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Spring 2012

Norman Manea at Seventy-Five

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Robert Boyers

For most of the writers we love and admire, it is possible to say something comprehensive. One reader says of Saul Bellow that “throughout his life” he searched “for some ultimate and invisible spiritual reality,” and we think, yes, that is true, that is one good way of conferring upon a life like Bellow’s a sort of splendid coherence. Or we agree that the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard sought, in everything he wrote, to “be misunderstood,” reviled, alienated, the better to exempt himself from the judgment he directed at a world he considered stupid and meaningless.

But what comprehensive statement will we dare to make about Norman Manea? For one thing, we who know his writing only in English translation, and thus have not read many of the titles included in the collected Romanian edition of his work, are somewhat reluctant to sum him up as if we were fully equipped to do so. And yet we have more than enough to proceed, to begin at least. Consulting what is already out there we find, inevitably, that the established line on this writer is at once useful and misleading. Ought we to think of him as a writer defined by the exercise of “conscience”? That is one of those misleading suggestions you can read even on the dust jackets of his books. Is he, in the end, one of the many gifted contributors to what is called “the literature of totalitarianism”? Or is he, as has been said, one of “the great poets of catastrophe” and thus fit to stand alongside predecessors like Kafka or Bruno Schulz, or even Paul Celan?

The trouble with such analogies and formulas and definitions is that they are tempting. They resolve or banish to irrelevance our uneasy sense that the writings of Norman Manea are in fact like nothing else we know, that he is by no means a Kafkan writer, that his temperament, however melancholic, has really very little in common with Celan’s, and that we lack the key to unlock the secrets buried deep within Manea’s best work. He has himself referred to the “coded” aspects of a novel like The Black Envelope, which—like some of his other work—was composed and revised with an eye on the Romanian censors. But the important secrets that absorb us as readers of his fiction have, in the end, rather little to do with the particulars of Romanian politics and history under Communism. This is not a writer who matters deeply because he has had the courage to take on the censors or to strike dissident postures. We can honor his refusal to bend to any party line or to betray the truth of his experience without regarding him as an essentially political writer. Though we find in him the sorrows of history and the burdens of consciousness in the face of lies, we are alert, everywhere in his work, to other kinds of burdens, to mysteries nearly impenetrable and by no means reducible to politics. What emerges in his work as code or symbol is always more than we can safely grasp.

How do we know that this is so? We turn, if only briefly, to the novella entitled “The Trenchcoat” included in the volume Compulsory Happiness, and we remind ourselves that the coat would seem to be the decisive element, the one sure thing that can focus our understanding. But then we ask, what exactly does the apparently symbolic trenchcoat tell us?, and we find that it confers upon the entire work an air of suspicion without resolving or unlocking a thing. Beautifully placed within the narrative, as if it were in fact decisive, it may well prove—so we feel—to point without pointing to anything in particular. One reader refers to the trenchcoat as “a sort of ‘floating signifier,’ an object that is almost certainly a sign,” though it may well signify nothing more than anxiety or unease in the absence of anything more reliable.

Not surprising, not at all, that this writer should have said, in many times and many ways, “I never wished to be a ‘political’ writer, and I hope I wasn’t only that, even when I was forced to write about a nightmarish politicized reality.” Note that Manea speaks there of what he was “forced to write about.” But then a writer is always forced to write about the subjects that preoccupy him. He is the servant of his obsessions and writes out of a temperament that determines, to a considerable degree, what he responds to. When he is forced, as it were, to address the “nightmarish politicized reality” he inhabits, he is compelled to confront it on his own terms, which is to say, not necessarily as a “political” writer, which Manea never wished to be, but as a writer drawn to a music and a mystery beyond politics and the political.

Consider, again briefly, the novella entitled “The Interrogation,” also included in Compulsory Happiness. The title itself indicates the setting of the work, which revolves around a woman prisoner, who has been tortured, and an inquisitor who wishes to learn more from her—so we assume—than has yet been extorted. Clearly a political work, so far as appearances are concerned. Clearly a work designed to examine one important feature of the nightmarish reality that was the totalitarian universe Norman Manea knew.

But in truth we learn from this novella very little about the totalitarian universe that we did not already know. We have read elsewhere about interrogation and torture. We knew that in the Communist world there was nothing that might not be done to persons imprisoned for ostensibly political reasons. We did not need to be told yet again that the system could be brutal and unjust and relentless, or that it might generate in its victims a terrible exhaustion beyond fear and hurt and panic.

And so we say that we do not go to Manea as earnest readers eager for “knowledge” or edification. Our experience of “The Interrogation” does not significantly involve politics or dialectics, however much we suppose that the informing circumstance has been shaped by the dominant political reality. Our experience of this work, as with many others by this writer, has to do with what the novelist Dubravka Ugresic—also from Eastern Europe—calls the “invisible slap” people wear on their faces, the “special tension in the body, the animal instinct of sniffing the air to tell which direction danger is coming from,” a certain “strained melancholy,” “a barely visible, almost internal stoop” in persons who feel themselves to be diminished, poised to receive another blow or shock to the system. The prisoner of Manea’s novella is, to be sure, the victim of a particular monstrous political order, and her interrogator is, no doubt about it, an authorized functionary trained to do the bidding of his masters. But our interest as readers is not in the system or in the logic of the ideology that underwrites its policies. We do not know what crimes the prisoner in the novella has apparently committed, and we know, moreover, nothing of her beliefs. References in the story to “the game,” and to varieties of “failure” which can seem “delectable”—delectable, no less—convince us that the issues at stake in this precinct are elusive, and that the writer’s take on things is by no means straightforward.

