Norman Manea: a World Voice, an essay with links

Norman Manea | April 01, 2009
Critic: Jean Harris


There’s no way to say what makes one writer a “world voice.” Only some compel us at deeper levels. Of that feat, negotiated with posterity, canonical status is born. Witness, spokesperson, bearer of informed testimony, one who submits experience to the shaping of art, Norman Manea finds ways to put us on a plane with being, to make his writing a mask that fits our face, to borrow a notion from Julio Cortázar. That judgment applies to Manea’s fiction, his non-fiction prose, and to the contemporary borderland called auto-fiction—at mode summoned from the toils of the 20th century and that responds to our nonplussed “acceptance” of reality with a gasp: Man, you just can’t make this stuff up. Here, what happened counts less than what the writer makes of it. Another way of saying this: "Manea is one of the great writers able to grow in a complete desert. In his splendid writings, he has expressed the uprootedness and exile of our time, where everyone knows, like Moses, that he won't reach the Promised Land. The letters engraved on the skin and page of this great writer become a kind of hieroglyph of the Leviathan, a tremendous scar" (Claudio Magris).

A writer of dislocation and exile who makes his home in the Romanian language, Norman MANEA was born in Burdujeni (in the district of Suceava, located in the Romanian province of Bukovina) on July 19, 1936. Along with the entire Jewish population of Bukovina, he was deported in October 1941 to the concentration camps in Transnistria in the Ukraine. He returned to Romania with the surviving members of his family at the end of the Second World War. In 1986 he left Romania as the result of communist persecution. He lived in West Berlin for one year and has been living in the United States since 1988.

At home now as Francis Flournoy Professor in European Studies and Culture and Writer in Residence at Bard College, Manea had the ill luck to encounter both fascist and communist totalitarianism, the great disasters of 20th century Europe. While this personal cataclysm gave him a “scoop” on history—willy-nilly—and in the most unwanted way, his writings go far beyond the eyewitness account, the memorial, the testamentary. With Manea art enters zones of the moral and spiritual—always impossible to account for on a merely aesthetic basis. Philip Roth says: “Living in a state of emergency furnishes the awful thread of continuity that makes his life and work so distinctively harrowing. The battle not of the heroic but of the vulnerable, to hang on and, stubbornly, against all odds, to resist their degradation, to hold out against what Norman Manea calls 'the derailment of humanity itself' - no moral endeavor is more astonishing."

All this bears on Manea’s way of getting our from under the heal of aesthetic categories. To return to Cortázar for a moment, concerned with the potentiating power of art the Argentine writer includes a meditation on painting in Hopscotch. His discussion relates to art itself, and it is worth including here as a way of signaling what happens to a reader confronted with a Manea text. In the course of his novel Cortázar describes three categories of painting:

  1. Pure painting, which demands purely aesthetic experience. We view a Mondrian, for example, and “mondrianate.”

  2. Referential painting—Klee is the archetype here—which calls more humbly (somehow) for the viewer to complete its meaning from the arsenal of public references. And then we come to

(3) Rembrandt and the Rembrandts of this world:

“There’s metapainting just as there is metamusic, and the old boy was sticking his arms in up to the elbows in what he was doing. Only someone blinded by logic or good manners can stop in front of a Rembrandt and not feel that there is a window there that opens onto something else, a sign. Very dangerous for painting, but on the other hand…”

“Painting is an art form like so many others,” Oliveira said. “It doesn’t need too much protection as far as being a form is concerned. Besides, for every Rembrandt there are a hundred others who are nothing but painters, so painting is quite safe from harm.”

Julio Cortázar. Hopscotch. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. (New York: Pantheon, 1987) No.28, p. 167.

The world doesn’t need to be saved from Norman Manea, however. Better to continue the assault.

That said, OTP carries on with a series of fascinating links.

  • Project Syndicate carries a collection of six articles by Norman Manea. Among them

    • “A Lasting Poison” discusses Milan Kundera, knowledge, remembrance and forgiveness in the post-communist world.

    • “Crime and Punishment Refugee Style” looks at the hot topic of Italo-Romanian relations, the plight of refugees and the Romm.

    • “New York, the Dada Capital” takes a bite out of the big apple.

  • Regional Analysis posts Michael Shafir’s “The Man They Love to Hate: Norman Manea’s ‘Snail’s House’: Between Holocaust and Gulag”

  • The New York Review of Books posts “Made in Romania,” (translated by Patrick Camiller), a portrait in farewell to artist-illustrator Saul Steinberg, born in Romania and loved by generations of The New Yorker’s readers, inter alia. Maps, exile, longing and ambivalence bind the city’s most famous literary Romanians.

  • The American Symphony Orchestra posts Manea’s essay on George Enescu, “Romania’s Brightest Light.

“The artist as a citizen of the world belongs often to the great encyclopedia of Exile. Even while living far away from his native land and language though, Enescu did not inhabit his biography as an exile. His true residence was in the spiritual realm, just as it was for the two other great innovators of modern art, Constantin Brâncuşi, and Eugene Ionesco, whose names, like his, brighten lastingly the Romanian presence in our syncopated 20th century.”


  • The Conjunctions Audio Vault broadcasts Norman Manea reading his poem “Lunar Nights” about concentration camp life (in a translation by Patrick Camiller) in English and Romanian.

 Also playing on the upper right side of the Norman Manea
          page at OTP 9

About this issue

This July, The Observer Translation Project leaves its usual format to present a special CRISIS ISSUE. Things are tough all over. Hard Times suddenly feels like the book of the moment. The global economic crisis impacts life as we know it, and viewed from Bucharest the effects reverberate in domains that include geo-politics and publishing in Romania and abroad, with the crisis at The Observer Translation Project as an instance of a universal phenomenon. read more...

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