The Purity of the Empty Page: An Interview with Mircea Cărtărescu

George Salis: You’re one of the most popular Romanian writers, a country that many people don’t know much about. Do you think your popularity comes with a kind of responsibility as an envoy of your country, as it were, or do you never think in those terms?

Mircea Cărtărescu: I really don’t know how popular I am, and to be sincere I couldn’t care less. I am a serious writer, not a successful one. Every day I look in my eyes and ask myself: do you still deserve to be called a writer? Do you still serve your art? Are you still sure that you are on a good path in your work? I do not care much about the rest. I am not a Kafka or a Pynchon, but their lives and high ideas about literature have always been an ideal for me. In my latest novel, Solenoid, I invented a pure writer, like them, like Henry Darger or like President Schreber, the writer I have dreamed to be for a lifetime.

Such an archetypal writer can have no ‘duties’ and ‘responsibilities’ other than to express the human condition and the essence of art on every page they write. I do not feel that I ‘represent’ my country in a sort of literary world championship. Because there is no such competition. And because I hate to ‘represent’ anything. “A poem should not mean, but be”, wrote MacLeish, and it is the same for the artists too. I was born in Romania and use the infinitely rich and generous Romanian language for my poems and novels, but if I was a Bolivian, Inuit, Indian, or American writer, I would have been as happy (and unhappy) as I am now. The writers worldwide have their usual citizenships, but actually they belong to what Goethe called Castalia, the realm of the arts and literature.

GS: What are you most nostalgic about when it comes to your city of birth, Bucharest?

MC: I invented my own Bucharest. This city did not exist before I published my books. The real city was only a sort of a blueprint for my hallucinatory, visionary, and prophetic city which shines not under the blue dome of the skies, but under my skull. It is no wonder: all the cities in literature are imaginary ones: Joyce’s Dublin, Dostoevsky’s Saint Petersburg, Durrell’s Alexandria, or Borges’ Buenos Aires. You can take a tour of either of them and you still won’t recognize the strange, exotic, fantastic, ominous, sensual, and nostalgic atmosphere described by their rulers, the writers who created them. My Bucharest is sort of an alter ego for me, a twin brother made of plaster, rust, yellow leaves, streetcars, and faces, wearing the obsolete trench coat of nostalgia. Three of my books (and all my poems) are full of Bucharest imagery, but this mandala mainly burns with baroque flames in my trilogy Orbitor, 1,500 pages of true and limitless literature, the plane carrier of my modest fleet of books. [Currently, only the first volume of Orbitor has been translated into English by Sean Cotter: Blinding, published by Archipelago Books.]

GS: You’ve mentioned that your view toward the act of writing is tantamount to faith. Doubt is the opposite of faith. Do you have any doubts as a writer?

MC: I do not know how to write the simplest page of poetry or prose. If you ask me to write one now or else be imprisoned for 10 days, I would go to jail for sure. But sometimes I can write. Writing is not a job, not even an art, it is a miracle. It is a gift made to the writer. You can attend the best courses on creative writing and still fail to impress people with your stories. In a way, as Seymour Glass, Salinger’s character, told his brother at some time, writing is a religion. I received this gift without trying to understand it. Sometimes I feel like a jockey on the back of a wonderful horse. All I have to do is hang on its back, small and anonymous, trying not to touch it too much, just levitating over it. Not the jockey, but the horse wins the race.

I write in a continuous trance, without editing, by hand, in notebooks, this is the way I wrote all my books. And I think the real books write themselves, with minimal control from the writer. When I write like this, like someone who erases a white film covering the already written page, of course I have to have faith. I cannot doubt, because I know the book is already written and I only bring it to light, page by page.

GS: One of the themes you explore in Nostalgia is “the prodigious child seen as a Jesus of his tiny world….” Do you believe the religious impulse is something we carry over from childhood or even earlier than that? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this?

MC: My childhood happened in a Communist world where there was no place for religion. I was educated as an atheist. My parents came from the countryside, where religion (The Eastern Orthodox Church) consisted of rituals like going to church and celebrating Easter and Christmas, but without real knowledge of those traditions. Except for the pope in each village, no one had a Bible of their own. Till the age of 30, I had never read the Bible. I thought that it was a collection of prayers. When I finally read it, I had the shock of my life: the Bible revealed itself to me as the greatest ‘novel’ ever written, the greatest poem, the greatest philosophical work, and much more. A book that both an atheist and a believer should read and reread for the beauty and wisdom of it. For me, religion is something that goes beyond churches and even spirituality, I find it in quantum physics, in mathematics, in poetry, in topology, in embryology, in meditation, in books, in wine, and in sex. Actually—everywhere. Without it, we would never hope to transcend the “hard problem” of consciousness and would never know what reality means.

