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from the September 2021 issue

“Psychedelic,” “Profound,” “a Feminist Classic”: Magda Cârneci’s “FEM” Challenges Definitions

Reviewed by Jozefina Komporaly

Blurring genre boundaries, Cârneci's debut novel brings to life a mesmerizing landscape of female desire and frustration. As the fragmented yet captivating narrative examines the twin subjects of love and loss, readers are confronted with the ultimate feminist agenda of a woman’s right to choose, together with the numerous hurdles and dilemmas associated with it

Magda Cârneci’s FEM was first published in Romanian a decade ago (Cartea Românească, 2011) and reissued by Polirom in its popular “Top 10+” series in 2014. The novel was nominated for the annual award of the Romanian Writers’ Union, the Augustin Frăţilă Award, and for prestigious awards given by Radio România Cultural and the cultural weekly Observator cultural. Its first foreign translation, by Florica Courriol, was published in 2018 by Non Lieu in Paris, followed by Sean Cotter’s hot-off-the-press English version for Deep Vellum in 2021. In the short time since its publication, this English version has garnered well-deserved attention and praise, and in addition to receiving several high-profile reviews, it was Asymptote’s Book Club selection for June 2021.   

To date, this book is Cârneci’s only foray into the realm of full-length literary fiction, and what a debut it has been! It has received numerous accolades by major literary figures, Mircea Cărtărescu calling it “a protest novel” and Deborah Levy highlighting its “profound, mysterious” and emotionally gripping nature. Fiona Sampson reminds readers of the book’s “sensual yet also intellectually and politically charged” content and hails it as a work “that can change lives.” Literary critics have been equally generous. Alta Ifland’s review in the Los Angeles Review of Books establishes a parallel with the work of Clarice Lispector, and there has been a notable tendency to welcome the book into the international feminist canon. Adina Diniţoiu points out the novel’s “initiatory” qualities, while Marius Mihet draws attention to its potential as a “psychedelic novel about the essences of femininity.”  

Cârneci is best known for her award-winning poetry. She is a member of the influential eighties generation in Romanian culture that includes internationally towering figures such as Mircea Cărtărescu and Matei Visniec.1 In fact, Cârneci is among the very few women writers on the male-dominated scene of contemporary Romanian literature. Romanian society has been and continues to be a predominantly patriarchal society, in which women’s roles are still likely to be defined along traditional gender lines. The work of important feminist scholars and activists such as Mihaela Miroiu, Maria Bucur, and Laura Grunberg has done a great to deal to challenge this status quo, and Cârneci joins them in this endeavour by deploying a literary, rather than overtly political, challenge. Her contribution is additionally significant seeing that she simultaneously subverts the formal purity of literary genres, introducing a fusion between poetry and prose that was seldom seen at the time and has since been taken up and practiced by several younger women authors.  

FEM is a work rooted in what Stefan Borbely calls “cruel and bewildering honesty,” written in a truly experimental format that blurs the boundaries between literary genres. In FEM, Cârneci adopts a lyrical tone and the perspective of a young female narrator, who tells the story of her life to a man she is on the cusp of leaving. She calls herself “a kind of Scheherazade” whose storytelling is captivating yet fragmented and modular, in keeping with the novel’s elegant postmodern style. Even though the story follows a chronological timeline from childhood to adulthood, the narration gains dreamlike and visionary qualities, juxtaposing details of mundane incidents with descriptions of life-changing events.

As a novel about the female experience par excellence, FEM addresses key aspects of becoming a woman, such as the protagonist’s first period and her indecision about having a child. These passages constitute pioneering discussions of such topics in Romanian literature, and rightly situate Cârneci’s prose among global feminist classics. Just as importantly, however, the novel is about intimacy and that unique relationship with another human being that is simultaneously sexual, sensual, loving, disappointing, and ultimately unbearable. As FEM’s highly stylized and meandering prose examines the twin subjects of love and loss, readers are confronted with the ultimate feminist agenda of a woman’s right to choose, together with the numerous hurdles and dilemmas associated with it. Sean Cotter’s elegant translation meaningfully punctuates this internal tension and brings to life a mesmerizing landscape of female desire and frustration.  

The novel fluctuates between passages in which the protagonist addresses her male partner and her reminiscences about her life, mainly in the first person and occasionally in third person narrative. Sections directly addressed to this man frame the book, thus positioning the protagonist as a modern-day mythical storyteller whose incursions into the past serve the poignant purpose of explaining the present and paving the way for her eventual decision to move on. Ultimately, this contemporary Scheherazade is bracing up not only to leave a particular partner but also to liberate herself from the shackles of a life lived on someone else’s terms, with a view to carve an alternate path for herself and start anew:

Darling, I needed to liberate my brain from these visions, to leave them behind, solidified. To leave them like the shells of odd, exotic snails, on the impersonal beach of memory detached from myself. To leave them behind like testimonies, like concrete proofs, on the yellow sand, fine and damp, on the shores of this deep world, this giant aquarium full of turbulent water, from which somehow, I do not know how, I might escape, might extract myself for a moment. I could toss myself onto the shore, onto the other side, to suffocate myself in the new air, in the too-pure ether, to feel like I might lose consciousness. To believe I have died. And then to find, I do not know how, that I escaped this shell for a moment, that I can rise, I can breathe again, I can fly. With another understanding, with another state of being. 

Cârneci’s work deserves wider international attention on the strength of this passage alone, and I can only hope that this beautifully crafted publication is just the beginning.


1. In June 2021, a discussion involving these three major figures was hosted by Miriam Balanescu as part of the Romanian Cultural Institute in London’s series of literary events “The 1980s’ Generation and the Republic of Literature” and is available here. A video of Cârneci reading from Sean Cotter’s translation of FEM as part of the Romania Rocks Festival in October 2020 can be viewed here.


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