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. 

Mircea Cărtărescu, perhaps the most acclaimed Romanian writer alive, boasts a long, international-award-winning bibliography of poetry and prose. And yet, in his anti-realistic fiction, he often speaks through narrators hostile to publication and recognition. In the first story he ever wrote, “The Roulette Player,” which opens the collection Nostalgia, an aging writer of some renown denigrates his previous work as mere “powder and dust.” In contrast, the story we’re reading, “these ten, fifteen pages, they are a different matter, a different game,” because no one other than the author will read them. In Cărtărescu’s second story ever written, “Mentardy,” the narrator interrupts the tale of a supernaturally strange child to note, “I am not so sure I wish to read this text in our literary circle. It is not really literature, and it’s becoming too much of something else.” Cărtărescu, a literature professor in Bucharest, has been, since his youth, an enthusiastic reader of Pynchon, and, like Pynchon, he has a knack for hallucinatory tension. When his conceit is that the story will never be read, the reader evaporates into a fantastical vacuum. 

Additionally, Cărtărescu has claimed to have an unusual, almost anti-professional writing process, one that flouts the conventions of readying-for-publication: he composes his novels and stories longhand, and he doesn’t edit or revise. “I write just one or two pages a day, yes, only in the morning, and I never add or take out anything,” he has said. “But what is important is that I never have a plan or a story in mind. Each page is revealed to me at the moment I start to write. Each page could (and does) change everything.” This approach surely contributes to the style of his narratives, which feel always about to slip away, as if resistant to having been printed permanently on the page. César Aira’s digressive improvisations achieve a similar sensation of an author in flight, always ready to zag toward arresting images. But whereas Aira is conversational, Cărtărescu is staring into an abyss. 

Cărtărescu’s Solenoid, written in the early 2010s and first published in Romania in 2015, is now available in an English translation by Sean Cotter. It presents itself as a 675-page manuscript written in 1980s Romania by a failed writer who swears he will never publish the words we’re reading. Critics across Europe—where the novel has appeared in German, French, Swedish, Dutch, Spanish, and Italian—have lauded Solenoid as a major work, if not a masterpiece. Like Cărtărescu, the unnamed narrator was born in Bucharest in 1956 and raised in the city. Both were precocious young men who shared their poetry in literary workshops while in college. However, Cărtărescu gained recognition for his writing, and the novel’s narrator abandoned poetry after his attempt at an epic was torn to shreds by his peers. When the novel begins, he is a decade older, around thirty, living alone in a strange house on the outskirts of Bucharest and teaching Romanian literature and grammar at an obscure secondary school. In Solenoid’s opening sentence, he writes about readying to wash his hair to get rid of lice he caught from students.

Solenoid’s narrator declares over and over that he’s glad his poetry failed. He would not like to be an author. His reason? Earth is an “extermination camp”—everyone living on it is sentenced to die, and literature offers nothing in the face of this problem. Literature is only “a machine for producing first beatitude, then disappointment.” Only the discovery of an existence outside the shackles of time, space, and the body interests him: “Our destiny ought to be escape, if only to escape into a bigger prison.” And into an even bigger prison after that, and another, even bigger prison after that. He often fixates, like a crank, on issues of analogy and scale.

The privacy of the manuscript is central to his search for this destiny, which he believes will be achieved only through an understanding of his “unknown” life: “I am writing, not in order to read it, as its sole future reader, forgetting myself for a few hours beside the fire,” he says, “but to read it while I write it and attempt to understand. I will be the only writer/reader of this story.” In these lines the narrator seems to share Cărtărescu’s sense of writing as improvised performance. 

But what follows is not all haunted commentary. Far from it. Solenoid is rich with plots, characters, and forms. Across fifty-one fragmentary chapters, there are cosmic horror stories of strange visitors appearing and disappearing next to his bed at night; realistic accounts of the deprivations of 1980s Romania; fantastic tours through his impossible house, where the arrangement of the rooms is always different and a button in the shape of a nipple allows him to levitate above his bed; adventures in an abandoned factory near his school (no one remembers what was made there); embellished potted histories of forensic scientists and those who strive to depict more than three dimensions; satirical portraits of schoolteachers; excerpts from old diaries; poems; descriptions of dreams; a romance with a fellow teacher; passages of pseudo-memoir complete with a sinister summer camp; and a retelling of the Gospels in which all the characters are mites. All of this strangeness is powered by what might be called the main thread of the novel: a mysticism-cloaked conspiracy thriller questioning the nature and purpose of six human-sized solenoids—metal coils used to conduct electricity—that have been placed around Bucharest and have reality-altering properties. One is under the narrator’s home, which is why his house is so weird. (The home has an immaculate dentist’s chair installed at the bottom of a locked tower, too.) 

