed to me, in the final analysis, an immense embodiment of the urgency with a raised right hand, the pointer finger itself an exclamation point trying to deny access to the impersonally soothing building where I’d spend the next eight hours of the day in the library, in an office, or in classrooms. And the message of this exclamation could have been something like: “Cave! Remember, I go over each detail and each discrepancy of the landscape, but this doesn’t mean anything!” Perhaps not quite as dramatic and rhetorical, but in any case, something similar.

I’m speaking now of the mixed sensations, not even clear to me: someone with more common sense could have easily concluded that, in fact, I was doing nothing more than becoming aware that I was getting old. But it’s one thing to notice that, with the same naiveté—so delectable!—that leads adolescents to see in a thirty year old a “finished man”, and another to approach 50: then, probably, the only chance of avoiding a psychic depression is contemplating time, as if this could somehow save the individual from a personal acceptance of this flow that leads to the ugly words “old age”,  ascribing it all to an immanent and incontestable general paradigm.

As mentioned, recently Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions, a political thriller and love story, was published in English translation by Outskirts Press. This novel, like the author himself, straddles two worlds. Part of the plot takes place in post-revolutionary Romania, while the other is set in the United States. Far from being an idyllic place of newly gained democratic freedom, the Romania depicted in the novel is filled with practical problems and mutual suspicions. Although the Securitate (or Romanian Secret Police) has been officially abolished, spying still continues as usual: without, however, the same devastating impact as during the communist era. The oppression that used to be the subject of dystopic fiction (such as Orwell‘s 1984) is now better described, by Popa’s novel, in an ironic and cynical vein. In the confusing post-revolutionary political context, the love between Sabrina and Vlad faces many challenges. Yet this is also the plot element that gives the novel a very human touch and captures the readers’ interest and emotions. Several stylistic elements–including love story, philosophical dialogue and political intrigue–all work together to create an irresistible fiction. I’m including below an excerpt of the English translation of  Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions, which appeared online in Levurelitteraire.com, Numero 2, below:

“Come on, Plato.  Let’s go home.  Iphigenia’s waiting for you.”

“I can’t right now, woman!  Leave me alone.  Can’t you see I’m playing backgammon with Homer?  And he’s got some luck today.  It’s like he stepped in you know what: I clearly mean … or maybe he just didn’t wash his hands after you know what.”

“Stop being such an ass, Plato!  You’re only saying that because you’re losing.  If you smell anything here it’s not me.  It must be Idomeneo’s shad; he’s dried them out like hell and they’re so hard they’re going to break my dentures…”

“Shad always needs dill,” blubbered one of the old man onlookers known as Menny, though his paperwork clearly stated that his name was Menelaus Kakanis.

The roll of the dice drew a cry of joy from Plato while he utterly ignores Iphigenia’s emissary who is standing by the door with her hand to her mouth.

“Aha!  There you are!  This is the end of you!  Briseis, hand me one of Idomeneo’s dry shad.  I’ll tenderize it with this pot… too bad I don’t have a bust of Cicero…”

“Well, Cicero is out buying new tires,” Menny tried to intervene but he was quickly stifled as usually happens to those in his position.

“Iphigenia said to come home right away to wash up and get ready for Aristotle, Penelope and Orpheus, not to mention his cross-eyed sister Cassandra, who are coming over tonight.  And then we’re all going to go to St. Basil’s Church.  Herostratus is coming too, you know, the one who just opened that big grocery near Ditmars.”

“Oh alright, I’m coming.  Just let me finish up with this coward.  Homer’s coming to church too with Aphrodite and Hecuba.  But we have plenty of time, my clothes aren’t even ready.  The guys at the cleaners on Hoyt Avenue said five o’clock.  Catharsis, you know the place.  It’s the best one, doesn’t even compare with those lousy Chinese at French Cleaners.”

“Aha, did you hear that? Catharsis!” said in Romanian a guy with the beginnings of a belly, maybe even a full gut, who spoke while holding a toothpick in the corner of his mouth.

It was bright as day, Colonel Munteanu.

He and his companion had sat at a table in the back, near the bathrooms that smelled strongly of disinfectant, and this combination of chlorine and dried fish was enough to turn your stomach.

