Tag Archives: historical fiction

Sophie’s Choice: Holocaust Literature as Psychological Fiction

Sophie's_Choice-dvdcover_s

Sophie’s Choice (New York: Vintage International, 1976) was a best seller in both of its incarnations: as the 1976 novel, written by William Styron, and as the 1982 film, directed by Alan J. Pakula. The movie starred Meryl Streep in her breakthrough role as Sophie. Streep’s performance won her the Academy Award for Best Actress. To Styron’s credit, Streep, as well as Pakula, had a great novel to work with. Written in a literary style filled with irony and highly sensual, lyrical passages reminiscent of Nabokov’s Lolita, Sophie’s Choice broaches somber themes: the Holocaust; the Nazi occupation of Poland (1949-1945); imprisonment in Auschwitz; tangled, pathological love affairs; post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia and, last but not least, the excruciating choice alluded to in the title.

During the war, Sophie Zawistowska is a well-educated young woman from an upper-middle class Polish family. She’s not Jewish. In fact, her father is a professor with Nazi sympathies famous in Poland for his anti-Semitic treatises; her mother is a mild-mannered musician. When her country is occupied by Nazi Germany, Sophie becomes involved, but only peripherally, with the Polish resistance. She rebels against her father’s patronizing and paternalistic attitude towards her and becomes critical of his anti-Semitic beliefs. Despite his Nazi loyalties, however, Sophie’s father is shot by the occupying German regime for being a Polish intellectual. Soon she loses her husband as well. All she has left is two children: a boy and a girl. Eventually the SS arrests her and sends her, along with her children, to Auschwitz once they discover that she is hiding meat—food rations illegal for Poles and reserved for the German occupiers—under her coat.

Sophie’s choice pertains, first of all, to the selection process—determining prolonged life or instant death–performed by Nazi doctors and SS officers that prisoners commonly underwent once they exited the cattle trains at Auschwitz. Which is to say, the title is ironic because Sophie is deprived of any real power of choice or desirable options. But a sadistic SS officer puts a cruel spin on the usual concentration camp selection process, in which a prisoner has no say. He spares Sophie’s life, despite being a mother of young children, only to make her make confront a fate worse than death: he forces her to choose which one of her kids will live and which one will die. Under the threat that both would be sent to the gas chambers if she doesn’t make up her mind on the spot, Sophie makes a choice that no parent should ever have to make: she chooses to save her son and dooms her daughter.

This choice forms the main theme of the movie, but, despite the book’s title, it’s not the crux of the novel. The novel focuses instead on the recurrent traumas that Sophie experiences, related not only to her difficult life in the concentration camp and the painful choice she had to make but also to her problematic relationship with her father: something that haunts her all her life. Time and time again, Sophie chooses the wrong kind of man.

In Auschwitz, through a combination of skill and luck, she manages to get work in the Kommandant’s mansion. She even has several furtive, one-on-one, meetings with the infamous Rudolf Höss. Depicting Sophie’s ambiguous relationship with Höss, and the manner in which the pretty blonde manages to gain his trust and persuade him to see her son, constitutes one of the most subtle and intriguing aspects of this psychological thriller. In real life, Höss was rumored to have had an affair with a Jewish inmate, which turns out to have been false. In this case, the novel comes closer to the actual truth. The historian Robert Jay Lifton documents that Höss had an affair with a Polish prisoner, Eleonore Hodys, whom he tried to murder when she became pregnant in order to avoid scandal (see The Nazi Doctors, 1986, Harper Collins Publishers, 201) In the novel, however, Sophie’s relationship with Höss could be described, at most, as an emotional affair. It’s really nothing more than a brief exchange of confidences that carried enormous risks under the circumstances. The Auschwitz Commander never fulfills his promise to Sophie to facilitate a meeting with her son. Like in real life, in Sophie’s Choice, Höss is dispatched to Berlin before he has the chance to intervene in Sophie’s life. In Auschwitz, there were rumors circulating that Höss was temporarily replaced with Arthur Liebehenschel because of his affair with a prisoner. This too probably has no foundation in reality. It’s more likely that Höss was transferred because of his implication in a scandal involving the arrest of the Auschwitz political leader Maximilian Grabner. As Robert Jay Lifton elaborates: “Grabner was implicated through an SS anticorruption investigation, originally aimed at profiteering, although it also charged him with murders beyond those authorized, notably of Polish prisoners. Grabner’s exit was supported by Dr. Wirths, with whom he had confrontations over killings. Although implicated in Grabner’s misdeeds, Höss was, in fact, promoted into the central concentration-camp administration” (The Nazi Doctors, 310). Whatever the reason for Rudolf Höss’s hasty transfer, in the novel, Sophie never even finds out if her son lives or died. But the trauma of being drawn to the wrong men repeats itself.