GS: This is a guest question from Alina Stefanescu: “Do you feel that femininity as both a social construct and literary mirror (or muse in which the man sees himself) has changed over the course of your writing? Why or why not?”

MC: I have always had a feminine soul. In fact, like Tiresias (also evoked by T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land), all artists, both women and men, are androgynous beings, and because of this they have the gift of prophecy. I have always seen my ideal reader as a woman—there is a ‘feminine’ reading and a ‘masculine’ one, I prefer the former—and I love to tell stories using the voices of women. I do not know what femininity is or should be, or how it would be correctly defined, or how it has changed over time. I only have the memories of the women I knew, each different from all the others, real beings and not clichés or sex objects. It is a huge gift that human beings are of two kinds, men and women, similar and different, opposite and still so close to each other, each one so enigmatic to the other.

Thirty years ago, I was among the first in my country to teach gender studies, and I followed the feminist philosophy and social action with sympathy. Still, I do not define myself as a ‘progressivist or a ‘conservative’ (and not at all as an activist). I am an artist, my mind is free of ideologies. I have always written about women as I wrote about men and children: with tenderness and love. I agree with Bob Dylan who said in a song that we should not hate anything but hatred. I also hate only hatred, coming from the right or from the left, from below or from above.

GS: This is a guest question from Andrei of The Untranslated: “You have considerably changed your narrative poem Levantul so that it can be more easily translated. People who do not read Romanian are only familiar with this version, in which most of the rhymed verse has been replaced by prose. Suppose you are approached by a skillful and confident translator who will ask you to allow them to render the original Levantul in their language. Would you relent?”

MC: The Levant is my most special book, different from all the others I wrote. It is a cult book today in my country, and it would have also been abroad if it were actually translatable. But that is not the case. First, it is a long epic poem written mostly in alexandrines: 12 cantos, over 7,000 lines. Then, it is written in old Romanian from the 18th and 19th centuries. Third, like Joyce’s “The Oxen of the Sun”, it is a parody of all the styles of classic and modern Romanian poetry, those that no one knows except a few of my compatriots. It has many other layers of irony, pastiche, quotations, puns, etc. in a postmodern manner, which could hardly be translated.

Saddened that one of my best books will never be translated, I had a crazy idea: why not translate it myself into Romanian first? I did this in three months. I changed the poem into prose, I modernized the language, I gave up many stylistic difficulties. It resulted in a sort of strange novel which still has the resemblance of the original work, but with many bizarre features. When I finished, I asked 15 of my translators if they could do the novel in their own languages. Four of them answered that it was worth trying. So now I have versions of The Levant in French, Spanish, Swedish, and Italian, plus some parts of it in Hungarian. The surprise was that each of them is extremely different both from my original and from the other translations. This is because each translator used the evolution of their own classic and modern styles of poetry as a match for my literary allusions. Traduttore tradittore [“Translator traitor”]—this saying is nowhere more adequate than talking about The Levant. But there are also creative betrayals, and my brave translators did very good jobs each in their own languages.

GS: Your work seems to be heavily influenced by surrealist art, including Dalí and Escher. Can you talk about your love of this style and about some of your favorite pieces of art?

MC: My work is heavily influenced by the whole of world literature. I am also fond of painting and music, classic and modern styles. Before being a writer, I defined myself as a great reader and art consumer. Therefore, it’s hard for me to mention some writers I love. I love all of them, from Catullus and Petronius to Dante and Rabelais, to Gongora and Whitman, to Rilke and Kafka, to Joyce and Virginia Woolf, to Pynchon and Vargas Llosa. I learned from them, I followed them, I wanted to be like them. Surrealism has deep roots in German romanticism, which discovered the dream as a source of inspiration. More than Dalí, I love Giorgio De Chirico, the metaphysical painter, Delvaux, and Max Ernst. I am fond of the strange stories of Pieyre de Mandiargues and of the magical realism in the works of Márquez, Cortázar, Sábato, and Borges. I am also deeply indebted to some wonderful Romanian writers, such as Eminescu, Arghezi, and Nichita Stănescu. In Orbitor everything revolves around the enigmatic painter Monsù Desiderio (actually two painters, Didier Barra and François de Nomé, who signed their works with this name), whose paintings show ruined castles and temples built by his own imagination. For fifty years, since I started to read and write literature, I had the enormous privilege to have lived in a huge library as much as in reality. Both were providential sources of joy and inspiration for me.