“Since when do you understand Greek?” asked his associate.  He was much younger, thin, with prominent cheekbones and an unusually conspicuous Adam’s apple, so that the shadow he cast on the wall looked like nothing as much as a cartoon from the Sunday funnies.

“Shut up and listen!  Or are you playing the fool?  You don’t need to speak Greek to know he said Catharsis: those Greek dry cleaners where that big cheese, your godfather, sended his clothes.  Don’t you remember from the file?  It seems that he used to bring in his clothes with blood stains every night.  He’d pick them up clean in the morning, but the stains always returned in the exact same spots.  Totally absurd!”

“It’s not absurd at all! There’s clearly some dough involved, if only we could find its traces…  But I don’t think it’s here…  Anyway, I was just saying,” whinged the other, code name Lazar. “I’ve seen backgammon before and I don’t really like this Greek food, either.  I’ve gotten more used to Chinese, especially since it’s also cheaper!”

“We’re not talking about what you may or may not like!,” chastised a resentful Munteanu.  “We have to start somewhere…”

With these words he approached, somewhat shyly, the table of the more or less ancient Greeks who lived in the picturesque neighborhood of Astoria, with all of their glorious history of which, it seemed, they weren’t too much aware.  Then, as if he had changed his mind, he returned and prodded his companion, “Listen… my English is, how should I say, kind of passive.  I understand, but I can’t really express myself clearly.”

“I see,” answered Lazar, with a touch of irony that did not escape the attention of the older man.  “It’s like with those engineers.  They look intelligent enough but, when they try to express themselves, just can’t be done!”

He winked jokingly as to erase any misunderstanding, and then went up to the ad-hoc Agora where English wasn’t anything to emulate Shakespeare or Milton.  Munteanu, aka the Sphinx, did not appreciate the joke and threw a suspicious look at the young man as he was walking away.  He found his apprentice a little too full of himself, especially in front of a superior!  “It would not hurt him to be a bit more careful!”

After a short moment of confusion, the steady clicking of the dice resumed.

“Do you speak Romanian?” all of a sudden a man asked the colonel. He had been sitting near the greasy window, so dirty that the man could not have really been looking through it, but rather into himself, lost in God knows what thoughts.

Sure, people come to taverns to socialize, but also to possibly come to terms with themselves.  Or maybe just to eavesdrop on others.

“Yeah I do speak Romanian?  Isn’t that clear?  So what?  It’s none of your business!” growled Colonel Munteanu who would have preferred that his young apprentice hurried up and talked to those Greeks about Catharsis.

“Well it may not be a big deal,” said the dirty window watcher, “but anyway, if you want any information about… how should I put it… the Romanian community here, you’d do best to ask me.”

The guy was somehow “clean-cut”, he didn’t look like a beggar, and the colonel signaled to Blossom, alias Lazar, as if to say “Hold on a second!  Let’s see what this guy has to say.”  So the latter gave up any attempt to speak about the Iliad, the Odyssey and any other epic that might have grown in the tavern, and came back to the table.

“Pour, Blossom!” the colonel said gesturing toward a bottle and the young man immediately obliged pouring out two full glasses of ouzo for his table mates, but only a drop for himself, because he could not stand this perfumed liquor with oily texture.

Silence fell over the room again so that the only sound was the jangling of the dice, a background possibly replacing the typical chorus of ancient Greek tragedy.  Everything was as ridiculous and derivative as the illuminatiliving in this small community in Astoria, Queens.

The man who had joined them at the table was massive, with a bald spot that threatened to spread shortly from his forehead to the rest of his head which still spotted some remnants of stringy, greasy hair that had resisted the miraculous cures promised by all sorts of shampoos and conditioners.  However, below this, there were a pair of lively eyes; he wasn’t stupid by any means, and was not intimidated by the colonel’s authoritarian bearing.

“Now it’s your turn to pour, you know what I mean!  And you’d better tell us everything exactly as it happened if you want to get out of here alive,” declared the colonel harshly, despite his apprentice’s generous gaze meant to convey something along the lines of: “Why don’t you just leave him alone?  Maybe he’s just some poor fool who knows nothing of our business.  What if he speaks Romanian, does that mean we have to harass him?  We’d be better off going after the big wigs.”

