Romanian literature

Regularly, at around this time of the year, I concentrate on reading books from just one nationality and this year it is Romania.

For most Western readers who know anything about Romanian literature, the writers they have heard of or even read will be expatriates, sometimes, perhaps, without our readers being aware that they were Romanian.

The first Romanian I read was certainly Eugène Ionesco, the absurdist dramatist, whose most famous works were written in French, though his earlier works were written in Romanian. He did write one novel: Le Solitaire, translated as The Hermit. I have a copy but have not read it.

The French Dadaist, Tristan Tzara was, in fact Romanian and wrote his earlier works in Romanian before switching to French. Other exiles include Andrei Codrescu, who lives in the United States and writes mainly in English, Emil Cioran, a philosopher who wrote mainly in French and is known for his work Précis de décomposition (A Short History of Decay), Paul Celan, who wrote mainly in German, Norman Manea who writes in Romanian but has lived in the United States since 1988 and Mircea Eliade.

Eliade wrote in Romanian, English and French. He wrote several novels but is perhaps best known for his writings on myths, legends and religion, many of which I read and very much enjoyed many years ago.

Finally I should mention Herta Müller who is German and writes in German but who was born in Romania and lived there for the first thirty-four year of her life before emigrating to Germany. I shall be reading a couple of other expatriate Romanian writers during the course of this exercise.

I am not vaguely competent to give you a history of Romanian literature, so I shall just outline a few highlights, focussing, of course, more on the the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The earliest works in Romanian, appearing in the sixteenth century, were, not surprisingly, religious, with historical works appearing in the next century. Romania was under Ottoman rule but with Greeks acting as rulers and therefore influencing the literature. Romanian poets started appearing and they were influenced by the European Enlightenment and by nationalism, which started to take effect in the early nineteenth century.

The Junimea Group was founded in 1863 with Ion Creangă being one of several important members. The late nineteenth century poet Mihail Eminescu is, perhaps, the nearest Romania has to a national poet. Ion Luca Caragiale was a playwright but also wrote short stories and novellas, quite a few of which are available in English.

Drama, poetry and short stories still predominated till after World War 1, when the Romanian novel started to get going. I shall focus almost entirely on the novel from now on but that does not mean to say that there were not poets, dramatists and short story writers.

Liviu Rebreanu is best known for his Pădurea spânzuraților (Forest of the Hanged), which I shall be reading. He started off publishing short stories but then published Ion, considered to the first modern Romanian novel and is available in English translation though long since out of print.

Cezar Petrescu, who is already on my site, may be best known for his children’s novel Fram, ursul polar (Fram the Polar Bear) but wrote many adult novels, including Întunecare (Gathering Clouds). It was in three volumes. All three volumes have been translated into English but are not cheap.

Camil Petrescu is no relation to Cezar. His Un om între oameni has been translated as A Man amongst Men while his Patul lui Procust has allegedly been translated into English as The Bed of Procust but is impossible to find. It is more readily available in French and Spanish. His most interesting novel may well be Ultima noapte de dragoste, întîia noapte de război [The Last Night of Love, First Night Of War] which has not been translated into English but has been translated into French and Spanish. I shall be reading it this time around.

Some of Mihail Sadoveanu‘s books have appeared in English translation. I have reviewed Baltagul (The Hatchet). However, this one and his other ones translated into English seem to be generally unavailable. A lot of them are available in German translation. Not only was he a very prolific writer, he twice served as acting Head of State.

Mihail Sebastian, however, has fared a bit better, though he was subject to frequent anti-Semitism. He was never acting Head of State. Indeed, he died before Sadoveanu became acting Head of State, knocked down by a lorry. Four of his novels, one of his plays and his diary have been translated into English and I shall be reviewing one of the novels.

A rare woman novelist of this period – Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu – wrote a well-received trilogy of novels but though they were published in English (in Romania) they are impossible to find. Her Bach Concerto is readily available in French, German and Spanish.

