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Chance by Razvan Petrescu

Rubato, by Razvan Petrescu

Rubato, by Razvan Petrescu

Chance, by Razvan Petrescu

translated from Romanian by Claudia Moscovici

The hollow noise of the spades got lost in the sound of the rain. The three

men worked without verve, quietly, sloshing through the mud. The ditch deepened

and they disappeared, little by little, in its midst. From the street one could

only see the flaps of their hats, soaked by the rain. Shovelfuls of black earth

were constantly hoisted in the air, deepening the hole in the ground. The smaller

bits of earth would roll unto the asphalt. After awhile, the conductor appeared.

From adistance it resembled the stomach of an enormous fish, buried there since

God knows when. The crack could be seen clearly, stretching for approximately

half a meter. What a hole… Go see if we have what we need, in the car. Don’t

forget the bolts. Laur hoisted himself out of the hole and started walking

to the truck. The windshield was shinny, covered by round raindrops. He opened

the trunk and started looking through the tool box. After a few  seconds, he

checked his watch. Boys, it’s time that we grab something to eat. It’s ten after

three. The other two raised their heads. What time did you say? Three? Well I’ll

be darned, we were so busy we lost track of time… Then leave all that and

let’s get the lunch bags. They’re under the bench. Laur leaned down, felt them,

smelled them, his mouth started watering. He returned with the lunch bags

underarm and sat down on the rim. Did you bring the bottle? Of course! Here it

is. He sniffed it. Sighed. What stupid drizzle. It’s okay, it will stop.

Begonie rubs his numb hands. After a few minutes, the rain stopped. Their wet

windbreakers were stuck to their backs. With impatient gestures they opened the

newspapers in which their food was wrapped. The noise of wet, torn paper.

Cracked and dirty fingers, avid, grabbing. Where’s the onion? Aha! It’s damn

spicy! Be quiet and take some cheese. It soothes your heart, doesn’t it? The food

disappeared fast, leaving greasy traces in their beards. Little long stains that

shone dimly. Come on man, hurry up. Trandafir removed the bottlecap with his

teeth, took a gulp and handed the bottle to the others. Their veiny necks moved

up and down, like pistons. Now it’s raining on the inside, even harder, Begonie

laughed. Cheers! From time to time a car would pass by fast by the three men

perched on the little mound of earth. They stared blankly ahead and chewed their

food. Wrinkled, jaundiced faces, stained around the mouth. The sky was purple.

It had darkened gradually, like the cheek of a giant dead man. Goddamned life!

Trandafir swore looking up. Who the heck wants to work in this kind of weather?

The team with similar names; men with the names of flowers. This lucky bouquet

that smells like… Listen, forget the poetry and tell me where you put

the hammer. Because I don’t see it. It’s there in the ditch. Don’t worry, nobody

will steal it. You’d better take a swig too. That’s right. Thin vapors emerge

from their clothes, their lips, the earth. Tell me, will we finish it in two

hours? Begonie glanced for a few moments at his muddy shoes, sighed, then let

wind loudly. Eh, we finish or not, today? I don’t know, Laur, my man, since

even my mother-in-law doesn’t have a crack like this. But we may get to the

bottom of it, before the evening. The wind started to blow. The greasy papers

slowly floated around the leftover bread, cheese, bacon and onion rimes. Is the

flask empty? There’s a bit more, here! Trandafir threw his head back and gulped,

noisily, the last drop of vodka. He smacked his lips, pleased. It’s good! Now

all that’s missing is a whore, to… On this wetness, that’s all you need! A wet

whore. To screw her holding an umbrella over your head… You could hear a growl

and a giggle. Wait a minute. I want to tell you something. You boys, with your

worries. Yes, boss, yes. Laur, hit him over the head with something. Good. And

what I wanted to tell you, is that she had an ass like you’ve never seen in your

sorry  life. Why sorry? Because. You didn’t see it. A booty all the way to

here.Your pants fell down on their own when she moved it. She rumbled like a

heater. I don’t even remember  how I took my clothes off… Listen, didn’t she

faint when she smelled your stick? What, you think that she didn’t? Laur grinned

showing his teeth covered in the cheap material. What can I say, Trandafir, you’re right.