Though the narrator cuts in every now and then to rail against the falseness of literature, the vast bulk of Solenoid reads as a collage of familiar, albeit singularly rendered, forms. Cărtărescu also employs that most ordinary building block of literary storytelling: suspense. He is expert at dropping a hint about some reveal or revelation and then, after a well-calibrated delay, delivering. In such a seemingly formless novel, written without fore- or hindsight, Cărtărescu makes and keeps dozens of such promises. “I can hardly wait to finish telling the insane story of what happened at the Institute of Forensic Medicine,” he writes in a typical passage. But then he grinds the story to a halt to copy a poem and analyze it. Next comes an excerpt from Herodotus—and still more—before the reader is rewarded with the loony account of what happened (complete with a statue coming to life). The payoff is always worth it.

Solenoid has a clear antecedent in Kafka’s Diaries, a publication-averse work on multiple fronts: not only was it meant for the author’s eyes only; it was arranged in such a way as to make organization (and, thus, printing) difficult, with marginalia and crossouts cluttering the text, and entries proceeding from both the beginning and end of the notebooks, in seemingly random order, until the two met in the middle. And, like the rest of his work, it was meant to be burned when Kafka died. Part of the strange grip of the Diaries comes from a voyeurism spurred by Kafka’s tragic celebrity, but something else also hangs in the air. The lurch between self-doubt, daydream, theatrical review, current events, and parable becomes, as the pages turn, no lurch at all, thanks to an ever-pervasive mood—the mood of it seeming very hard but very necessary for the writer to write exactly what has been written so that the words can be seen by the author’s eyes. Solenoid similarly coalesces, and it’s no coincidence. On several occasions, the narrator approvingly shares an extremely obscure quote from the Diaries, one that is found in very few of the published versions: “The master of dreams, the great Issachar, sat in front of the mirror, his spine against its surface, his head hanging far back, sunk deep into the mirror. Then Hermana appeared, master of the twilight, and she melted into Issachar’s chest, until she completely disappeared.” This fragment drives Solenoid’s narrator to ecstasy. He writes it on a piece of paper and puts it in a drawer with his baby teeth and a lock of childhood hair. “I don’t think a truer thing has ever been written in the world,” he writes.

Why on earth would that mysterious fragment be so true? Cărtărescu has said he writes to know and heal himself, “like Kafka,” and that he admires Kafka because “he didn’t want to produce books. He was only interested in the act of writing, in the process of writing.” Cărtărescu has also said that Romania in the mid-1980s, the setting of Solenoid and the birthplace of his venture into fiction, was a “prison,” and his turn to prose a “consolation.” In that decade, Romania’s Communist leader, Nicolae Ceauşescu, who had been in power since 1965, became increasingly dictatorial as he pursued a mix of extreme nationalism and a cult of personality copied, in part, from study of Kim Il Sung and Mao Zedong. The Securitate, the country’s well-funded secret police, made paranoia and brutality routine. In the wake of risky, heavily leveraged infrastructure projects in the 1970s, foreign debts had mounted to the point that Ceauşescu, per an agreement for a credit line with the International Monetary Fund, made payments on these debts the principal national priority. The vast majority of agricultural products were marked for export, and social service spending was slashed. “People were practically surviving on bark and roots,” Cărtărescu has said. “It was like in North Korea.”

