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An Interview with Mircea Cărtărescu

By Jessie Chaffee

Image: Mircea Cărtărescu. Photo by Jessie Chaffee.

Romanian poet, fiction writer, and journalist Mircea Cărtărescu was awarded the 2016 Premio Gregor von Rezzori for his trilogy Blinding. Born in Bucharest in 1956, he is one of Romania’s premier writers. His works of prose include Nostalgia, Travesti, and The Levant, among others. His awards include the 2012 Berlin Prize for Literature, the 2013 Spycher-Leuk in Switzerland, and the 2015 Austrian State Prize for European Literature.

I had the opportunity to speak with Mircea about his evolution as a writer and the creation of his prize-winning novel Blinding during the 2016 Festival degli Scrittori in Florence, Italy, before he was announced as the winner of the Gregor von Rezzori Prize.

Words Without Borders: How did you come to writing and how have you evolved as a writer over time?

Mircea Cărtărescu (MC): I grew up in a house without books. My parents were simple workers and they didn’t read. To have anything to read, I had to go to the library to borrow books. Reading became the great pleasure of my life. I bought books whenever I could and I started to build, little by little, my own bookcase at home and to gather 100, 200 books that I loved. Before being a writer I was a great reader. If I look back, I always see myself with a book in my hands. And because I read so much, poetry and also prose, at a certain moment, I felt the need to write myself—to write first poems, then my own short stories, and so on. I remember that my first novel was begun at the age of nine. It was a novel consisting of ten pages.

WWB: That’s a lot for a nine-year-old.

MC: Yes, it was a long novel. It was my bildungsroman. College was the perfect milieu for me to develop as a writer. I studied letters and I had great professors. Some of the best literary critics in Romania were my professors, and because of them and because of my wonderful colleagues from the same generation, I started to trust myself, to have the courage to express what I wanted to say. When I was twenty, I wrote my first professional poem, which I ended up publishing with my first volume of poetry when I was twenty-four. At first I only wrote poetry. I wrote six or seven volumes before starting to write fiction. I shifted to prose because at a certain moment, I got sick and tired with writing poetry. It was a big corpus of poetry—about 1000 pages. I said “it is enough,” and I divorced from poetry and married prose.

It was the most important step in my career when I realized that I was not mainly a poet but a prose writer. This started to change everything. My first book of fiction was a collection of five stories called Nostalgia, published in 1989, which is now a cult book in Romania. It was a book of youth. Even now I have nostalgia for Nostalgia, for that first book, which contains all the topics of my later writings.

I was forced to invent my ancestors . . . I always envy aristocratic writers who have a long record of their families. But I don’t. So I had to invent.

WWB: How did Blinding, the novel nominated for the Gregor von Rezzori Prize, come about? What inspired it?

MC: Blinding was the greatest adventure of my life. The book had been for a long time in my mind—seven or eight years—before I started writing it. Once I started, I fell into a sort of a trance that lasted for fourteen years. I wrote the book just as though I were transcribing it. I never erased anything, no more than one or two words in ten pages. It was like it flowed from the first page to the last page. I have the original manuscript at home because I wrote it by hand—it’s three big notebooks full of very tiny and very minute writing. It was the adventure of my life. I was tremendously happy.

WWB: How much of that work relied on memories and how much of it was created from your imagination, and where do you see that line?

MC: I am not very conscious about the distinction between real memories and false memories and invented memories and so on. So for example I start writing about my mother and my mother’s ancestors, but because my mother was a simple peasant, I don’t know many things about my grandparents, her mother and father. So if I didn’t have enough real information, I was forced to invent my ancestors. Invent a history of my family. I always envy aristocratic writers who have a long record of their families. But I don’t. So I had to invent all kinds of characters—very strange, very peculiar—and pretend that they were my grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on. So in my case, the imagination substitutes for the lack of memories, the lack of documents, and so on, about my own life and the life of the previous people in my lineage. Maybe it is because of this lack of information that my books are so imaginative.

WWB: Having lived and written in different places, does where you are—the location, the geography, the culture—influence your process or change the content of your work?

MC: You know my country is where my family is. I had lots of grants in all kinds of places—I stayed many times in Germany, in Austria, and in Amsterdam, where I lived for two years—but everywhere I felt at home if my wife was with me and my little son. I don’t care too much where I write. I have only one or two demands: the first is to be alone in a room with the door closed behind me, and the second is a cup of coffee on the table. So I don’t need some special thing to bring me inspiration. Everything is inside—in corpo.

Image: Mircea Cărtărescu (right) discusses Blinding with his Italian translator Bruno Mazzoni (left) and writer Vanni Santoni (center). Photo by Jessie Chaffee.

WWB: Who are some of the writers—Romanian or otherwise—with whom you feel your works is influenced by or in conversation with?

MC: There are maybe hundreds of people who influence my work. I praise myself more as a reader than as a writer. My main influences are from the classics of modernity, like James Joyce, Robert Musil, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf. But I was also influenced by the Latin American prose writers like Ernesto Sabato, Julio Cortázar, of course Márquez, and Vargas Llosa. And also writers from the United States—Thomas Pynchon is one of the major influences on my work. But also many others, like John Barth and Donald Barthelme.

WWB: Have you been involved in the translation of your work, and have you read your work in translation? Do you have a sense of how it reads in other languages?

MC: Not at all. Well, in this respect, I’m a special case. I work with the very best of the translators from Romanian into other languages. So we are a sort of a family. They are around me like a wall of very good friends—I think my best friends are my translators. And I absolutely trust them because I know that each and every one is the best. Bruno Manzoni is the best for Italy, for example.

WWB: He’s translated seven of your books?

MC: Yes. And there are many others in the same situation. For example, my Swedish translator, Inger Johansson, translated thousands of pages from my works. And the Norwegian one too, and the Bulgarian one, and Jan Willem Bos from the Netherlands, and so on. And they are not only translators. All of them are university professors, are very intelligent and very talented writers. Besides they have the same mental encyclopedia as I have, so they know the Romanian life and customs and the Romanian environment as well as I know it. It’s the same with the language. So I trust them. I never work with them, and I don’t read their translations—in some cases I can’t because I don’t know the languages. But I could read in French or in English or maybe even in Italian. But I don’t read my own works even in Romanian. I never reread them. Why look back when you can look forward?

WWB: And keep producing.

MC: And keep writing, yes. No guy who rides a bicycle looks back because otherwise he’ll run into a tree.

They are around me like a wall of very good friends—I think my best friends are my translators.

WWB: Have you been at all surprised by how your work has been received in other countries?

MC: My reception in different countries is very different. I’m very well received at this moment in the northern countries—in Sweden, Norway, Denmark. And in the Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. But in the last years the situation of my books improved in the Mediterranean countries. In Spain, I started to have great success in the last two or three years when I took two major prizes. And here in Italy things are starting to move, too, after many years of obscurity. I’m nominated for two different prizes in Italy—the Gregor Von Rezzori Prize and the Strega Prize. It’s a very good sign because it would be a pity for us—for the Romanian writers—not to be understood in Italy where so many Romanians are. There has been such a big migration of Romanians—we have a million Romanians in Italy now, and two million in Spain.

WWB: So you hope that your work will reach those readers.

MC: I think it could be important, yes. 

Read more dispatches from the 2016 Festival degli Scrittori.

Read Mircea Cărtărescu’s work on WWB:

Published Jun 23, 2016   Copyright 2016 Jessie Chaffee

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