Interviewing Giants: Mircea Cărtărescu

By the end of April, 2011 I attended the opening night of the Pen World Voices Festival in preparation to my encounter with Mircea Cărtărescu. It was a lovely evening, at the Light House on Chelsea Pier. In the small harbor there were anchored several sail boats, as if it was centuries ago. One of them was sailing out of the harbor and blew the fog horn. I expected any moment Johnny Depp to swing by the ropes and tipsily wink at me. Instead I ambled through the parking lot, past the lengthy line of attendees, straight to the press reserved seats. I haven’t done the press pass thing in a while. In Europe I worked for years as a day-by-day journalist and though it had its glorious moments, tailoring my messages to fit the word count and advertisers' idiosyncrasies was not what I wanted to do with my life. But this spring when I became an American citizen I suddenly reclaimed the bullhorn of freedom of speech and I launched my own media outlet on, and I offered to freelance for whoever wants to publish me, as of now.
Back to the festival, basking in the glory of my press pass, I took my front row seat, ready to hear grand speeches about freedom and tyranny. I considered PEN sacred ground. On its podium Nobel Prize winners, Eastern European writers with names difficult to pronounce, had launched their statements that shook the world. Well, not tonight. It felt like an expensive open mic. Writers from all over the world were flown in, wined and dined so we could hear them read a few minutes of their work on the theme of water. It was fun, but not invigorating.
The next day I had my 45 minutes with Mircea Cărtărescu. In preparation I read the first part of his humongous 1,500 page
Orbitor/Glaringbook. I was stunned that he pulled that off. Here all the time I am admonished I must keep my writing short and to the point. No one indulges in reading 1,500 pages! The cheek you have, Ella! People have jobs, they have to go earn a living!
But Alina, my guardian angel transcriber, called my attention to American writers called "fabulators", such as T. Pynchon, J. McElroy, A. Theroux, D. Wallace, W. Gass, they all write huge novels, more than 700 pages. For example McElroy, with his
Women and Men, of 1,200 pages.
Alright, there might be a few wordy Americans too but I bet people don’t read them in general. Anyway, I was just telling about what I suffer here in America, not about Mircea Cărtărescu. I was also rather prejudiced because I abhor cliques. I had my share of them in graduate school and countless workshops, and the Cannon to me is one gigantic male clique. And Cărtărescu is part of the Romanian Cannon.
Yet, Cărtărescu seemed a modest man, and his first name being Mircea, like my departed little brother’s. I pulled myself together, I overcame my neurosis, and confronted my misperceptions. Anyway, Cărtărescu is not made of snow; he won’t melt under my nihilist remarks. In the end I think I’ve done a smashing job emulating amiable Charlie Rose.
Here we go:

Ella Veres:We are here with Mr. Mircea Cărtărescu at the Romanian Institute of Culture. How does it feel to be part of the PEN festival, in such prestigious writers’ company?
Mircea Cărtărescu: From what I’ve understood this festival is one of the largest in New York and in the United States of America. Of course I was impressed that I was invited to participate, and even more so, that I was invited to participate at the festival opening night next to very few writers, amongst whom were Salman Rushdie and Amelie Nothomb, names very well known around the world. I feel very nicely within the frames of this festival. I think it started very well, and it has been very successful until now, it has a variety of events, from readings to workshops, so everything is very open and interesting, so that, what can I tell you, that besides the fact that I feel wonderful being here in Manhattan whenever I get here and in the United States in general, I feel especially well within the frames of PEN Word Voices.
E.V.: How has your stay in America affected you?
M.C.: I’ve known America for a long time, as much as it can be known by someone who doesn’t live here. In 1990 I had my first visit to America, immediately after the Revolution, in the fall of ‘90, when I participated at the famous writers’ program in Iowa City, The International Writers Program, which gave me the possibility to stay for three months in the United States and to journey/venture across this large planet, to put it this way, from the East Coast to the West Coast with a longer stay in the Midwest. So I sampled, as they say, I tested a bit of what America has best. It’s a very different world from the European world. You need a lot of empathy to get to know it and appreciate it. It’s very easy to rush and find only its negative sides, but I don’t think this is a solution. I believe that by learning to slow down your initial reaction, to wait, and not jump to conclusions, you’ll end up discovering a country that is fabulous in its diversity and complexity.