Years later, in Brooklyn, Sophie falls in love with her neighbor, Nathan Landau, a Jewish American man who makes up tall tales about his extraordinary life. She’s drawn to his energy, to his sexual hunger, to his romantic gifts and overtures, to his intensity and even to his lies. When the narrator, Stingo, a novelist and their neighbor, becomes both of their friend, the three of them embark on an exciting but ambiguous friendship fraught with jealousy and triangulation. Nathan’s torrid passion for Sophie gradually turns to abuse, as he insults and even beats her in recurring fits of jealous rage. As Nathan’s brother later reveals, the young man suffers from schizophrenia. Although it’s not certain that he’s a genius, as he claims, he’s clearly delusional, confusing his paranoid fantasies with reality and mistaking lust for love. Their pathological bond is doomed from the start, much like Sophie’s family life was during the Nazi occupation.

Sophie’s Choice is a marvelously narrated historical novel that succeeds, above all, as psychological fiction. Which is only fitting. For how can any novel about the Holocaust—a historical trauma of a depth beyond measure—capture the devastation of that period without delving into the personal trauma of its individual victims?

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

Advertisements

Comments Off on Sophie’s Choice: Holocaust Literature as Psychological Fiction

Filed under Claudia Moscovici, historical fiction, Holocaust Memory, Nazi occupation of Poland, Sophie's Choice, Sophie's Choice Alan J. Pakula, Sophie's Choice Meryl Streep, the Holocaust, William Styron

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

Comments Off on The Holocaust in more personal terms

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

Isaac Babel, the Great Terror and The Archivist’s Story by Travis Holland

 

Isaac Babel

Isaac Babel

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

The Stalinist purges assumed monstrous proportions with an opportunity: Sergei Kirov’s assassination. Eugenia Ginsburg begins her memoir about her arrest in 1937 and experience in labor camps, Journey into the Whirlwind (Mariner Books, 2002), by stating as much: “That year, 1937, really began on December 1, 1934,” the day when Kirov, the head of the Communist party organization in Leningrad, was murdered. This assassination, which some suspect was facilitated by the NKVD (the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), provided Stalin with the perfect pretext to launch “the Great Terror”. The Soviet leader started a witch hunt for traitors, Trotskyist conspirators, saboteurs, and “enemies of the people” that would culminate in the spectacular show trials, incarceration, torture, enslavement in labor camps and often death of leading cultural, military and political figures. Like Ginsburg herself, the notable short story writer Isaac Babel also fell prey to Stalin’s purges of the intelligentsia. Best known for his collections of short stories Red Cavalry and Tales of Odessa, Babel is considered to be one of the best Jewish Russian authors. Although he knew both Yiddish and Hebrew, Babel most admired the nineteenth-century French classics: particularly Guy de Maupassant and Gustave Flaubert’s works. He was arrested in May of 1939, tortured, then shot on the standard made-up charge of being a Trotskyite terrorist and spy, in January 1940.