But since you were born you polluted the air. As if you smelled like lilacs. You

smell like a corpse, if you want the truth. I’m wasting my breath anyway. You’re

an expert on women like I am on foreign languages. They continued to fight for a

few more minutes, then they hit each other, then, after awhile, they fell

silent. They glanced at the solitary tree that was sketched on the corner of the

street. It grew thin, cutting a complicated line against the violet afternoon

sky. A heavy truck passed by very close  and splattered them with drops of mud.

Mother fucker! Hand me a cigarette! Laur removed a wrinkled package, half-wet.

He lit up a cigarette cupping his hand, then handed the pack to the others. They

smoked in silence, coughing from time to time and spitting phlegm. Man, it’s

damn cold. I’m frozen solid. That’s it, I’m splitting. Begonie got up, threw the

package and jumped out of the hole. He grabbed the shovel and stuck it deeply

under the pipe. There was a dry noise, followed by a rumble. Afterwards,

nothing. What are you doing there, Boss? Quiet. Wouldn’t you know it, this one

broke a bone.  Hey! Answer me, man, for once! Begonie raised his head over the

rim of the trench. He smiled from ear to ear. Trandafir and Laur looked at him

quizzingly. Why are you smiling? I heard something crack in there. What was it?

Begonie winked. Come down in here, I have to show you something pretty amazing.

The two of them jumped in without needing other explanations. Eh? What do you

say? Isn’t it wonderful? He lifted it up, twirling it on his finger. Laur and

Trandafir stared at the blackened skull, then burst into laughter. How did this

get here? Maybe it’s your grandmother. She escaped from the cemetery.  Watch out

that she doesn’t bite your finger. Let’s take it to the museum. Dead for the

canal. Maybe she’ll give us some vodka. Another burst of laughter and they got

out of the trench. They laughed with tears, grabbing their stomachs. The mud

blinked gently. After they were done, they wiped their cheeks with their sleeves

and quieted down abruptly, exhausted. Begonie pushed his hat back, scratched his

crotch and said between his teeth, “Boys, I’ve got to tell ya, I have to pee.

So, if nobody’s opposed… He grinned and set the cranium down. He urinated at

length until the liquid started reversing through the eye holes. The other two

watched without a sound, with an awkward smile. Begonie zipped up his pants.

That’s it, let’s get back to work, he said in a raspy voice. Or else we’ll be

here until night. They began to work again.  The sounds rose, spreading

rhythmically on the street. It was quiet in the neighborhood. People gathered in

living rooms, among kitchen utensils. Slippers, little shoes, coats and

umbrellas drying on the racks, few words. Here’s the soup. The sun rose slowly

behind the apartment buildings, golden, humid. Laur, leave that hammer alone,

for God’s sake. Do you hear me? Begonie straightened up, irritated. Where are

you? Hammer! he screamed at the top of his lungs. Trandafir also stopped

working; blew his nose with his fingers and glanced around. Raindrops fell to

the ground, trembled on tree branches, sparkling from time to time. Laur gently

lifted the skull and wiped it carefully. It was so light… Alas! In the palm of

his hands unknown words grew, racing faster and faster towards his temples.

Alas! “Poor Yorik. I knew him… He hath borne me on his back a thousand

times….” What the hell are you talking about? Are you nuts? “Those lips that I

have kissed I know not how oft…” Trandafir and Begonie exchanged glances. Man,

speak like a human being. What’s come over you? Laure, throw that thing away and

stop joking around! All of the sudden the sounds disappeared and he quieted

down. “WHERE BE YOUR GIBES NOW? YOUR GAMBOLS? YOUR SONGS?”

All of the sudden the  sounds disappeared and he quieted down.

With an awkward motion he put the skull  on the  ground and closed his eyes.

Maybe it’s the weather! He got up and wiped his face with his hand, with a tired gesture.

He felt the sweat drying on his temple. He spit to the side, then turned and looked at his comrades.

With the words stuck in their throats, Trandafir and Begonie remained motionless.