E.V.: What negative things have you observed?
M.C.: To be sincere, here in the United States I’m intrigued by the intense need of people to create around themselves a social network, that acts as a safety net. It is a thing very foreign to the logic of European life. Europeans usually blame this fact as a proof of social hypocrisy, while in the United States it’s considered positive and desirable. It’s just one example, but for me America continues to be fascinating even after twenty years.
E.V.: Why do you think your work has been embraced by so many people in Europe and now starting here too, in America?
M.C.: In a way it’s normal and legitimate for an author to wish to be read, and received by as many people as possible, to maximize in fact his artistic influence on people. I am very content that, without any special efforts on my behalf in this direction, many people seemed to want the publication of my books, their translation and dissemination throughout the world, so that today the fact that my volumes exist in twenty languages is very pleasing to me. I repeat I haven’t done anything special and I didn’t especially desire this, but the fact that this happens satisfies me very much, because people from the most varied cultures can have access to my inner world.
E.V.: What makes you a representative of your generation, of a country’s writing?
M.C.: My generation has been a very special generation, being the generation of the ‘80s, which within the frames of a horrible political system, still it benefited from a demanding education system and from a cultural life, albeit oppressed yet at the same time very rigorous. This propensity towards a true culture and towards a true intellectual life characterizes my generation. It is not by chance that most of my generation’s colleagues are at this point university professors teaching literature, and most of them have a well-established reputation. We had an extremely cultivated generation and I am the same way myself. I believe the fact that we live in this great European tradition that starts with the Bible and the Greeks is an essential thing that gives us individuality and characterizes us in the world.
E.V.: How do you feel about being turned into a cultural icon?
M.C.: This matter doesn’t concern me, but those who transformed me into a cultural model. I am not preoccupied by this, I don’t consider myself a star of Romanian cultural life, but a man that works, a man that tries to challenge himself in everything and if I succeed, I am very content. In fact, I want to be important in my own eyes. This is the only thing that matters to me. The fact that some young readers consider me a model can’t but honor me.
E.V.: What do you think that you are touching in other people through your self-referential work?
M.C.: People can’t communicate literally with one another. The great philosophers, such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, demonstrated this very clearly. Instead they communicate indirectly; they communicate through empathy. This empathy makes people able to understand what happens in other people’s souls, enables them to understand indirectly the suffering of others. You cannot feel it directly, but indirectly, through accessing your own feelings, you can understand it. This also is the mechanism that makes possible the human understanding through art and literature. Through literature you can communicate your own pain, your own suffering, your own joy, your own love to other people, who can thus feel it too. They can actually reconstruct it, with the material of their memories, etc. So the fact that, empathically, many people from all cultures and all civilizations are able to understand what I communicate is very satisfying to me. I always wanted to make gifts to people, less to face them with heavy problems which are hard to solve, but what interests me in art is the side of beauty and happiness. And I think this can be communicated through writing, in this aesthetic way.
E.V.: What do you think happened in your life that compelled you to write almost 1,500 pages, the book Orbitor/Glaring?What do you think the world is finding intriguing in your book, and what is the story you have to tell?