“First of all, I’d like to introduce myself,” said the man.  “I am, together with my associates, in charge of everything that happens in Romanian business here… I hope you understand what I mean: a deal, some legal matter, or when someone needs to keep their mouth shut…”

And here he made a deft gesture with his hand miming the path of a zipper that starts at the left-most corner of one’s mouth and ends over the tightly closed lips of the right-most corner.

“As for other things,” he added, “like, for example, the Greek dry cleaners, Catharsis, I’m still the right person to ask.  They are the best, if that’s what you’re interested in, by the way.  When I gave my hat to those morons at French Cleaners, the place it is run by the Chinese you know, they shrunk it so bad that I can’t wear it anymore.  My associates had to bid on e-bay to try to get me a similar one…  But if you really want to talk about all these we should probably go to Melon Head’s pub.  It’s the only place around here with real food.  Plus I’m getting special treatment…

“Yes, yes!” ventured code name Lazar.  “Let’s go there!”

In the meantime, Munteanu’s mood had been growing worse. The source of his anger was, on one hand, the arrogance of his young subordinate who had begun to give himself airs and to make decisions without even consulting him; and on the other hand, the fact that they were about to leave behind informants that could turn out to be essential to this whole mess that the guys in Bucharest had handed him. Just imagine: people who disappear in dreams, send their clothes to cleaners that make it so that the blood stains reappear the next day. Or, even worse, the task to follow an individual who had run to the other side with the institution’s money.  What’s more to be said, he was simply tired and… overwhelmed by the situation!

                                                           II        

Once closed the trunk of the giant Chrysler that she hated so much (and whose  disappearance after their vacation, or rather their stop in Los Angeles, she had every reason to look forward to!), Meg sat down in the passenger seat, buckled her seatbelt, and, even before Bob started the car, opened the book she was holding on her knees.    Throwing the car in reverse, Bob could not help but grumble, “I see, I’m going to be doing all the driving for days on end, but you could at least help me navigate until we get out of the city.”

Meg gave him an amused look.  Bob’s personality tics no longer bothered her nor made her suspicious as they had when the two were first married.  She understood that his inability to take control during their intimate moments had nothing to do with an overwhelming wish to show her, right then, some important paper they had received from the bank; or with a sudden migraine that sent him running to the bathroom where he tarried long enough for her to fall asleep.  No!  It was a physiological problem, a pretty ordinary one for a couple their age. Sensitive and understanding, she always gave him the impression that everything was alright, that he himself controlled the situation, as, in his mind, it had to be for things to be truly alright.  It should be said, however, that Bob too was an active participant in this game, often feigning distress or misunderstandings, as if to test her, to prove to himself that she had figured out what was going on and had no objections.  This unspoken agreement, a delicate chess game that kept everything in balance, made their life together not only bearable, but downright happyto the extent that this word can be applied to those who are married.

“Oh honey, I’m sorry not to be more helpful.  But knowing you’re such a good driver, I thought my inability to read those maps would only irritate you further more!”  She was lying shamelessly, of course.  We know how carefully she planned every detail of the trip – and please note that we didn’t even mention it at the time so that we won’t bore the reader – not only every stop and hotel, but also every road and exit that would save them the most time and gas.  Despite all of these, she lied graciously and suddenly they found themselves in a shared good mood: he would grumble and drive; she would continue her reading uninterrupted.  What could be a better omen for a long trip than such a beginning?

“Ok, Ok,” replied Bob satisfied.  “It doesn’t matter now anyway, I’ve already merged onto the Maddox Turnpike.  But I’m very curious what book has caught your attention so much that last night you fell asleep with the light on.”

Meg had begun reading the book the day before the trip, but she had not realized that she fell asleep reading the night before.

“It’s a book,” she answered, “recommended as summer reading by the company that sent me the tourist information.  I don’t know how interesting you’d find it… the beginning is pretty boring and it doesn’t have anything to do with the title.  But what can you do, that’s how literature is nowadays.”

“Got it!” snorted Bob.  “Really Meg, this is so typical of you, and probably that’s why I love you so much.  You take everything so seriously, like you didn’t know that everything is just a trick to make you buy things.”

But before Bob had a chance to really get going on with the critique of government manipulation, the IRS, and everything else, Meg cut him off: “I think it’s a very good book, but don’t ask me why.”

“That sounds a little ominous,” murmured Bob, sticking his left hand out the window, middle finger upraised, in the direction of the blue Chevy he had just passed.