(short story from the volume "Rubato”, by Razvan Petrescu, Editura Curtea Veche, 2011) 
Republished on Literatura de Azi: http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/şansa#sthash.Skg9TqNA.dpuf
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Filed under Chance by Razvan Petrescu, contemporary fiction, Rubato by Razvan Petrescu, Rubato Curtea Veche Publishing, Rubato Editura Curtea Veche, Sansa, Sansa de Razvan Petrescu

How writers write fiction: Marching to the beat of your own drum

Seducer Cover

How writers write fiction: Marching to the beat of your own drum

by Claudia Moscovici

In an earlier article, entitled Why writers write, I explored some of the reasons why writers write fiction by looking into common misconceptions. I argued, for instance, that most writers don’t write in order to achieve fame or fortune, both of which are cosmically unlikely and therefore equally unlikely to last as primary motivations for writers past a very young (and naïve) age:

https://literaturesalon.wordpress.com/2012/09/12/why-writers-write-common-myths-about-being-a-writer/

Now I’d like to explore the process of writing (and misconceptions about it as well), by relying on my own experience as a novelist as well as by using as examples a few of my favorite fiction writers. Basically, I believe that there’s no rule, regimen or standard way of writing fiction: not only in terms of content and style (the diversity of fiction speaks for itself and renders this point quite obvious), but also in terms of the writing process itself.

The diversity in styles and approaches to fiction writing makes the job of those who teach Creative Writing un-enviably difficult. I’ve often read interviews with fiction writers and advice given writers offered by Creative Writing seminars, courses and websites that indicate certain standard procedures of writing fiction. Those usually include making a plot outline; writing a scheme for the structure of the short story or novel; disciplining and pacing yourself as a creative writer in specific ways. Some teachers, writers and courses even suggest that fiction writers need to isolate themselves from social media, email and other external “distractions” in order to concentrate better on writing fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I think such advice can be very helpful to many writers. Yet, at the same time, I still maintain that the creative writing process is as individual as writing styles. Each writer writes at his or her own pace and requires specific conditions.

Anna Karenina

There’s no doubt that all fiction writers need some uninterrupted periods of time to write fiction and a good place to do it, or A Room of One’s Own (1929), to allude to Virginia Woolf’s famous essay.  The reason for this is quite obvious: fiction writing requires stepping into imaginary situations and entering the minds of imagined characters. This delicate creative process would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in short spurts of time or with constant interruptions. Speaking from personal experience, this is part of the reason why my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism (2009), which I wrote when I was an academic teaching philosophy and literature and a young mom of two small kids, took me ten years to write. Once my children became older and more independent and (especially) once I became a full-time writer and art critic, I had the right conditions to finish The Seducer (2011), my second novel, in only three years. But I wouldn’t take this common denominator of fiction writers—needing some uninterrupted chunks of time, a space to write and periods of peace and quiet—to an extreme, to suggest that fiction writers need to isolate themselves from social media or external input in order to write fiction. There’s a delicate balance between needing external input and isolating oneself to write fiction (or to create art, a similar creative process). Nobody can dictate to any writer or artist what that balance is because it’s as individual as the personality of each writer and his or her writing style.

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In fact, probably many creative writers and artists find themselves in the position that Pablo Picasso describes to his  partner, Françoise Gilot: namely, that of needing external stimulation and contact with others as a rich source of inspiration for art, yet also, because of that, not having enough time to focus on each work of art. As Gilot recalls in her autobiography, Life with Picasso:

“Sometimes Pablo would begin a canvas in the morning and in the evening he would say, ‘Oh, well, it’s done, I suppose. What I had to say plastically is there, but it came almost too quickly. If I leave it like that, with only the appearance of having what I wanted to put into it, it doesn’t satisfy me. But I’m interrupted continually every day and I’m hardly ever in a position to push my thought right up to its last implication.’ […] I asked him why he didn’t shut out the world, and with it the interruptions. ‘But I can’t,’ he said. ‘What I create in painting is what comes from my interior world. But at the same time I need the contacts and exchanges I have with others.’” (Life with Picasso, Françoise Gilot, Anchor Books, New York, 1989, p. 123)

Cover of Velvet Totalitarianism

In our times, this balance between external contacts and inspiration and the solitude necessary to perfect any art form is probably even more difficult to reach because we live in an era of inundation from social media on a daily basis. Nowadays, fiction writers and artists rely upon the social media—Facebook, blogs, interviews with journalists–not only to speak about their art and share with readers (or viewers) what they’ve already produced, but also to find new sources of inspiration. For some fiction writers–particularly those who write historical fiction, true crime novels and psychological–  research and external input may be indispensable. Once again speaking from my own experience, when I wrote the historical novel Velvet Totalitarianism (Intre Doua Lumi), I had to read literally dozens of books on the history of Romania and about Romanian communism in order to be able to draw a historically accurate fictional depiction of that era. I couldn’t rely simply on inspiration or on fading childhood memories, since I had left the country at a relatively young age and wanted my novel to be partly based on actual facts, not only about invented characters and situations. When I wrote my second novel, The Seducer, on the subject of psychopathic seduction, I became even more dependent on external sources of information. I relied especially on blogs, since at the time there were relatively few books published on the subject of psychopaths and other social predators. Most of the information on the subject, particularly testimonials by victims which were extremely helpful, could be found on blogs such as lovefraud.com, which I read with great interest as background for writing fiction about a psychopathic seducer.