Panait Istrati was a working class writer and wrote in French and Romanian. He is best known for his cycle of novels and stories about Adrian Zografi in Romanian. Of his books in French, he is perhaps best known for Les Chardons du Baragan. It was publsihed in English as The Thistles of the Baragan in 1930 and is long since out of print. I shall be reading it in French.

George Călinescu is already on my website. Only a couple of his works of criticism have been translated into English and are long since unavailable. His Părinții Otiliei (later: Enigma Otiliei) [The Enigma of Otilia] has been translated into French, German, Spanish and Czech.

Two of Max Blecher‘s novels have been translated into English. Întâmplări din irealitatea imediată has been translated three times, twice as Adventures in Immediate Unreality and once as Occurrence in the Immediate Unreality. Inimi cicatrizate has been translated only once – as Scarred Hearts. He was associated with the Surrealists and died aged twenty-eight.

Ion Vinea is another writer associated with the Surrealist movement, as well as with symbolism (he was a poet as well as a novelist). His work has not been translated into English and one collection of poetry has been translated into French. I would be interested in reading his novel Lunatecii, which has not been translated into any other language.

Gellu Naum is yet another writer associated with Surrealism. I shall be reading his novel Zenobia>, which has been translated into English. His prose poem My Tired Father is also available in English.

Gib Mihăescu has been compared to Dostoevsky. However, apart from a few stories, no longer available, he has not been translated into English. I shall be reading his Donna Alba.

Mateiu Caragiale is another novelist and poet but best known for his novel Craii de Curtea-Veche, translated into English as Gallants of the Old Court, of which I have a copy but will not be reading this time around. A new translation will be published by Northwestern University Press later this year.

Ionel Teodoreanu is already on my site. Only one of his novels, La Medelini I Hotarul nestatornic (One Moldavian Summer), has been translated into English.

Ion Sadoveanu, no relation to Mihail, is already on my website. He was primarily known as a playwright but wrote three novels, none of which has been translated into English and one of which I have reviewed. A travel guide to Bucharest has been translated into English.

Romania’s situation dramatically deteriorated after World War II, particularly when Nicolae Ceaușescu took over. Many Romanian writers either went underground or left the country. A few, however, did continue.

Marin Preda is probably the best-known Romanian novelist in the immediate post-war era. He is best known for his novel The Morometes which has been translated into English but is difficult to find.

Zaharia Stancu made his name as a poet before World War II but is best known for his novel Desculț (Barefoot) which I shall be reviewing this time around. Three of his other novels have been translated into English.

Petru Dumitriu is another novelist I shall be reading this time around. He is best known for his novel Incognito. Several other of his novels have been translated into English but are often difficult to find. He left Romania in 1960, going first to Germany and then to France.

I shall be reading Augustin Buzura‘s interestingly titled Recviem pentru nebuni și bestii (Requiem for Fools and Beasts), about the horrors of post-war Romania. One other novel by him – Refuges – is available in English as is Report on the State of Loneliness, a study of Romania over seventy years.

Stefan Banulescu was associated with magic realism but apart from stories in a couple of anthologies, his work is not available in English though is available in French and German.

Eugen Barbu has not been translated into English but has been translated into French, German and Spanish. He was condemned for plagiarism and anti-Semitism. His two best known novels have been translated into other languages.

Varujan Vosganian was a minister of commerce but he also wrote a novel about his Armenian heritage. Cartea șoaptelor (The Book of Whispers) was a novel about the Armenian genocide and was a best-seller.

Dora Pavel is the solitary woman here, both a poet and a novelist. Oddly, enough two of her novels have been translated into Spanish but not into other Western European languages.

Paul Goma was a dissident and left Romania for France. An autobiographical work – My Childhood at the Gate of Unrest – has been translated into English but his novels only into French. Much of his work has been anti-totalitarianism but he has also been accused of anti-Semitism.