Isaac Babel was well known both for his fiction and for his adventurous romantic life. In the 1930’s he made the mistake of becoming romantically involved with Nikolai Yezhov’s second wife, Yevgenia Feigenberg. She was a sensual and promiscuous woman notorious for her intrigues that ran a popular literary salon in Russia. Babel would pay for his transgression, as well as for his lack of enthusiasm for the communist regime, with his life. Yezhov himself, the head of NKVD from 1936-1938, was dubbed the “bloody dwarf”. Under his leadership of the secret police, Stalin began the Great Terror, staging show trials that relied upon forced confessions and purging millions of people from all strata of society. Leading cultural figures, particularly those known for independence of mind, were favorite targets of the regime. Having a liaison with Yezhov’s wife, however, put Babel in a particularly vulnerable position. The NKVD began closely monitoring the famous writer right up to his arrest on May 15, 1939, by which time Lavrenty Beria, Yezhov’s equally bloodthirsty successor, had taken over the secret police.
In a last, desperate note to Beria, Babel famously wrote: “I have only one request: that I be allowed to complete my last work…”

Archivist'sStory

It was not only Babel’s life that was threatened with extinction, but also his writing, which would be burned without a trace by the NKVD. The contemporary American writer Travis Holland masterfully captures Isaac Babel’s last days in prison in his critically acclaimed novel, The Archivist’s Story. This novel offers a window into the Great Terror. Without scenes of graphic violence, only through strong characterizations and vivid descriptions, The Archivist’s Story reveals the palpable fear and great strain weighing upon all human relationships during the Stalinist purges. Even the most intimate bonds–between mother and son or among friends and lovers–are threatened by suspicion, fear and forced denunciations. Incredibly, and to his credit, Holland is able to humanize even the employees of the NKVD. He reveals some of them not as Stalin’s heartless marionettes, but as complex human beings, with their own inner struggles and family bonds. Prisoners and prison guards, writers threatened with not only death but also extinction and archivists in charge of destroying their works, are all entrapped in the same totalitarian system where nobody is safe or free.

The novel follows the life of Pavel Dubrov, a former teacher in the prestigious Kirov Institute who was demoted to the position of Lubyanka prison archivist following a political scandal.  His new job is to classify and destroy “deviationist” literature. Risking his own safety, Pavel attempts to save some of Isaac Babel’s short stories from being obliterated by the NKVD. In a sense, the protagonist has little to lose. Although young, he’s already lost much of what made life meaningful. His beloved wife, Elena, died in a suspicious train accident. His best friend, Semyon Borisovich Sorokin, was demoted and wanted by the NKVD for criticizing a popular Soviet professor, a puppet of the regime.  His mother, to whom Pavel used to be very close, is diagnosed with a brain tumor and suffers, increasingly, from blackouts. He, himself, languishes in a position antithetical to his former profession and principles. As Pavel’s world crumbles around him, he continues to fight the regime in the only way he can. He tries to help those around him threatened with imprisonment to escape to safety and attempts to save some of Babel’s fiction as a record of literary value; as pages of living history.

Before the NKVD has the chance to arrest him, Pavel manages to stow away a few valuable things in the wall, hidden behind a brick: Babel’s short stories and an anonymous postcard from his mother telling him that she loves him. “If he can save Babel’s story, save some remnant of his work, perhaps he can redeem himself, if there is anything in him left to redeem. Perhaps it is not too late” (The Archivist’s Story, Bantam Bell Publishing Group, 2007, 159).  Although, like millions of others taken away by the NKVD during the Great Terror, Pavel has little chance of survival, he manages to salvage what matters to him most: his own humanity.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

Comments Off on Isaac Babel, the Great Terror and The Archivist’s Story by Travis Holland

Filed under book review, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, fiction, historical fiction, literary criticism, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, the Great Terror and The Archivist’s Story by Travis Holland

On Hitler’s Niece and writing historical fiction

 

Geli Raubal and Hitler

Geli Raubal and Hitler

On Hitler’s Niece and writing historical fiction

by Claudia Moscovici  

If you want to know about Hitler’s life, then read Ian Kershaw’s Hitler: A Biography (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010). If you want to find out as much as possible about the history of the Nazi movement and Hitler’s role in it, then read Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives by Alan Bullock (Knopf, 1992). But if you want to get a sense of who Hitler was a human being, I encourage you to read a very well written historical novel by Ron Hansen called Hitler’s Niece (Harper Collins, 1999).

Hansen traces Hitler’s abnormal psychology from the perspective of Angela Maria (“Geli”) Raubal (1908-1931), his half niece. Geli is intelligent, beautiful, full of joie de vivre and untouched by the political obsessions and anti-Semitic hatred of her uncle and his cronies.  She maintains an ironic distance from Hitler’s fanatical followers—Rudolf Hess, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, Alfred Rosenberg and others—who also appear in the novel. Compared to her, however, they’re wooden characters in a farce, much as they were in real life. These vain men are fawning and obsequious, hungry for power and always ready to not merely follow, but also anticipate Hitler’s orders and wishes.