I believe that how you write—the process of fiction writing itself, starting from the space you right in; how fast or slow you pace yourself; the conditions and interruptions you choose or that are imposed upon you—does NOT determine the QUALITY of your fiction. But these conditions, and the balance you find as a fiction writer between isolation and external input—has a significant impact upon the QUANTITY and even the style of your fiction.  The best advice I can offer any fiction writer is to find his or her own balance that works for them rather than rely upon generic advice. I guess that’s a paradoxical way of saying the best advice I have is not to follow any general advice and choose instead what works for your situation, personality and style.  To support my case for the importance of marching to the beat of your own drum, I’d like to offer examples from some of my favorite writers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://literaturesalon.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/razvan-petrescus-rubato-the-coordinates-of-world-class-romanian-fiction/

This article has been translated and published in Romania on Editura Curtea Veche’s blog:

http://www.curteaveche.ro/blog/2013/01/15/rubato-de-razvan-petrescu-coordonatele-unei-proze-romanesti-de-clasa-mondiala/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=rubato-de-razvan-petrescu-coordonatele-unei-proze-romanesti-de-clasa-mondiala

To continue our discussion, I recently interviewed him about his books, his life and the writing process for a series of articles published in the Romanian magazine Scrisul Romanesc and the blog Agentia de Carte. To my mind,  Razvan Petrescu exemplifies the meaning of the English expression “marching to the beat of your own drum,” both as a person and as a writer (since the two aspects are, after all, intertwined). What struck me most about his interview, from which I’m translating only a few bits and pieces here, is the fact that his nonfiction (meaning his answers to my very traditional, journalistic questions) reads like some of the best fiction I have ever read. His first answer, to my very standard question “When did you begin writing fiction?” reminds me of lines from one of my favorite novels, Lolita (1955), by the man I consider the greatest American novelist, the Russian-born Vladimir Nabokov. In this beautiful and lyrical passage of the novel, the narrator, Humbert Humbert introduces Annabel, his first love and the precursor to Lolita: “All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other; hopelessly, I should add, because the frenzy of mutual possession might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and assimilating every particle of each others soul and flesh; but there we were, unable even to mate as slum children would have so easily found an opportunity to do” (Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, New York: Vintage International, 1997, p. 12).

Although Petrescu has a style of his own, of course, like Nabokov, he’s a master of style, whether he writes fiction or nonfiction. Speaking of which, if you believe that any course, author or teacher can draw a sharp distinction between fiction and nonfiction or tell any creative writer how to write, you may change your mind after reading parts of this humorous, honest, chaotic and–above all—unique and original interview with the writer and editor Razvan Petrescu. Enjoy the (non)fiction!

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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Razvan Petrescu’s Rubato: The Coordinates of World-Class Romanian Fiction

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Razvan Petrescu’s Rubato: The Coordinates of World-class Romanian Fiction

by Claudia Moscovici

Despite charting very unfamiliar territories in fiction, the writer Razvan Petrescu is quite familiar—and famous—in his native country, Romania. A versatile and award-winning author, Petrescu is an essayist, fiction writer and playwright. Among his numerous literary prizes, he won the award Book of the Year at the National Salon of Books in Cluj; a fiction award for The Farce (Farsa, Editura Unitext, 1994) from the Association of Writers in Bucharest (Asociatia Scriitorilor din Bucuresti); the award UNITER for the best play of the year, Spring at the Buffet (Primavara la buffet, Editura Expansion, 1995), and the Prose Prize given by Radio Romania Cultural. Some of his works have been translated into Hebrew, Spanish and will be soon translated into English as well.