GS: Your lifelong journals have yet to be translated into English but I wonder what you suspect American readers will think of them when they do become available in English. Are there any sections in particular you think might spark a fire in the easily outraged and censorious readers that have dominated social media, for instance?

MC: My first entry in my journal was on 17 September 1973. That first page is identical in its style and way of thinking with the latest one, just written today. My journal is sort of a second skin for me. I can see myself living without writing novels, poems, or essays, but not without my journal. Its thousands of pages are like a long interview I took upon myself for 48 years, and the best thing I have done in my life. All the other writings of mine are like fruits hanging on my journal’s branches. I have published so far four volumes from it, one in every seven years. A part of it, about 600 pages, has been translated into Swedish and published some years ago.

I have no hope that my journal will be ever translated into English, not only because it would be irrelevant, belonging to a writer very little known in English-speaking countries, but also because many of my novels and stories are waiting in line to be translated before it. As for “sparking a fire”, everything can do that amid the inflammable times we live in. Because the problems are usually not in the books, but in the eye of people who judge them. More than a hundred years ago the impressionist painters, then the avant-gardist ones, sparked fires and provoked outrage in a philistine public, and then became universally accepted. I have always been against all kinds of censorship, but at the same time I am against an art only invested in shock at all costs, violence, the humiliation of human beings, and lack of empathy for the less privileged.

GS: What is a novel you’ve read that you think deserves more readers?

MC: A lot of them. Now I think of Netocika Nezvanova, a very little-known (and unfinished) novel by Dostoevsky. It includes the incredible story of a genuine musician who learned to play the violin alone, but whose talent is ruined in a huge and anti-cultural Russia, and there’s the wonderful story of two girls who fall in love with each other, and even make love, in one of the first modern lesbian stories that I know of. Or I would nominate the Romanian Max Blecher’s Adventures In Immediate Irreality, a surrealistic and expressionist novel similar to Kafka’s or Bruno Schulz’ well-known books.

GS: Like the Roulette Player in the prologue of Nostalgia, would you ever feel lucky enough to play Russian roulette with a fully-loaded revolver?

MC: I did that many times in my life (metaphorically speaking) and I survived. In fact, this is a good definition of literature: playing Russian roulette with a fully-loaded revolver….

GS: Here is a question adapted from your novel Solenoid: What would you do if you had to choose between saving a baby (who may grow up to be the next Hitler) or your life’s work?

MC: Like the hero in my novel, I will always choose the baby. No piece of art can be compared with life itself, with a body that can cry in pain. No child is condemned to become Hitler or a serial murderer. Surrounded by people’s care and love, its life can change a lot. Besides, I do not care too much about my work. I never read my own books. Kafka said that the real life of a book starts from the moment when its author dies, so my poor work doesn’t even exist yet. There is only one of my books that has always meant something for me: the one I’m just writing.

GS: What do you think the last entry in your journals will be?

MC: An empty page, shining and pure, better than everything I’ve done till then.

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Mircea Cărtărescu, poet, novelist, and essayist, was born in 1956 in Bucharest. As a young member of the “Blue Jeans Generation” in the 1970s, his work was strongly influenced by American writing in opposition to the official Communist ideology and by Romanian Onirism. The appearance of his book Nostalgia (New Directions) made him a young literary star in Romania. His work, including Blinding (Archipelago Books), is widely considered to be the best writing to emerge from post-communist Romania. His books have been translated into fourteen languages and he has received many awards, including most recently the Thomas Mann Prize and the Prix Formentor.


George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagramTwitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

3 thoughts on “The Purity of the Empty Page: An Interview with Mircea Cărtărescu

  1. Now this is what I call an interesting and in-depth interview with Cărtărescu! Thank you so much for this. I was furious when I listened to a recent programme on BBC Radio 3 that was supposedly about Cărtărescu, so much so that I even wrote a blog post about the over-mediation of foreign culture for English-speaking audiences: https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2021/12/07/literary-events-and-mediation-of-foreign-culture/
    But this kind of approach gives me hope. Will subscribe and join you on Patreon.

    Liked by 1 person

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