By the author’s own admission, however, the novel doesn’t adhere strictly to historical facts. It is only inspired by them, particularly by Bullock’s book Hitler and Stalin, which Hansen states provoked his fascination with Geli Raubal. (Author’s Note, 307-308) The novel describes Geli’s life, from beginning to end; from birth to tragic death. We find out that her father died at the young age of 31, leaving her mother, Angela, to take care of three kids (Geli, Leo and Elfriede) with almost no source of income. After seeing that Geli, at seventeen, had bloomed into a lovely young woman, Hitler invited her to be his housekeeper and companion. Her mother gladly accepted this unorthodox arrangement, in the hopes of making possible a better lifestyle for their family.

Becoming Hitler’s companion, caretaker, maid and eventually his mistress, Geli catches a glimpse of the inner workings of the Nazi party and its key players’ rise to power. Above all, Hitler’s Niece shows us, up close and personal, how a psychopath capable of genocide “falls in love.” Even after her death, Hitler called Geli the love of his life. Neither Eva Braun, his doting life companion, nor any other woman could compete with his obsession with Geli.

GeliRaubal

Geli Raubal spent six years either living with Hitler or being in frequent contact with him. For a period of time, she lived in his Munich apartment while she studied medicine and took music lessons. She also accompanied him to the opera, cinema, and the many other social functions he attended. The plot of the novel hinges on their sexual tension and on Geli’s psychological trauma as she becomes, increasingly against her will, his sexual partner in a sordid, sadomasochistic relationship that sickens her and intoxicates him. The more she tries to escape, the more possessive, dependent and desperate he becomes. As the narrator states, “She was his escape, his torpor, his surrender to the vacillation and passivity that were increasingly part of his nature” (220).

Need and obsessive desire, however, don’t imply love. For love to exist, the lover has to be able to consider, empathize with and fulfill the beloved’s own needs, as a separate individual. Hitler can’t do that. He “loves” his niece like a man who is incapable of real love. His idea of flirtation is bragging incessantly about himself. His idea of “affection” is engaging in perverse and demeaning sexual rituals. His idea of respect for women gives way to a fundamental misogyny and traditionalism that require them to serve him. His idea of passion is possession and control of the object of his desire.

Hitler demands to know at all times where Geli is, what she is doing and with whom. He retains the freedom to see other mistresses—including Eva Braun—but keeps a tight leash on Geli, discouraging other suitors. Once Emil Maurice, Hitler’s good-looking Corsican chauffeur begins dating Geli, Hitler finds a pretext to dismiss him. “She is with me,” Hitler snarls when another man, Schirach, asks his permission to take out Geli on a date. (244)

Caught in the vortex of her uncle’s overpowering addiction to her, Geli cannot escape the misery that dominates her life. When she expresses her distress, her friends turn their back on her and even her mother would rather, essentially, prostitute her to “Uncle Alf,” “the patriarch” of the family, rather than face poverty again. At the end, Hitler’s Niece adds an interesting but largely speculative twist to the story. Although the official version is that Geli committed suicide in 1931, in the novel, Hitler, realizing that he can no longer master his niece, beats her, breaks her nose, and then shoots her. His entourage quickly covers up the murder and presents it to the police and the press as an act of suicide. This adds an intriguing element of mystery to the plot, turning Hitler’s Niece into a detective story. But the novel’s main strength remains the psychological aspects of the drama. Hansen helps us see that there is not much difference between Hitler the public man, who could order the murder of millions of innocent people, and Hitler the private lover who could destroy the object of his desire rather than risk losing her.