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Traddutore Traditore

I have to admit, however, that I don’t envy the translators’ job, which I’m sure is very challenging. They say that poetry is the most difficult genre to translate, but in my opinion fiction that is unique in content and employs stylistically many dialects—such as the writing of Ion Luca Caragiale, Romain Gary and Razvan Petrescu–is the most difficult kind of literature to translate. And yet, that is usually also the most noteworthy and ingenious fiction. My main goal in this review is to convey the fact that Razvan Petrescu is a world-class author to an international audience, which may not be familiar with the Romanian language or with Romanian literature. How will I go about doing that? In mathematics or geography, you pinpoint a location, however remote or difficult to find, in terms of known coordinates. There’s no equivalent precise guide in the arts and humanities, however. The best I can do to offer such coordinates is to explain the relatively unfamiliar in terms of the relatively familiar: canonized authors that everyone knows; psychological fiction; universal themes and philosophical currents. The book I’ll be discussing here is Rubato (Curtea Veche Publishing, 2011), which is a collection of several of Razvan Petrescu’s prize-winning short fiction, published from 1989 to 2003. Rubato is like an album of the author’s best hits, if you will, but it is also far more than that: it’s world-class fiction, comparable, I believe, to the works of legendary writers like Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges.

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Unique, uncategorizable fiction

Most fiction writers can be integrated rather easily into a genre, a movement or a style: be it  realism, fantasy, horror, or magical realism. There are a few writers, however, who are so quirky in style and unique in content that they’re almost impossible to categorize in terms of any neat and familiar literary labels. Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges are two of my favorite authors among those. How do you attach a label to Kafka’s psychological realism of the subconscious and dream; to what do you compare Borges’ mathematical paradoxes translated into a puzzling fiction? I think Razvan Petrescu’s Rubato fits into this uncategorizable category of fiction. Which is why I believe that the best way to describe it to those who haven’t read it yet is in terms of equally innovative and quirky authors, such as Kafka and Borges. What Rubato shares with, for instance, Kafka’s The Castle (1926) is a psychological realism that goes far beyond—and beneath—the layers of our conscious reality.

photo Herb Ritts

photo Herb Ritts

The psychological realism of the subconscious

If Kafka’s The Castle (1926) or The Trial (1925) feel so real to us it’s not because they are actually realist in either content or style. It’s because these works focus so well on our unconscious fears—of powerlessness and alienation in a modern, bureaucratic society—that they bring them to the surface of our awareness. In reading the works of Kafka, we face our  misgivings and fears, confront them and even laugh at them, since they appear absurd. Yet we no longer minimize them and are unable to shove them back  under the rug, into the unconscious, to dismiss them. That’s why the works of Kafka remain so eerie and unsettling to us. Despite their sense of the absurd and humor, they’re as far removed as possible from superficial farce. The same phenomenon is at work when you read Razvan Petrescu’s Rubato. This slice of life tale depicts a psychiatrist’s “normal” day at work, which is full of abnormalities. 

photo Vadim Stein

photo Vadim Stein

All sorts of patients come in and out of his office, including a security officer/spy, a prostitute suffering from venereal diseases and a woman with psychopathic tendencies, who likes to torture and kill birds. Though they are all quite severely disturbed, the readers can’t help but laugh when reading their plights. The security officer has stinky feet and a very shallow conscience; the prostitute takes her clothes off and asks the psychiatrist to cure her venereal diseases; while the sadistic woman that likes to torture birds is beat at her own game (cruelty), as the psychiatrist admits to being more weird than her (and better at “befriending” and then killing birds as well). The name of the game for each of the characters is a complete detachment from the elements that render us human (empathy, caring, emotion, deep and meaningful connections to others). Despite this serious psychological deficiency, the tone of the narrative is so realistic in its style—the dialect and mannerisms of speech of each character constitute in themselves masterpieces of modern fiction—that the reader too becomes somewhat detached and laughs at them. Yet in laughing at them we also laugh at ourselves. Razvan Petrescu captures the most disturbing elements of the human condition through a series of hallucinatory characters, dialogues and diatribes that simultaneously appear absurd and  implausible yet also seem more real than our daily, conscious reality. How does he do that? Through what may be called “laughter through tears,” that authors like Ion Luca Caragiale, Anton Chekhov and Shalom Aleichem are best known for. 

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Laughter through tears: Neither satire nor irony

The kind of narrative that establishes layers of psychological distance among the narrator, characters and readers in literature is usually described as “satire” or “irony”. But like Anton Chekkov, Ion Luca Caragiale or Shalom Aleichem’s fiction, Rubato provides neither: or rather, it offers much more than that.  Irony and satire are rhetorical stances that assume a position of superiority towards the characters and their actions from the narrator and/or author and readers. Authors that rely heavily on irony often ridicule the characters’ weaknesses and follies. I see no evidence of any narrative sense of superiority or authorial arrogance in Rubato. When we laugh at its characters, we realize we’re also laughing at ourselves. Hence the sense of unease that accompanies Rubato’s keen and pervasive sense of humor, which brings to light our phobias, perverse desires, abnormality and insecurities.

