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The Book Thief: Holocaust Literature as Best Seller

Thebookthiefcover

The Book Thief (New York: Albert A. Knopf, 2007), a novel by Australian writer Markus Zusak, accomplished a rare feat for Holocaust literature: the novel won numerous literary awards and became a long-standing international best seller, including being on the New York Times best seller list for a record of 230 weeks. What’s even more surprising about the novel’s success is not only its somber theme, but also the fact it’s a work of literary fiction (as opposed to genre fiction), a style of writing that rarely becomes a mainstream hit. Although the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is not cut-and-dry—for instance, Elizabeth Kostova’s novel, The Historian, fits both genres–I’d say that genre fiction places emphasis upon a fast-moving, interesting plot, while literary fiction privileges psychologically nuanced characterizations and a unique narrative style.  Death characterized the Holocaust, and Death is the real narrator of the novel, which begins with the heroine’s end: Liesel Meminger’s death, many years after WWII, after she’s lived a full life and had children and grandchildren of her own. As Death carries the elderly woman’s soul to the other side, it also takes and narrates her childhood diary.

In the late 1930’s and early 40’s, Liesel is a young adopted girl living in Germany. She has her first encounter with Death when her brother, Werner Meminger, who is also given up for adoption along with her, dies on the train to Molching. He’s buried by the railway station. That day, Liesel’s obsession with books—and death–begins. She picks up The Grave Digger’s Handbook, a book dropped by the funeral director at her brother’s funeral. Shortly thereafter, the distraught girl joins what might be seen as a typical German family, with whom she bonds quickly. Liesel’s adoptive father, Hans Hubermann, is a loyal German, who served during WWI, but is not sympathetic to the Nazi regime. Despite his reservations, Hans is enlisted in the German army during WWII. Artistic and sensitive—a painter and accordion player–Hans probably characterizes the attitude of a vast majority of Germans who were not anti-Semitic yet were forced to participate in the Nazi regime. His wife, Rosa, is a no-nonsense woman with a sharp tongue and a loving heart. She washes people’s clothes to supplement their income but gradually, one by one, her customers fire her.

Liesel also meets Max Vandenburg, a Jew hidden by the Hubermann family from the Nazis, whose father fought during WWI alongside Hans Hubermann. Liesel befriends him. When Hans becomes ill, she reads to him. He eventually recovers, in part, the novel suggests, because of the power of friendship transmitted through the act of reading. Liesel and her family have a close call with the Gestapo, as soldiers search their house to see if they can use their basement as a shelter. Fortunately, they deem it too shallow and they leave.
In all respects, Liesel blends in with her adoptive family. Their hardships and struggles become hers as well. She becomes especially close friends with Rudy Steiner, a blond “Aryan” boy a few months older than her, who develops a crush on her. Although the girl refuses to kiss him, together they embark on many adventures, which bond them to one another. Together, they become book thieves when the Mayor and his wife also fire Rosa. Their love of books and of the forbidden, representing a kind of protest against the Nazi regime and against injustice in life in general, binds the two children even more. e murders perpetrated by the Nazis, but it is not sympathetic to them. Rather, Zusak depicts Death as a kind of Humanist, philosophical character: humane and disapproving of senseless violence, hatred and destruction. In parts, Death touches upon the comic and the absurd, needing “a vacation” from its job during the war.
I think the strength of this novel lies in its complex characterizations: the German characters in particular are nuanced and multifaceted, not stereotyped in any way. They too struggle with the evils perpetrated by the Nazi regime and try to help victims, as much as they can. In the end, however, they too become victims of Hitler’s war, as Rosa, Hans and Rudy all die when the Hubermann house is bombed. Rudy doesn’t even get to experience Liesel’s first kiss, dying seconds before she finally declares her love for him and kisses him. Only Liesel survives and gets the chance to have a full life.
If I were to identify any weakness in the novel it would be in the narrative style. Since style functions as a kind of author’s unique fingerprint in literary fiction, it’s largely dependent upon each reader’s subjective taste. The choppy, short sentences and disjointed, subjective structure of the novel weren’t to my personal taste, particularly since I usually look for a dense, sweeping and well-informed description of lived history in Holocaust literature. This novel, however, is impressionistic in both style and structure. But these stylistic features also made The Book Thief popular with readers of all ages, particularly with young readers, who could identify with the characters and appreciate its accessible form. Due to its literary success, The Book Thief was recently made into a movie directed by Brian Percival, released in November 2013. The movie, however, unlike the book, received mixed reviews.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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The Holocaust in more personal terms