M.C.: Orbitor/Glaring is a book that I won’t repeat ever again. It is made to be unique, it is in a way the great book of my life, much like, as I said before, a fleet has a huge aircraft carrier in its center. You don’t need more than one. This aircraft carrier of my writing tried to hold in its 1,500 pages, written in 15 years, just about everything that I lived, everything that I know, everything that I’ve read, all the things that I meditated about in my life. Therefore it is an all-encompassing book, an all-encompassing novel, that I constructed as a butterfly, having a left wing, a body and a right wing, because the butterfly has always been the symbol of the human destiny: the Greeks represented the soul through a woman (Psyche) with butterfly wings. The butterfly, because at the beginning of its life goes through a metamorphosis, starting as a caterpillar, shuts itself in a chrysalis and comes out a winged creature, represents our projection of ourselves: on earth we are crawling beings (caterpillars), then we shut in the chrysalis of the tomb, so that after that we can hope that we’ll have this resurrection as spiritual beings, as winged beings, so the butterfly’s destiny is the best metaphor of human destiny. For me, the completion of this trilogy meant the most important moment, the peak moment of my life. I don’t know what I shall write from now on but I think Orbitor/Glaring will be the center of my writing.
E.V.: What would you want your readers to do after they read it? What impact would you be excited to find that your story had on the world?
M.C.: It’s senseless to write a book if it doesn’t change its reader. The present day reader is overwhelmed by books. So many books are published, only this fall France published 600 books. So it is very hard for a reader to select from them and find the essential books, since life is short. I believe a book should indeed provoke a change in people. Otherwise it’s useless to write it. People, sure, are eager to read stories too, but first of all they are eager to create themselves. The readers’ reactions to books can be extraordinarily diverse, from the waves of suicides provoked by The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe’s book, to, I don’t know, ideology changes. I’d like that the reader should feel an interior enrichment by reading my books, to feel suddenly a more complicated, more complex being, with a finer granulation, so to speak.
E.V.: Why do you live in Bucharest? What does Bucharest mean for you? Are you by now a tenured university professor? Is it necessary for you to live in Bucharest? How do you go about it? What grounds you there, your parents, your living environment, the society, a sense of duty that keeps you there, is that your source of writing?
M.C.: The fact that I live in Bucharest, where I was born, and that probably I won’t live anywhere else permanently, is somewhat by chance. For me it is important that I live where my family is, so if I have my family with me I feel good wherever in the world. Otherwise I can write anywhere, provided I have a closed door behind me. So probably I stayed in Bucharest first of all because I didn’t want strongly to be somewhere else, because for me the place where I am physically is rather indifferent. Fortunately now I live in a very beautiful area in Bucharest, maybe the most beautiful, actually outside Bucharest, in Băneasa Forest, where for a few years I have for the first time a real house, a house with a yard, a house set on land where I feel very good. I don’t wish for more, and I think one can write literature absolutely anywhere in the world, with minimal amenities.
E.V.: Could you tell more about your professorship?
M.C.: In the same vein, I’ve never been interested in advancing my academic career; I never took any steps to advance. My joy is to have pleasant workshops and lectures with my students; other details don’t matter to me. It’s true, I’m 55 years old and I am not a tenure track professor, like practically all of my generation. I am an associate professor within the Romanian Literature department and for now this matter doesn’t bother me very much. I’m not a man who absolutely wishes to get to the top.
E.V.: You previously said, “In the literary world everything can be forgiven, except this poisonous gift named success. I understood this quickly and I had no further illusions.” Do you still feel that way?
M.C.: Success is indeed a poisonous gift for various reasons. First of all it creates adversaries, at least in a country as resentful as Romania is, and secondly it can give you the feeling that you actually deserve this success, which is extremely damaging for the mind and soul, because success is never truly deserved. Success is an illusion, or, how Eminescu said, “Glory is an imagining that a thousand dimwits offer to their idol in prostration.” So I believe that the real success is when you realize that you wrote one page well; that is when you can grow in your own eyes. Otherwise, I find it in bad taste to be preoccupied by this matter; unfortunately it’s unavoidable from a certain point up in your artistic career.
E.V.: You also stated, “Today I wish I stayed a child longer.” What do you mean?