Meg did not want to leave him completely in the dark, nor did she want him to think that she was talking nonsense.

“I mean that it’s strange.  It’s a translation and the action is multilayered.  I’m just a few pages into it, but I’m sure it will go on like this.  It’s the author’s style…”

“Or the translator’s,” answered Bob sharply.  “What’s left of the author’s style when you’re talking about a translation?”

This threw Meg off a bit.  She suddenly became suspicious. What did Bob know about books?  But she stopped frowning and rephrased the question. Did she really know everything about Bob?  “Yeah, maybe that’s it!  It seems that the translation is very good, that’s probably why the book is so easy to read…”

“And from whence came this author to enlighten us with his multilayered book?” asked Bob his voice dripping with irony.

“The cover says he’s Romanian, but I didn’t want to read too much.  You know how it is.  The blurb gives away the whole story and there’s no joy left in reading the book.”

“Oh that’s just what we needed,” exhaled Bob.  “For Romanians to come and teach us!”

“It’s not about teaching,” answered Meg, “it’s just a novel, something made up.  But maybe not completely…”

“I bet it was translated from the Russian,” posited Bob.

“You think?” exclaimed a puzzled Meg.  “I would have thought that they spoke Hungarian over there.  I remember reading something in The New York Times Magazine…”

“Nonsense!  This Romania used to be part of the Soviet Union,” replied Bob completely sure of himself.  “There was some big scandal with their KGB about ten years ago, I remember well…  It’s translated from Russian, I’m sure.  Check it out!  It’s gotta say somewhere in there.”

“Probably,” acknowledged Meg, but was unable to completely stifle a stray thought of how much Bob knew about geography and geopolitics.  “Ah, here it is!” she went on.  “Oh well.  It says right here that it was translated from Romanian!”  And all of a sudden she grew much less worried about her familiarity with Bob’s knowledge.  “It’s obvious!  Since the author is Romanian, of course the book was also written in Romanian!”

“Didn’t I tell you!” answered Bob triumphantly.

“No,” Meg said dryly.  “You were just explaining how it was translated from the Russian.”

“But I told you that Romania used to be part of the Soviet Union, that’s why I thought it was Russian.  Of course, after the Berlin Wall fell, all those little countries that were held together by the KGB started reusing their own languages…”

Meg wanted to mention something about the fact that all those countries did not go off in their own direction after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but only several years later, and Romania was not even among them. But she decided not to insist.  “Anyway, I like this book!  I don’t care if it’s translated from Russian, Hungarian, or Romanian.  I’ll read about that afterwards!”

Hearing her say afterwards in that tone, Bob’s eyes shot open and he almost lost control of the steering wheel, a move that frightened Meg.  She reminded herself she should stand to be a little more careful not to let herself get so riled up with these conversations because you never know where they’ll lead…

“After I finish the novel, I mean,” she clarified ready to resume her reading.

“Hmm… Ok,” muttered Bob. “And what did you say was the title of this very special book?”

Meg ignored the sarcasm in his question. “I Haven’t said yet!  In translation it’s Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions, but I don’t think the title is very important.  So far there haven’t even been any characters named Sabrina, just a couple of Romanian spies and (you’ll be shocked when I tell you!) a couple just like us that are getting ready to go on vacation.  But I think I’m going to skip over the sections about them.”

Turning towards Walhalla Circle, Bob added, “Sounds like some great summer reading! Not that American literature is any better, but at least it has clear titles: Tom Sawyer is a story about Tom Sawyer.  Sabrina: that’s a name that could come from anywhere!  And to make it worse, she doesn’t even come up in the beginning of the book…”

Meg totally ignored the rest of the diatribe, returning to her book and picking up exactly where she had left off.

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

http://www.amazon.com/Seducer-Novel-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/0761858075/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1326297451&sr=1-1


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The Multimedia Launch of Velvet Totalitarianism (Intre Doua Lumi) in Romania

I’m happy to report that my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, was launched in Romanian translation (by Mihnea Gafita) under the title Intre Doua Lumi (Curtea Veche Publishing, 2011). The presentation will include my talk about the book as well as a book trailer produced by Claudiu Ciprian Popa and a music video produced by Andy (Soundland) Platon (see the below). This was the first multimedia launch, in which a book trailer and music video accompanied the presentations of the novel.