Given this novel’s many strengths, it’s surprising to me that Hitler’s Niece received some scathing reviews, particularly from The New York Times. In “Springtime for Hitler, in love with his niece,” Michiko Kakutani offers a lengthy plot summary and then dismisses the novel as a poor representation of history which takes away from the gruesome reality of Hitler’s “public crimes, crimes that tragically were not speculative imaginings of a novelist, crimes that have been consigned to the margins of this inept and voyeuristic novel” (NYT, September 7, 1999).

http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/09/05/daily/090799hansen-book-review.html

I completely disagree with Kakutani’s harsh assessment and standards of evaluation in this case. The role of historical fiction is not to convey history accurately or in great detail. That is what (nonfiction) history books do. In my opinion, the role of historical fiction is to do exactly what Hitler’s Niece does so well: namely, find inspiration in real historical events to imagine the mindset, emotions and desires of its key figures. Often only more marginal characters, such as Geli Raubal, or Hitler’s niece, can give us a three-dimensional picture of the monster whose acts have marred the pages of history.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

Comments Off on On Hitler’s Niece and writing historical fiction

Filed under book review, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, fiction, Geli Raubal, historical fiction, Hitler, Hitler's Niece, literary criticism, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, On Hitler’s Niece and writing historical fiction, Ron Hansen

Interview with BookMag about my novels Velvet Totalitarianism and The Seducer

The Seducer by Claudia Moscovici

Below is the interview with Virginia Costeschi, published in Romanian on BookMag, on the link below:

Virginia Costeschi: You are a complex writer; you have nonfiction books, a poem volume, and novels. You teach, you started the postromanticism movement. How do you manage this creative diversity?

Claudia Moscovici: If judged by scholarly standards of specialization, I’m seen as having wide-ranging  and diverse interests: in art, poetry, philosophy and literature, exactly as you state. My daughter, however, who plans to study chemistry in college, tells me my interests are very narrow. All of them fall under “arts and humanities” (as opposed to mathematics, science, or business for example, fields about which I know very little). I think both perspectives are correct. My daughter is right because the arts and humanities are separated only artificially. Art, history and literature have so much to do with one another and are actually very close. Yet it’s also true that the domains became very specialized during the 20th century, so my interests are diverse, from this perspective. Personally, I much prefer the Enlightenment model, of the philosophes and the salonnieres, where the various branches of arts and letters are seen as inseparable. Because in my eyes, they still are.

V.C.: What is postromanticism about and why did you initiate it?

C.M.: Postromanticism is, as we call it, “the art of passion.” It’s the aesthetic movement that values sensuality, beauty and passion in contemporary art, which I started in 2002 with the Mexican sculptor Leonardo Pereznieto. Since then, dozens of very well-regarded international artists have joined this art movement. We hope to bring it to my native Romania, when my book about it, Romanticism and Postromanticism, which has been translated by the writer and critic D. R. Popa, will be launched by Editura Curtea Veche. My main motivation for launching this art movement was a positive one. I wanted to highlight what I saw as very positive aesthetic values in contemporary art. However, I was also motivated by a critical spirit. I thought that art today that is inspired by the Romantic and Realist movements was systematically excluded from museums of contemporary art and insufficiently reviewed by reputable art critics. I wanted to put my training in philosophy (aesthetics) and art to use in correcting, as much as I could, this glaring omission.

V.C.: Which internal resorts determined you to choose literature and writing?

C.M.: My main motivation in becoming a writer was the fact that I adored reading literature. My favorites were the great nineteenth century French writers, such as Tolstoy and Flaubert. I also admired the marvels an immigrant writer—Nabokov—could do with the English language. I think their tradition of writing, more or less realist in style and with incredibly rich characterizations, continues today in writers of mainstream “literary fiction” such as Jeffrey Eugenides, Wally Lamb and Jonathan Franzen. I couldn’t resist the internal drive to turn my love of reading into a love of writing, particularly about the historical and psychological themes that obsess me most.

V.C.: Why did you write Velvet Totalitarianism?

C.M.: Jeffrey Eugenides wrote a comic epic about Greek immigrants in Middlesex. I wanted to write such an epic about Romania and Romanian immigrants in Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi. Communism was, of course, a very dark period in Romanian history. Yet even during this very difficult period people loved, laughed and smiled. I wanted to capture both the darkness and oppression and the lighter aspects of the communist era. Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi shows several facets of the totalitarian experience: the love of family and romantic entanglements; the secret police (Securitate), spying and political oppression, as well as the sometimes comical challenges of being an immigrant. Besides, comedy is not always lighter than tragedy. It can be, as it is for Caragiale or Shalom Aleichem, “laughter through tears.”