Vintilă Horia left Romania after World War II and lived in Italy. He was sentenced in absentia by the Romanian government to life imprisonment. He is best known for his novel Dieu est né en exil (God Was Born in Exile), one of the many novels about Ovid and his exile in what is now Romania.

Ghérasim Luca is not a novelist but I thought I would mention him for two reasons. He is primarily a poet but is interesting because of his association with the Surrealists. One of his best-known prose works was called Le Vampire passif (he wrote in French). This was published in a limited edition by a fictitious publisher, Editions de l’Oubli (i.e. Forgetting Publications) and had been difficult to obtain, till José Corti republished it in 2001. Surprisingly, it has been translated into English – as The Passive Vampire by Twisted Spoon Press, though it is now out of print. I have a copy of both the French and English text. I shall not be reviewing it now but will do so some time.

Titus Popovici was best known for his screen plays and for his mysterious death. It was a car accident but might not have been an accident. He did write novels. His best-known one was The Stranger, available in English. I have a copy but will not be reviewing it this time.

Nicolae Breban, like many Romanian writers, did not always get on with the authorities and spent some time away from Romania, only returning after the fall of Ceaușescu. His work has not been translated into English but there is one novel in French.

Dumitru Tsepeneag is already on my website but I shall be adding another of his works this time. He is irreverent, funny and, at times anarchic. Fortunately six of his novels and a collection of his stories are available in English thanks to the very wonderful Dalkey Archive Press.

Norman Manea is already on my website. He has lived in the United States for many years , so quite a few of his books are available in English.

Gabriela Adameșteanu is another writer who came into conflict with the Communist authorities, though she remained in the country. Two of her novels have been translated into English and I shall be reading one of them – Dimineață pierdută (Wasted Morning).

I shall mention Stefan Agopian though there is not much about him in English available. None of his books have been translated into English though one has been translated into French and another one into German. I have copies of both but shall not be reading them this time. He tends to write about the historical past but using magical realism and has a good reputation in Romania.

Maria Maïlat does not seem to have registered in the English-speaking world. She moved to France in 1986 and now writes in French. I shall be reading one of her books – La cuisse de Kafka [Kafka’s Thigh].

Mircea Cărtărescu is the best living Romanian novelist and may well be the best ever Romanian novelist. Seven of his books are on my website though only one has been translated into English with another appearing in 2021. If you are going to read ony one Romanian novelist, he should be the one.

Doina Ruști has one book translated into English, one into Italian and two into German, though I do not have any of them. Lizoanca: Green Lizard Shadow, the book translated into English, is about violence towards woman (an eleven year old girl is discovered with syphilis), sadly a major issue in Romania (as elsewhere), as well as being about the general decline of standards in Romania.

Ioana Pârvulescu is a novelist and translator, (Kundera, Rilke, Nadeau, Asterix) teaches contemporary literature, is an editor and contributes a column to a literary magazine. Her books have sold well in Romania. Her best known book is Viaţa începe vineri, which has been translated as Life Begins on Friday and which I shall be reading.

Filip Florian studied geology at university but has since become a well-known writer in Romania. Three of his books have been translated into English and I shall be reading one of them.

Bogdan Suceavă is already on my website. One of his novels has been translated into English.

Dan Lungu has written about life under the Communist regime and the period immediately after. His novel Sînt o babă comunistă! has been translated into English as I’m an Old Commie! while How to Forget a Woman will be appearing in 2022 from the Dalkey Archive Press. I shall be reading one that has not been translated into English – Raiul găinilor [Chicken Heaven].

Lucian Dan Teodorovici has had two books translated into English, one of which I have but shall not be reading this time. Matei Brunul is about a man released from a Communist prison and we learn about both his prison experiences and his life under surveillance after prison.

Cecilia Stefanescu‘s Sun Alley, which I shall be reading, has been made into a film. Like many other Romanians she describes herself as I’m the neurotic product of a childhood spent among the ruins of Ceauşescu’s Bucharest.