M.C.: I don’t know in what context I said this. Usually, when Romanians say, “I’d like to stay a child longer,” it’s in the context of asking if you want to get married or settle and raise a family. So I think the question is tied with the certain easiness of the life you have during childhood and adolescence, when you are not yet fully formed – actually deformed – by life. I believe that children, and especially adolescents, live a kind of moment of levitation, a magical life moment that you don’t meet again later, when you actually feel you can take any road, that all roads are open to you. Since, step by step, as you advance in life, the roads get set in stone both behind and ahead of you and you can choose but only one direction that takes you to only one place. That’s why I always regretted the unavoidable loss of this paradise that is childhood and for this same reason I wrote a lot about children and adolescents, since they are the only ones that I find truly interesting beings. I don’t find adults that interesting, even nowadays.
E.V.: In spite of the fact that your work is personal, you are still a social being. You took a stand on the Romany matter, on the Holocaust matter. Why did you feel compelled to take a stand in these matters?
M.C.: First of all, I am not an ideologist; I don’t even call myself an intellectual, but a mere artist. I am a man that has emotional reactions and ethical reactions against the entire evil that happens in the world. I don’t see matters in their immediacy as political or ideological but as a human reaction to evil. I think there is very much evil in the world, and any man, not just an artist or a celebrity, has the duty to react to the evil he sees around him. So that this tragic and inescapable situation of the Roma population, not just in Romania but everywhere in Europe and in the world, immediately caught my attention because I was born in Colentina district, and I taught primary school in Colentina, where I had countless pupils of this ethnic background. Then further on through my life, I came across numerous such people who, from head go, have no chance, though they are brilliant people. In our chauvinistic world they will always carry the cross of belonging to this ethnic group. The fact that starting with childhood they are not given the chance to a good education together with the children of the majority, the fact that along their entire lives they are seen as persons deprived of civilization, it fills me with indignation. And this indignation is the impetus; this sadness for the fate of some people who deserve something better is the impetus of my reactions in my political articles. They don’t originate as political, social, or other ideological judgments in general. It’s a reaction to evil. Likewise in the case of Jewish population all over the world, etc.
E.V.: Do you think that your writing, its vividness, how you put the body under the microscope and all that... do you think that it was influenced by the age of videogames and special effects movies?
M.C.: Well, if you consider that I’ve written literature for the last thirty years, the influences might have been very, very different, because actually in those years the world changed a lot technologically. Thirty years ago video games, or the Internet influence, or the computers didn’t even exist. No, my main sources of inspiration were literary, as they should be. Thus I’ve always been, especially in my first verses, inspired by European sources first of all, that is European vanguardism and surrealism, then European modernism, French, German and Romanian, of course. Then, during the ‘80s, my entire generation discovered American literature, American poetry, the poetry written in San Francisco during the ‘50s and ‘60s, that is the Beat poetry, Alan Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, prose writers like Kerouac and Burroughs, and they influenced us strongly. We started to make a literature with a much faster pace, and more immediate, more spoken, more open minded, and so on.
Only in the end this literary genre started to tire me a bit. After I wrote seven books of poetry, I felt it was enough, it made no sense to continue, and I moved to other experiences, from other areas, trying to expand both figuratively and practically. That is I started to write more and more, on larger and larger spaces, so that my last poetry volume was–and maybe it is my best book–Levant is its name, a 200-page epic poem, a Balkan experience, and a literary comedy. In this poem I mix all the styles to be found in Romanian literature, in Romanian poetry, starting with the 18th century till present. It is a book influenced in its structure by the searches of James Joyce. Thereafter I switched entirely to fiction. For twenty years I haven’t written one poem, but I started to write fiction, and this direction gave me enormous satisfaction.
My first book was Nostalgia, which is a book of pure fiction, and I’d say, pure imagination, then after that I wrote a psychoanalytical novel, better said of abyssal psychology, Travesty, and in the end I began this enormous book that took 15 years of my life and which is a novel, as I said, indeed influenced, not so much by the media world around us, but of certain mathematical, logic and philosophical theories with which I came in contact, namely with this world of nonlinear equations, that is chaos theory, catastrophe theory, fractal theory first of all. I could call the Orbitor/Glaring novel, a fractal novel, or a holographic novel, in which each part actually reflects the whole.