V.C.: How did you choose the characters in Velvet Totalitarianism?

C.M.: In a sense they chose me by being on my mind for a long time. Leaving my country and family was something we needed to do for political reasons. But it was very difficult emotionally. I loved my country and my family and was well-integrated with my friends and teachers at school. Fundamentally, I felt Romanian in upbringing and culture, which I still consider myself today despite the fact I have some difficulty speaking and writing the language.  When I left Romania at the age of 11, I told myself that even if I couldn’t see most of my family and my country—for who knows how many years–I would one day write about them. Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi represents my effort to preserve the past and keep it alive, through fiction, for both myself and others.

V.C.: Irina, the girl that leaves Romania for United States seems an alter ego of the author in Velvet Totalitarianism. Is it right?

C.M.: Yes, many aspects of Irina are autobiographical. However, many are not. To write about some of the historical and political aspects of Romanian communism, as well as the spy plot, I had to read a lot of books on the subject, and create fictional characters that brought those aspects to life. So a lot of Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi is based on real life, yet at the same time everything is altered and fictionalized, to fit harmoniously into the novel (as fiction).

V.C.: How was your meeting with a totally different society, customs, social rules, life style?

C.M.: It was a culture shock. Because I’m an emotional person and a nostalgic by nature, immigrating to the United States and leaving most of my family and all of my friends in Romania was very difficult. I also didn’t speak English, so I had to learn it very quickly if my goal was to get good grades and go to a good university (which I definitely wanted to). But ultimately my adaptation was a survival mode, and in a way, superficial. I still feel mostly Romanian culturally. If you look at my Facebook friends, about 90 percent or so are of Romanian origin. And even though I hadn’t seen my native country for 30 years, when I came for the launch of Intre Doua Lumi in the fall of 2011, I felt completely at home (only Bucharest was so much more modernized and beautiful, of course, than it was when I left the country). I think that human beings adapt to new cultures to survive and accomplish their goals in life. But it doesn’t change much who we really are, on the inside. Inside, I’m Romanian more so than American.

V.C.: Velvet Totalitarianism seems a very difficult book to write, I guess. You have alternate temporal planes, many characters (some of them very complex and profound), love stories, traitors, a dictatorship and a very vivid description of the communist Romania.

C.M.: Yes, you’re right, Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi was difficult to write for several reasons. First of all, I didn’t have enough time. It took me ten years to finally finish this novel because I was a full-time academic and a mom, which left me very little free time for writing fiction. Second, I had to integrate a lot of historical and political information about the Ceausescu era, the Securitate, the CIA, the Romanian orphanages and the revolution of 1989, but in a way that reads like fiction rather than like a political science or history textbook. The fictional characters couldn’t be illustrations or mouth-pieces of history, they had to come to life in their own right. The biggest challenge was tying the two parts of the plot—the spy thriller/love story between Radu and Ioana and the Irina and Paul love story—together. The novel includes two separate plot-lines in it. In  a movie, the director would probably need to choose one or the other. But in the novel they were tied together.

V.C.: The characters in the book have any correspondent in reality? Did you use real life stories to describe the so-called procedure of leaving the country, a dissident’s life or Romanian Security Service?

C.M. Almost every aspect of the novel is inspired either by my family’s experiences in communist Romania or by historical research. However, I fictionalized all of it. Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi  is not really historical fiction. It’s more a family epic, a love story, a thriller, all rolled into one novel.

V. C.: How did you see the last two decades of Romania? Before 1989, there was a cultural résistance, how does it look now?

C. M.: Some cultural resistance existed in Romania before 1989, but it was little compared to countries like Poland. I think the internal dissidents gained a lot of momentum from the other anti-communist revolutions which preceded the one in Romania. This doesn’t take anything away from their courage. The time was ripe, politically, for the revolution.

V.C.: You also have a prolific online activity. Please give us some details about all your blogs – Literaturesalon, Postromanticism, and Psychopathyawareness.