The political commentator Adrian Cioroianu, the literary critic Alex Stefanescu and the film producer Stere Gulea introduced my novel in light of their respective fields. The book launch took place at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Bucharest (ICR Bucuresti) on September 21, 2011 at 18:00 p.m. (Aleea Alexandru nr. 38, sector 1, 011824, Bucuresti, România).  

This novel is being made into a movie by the Romanian-American cinematographer Bernard Salzman (http://bernardsalzman.com/)

I’m pasting below the Advance Praise for my novel as well as Diana Evantia Barca‘s article about it in Catchy.ro and Anca Lapusneanu‘s article about it (and intellectual freedom) in Revista VIP.

Advance Praise for Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi

A deeply felt, deftly rendered novel of the utmost importance to any reader interested in understanding totalitarianism and its terrible human cost. Urgent, evocative, and utterly convincing, Velvet Totalitarianism is a book to treasure, and Claudia Moscovici is indeed a writer to watch, now and into the future.

–Travis Holland, author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Archivist’s Story, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection.

Claudia Moscovici’s first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, triumphs on several levels: as a taut political thriller, as a meditation on totalitarianism, as an expose of the Ceausescu regime, and as a moving fictionalized memoir of one family’s quest for freedom.

–Ken Kalfus, author of the novel A Disorder Peculiar to the Country

 (2006 National Book Award nominee), of The Commissariat of Enlightenment (2003) and of PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies (1999).

Western intellectuals have often blurred the fundamental differences between the imperfect free world they have been fortunate to enjoy and the totalitarian world of communism they never had the misfortune to endure.  Claudia Moscovici’s Velvet Totalitarianism is a powerful corrective to that ivory tower distortion of reality.  Moscovici makes her readers viscerally feel the corrosive psychological demoralization and numbing fear totalitarian regimes impose on those who live under them.  At the same time, with style and wit, and informed by her experiences as a child in communist Romania and then as an immigrant in the United States, she tells a story of resilience and hope.  Velvet Totalitarianism is a novel well worth reading, both for its compelling narrative and for its important message.

–Michael Kort, Professor of Social Science at Boston University and author of the best-selling textbook, The Soviet ColossusHistory and Aftermath

This vivid novel by Claudia Moscovici, historian of ideas and wide-ranging literary critic, traces a family of Jewish-Romanian refugees from the stifling communist dictatorship of their homeland through their settling in the United States during the 1980’s. This fascinating and compelling story is at once historically accurate, exciting, sexy and a real page-turner. Ms. Moscovici is as sensitive to the emotions of her characters as to their political entanglements.

–Edward K. Kaplan, Kevy and Hortense Kaiserman Professor in the Humanities at Brandeis University and author of Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972, winner of the National Jewish Book Award

Moving between extraordinary and ordinary lives, between Romania and the United States, velvet totalitarianism and relative freedom, dire need and consumerism, evoking her Romanian experience in the seventies, the emigration to the U.S. of her family in the eighties, and the 1989 uprising in Timisoara and Bucharest that marked the end of Ceausescu’s regime, Claudia Moscovici offers her readers a multifaceted book—Velvet Totalitarianism—that is at once a love story, a political novel and a mystery. Love is the last resort left to people in order to counter totalitarianism under Ceausescu’s rule. It keeps families united, allowing them to resist indoctrination and hardship and to make sure their children enjoy the carefree beautiful years that are their due. Love gives the protagonist of the novel the strength to overcome cultural differences between Romania and the U.S. and to invent in turn a form of personal happiness in a context that, while far from being as harsh as her initial one, does not lack its own problems.

– Sanda Golopentia, Professor of French, Brown University

Cold historical facts and figures tend to leave us emotionally indifferent. The impact of a nation’s tragic events on one single person or family is much better understood and more profoundly felt. This is what makes Claudia Moscovici’s book, Velvet Totalitarianism, so very special. Her novel is prefaced by a well-researched history of Romania under communism. Depending on one’s point of view, Moscovici’s work could be considered as the fictionalized story of a real Jewish-Romanian family under communism, based on her own recollections and that of her family and supported by true historical facts; or a brief history supported by the fictionalized story of a real family. It’s a book well worth reading. The novel is a page-turner, witty and well written.