And how, we may well ask, would such a writer be straightforward when he is moved, persistently, not to make statements but to investigate the relation between normal and abnormal, human and not quite human, awful and comical, in a way that suggests his own bewilderment about such divisions and distinctions? The brutality and cunning on display in “The Interrogation” are laced with a wild extravagance and humor that extract from us an uncanny laughter bordering on hysteria. When the interrogator in the story reflects that he is himself a sort of “artist” and therefore, in his eccentric way, a “rebel,” we cannot but smile at his deft appropriation of terms he has no right to and at the duplicities of language generally, so that nothing can ever seem unambiguously what it appears to be. By the time this absurd, vicious little man, this grotesque functionary, declares, late in the work, that he and his victim have “spent the night together,” and that he has been “courting” her “the old-fashioned way, so to speak,” we are prepared to accept that in Manea’s universe the preposterous will have an insidious claim on our attention, and that the line separating the awful from the comical is not always easy to draw. When, in his essays, Manea calls the dictator Ceausescu a clown, he does so only in part to suggest that Communist Romania belonged to the realm of farce and that its leader behaved like a buffoon. The writer’s more terrible insight is that human beings who live in improbable times are more than a little inclined to madness, and that even the so-called sane and ordinary among us are routinely susceptible to disorientation and clownishness. In the universe dominated by lies and imposture the interrogator may indeed be a bit of a rebel and the reader, compelled to read on, may well find charming or laughable what is fundamentally disgusting. These are the derangements wrought by Manea’s fiction, in which—so it often seems—“Every house is alien, every temple empty, / All the same, all one,” as Tsvetaeva once put it.

Of course there is variety in Manea’s work. There are, here and there, updrafts of generosity and lightness, an inclination to mischief, a feeling for the felicities of language and wit. To read his memoir, The Hooligan’s Return, is to find oneself in the presence of someone who can look at himself in the mirror and, like the Polish writer Gombrowicz, stick his tongue out at himself.

And yet there is in Manea a fundamental gravity beyond foolishness or self-mockery. He writes, we feel, out of a need to ask, again and again, what are the virtues and limitations of a normal life. If he sees, all around him, plenty of reason to smile or smirk or recoil, he is yet reluctant to strike superior poses, fearful of his own inclination to complacency. If he is, as an old friend once said of him, a “really free man in a truly unfree time,” he fears all the same that his freedom is always at risk, that the exercise of freedom may itself be a drug, that in the end he knows not what he is. Determined at all costs not ever to speak falsely, to bear false witness, he yet knows himself to be not fully reliable, usually indecisive, perhaps too attracted to the honorable status of outcast. For every inclination to defiance and impertinence he finds in himself another inclination to misgiving. His gravity has everything to do with self-doubt, the doubleness of a fellow who knows that, lurking within every serious man, there is the impostor and the clown. Fearful of lies and lying, this writer also fears the banalities attendant upon too earnest a commitment to truth-telling.

Which is to say that there is nothing in Manea’s work of what one writer has labeled “tract or sermon or polemic or prescription.” Instead we find what Cynthia Ozick calls “the volatility and irresponsibility that imagination…commands.” Manea’s task is not—has never been—to bring us the facts of Romanian life or to convey the truth about Communism or the holocaust or the vicissitudes of exile. You read a story like “The Sweater” (in the volume October, Eight O’Clock) and you register the fact that it is set in the camp where young Norman was interned as a boy with his family during the Nazi years. But the story does not bring us the news about the camps or about the society that invented them. Throughout, the focus is intimate. We are invested in the development of one young boy’s discovery of shame and defeat. The telling, exemplary irresponsibility of the thing is in Manea’s refusal to be informative or instructive or didactic. When we read of those in the camps who “died by the dozens” we sense no desire on the writer’s part to recite the facts or commemorate the dead or formulate a politics. What we have is nothing more, or less, than a study of a mind in turmoil, struggling to make some minimal sense of its own inner life. A humble, impossible task. Simply to make some sense of one’s own inner life.

And what, finally, might that entail? How much do we know about the inner life? Manea says somewhere that it is not an easy thing to become—to be—“a feeling being,” and I suppose this might well point the way to his conception of the inner life. Is not the struggle to become and to remain a feeling being the comprehensive something we would wish to say about this writer, that this struggle has been his felt and appointed task?

I don’t know how to do perfect justice to any of this in summary, and I suspect that Manea would reject anything that purported to encapsulate his project in a few well-chosen words. But allow me, please, in closing, to invoke the words of Lionel Trilling, who believed that the true writer will always be in hot pursuit of “the terror which rules our moral situation,” and that this true writer will always also be “an agent of the terror.” Norman Manea, it seems to me, is such an agent. He understands perfectly that we are, like it or not, moral beings condemned to judge ourselves and others in a world without a presiding presence, where judgment itself will often seem arbitrary or ludicrous. To be a feeling being is, for this writer, to acknowledge that complex fate, and to register as sharply as possible the hopeless turmoil and absurdity of the inner life.

Robert Boyers is the editor of the quarterly Salmagundi and director of the New York State Summer Writers Institute. He is completing a memoir built around the fate of ideas.

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