Mircea Cărtărescu Stares Down the Abyss

Mircea Cărtărescu Stares Down the Abyss

The Romanian writer Mircea Cărtărescu boasts a long, international-award-winning bibliography of poetry and prose. Yet in his fiction, he often speaks through narrators hostile to publication and recognition.

Detail from a painting by Romanian surrealist Victor Brauner (1903–1966) (Yannick/Flickr)

by Mircea Cărtărescu, trans. by Sean Cotter
Deep Vellum, 2022, 672 pp.

We are living in a golden era of publishing. Bowker, the company that assigns ISBN numbers to all new books, calculated that in the United States in 2018 there were 1,677,781 new self-published works. Much of this output is enabled by Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform, on which anyone can upload a Word document and turn it into an e-book. The literary theorist Mark McGurl has argued that a significant percentage of these e-books are novels that nobody has ever read. (Judging by the typos and formatting errors he discovered in his research, many may not have been read even by their authors.) These thousands upon thousands of unopened mysteries, romances, and post-apocalyptic fantasies surely hold secrets of contemporary life—maybe even more so because they haven’t been read. “Doesn’t the very uselessness of the great unread of contemporary fiction bring it into ironic alignment with the work of genius in the great tradition of aesthetic theory?” McGurl asks in Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon. “The latter’s power has always been understood to be a function of its transcendence of mere utility.” McGurl is right that what ideological power literature still retains is directly related to the contradictory uselessness and necessity of its great works. But he misses a point of contrast that is worth noting: whereas the author of I Married a Billionaire Zombie 6 rushes work into a marketplace where it finds no takers, some of the most celebrated and influential literary practitioners have been those whose process has included an aversion to publication.

Emily Dickinson died with the bulk of her oeuvre locked in her room. Fernando Pessoa, who published only one book in his lifetime, left behind more than 25,000 pages. Franz Kafka asked for his unfinished work to be incinerated. After Kafka’s death, his friend and literary executor, Max Brod, found two separate undated letters expressing this wish. The burnt offerings would have included, among so much else, The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika. Just as literature’s time-consuming uselessness represents to some a problem in need of a solution (reading is therapeutic, educational, etc.), so do Kafka’s request and Brod’s denial of it. Who was right? Or, does Brod’s gesture, as Elif Batuman wrote while covering a trial involving disputed papers from Kafka’s estate, confirm “that Kafka’s works weren’t even Kafka’s private property but, rather, belonged to humanity?” For many, the situation of the publication-averse masterpiece-generator escapes—and exposes—the gravity of market logic in everyday life.