The video games that you’ve mentioned and the virtual world, World Live 2, for example, and other manifestations, like the social networks, Facebook, or what have you, influenced my more recent writing. For example in a book named Enciclopedia Zmeilor (The Dragons’ Encyclopedia), a children’s pseudo-book, which is built as a video game, there is indeed a direct influence. Then in other books, like the short story volumes De ce iubim femeile? (Why Do We Love Women?) and Frumoasele străine (The Beautiful Strangers), which are among my latest writing, indeed there you can sense the influence of the “brave new world” in which all of us, willy-nilly, have lately been immersed.
As to my relationship with the computer, it’s a love-hate relationship. I am an avid consumer of electronic gadgets. I always want to get the latest, so that I have an iPhone, and an iPad and so on, and I use them to the fullest. I take advantage of all the possibilities they open up. They are magical things, magical portals, that help you and suck you in at the same time. This being the ambivalence of these media–they are wonderful as virtual experience, as “surfing” you can conduct in all media, but at the same time, if you don’t have an inner structure already formed, they can suck you in completely. And unfortunately this is the case with many of today’s youth, who don’t get to shape their personalities, because they run in all directions on these media, which, in my opinion, has a totally negative influence on them.
E.V.: In Orbitor/Glaring you juxtapose romanticism, surrealism, magic realism, hyper-realism with a realistic recounting of the life of simple people under dreary communism. I felt that you were part of a tradition of Romanian writing; that you were standing on the shoulders of your forefathers. I found echoes of Eugen Barbu, Marin Preda, but also of Eminescu and Tudor Arghezi, with the beauty of ugliness esthetic, the illness of the body…
M.C.: There exists a vein in Romanian fiction, extremely interesting, that starts indeed with Eminescu and is the thread of fantasy fiction. I believe, in rather general terms, I belong under this thread with many of my books. After it exploded in Eminescu’s fiction, in his famous writing in Sărmanul Dionis (Poor Dionysus) or in Avatarii Faraonului Tla (Tla Pharaoh’s Avatars), it continues very strongly in the fantastic fiction of Mircea Eliade, then with Vasile Voiculescu, then with a few writers after the war, during the communist era, such as Stefan Bănescu. I think my writings fundamentally belong to this very imaginative lineage, which at a certain moment is intertwained with the Balkan thread, as you’ve mentioned Eugen Barbu. I would say it bears strange fruits, less common in the world, similar to the South-American magic realism but not quite the same. Also, similar to the American postmodernism, similar to the new French novel, and yet, in a way, independent from them. We’re talking about this magic Balkan universe that immerges also in Kusturica’s films, and in Bregovic’s films, and in the new wave of Romanian cinema, and in the fiction like Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic etc. But beyond all these influences, I think that my book brings something original because it is extraordinarily immersed in an interior world. It’s filled with an extreme subjectivity, which, in my opinion, seldom was attained from Marcel Proust on, Proust being, next to Kafka, my greatest model in fiction. So I think I tried–and maybe in a few privileged pages I succeeded–to descend deeper into myself than other writers did in general. And I think that I brought out from there, from certain obscure rooms of my mind, a few crystal/mineral flowers that live in obscurity and sometimes are brought up to the surface. I think that those few pages that contain them are the most successful pages that I have written.
E.V.: Speaking of style, I think yours is baroque, florid. You deal in overlapping layers, narrations interrupting other narrations; we slide through layers of time, or systems… kingdoms: the animal kingdom, the plant kingdom. Then you put the human body under the microscope. What do you think makes you work in this style? It reminded me very much of Adobe Photoshop, where you have layers…
M.C.: Yes, but the difference between how Adobe Photoshop works and how I work is that I never do. Thus, my books are clean. I write them by hand; my manuscripts are clean. I seldom erase a word, so I rely very much on this interior dictation, on this auto-hypnotic state, I would say, in which I work. It’s as if I would peel away with a razor blade a layer covering the actual writing, as if I’d dig out a preexisting writing. It seldom happens that I erase an entire page . . . I think it was only once or twice in this entire trilogy. In general, my writing is equally elaborate as it is spontaneous.