 

photo by Magdalena Berny

photo by Magdalena Berny

For every book I write, be it fiction or nonfiction, there is a personal motivation as well as what I’d call a more “universal” element. I have to feel a strong personal connection to the subject of the book, since, after all, I’ll be studying that subject and writing about it for several years. At the same time, I have to believe that it’s a subject that has some historical weight to it, so that it can interest others as well. This was the dual motivation behind writing my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, 2009), translated into Romanian as Intre Doua Lumi (Editura Curtea Veche, 2011). This novel draws upon, in part, my family’s story. But it represents, above all, a slice of life about communist Romania during the dismal last years of the Ceausescu regime.

Right now, I’m working on two books about the Holocaust. The first one, called Holocaust Memory, will be a collection of book reviews of some of the most significant and resonant memoirs, histories and novels about the Holocaust that I can find written (or translated) in English. The subject, I believe, is universal. Although the history of the Holocaust concerns most the Jewish people, this topic is also about social psychology, WWII, and the history of Europe, the Soviet Union, Japan and the U.S. during one of the most trying moments of our collective past. As usual, however, there is also a personal component to my interest in this topic: I’m still haunted by some of the stories my Jewish grandparents told me about the Holocaust when I was a child.

In a fragment of Velvet Totalitarianism which I’d like to share with you below, I pieced together some of the life stories culled, here and there, from conversations with my Jewish grandparents about their experiences during WWII. This is by no means a history of the Holocaust in Romania. It offers a tiny kaleidoscope of family stories filtered by memory which, I hoped as I was writing my novel about communism years ago, I would one day have the know-how and the courage to explore in greater depth.

 

Chapter 10

[…]

“Grandma, what’s a pogrom?” Irina asked.

“You’re too young to learn about these terrible things,” Grandma Sara replied.

“Please tell me. I’ll do my best to understand,” the girl pleaded.

“I know you will. But these are adult subjects. They’re too sad for kids.”

“I’m not a kid any more. I’m already eleven!” Irina objected.

“You’re not a little kid, but you’re still a kid,” the grandmother stroked Irina’s hair.

“But, Grandma, since this happened to our own family…I have the right to know,” Irina insisted with the stubbornness of a child.

Grandma Sara gave in and told Irina, as far as she could recall, an abbreviated version of her family history. “What do you want me to say? We went from a rock to a hard place, as they say. My family’s originally from the Ukraine, a country next to Romania that was part of the Russian empire. Ironically, the reason we came to Romania is because we were running away from the pogroms there.”

“You still haven’t told me what that word means,” Irina reminded her.

“That’s what I’m about to explain,” the grandmother answered. “Long ago, Jews weren’t allowed in Russia itself; they had to live only in this area called the Pale of Settlement, which was part in Poland, part in the Ukraine. Like I said, our family lived in the Ukrainian part. And from time to time, when the tsar or hordes from neighboring villages were looking for someone to blame for their problems, they attacked Jewish villages, stole property, and killed tens of thousands of innocent people.”

“Even children?” Irina wanted to know.

“Yes. Women and children also.”

“But how can people be so mean?” Irina’s pupils expanded.

“The more downtrodden you are, the more you’re mistreated,” was all Grandma Sara could say.

By reading histories of the Holocaust, Irina later learned the details that her grandmother wouldn’t tell her, or didn’t know, or perhaps wanted to forget. Some Jews were shot in mass, but most lost their lives in “death trains” and concentration camps in Transnistria. Thousands of human beings were packed together like cattle in closed, windowless train compartments. Left for days on end without fresh air, water, food or latrines, they died of suffocation, dehydration or illnesses as the train wondered aimlessly around the countryside. Well, not aimlessly. Because by the end of its journey, the objective had been reached. All of its passengers were dead.