–Nicolae Klepper, author of the best-selling book, Romania: An Illustrated History.


http://www.amazon.com/Velvet-Totalitarianism-Post-Stalinist-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/076184693X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1323439558&sr=1-1

 

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Unveiling the Veil in Contemporary Iranian Art and Literature

In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini mandated that all Iranian women must observe an Islamic dress code, which included wearing the veil, under the threat of death for those who refused to abide by these laws. This happened at about the same time that the totalitarian leader of my own country, Nicolae Ceausescu, was starting to impose draconian measures on Romanian women. Between the years 1979 and 1989, Ceausescu instituted a series of laws that controlled women’s sexuality and reproduction by banning birth control and abortion. This was part of his narcissistic fantasy of doubling the population of the country, so that he could have more power. Eventually, as I described in my novel Velvet Totalitarianism, such measures lead to tens of thousands of unwanted children, many of which were placed in unimaginably bad conditions in the infamous Romanian orphanages. To my mind, both measures—in Iran and in Romania–represented a way of establishing power over women rather than being a reflection of religious or ideological (communist) values.

Having been sensitized early in life to these displays of totalitarian power, many years later, when I read Azar Nafisi‘s memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), I was especially moved by the author’s critique of the uses of the veil to control Iranian women’s bodies. I was also very impressed by her creative allusions to Anglo-American literary history—the book is divided into four sections–Lolita, Gatsby, James and Austen–to launch her compelling cultural critiques. Many of you have probably already read this book, but if you haven’t, I highly recommend it. Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel, Lolita, about a sociopathic sexual predator whose fetish is prepubescent girls functions as Nafisi’s main metaphor for Iranian laws, which, she states, imposed “a dream upon our reality, turning us into figments of imagination.” These female figments are objects of simultaneous control and temptation: temptation through prohibition by hiding the female body.

Recently, I ran across the images of an artist who, I believe, launches an equally powerful and creative critique of the veil by unveiling women. Majeed Benteeha is an Iranian-born photographer, poet and aspiring film producer. Moving back and forth between Tehran and New York City, he simultaneously combines and clashes both worlds, in a spectacular mix that challenges cultural assumptions on both fronts. His images often feature veiled women posing nude in an iconic fashion that seems more sacred than profane. Benteenha’s strikingly original photography violates religious orthodoxies–about feminine modesty, about the religious and social connotations of the veil–only to show us another way to respect women and all that they represent: love, maternity, sensuality, desire, intelligence.

His images are simple, beautiful, erotic and dramatic. They include symbols associated with the Muslim faith, but also seem very European in many respects. Perhaps unwittingly, Beenteha’s photography alludes to works like L’Erotisme, by the French anthropologist and philosopher Georges Bataille, which presents the sacred as inextricably related to the profane: not just for Muslim societies, but for all cultures in general. Bataille famously states: “The essence of morality is a questioning about morality and the decisive move of human life is to use ceaselessly all light to look for the origin of the opposition between good and evil.” It seems that is precisely what Beenteha’s artistic short film below underscores, in its mirroring and contrast between a universal modernity and Muslim tradition; between light and dark; between masculine and feminine; between tenderness and predation; between desire and contempt. You can view his photography and artistic films on the links below.

http://www.youtube.com/user/ClaudiaMoscovici#p/a/f/0/Mv3P-3kPfzo

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon

http://www.amazon.com/Velvet-Totalitarianism-Post-Stalinist-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/076184693X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1323439558&sr=1-1


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America’s Obsession with Vampires

As a native Romanian who is also a novelist, I’m very intrigued–and, frankly, somewhat baffled–by America’s obsession with vampires and the Dracula legend. It seems like vampire novels and movies are growing in popularity, even as they’re being spoofed by yet other vampire novels and movies! From what I can see, this trend doesn’t seem as popular in Europe. This leads me to wonder: what are some of the reasons behind America’s obsession with vampires? I came up with five main reasons:

1. Exoticism. The setting of the original Dracula legend is a country whose history and traditions are foreign to most American readers, who find Romania distant and exotic. By way of contrast, to most Europeans, Romania is relatively familiar. It’s a place plagued by its devastating totalitarian history (first the rule of the Iron Guard, then its lengthy communist period). It’s a place struggling to emerge from its dark past, faced with enormous economic and political challenges. To the French, at least, it’s also a place known for immigrants from both sides of the social spectrum: the gypsy exodus, which is often linked to pick-pocketing and a nomadic lifestyle, and some of the most intriguing European intellectuals and artists. But when you say that you’re from Romania to most Americans, the first thing they’ll think of is not Eugene Ionesco or Mircea Eliade, but of Dracula. Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler (the ruler of Wallachia between 1456 and 1462) captivates readers with his notorious inhumanity. He’s infamous for the sadistic punishments he imposed upon his Turkish ennemies as well as upon anyone who violated his laws. Legend has it that he’d enjoy his supper watching prisoners being impaled before his eyes.