Even more disturbingly, Rubato constantly reminds us of the fragility of human life and of our mortality. Scenes of death and decay pervade Razvan Petrescu’s fiction. No matter how theatrical and comical the depictions of illness and death may be, unlike the scenes we see on the daily news, they still touch and disturb us psychologically. With a sense of indulgence and even love for humanity—and placing himself on the same plane as his characters and readers–the author opens up, like a doctor, the worst of our human qualities and examines them closely, one by one. We greet this complex process with mixed emotions–laughter, horror, revulsion and indulgence–because in these narratives, like in a hallway of mirrors, we see reflections of our inner lives.

photo Herb Ritts

photo Herb Ritts

Love, misogyny and women

In a recent interview with Esquire Magazine (Romania), Razvan Petrescu described himself—tongue-in-cheek, of course–as a “misogynist womanizer.” I’ve never in my life met a misogynist who admits to hating yet needing women. Misogynists tend to hide their contempt for women under the pretext of loving them (a technique common for psychopathic seducers) or of respecting certain women (such as mothers or the “virtuous” few) and hating all the rest. There’s  no trace of such underlying misogyny in any of Petrescu’s works. What we find in Rubato, for instance, is a compelling depiction of fear of the object of desire. This fear is a far cry from Arthur Schopenhauer or Henry de Montherlant’s flagrant and self-righteous misogyny. Many gorgeous, sexy women populate Petrescu’s fiction. Their erotic power is attenuated by humor; their emotional appeal is neutralized by fear.

In the short story The Door (Usa), for instance, a mother and a daughter exchange worried whispers about their husband/father, who is dying on a hospital bed in an adjacent room. The doctor, about to go to a surgery and utterly indifferent to his patient’s plight, attempts to persuade the two women to take the moribund patient back home. There’s nothing he can do for him at the hospital anymore. Rather than worrying about the poor state of health of the patient, the two women debate in hushed voices the cost of transporting the ill man home. The patient overhears the whole conversation through a slightly cracked door. He expires, in a scene as vivid but more concise than Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886), knowing that he’s neither appreciated nor loved by his wife and his daughter.  Razvan Petrescu’s fictional world is filled with such uncaring women, indifferent doctors, loveless marriages and spoiled children. They show the following thought experiment in action: When cynicism is pushed as far as it can go, it becomes psychological realism.

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Cynicism versus nihilism

There’s no doubt that Razvan Petrescu’s fiction is pervaded by an underlying sense of cynicism. Not nihilism, but cynicism. Nihilism, or the questioning and negation of human ideals and values, may be great for philosophy—think Nietzsche—but it can be awfully boring and preachy when we encounter it in fiction. Who needs a dissertation on the meaninglessness of life and human values from some uppity character delivering lectures from up high, on a pedestal? Cynicism, on the other hand, tends to be a very welcome perspective in fiction. It avoids both the unforgivable naiveté of idealism and the arrogance of nihilism. Of course, in modern usage, cynicism has little to do with the original Greek Cynics, who believed that the purpose of life was to live a virtuous and modest life, deprived of unnecessary luxuries: in other words, a life in accordance to Nature. Perhaps modern Cynicism uses as its frame of reference only the most comical and extreme of the Cynics—Diogenes of Sinope—who rejected his society, begged to survive, and lived in a stone jar in the marketplace. Either way you look at it, cynicism offers a critical perspective of the human condition and of our societies with enough humor and sense of the absurd that even humanists can take it.  Written in a dramatic, hallucinatory and utterly engaging polyphony of dialects (and characterizations); confronting our deepest fears and flaws with a disarming honesty and contagious cynicism; probing psychologically the limits of our humanity and moral values, Razvan Petrescu’s Rubato is a masterpiece of world (not just Romanian) literature.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Filed under book review of Razvan Petrescu's Rubato, Borges, contemporary fiction, Curtea Veche Publishing Rubato, Cynicism, Kafka, Razvan Petrescu's Rubato: The Coordinates of World-Class Romanian Fiction, Shalom Aleichem, The Castle, The Trial