“Your grandfather was one of them,” Grandma Sara once told her.

“How did he manage to escape?” Irina asked with a shudder.

Her grandmother shook her head, as if the answer was beyond her grasp: some kind of miracle. “With God’s help, somehow, he jumped from the moving train. He still limps to this day. But at least he’s alive.”

Eventually, many Romanian Jews found their way to what later became the state of Israel, including all of her grandparents’ surviving siblings. In fact, Irina found out from her grandmother, her grandparents were the only ones who didn’t leave the country.

“Why did you and Zeida decide to stay behind?” Irina wondered. “Why didn’t you move to Israel like the rest of the family?”

Her grandmother shrugged: “Romania’s the only place we know. We were born here and so were our parents. This is our country, the only place we called home.”

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under book review, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, fiction, Holocaust Memory, literary criticism, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, the Holocaust, the Holocaust in Romania, Velvet Totalitarianism

The boy in the striped pajamas: An instructive fable

The-Boy-In-The-Striped-Pyjamas-fanpop.com

The boy in the striped pajamas, the controversial 2006 novel by the Irish author John Boyne, is described in its subtitle as “a fable”. By its own admission, therefore, this novel doesn’t propose to offer a realistic historical account of the Holocaust. A fable, by definition, uses make-believe characters and circumstances to illustrate a simple moral lesson. This novel is very short: only 216 pages. The author stated that he wrote it in one swoop, in two and a half days. Written simply, almost naively, from the perspective of a German nine-year-old boy whose father is in charge of the Auschwitz concentration camp, this novel is commonly taught, along with The Diary of Anne Frank, in U.S. middle schools and high schools as an introduction to the Holocaust.

The boy in the striped pajamas (New York: Random House, 2006) fared well worldwide, selling over 5 million copies and becoming a bestseller in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Spain and Australia.  The novel achieved such popularity that it was subsequently made into a film in 2008 (with the same title), directed by Mark Herman, starring Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Amber Beattie and Ruper Friend. Although widely acclaimed, The boy in the striped pajamas has also been criticized. Rabbi Benjamin Blech indignantly called it “not just a lie and not just a fairytale, but a profanation.” He’s not alone in arguing that the novel offers readers a completely false and misleading impression of what life in concentration camps was like.

The boy in the striped pajamas is, admittedly, very unrealistic. It describes the encounter between Bruno, the privileged nine-year-old son of a prominent Nazi party leader, and Shmuel, the downtrodden young prisoner in Auschwitz who has the same birthday and age as Bruno. The two meet nearly every day and talk for hours, for about a year, across the fence of the concentration camp. Even one such encounter would have been highly improbable. A meeting between a prisoner and the Nazi officer’s son lasting hours, day after day, would have been impossible, needless to say. The fences at Auschwitz were highly monitored by guards with weapons, by attack dogs, and by an electric fence. Moreover, Jewish prisoners observed a very strict regimen, which involved slave labor, roll calls that would take hours and forced marches that were sheer torture. Generally, children under the age of 15 were immediately selected for extermination as soon as they arrived at Auschwitz.  So no Jewish nine-year-old could have been absent for hours a day to chat amicably with a German boy, much less the son of a prominent Nazi officer. Moreover, if even one conversation could have taken place, presumably it would have quickly dispelled Bruno’s ignorance and naiveté about how Jewish children and their parents were treated at Auschwitz. The German boy would have ceased to wonder, for a year, why Shmuel was so thin and why he was always so hungry.

However, in assessing the merits of this novel, we need to keep in mind that The boy in the striped pajamas is not presented as either fact or historical fiction. It’s a fable with a moral. The main literary technique it uses in adopting the more or less innocent, if privileged, perspective of Bruno, is what the Russian formalist critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, called “ostranenie” or “defamiliarization”. Bruno’s innocent perspective exposes the assumptions of the grownups he deals with: his father, the Nazi leader; his mother, who is rather apolitical but nonetheless a beneficiary of her class and of the Nazi system; the servants who are afraid to speak their minds; and even his older sister, twelve-year old Gretel, who has already begun to accept the anti-Semitism and prejudices of the adults around her. Only Bruno can’t understand why his new friend, Shmuel, is skeletal; why he must wear every day striped pajamas; why the Jews are mistreated in this fashion; and why he, himself, has to live isolated from his peers in a big house near Auschwitz. Though not unintelligent, and more critical and curious than the adults around him, Bruno acts younger than his years. His childlike innocence fits more closely with the perspective of a six or seven year old—if not younger–boy.