Finally I must mention two Romanian women writers, given that there do not seem to be many Romanian women writers in translation. Ruxandra Cesereanu‘s Angelus is already on my website and a fascinating novel it is.

Magda Cârneci‘s FEM is the first book I shall be reading, primarily because it appears in English translation for the first time about now. It is the only novel by a writer best known for her poetry.

You will notice that Teodorovici and Stefanescu are the youngest writers in this summary and they were both born in 1975. Sadly younger Romanian writers are not being translated. This list of Romanian literature now has nobody born post 1986 and few if any translated into English, though a few have been translated into French or German.

I must mention Istros Books, who specialise in East European literature. Their forte is more from Slavonic countries but they do have a few Romanian authors: Octavian Paler, Mircea Eliade, Ioana Parvulescu, Cecilia Stefanescu and Ludovic Bruckstein.

Other links

Romanian literature (overview)
Romanian literature
Romanian literature
Becoming Postmodern: A Romanian Literature Survey
Contemporary Romanian Writers
Join the world literature tour to Romania
11 Great Romanian Novels You Should Read
Contemporary Romanian Writers to Read in English
Romanian Literature Now

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5 Comments

  1. Pohaku

    What a wonderful overview of Romanian literature! I’ve read just about zero so far, but I like learning to read all sorts of languages and have built up a nice little Romanian library, in Romanian, plus some English translations for use as cribs. I’ve only done enough work on the language to see that it should be almost as learnable through reading and for reading as, say, Italian or French. Perhaps your coming reports will move me to really get started, though I really have a full plate right now with new (for me) languages Polish, Hungarian, Estonian, and Homeric Greek.
    Many thanks for all of your great posts. You are responsible for a fair number of the books that are taking over our home!

  2. Patrick Murtha

    Bookfinder shows a three volume set of the complete Gathering Clouds in English. So it seems to exist after all.

    “Hardcover
    Publisher: Foreign Languages Publishing House, Bucharest, 1957
    Used – Fine. grey cloth covered boards with dark blue lettering, black dust jacket with drawing in white, 332, 352 & 273 pp. In card board slipcase. Very rare complete set. Includes dust jacket.”

    https://www.bookfinder.com/search/?ac=sl&st=sl&ref=bf_s2_a1_t10_10&qi=AFRGjsmcpSWzwLhfLmOhmPdohZQ_1497963026_1:20:40&bq=author%3Dcezar%2520petrescu%26title%3Dgathering%2520clouds%2520%2D%2520a%2520novel%25203%2520vol%2E%2520set

    • tmn

      Thanks for that. Still not exactly cheap and only ambiguously mentioned in sources such as WorldCat and the British Library. Very rare complete set says the Bookfinder entry.

  3. To announce MIHAIL SADOVEANU with only one literary work, the novel BALTAGUL, is a complete lack of information and knowledge, regarding the greatest writer of the Romanian people, the writer M IHAIL SADOVEANU, also called Balzac of Romanian Literature! Mihail Sadoveanu’s is a literary Continent, over 100 written novels! Also the only Romanian historical novels in number 6, are proof of the seriousness, the writing talent and the genius of this writer! I am sorry, but describing MIHAIL SADOVEANU as ” the author of the novel Baltagul “and, erroneously and tendentiously describing him as” he twice served as acting Head of State “, do immense great service to the great Romanian author MIHAIL SADOVEANU! Mihail Sadoveanu was never, but never” Chief of the Romanian State! “. It is an absolute serious lack of information!
    Respectfully
    Jordan Herford
    Director of MIHAIL SADOVEANU Publishing House
    http://www.mihailsadoveanu.com

    • tmn

      I never said he twice served as acting Head of State. He did write Baltagul. The books I list are the ones he wrote which have been translated into English. This website is aimed at English speakers. The page, like the page for most of the writers, does not pretend to be comprehensive.

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