C.M.: Blogs offer one of the best and most immediate ways for an author to communicate with readers. If you want the communication to be both ways, you have a comments section. If that turns out to be too time-consuming, you just post articles. There’s so much flexibility in blogs. It’s also a system of writing which is very democratic, in that it isn’t based on what professional connections you have. Anyone can write and can build a readership based on the relevance and effectiveness of his or her writing. I love this democratic nature of blogging and the freedom it gives writers.

V. C.: How do you see the Romanian national book market?

C. M.: Although I’m Romanian culturally, I’m also Americanized. So I see the Romanian book market through American eyes. I love the fact that there are so many thriving book review blogs, such as BookMag. To me, that’s the direction of books, internationally. I love the fact the major Romanian publishers are also publishing ebooks, which is going to happen more and more, also internationally. I was very impressed by the fact that the publisher of Intre Doua Lumi, Editura Curtea Veche, was extremely progressive in terms of a multimedia campaign, with a book trailer by Claudiu Ciprian Popa and a music video trailer by Andy Platon. For the next book launch, of postromanticism, I’d love to integrate dance. Book launches, to my mind, should be celebrations: a form of artistic entertainment that doesn’t take away from intellectual content, but enhances it. On the negative side, I was disappointed to find out that The New York Review of Books left Romania after only a few years. Culture is international, no matter how much you respect the individuality and traditions of your own country. Reputable international collaborations, such as with Hachette Publishing Group, Conde Nast (and others) are very valuable in Romania. They’re a big asset to the country. Once lost, it’s more difficult to bring them back. I’d love to see more, rather than less, of such cultural collaborations: something like The Huffington Post Romania (as there already is Le Huffington Post in France) and Oprah’s Book Club in Romania. If there’s any way I can help make such cultural collaborations possible, you can count me in.

V.C.: Please tell us about The Seducer, your latest literary work and when it will be translated in Romania.

C.M.: The Seducer takes the structure and plot line of one of my favorite classic novels, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and makes it contemporary by changing Vronsky’s psychological profile to that of a psychopathic seducer: a social and sexual predator, in other words. I think in reality very often serial seducers are extremely dangerous men (usually men, but they can be female, as in the case of “black widows”). For such individuals seduction isn’t about love, or even about sex in itself. It’s a hunt; a game. The women they seduce, trap and hurt are their prey. Such dangerous seducers initially disguise themselves as madly in love; as caring, wonderful people. They wear “a mask of sanity,” as it’s called in psychology. Psychopaths are not insane, just calculated, cold and evil. They lack empathy and a conscience.  Research shows that this deficiency is mostly neurological, not based on their upbringing. What they want from their prey differs, but the common denominator is power. Psychopaths are driven by a desire to possess and control others: be it an entire nation as for Stalin, or a few women, as in my new novel, The Seducer. I just gave a copy of The Seducer to Editura Curtea Veche this week. I don’t know when or if it will be translated into Romanian, but hope that it will be, since I believe this theme will resonate a lot with Romanian readers. I don’t think there are many women who haven’t been burned by psychopaths at some point in their lives. Usually they don’t know what burned them, however. This novel will reveal aspects of their own lives in a classic literary structure, inspired by Tolstoy. This theme and novel are all the more relevant now that Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is being made into a movie, starring Keira Knightley.

V.C.: We have a national reading campaign, and we would like to have your message for Romanian students about reading, literature and their contribution to one’s success in life.

C.M.: I’d like to say to Romanian students that reading—literature and the arts in general—stimulates their imagination in a way that few other activities ever will. All of the media that entertains them–youtube, TV, movies, videogames—will never rival books in engaging their imagination. The more realist the media—such as movies—the less work our own minds do to process the information; to interpret it. In reading books we not only learn about the subjects they depict, we help create them. We imagine them with our mind’s eyes. In being readers, we are therefore also co-writers in some way. And that experience is unique, valuable and timeless, no matter how much the future of publishing will change.

