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The Holocaust in more personal terms

 

photo by Magdalena Berny

photo by Magdalena Berny

 

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

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

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.

balzac-la-comedie-humaine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rubato1

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

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

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!

razvan-petrescu-foto-attila-vizauer

Claudia Moscovici: When did you begin writing fiction?

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

CM: What inspires you to write fiction?

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

CM: Who are the writers that inspire you most?

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

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

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

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

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

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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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.

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

a)    Thank God for Cannes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

c) “Pronatalist” Policies in Communist Romania

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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My Interview about Velvet Totalitarianism and The Seducer in Celebrity Dialogue

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

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

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

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

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CelebrityDialogue: What exactly is psychopathic seduction?

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

Claudia Moscovici The Seducer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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