In Solenoid, this reality peeks through the strange dreams, living statues, and otherworldly dentist chairs. People begin standing in line at dawn “in an awful winter wind, in an animalistic crowd, for a speck of chicken or a bottle of milk as thin as water.” It was in similar conditions that a young Cărtărescu dedicated himself to literature. Though public displays of resistance were rare and punished severely, there was, strangely, “the continued possibility, even when the cult of Ceauşescu was at its most delirious, to publish good, apolitical, and sometimes even obliquely critical books,” writes Romanian literary critic Matei Călinescu, who defected to the United States in 1973. An author just had to be careful: they might, for instance, change a sunset from red to orange to preclude the idea that it was a metaphor for the Communist Party. They could write in an ahistorical, fable-like style or disappear completely into aesthetics. Still, the authorities could be capricious, and even a whiff of outright dissidence would never be tolerated. When Cărtărescu’s Nostalgia was first published, in 1989, just months before the revolution that toppled the Ceauşescu regime, the final story, “The Architect,” was cut by censors. This was done, Cărtărescu has said, not because the story was subversive—it’s about an architect with a passion for playing a car horn like a musical instrument—but because Ceauşescu had recently been nicknamed the Architect as ironic commentary on his destruction of Romanian villages. No wonder the example of Kafka, a man who “didn’t want to produce books” and “was only interested in the act of writing” appealed to Cărtărescu, and no wonder Bucharest in the 1980s seemed the perfect setting in which to place his publication-averse alter ego.

Though depictions of Ceauşescu—called only the Comrade—appear in the book, the most direct political commentary comes from the Picketists, an illegal, anti-death protest movement, which the narrator joins. The group’s mission is stated in absurdly universal terms, with slogans like “Down with Aging!” and “Pro Human Dignity!” But poignancy and bravery animate their all-encompassing indignation. They are beaten by police when they gather, and an officer lectures students at the school where the narrator teaches that anyone, even their parents, should be turned in if they are seen signaling that they belong to the Picketists (which, in one of Cărtărescu’s most indelible images, is done by opening a closed fist to reveal an insect in the palm of the hand). In one protest action, after listening to a speech by a man who was abducted and tortured by unearthly forces, and whose skin over his torso had been replaced by those forces with transparent material, revealing his organs, the crowd erupts in desperation. They begin a frenzied chant of “help! help! help!” as they riot. The word “help!” repeats for nine and a half pages. One must imagine Cărtărescu, over his notebook, on a morning in the twenty-first century, writing the word 3,105 times in a row by hand. Here, again, a startling difficulty and necessity on the part of the writer appears.

Yet, for the narrator, art has limits. One night, while he is lying in bed with his girlfriend, a reality-doubting physics teacher named Irina, she asks him, “What would you do if you could save one thing only from a burning building, and you had to choose between a famous painting and a newborn child?” He is uncommonly quick and resolute with his answer: “the child.” No matter how she raises the stakes—What if the child was sick? Destined to become Hitler? The painting this or that masterpiece?—his answer never changes. “Before us is an endless branching of worlds,” he tells her, “but without the child at the start, none of them exist.”

He is tested in one of the novel’s climactic scenes. A protest by the Picketists takes an apocalyptic turn when a statue representing damnation opens up a fiery pit that leads into hell, and the narrator and Irina, now holding their baby daughter, intuit what they must do. While she holds their child over the pit, he throws his manuscript, presumably the one we have been reading, into the fire. Irina pulls the baby back into the safety of her arms, and the book is no more. 

This moment punctures the pretense that had been so artfully maintained for the previous 600 pages: Solenoid can no longer be the diary of the failed writer. That work is in ashes. So what is Solenoid, then? The only answer available is the obvious: Solenoid is not a work “beyond literature”; it is mere literature, written, as it must be, by the narrator’s successful other self, Mircea Cărtărescu. He has, as we know from the book in our hands, published another new work, offering beatitude followed by disappointment. He could have left Solenoid unfinished, unpublished, waiting for someone to find it in a drawer. Instead, within the book, he burns the escape attempt. In the pages after the manuscript’s destruction, the narrator sounds almost stultifyingly sentimental. Describing giving his daughter a bath, he writes, “I have so often felt, in those moments I never thought I would experience, that I did escape in the end, that I flew through all dimensions in an unexpected escape from self.” He has chosen human connection. 

This sunnier ending reminded me of a conversation with Bertolt Brecht that Walter Benjamin recorded in his diary. Brecht was explaining how Kafka’s visionary qualities led him to see the problem of the future as a problem of organization, and to fear “the empire of ants: the thought of men being alienated from themselves by the forms of their life in society.” Kafka was ultimately a failure, Brecht thought, because “he never found a solution and never awoke from his nightmare.” Maybe that’s why he wanted it all burned.

Matt Weir is a writer based in New York.