Comments Off on Interview with BookMag about my novels Velvet Totalitarianism and The Seducer

Filed under Andy Platon, Andy Platon Velvet Love, book review, BookMag, Claudia Moscovici, Claudiu Ciprian Popa, contemporary fiction, Editura Curtea Veche, fiction, Interview with BookMag about my novels Velvet Totalitarianism and The Seducer, Intre Doua Lumi, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, The Seducer, The Seducer by Claudia Moscovici, The Seducer: A Novel, 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

Comments Off on Review of Radu Ulmeanu’s Chermeza Sinucigasilor

Filed under Acolada Pleiade, book review, Book Review of Radu Ulmeanu's Chermeza Sinucigasilor, Chermeza Sinucigasilor, Chermeza Sinucigasilor by Radu Ulmeanu, Claudia Moscovici, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, Editura Pleiade, fiction, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Radu Ulmeanu

Review of Saints, Winds and Other Happenings by D. R. Popa

Saints, Winds and Other Happenings by D. R. Popa

After the Soviet occupation of Romania and the establishment of communism, the Secret Police (an organization developed from the Securitate in 1948, a kind of Romanian NKVD), committed many attrocities against the Romanian people. To offer just one example among many, they began a whole-scale oppression of religious institutions and individuals, particularly those affiliated with the Greek Catholic church. Having instituted an atheist empire in Eastern Europe, Stalin couldn’t tolerate a religion deferent to the pope in Rome in a neighboring country.

However, religion couldn’t be stomped out completely in Romania. Greek Catholics were tortured and forced to convert to the Romanian Orthodox Church, an institution that was already controlled by the Romanian Workers’ Party and the Securitate. Those who refused to submit spent many years in the communist prison camps in Sighet, Gherla, Jilava. Many were forced into into slave labor, to construct the infamous Canal of Death, called so because thousands of people died in unspeakably harsh conditions.

Dumitru Radu Popa’s new novel, written in Romanian under the title Sfinti, Vinturi si Alte Intimplari (Saints, Winds and Other Happenings), narrates these historical events in a personalized fashion, from the perspective of a family caught in the unforgiving gusts of history. Of course, this is not a history textbook, but a work of fiction, embellished by the author’s rich imagination. Although the novel has elements of realism–including the dialogue, which reads as spoken and natural, and the poignant descriptions of human suffering–it also incorporates elements of magical realism.

In literature, magical realism is associated with 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 in their representations of reality. The critic Matthew Strecher defines magical realism as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.” In Marquez’s fiction, the depiction of everyday human lives takes on allegorical, and even mythic, proportions. Trespassing the boundaries between reality and imagination, magical realism taps into myth and fantasy to offer a deeper version of reality.

This is precisely the effect D.R. Popa achieves in his newest novel. The author states in our recent interview: “We’re not talking about a realist story, since I’m missing many historical elements which I was obliged to invent under the form of magical realism. So certain natural forces contribute to the plot, just as certain imaginary, symbolic characters give an epic dimension to the historical fiction.” (interview of December 17, 2011)

Hence, the twisted tale of Judge Anton Pasca (Uncle Toni), who pretends to be crazy to save himself and his family; the prolonged sufferings of the Catholic nuns Vianeea and Cornelia (based on the author’s aunt); the tragic death of Bubi (based on his uncle) and the illness and death of Professor Iosif Lewandowsky (inspired by his grandfather) all seem to be the products of a greater destiny, epitomized by symbolic charcters (such as the Nightman and Forrest Girl), not just names in the pages of a fragile human history that risks being forgotten or erased.

In the realist tradition, fiction is grounded in fact. In Dumitru Radu Popa’s magical realism, however, we see the opposite process at work. History is raised to a higher plane by a spell-binding tale that offers a passionate testimonial of survival through faith.

The author informs us that Romanian edition of Saints, Winds and Other Happenings (Sfinti, vanturi si alte intimplari) will be launched at the Libraria Bastilia (Piata Romana, Bucharest) on September 14, 2012 at 6:30 p.m. (http://www.curteaveche.ro/Sfinti_vanturi_si_alte_intamplari-3-1472). 

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


Comments Off on Review of Saints, Winds and Other Happenings by D. R. Popa

Filed under book review, Claudia Moscovici, D. R. Popa, Dumitru Radu Popa, Editura Curtea Veche, historical fiction, Love in the Time of Cholera, magical realism, Romanian fiction, Saints Winds and Other Happenings, vanturi si alte intimplari