And now the lady waives her hand signaling that other interviewers are in line too, which is unpleasant, but this is the situation.
E.V.: Well, tough luck, I’ve done my share of waiting, you know. The Voice of America gentleman went overboard by a half an hour. I still have two questions that I must ask you….
M.C.: OK…
E.V.: Why New Orleans? I mean, I’m aware that you visited there on your tour, I’m aware that you are friends with Mr. Andrei Codrescu, he was my professor, actually… but why New Orleans? Or is it just a place in your imagination?
M.C.: The Orbitor/Glaring trilogy, shaped like a butterfly, has also those eyes that decorate the butterfly wings and I thought to shape these peacock eyes like cities. Thus in each of the three parts I focused on one single city, a city that is a magical city, not necessarily a city described realistically. So that in the first volume, the city I concentrated upon is New Orleans, in the second, Amsterdam and in the third, Bellagio from Northern Italy. All these three cities are like precious stones inlaid in my book.
New Orleans because, indeed, I lived for a week in New Orleans in the company of Andrei Codrescu, a week absolutely mad and baroque, as you put it, and I felt, in a way, the phantasmagoric essence of this city, in all its madness, from the Mardi Gras masks to Bourbon Street, with all its fine establishments with music and Cajun food… and all this absolutely strange amalgam fascinated me from the first moment.
But this is just one example, because Amsterdam too, where I lived for two years, has a very strong presence in the second volume, I would say much stronger than New Orleans in the first, and then everything culminates with Bellagio which is an explosion of fantastical.
E.VIt sounds at times that it’s like a memoir covering your parents’ history and yours, and at times I thought, “Is Mircea the butterfly?” And certain details, such as the woman in the elevator feels like she’s Virgin Mary conceiving with an American pilot, a sort of a Zburător/an erotic male dream creature, you know, and then the exodus of the villagers hooked on poppy seeds and opiates… and then the book itself is a thick book, like the Bible. You mention that you’ve recently read the Bible… so is it a new Bible, in a way? Are you are a 21st century apostle? And you were saying that your writing came to you like an automatic dictation, sounds to me very similar to the legend saying Kerouac wrote his On the Road in one session…
I believe that any serious writer has the duty to write his own scripture, so to speak, that is to express his own truth about the world, the way the apostles who wrote the Scriptures did, each of them with his own point of view regarding what is of importance to the world. I believe this mystical and religious side has to be eventually represented in a writer’s work if he wants to do something in the world, not just to tell stories. So I believe that the metaphysic, the mystical, the religiousness in the end has to be the fundamental layer from among those you’ve mentioned, and without which, in my view, neither this world, nor the secondary one, that of books and artistic works, are incomplete.
E.V.: So physically, you could not get out of the country for quite a while, being stuck in the grim reality, a prisoner, and you were daydreaming, you couldn’t conquer the world face to face. Do you think that you set out to conquer the world through your hypnotic words?
M.C.: I hadn’t been outside Romania until I was 34. I didn’t even own a passport, but I didn’t care much about it because my world is an interior world. I gain as much staying in one place as when traveling, as Lao Tze also said. The more you travel, he said, the less you know. In fact, my real travel is around my mind, and I am fully satisfied with it. The fact that I managed to travel in the physical sense of the word, after the Romanian revolution, is still a great gain for me, since any travel also means an expansion of the mental space.
E.V.: Thank you.

My thanks go to Mark Schiwmmer for his strategy of guiding me out of my fears and my bad memories of life under communism that popped up before this interview. Also to my guardian angel, Alina Vatamanu.

Well, here you have it: If you’d like to throw a bit of money my way to keep my endeavors going, and also enable me to spread the money to my various causes, freedom thru art being one of them, I’d be grateful.

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