As historical fact, the novel can be regarded as a failure. As fable, however, The boy in the striped pajamas delivers a worthwhile message. It shows that the mistreatment and prejudice against any group of people is wrong and unnatural. But the technique of defamiliarization in the novel goes deeper than this obvious moral lesson. It shows how even loving parents can corrupt the young into believing others—other religions, ethnicities or races—are subhuman and inferior to them. It reveals the social process, which begins at home, that normalizes class and racial hierarchies as well as prejudice, violence and hatred against the Jews (or any other social group). These perspectives are so counterintuitive to Bruno that willingly steps into Shmuel’s shoes—or, in this case, leaves his behind–in order to help his friend find his lost father in the concentration camp. You can imagine where such a venture leads.

Though far removed from the stark realism of Holocaust memoirs as well as from the objectivity of well-documented histories, The boy in the striped pajamas is nevertheless a successful thought-experiment. This fable invites readers to imagine what it must feel like to learn prejudice and racism from a very young age in a culture that artificially, and immorally, divides people in terms of the binary categories of human and subhuman.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Review of The Archivist’s Story by Travis Holland

archivists_story

If you’re intrigued by the history of totalitarianism, particularly as played out during the Stalinist period in the U.S.S.R., then you have probably read Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Natalia Ginsburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind. Suffering on such a massive scale is difficult to imagine, much less describe for readers who have not lived through these horrific events. If anything, the graphic representation of violence in our daily lives-on T.V., the internet, video games, etc-have desensitized us to human suffering. While novels and memoirs written by those who experienced the Stalinist purges reveal the horrors they and their loved ones endured, more recent representations of life during communism seem to shy away from depicting overt violence. I’m thinking of the popular German movie The Lives of Others, which chose to focus on the periphery, in an incredibly effective representation of character transformation and political voyeurism.

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“I have only one request: that I be allowed to complete my last work…” – Isaac Babel

Written in this tradition, Travis Holland’s impressive debut novel, The Archivist’s Story, attunes readers to the nuances of living under communist regimes: the constant fear; the ever-present threat of violence; the relentless surveillance; the pressure to succumb to the totalitarian machine. Instead of focusing on the key players (Stalin and his cronies) or on the violent horrors of the Gulags and prisons, Holland reveals the drama of the center stage by depicting the periphery. The story is told by Pavel Dubrov, a Lubyanka prison archivist whose job is to destroy “deviationist” literature. In a file, he discovers a story that he believes is written by Isaac Babel, who is himself imprisoned. Because he admires Babel and his work, the archivist performs an act that speaks to his courage: he saves one of Babel’s documents. It’s true that Pavel doesn’t have much to lose at this point: his wife was killed in a train accident; his mother is dying of brain cancer. The archivist’s life revolves around his sordid duties at the Lubyanka. Refusing to burn a document may not seem like much. But one must remember that, during the Stalinist period, even looking at someone the wrong way or not applauding loudly enough after a communist speech could mean a death sentence. Saving a document that not only went against the party line, but also countered the very spirit of dogma reigning over the U.S.S.R., constituted a heroic gesture. Through the elegance of his prose, the strength of his characterizations and the engaging pace of his narration, Holland allows readers to step into the nightmarish reality of Stalinist Russia and appreciate its impact upon ordinary lives.

Claudia Moscovici, Notablewriters.com

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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.

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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

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.

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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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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:

https://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.

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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.

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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:

https://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!

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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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Filed under Balzac La Comedie humaine, book review, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, creative writing, fiction, Flaubert Madame Bovary, how do writers write, how writers write, How writers write fiction: Marching to the beat of your own drum, Intre Doua Lumi Claudia Moscovici, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Nabokov Lolita, Razvan Petrescu, Rubato by Razvan Petrescu, The Seducer by Claudia Moscovici, The Seducer: A Novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, why do writers write