2. Which leads me to my second reason: the lure of evil. Vampires–these liminal beings between dark spirit and bad human–represent the powers of evil, over which we have limited control. Evil seduces us, only to later destroy us. The vampire bite is closely associated with unbridled sexuality. Vampires, like social predators, suck the vitality or life blood of healthy human beings before moving on to the next victim. But then, I wondered, why don’t we read about them in their human form, such as the Scott Petersons of this world? Why do we prefer to view and read about them as our Others?

3. Mediated evil. Human evil is inescapable. It’s everywhere around us. We read about it in the pages of history books and we see it on the news: ranging from the haunting memories of the Holocaust, to the Stalinist purges, to the latest serial killers on T.V. Because we’re exposed on a daily basis to the inhumanity of social predators, we’re not as intrigued by them as we are by their un-human counterparts, the vampires. Familiarity breeds not contempt, but boredom. At the same time, evil in its human form makes people very uncomfortable. We don’t want to imagine that social predators could enter our neighborhoods, our houses and our lives, to harm us or our loved ones. Vampires, these liminal beings between human and demon, give a more bearable expression to the evil we know, in the back of  our minds, exists in the world and can reach into the intimacy of our lives. They enable us to contemplate evil while holding it at arm’s length.

4. The widespread appeal of genre fiction. Compared to most Europeans, Americans have very little leisure time. Europeans get weeks, if not months, of vacation a year. Your average American gets only about two to three weeks. Although the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is not cut-and-dry, I’d say that genre fiction places emphasis upon a fast-moving, interesting plot, while literary fiction privileges psychologically nuanced characterizations and a unique style. Most vampire novels, though well-written, place most emphasis on plot. They’re perfect for readers who have little time and want to delve immediately into the action rather than being distracted by stylistic experiments or bogged down by a long-winded, Proustian style. Of course, there are some vampire novels that harmonously blend several genres, to offer readers the best of all worlds. I’m thinking of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which combines a beautiful style, historical erudition about the Dracula legend and a fast-paced, intriguing story.

5. Education. My teenage daughter reminded me yesterday that she and her friends read the Twilight series in fifth grade. This was their first exposure to narrative fiction that both adults and young adults enjoy reading. In Europe, on the other hand, the curriculum places emphasis (from a very young age) upon the literary canon. I remember being exposed to Tolstoy, Baudelaire and Flaubert early on, as opposed to reading either in school or for school the latest popular novels. While American students do sample the literary canon as well, that usually starts later–in high school–and even then, they’re exposed mostly to the Anglo-American tradition. But, unlike most European students, they discover the pleasure of reading by delving into popular contemporary fiction right away. This sticks with them and most likely shapes their literary taste later in life as well.

All this to say that I suspect that our obsession with vampires in the U.S. is not a fluke. There are real reasons why vampire thrillers became so popular here and why they’re probably not going to disappear from sight anytime soon. Having experienced evil first hand, however, I prefer to depict it as it is: all-too-human even in its worst inhumanity. When I was a little girl and complained to my parents about being afraid of monsters in my room, they told me that the only thing I should fear is evil human beings. Monsters, like vampires, don’t exist and can’t harm us. But it seems that some human beings are capable of immense evil, limited only by the worst of their desires and imaginations. It’s this real, human, evil that I wrote about, both in my novel about totalitarian Romania, Velvet Totalitarianism (2009) and in my second novel, The Seducer, about a sociopathic predator. Sometimes, the monsters we imagine in fiction pale by comparison to the evil created by the monsters in our lives.

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon

http://www.amazon.com/Velvet-Totalitarianism-Post-Stalinist-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/076184693X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1323439558&sr=1-1


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