Andreea Răsuceanu I think is the contemporary literary writer / critic who loves Bucharest the most. Otherwise, she would not dedicate so many books to the city. If so far she has analyzed it from the perspective of literary criticism and geography (The Two Mantises, Bucharest of Micea Eliade. Elements of literary geography, literary Bucharest. Possible readings of the city.), the last book An unknown form of life is a novel in which Bucharest is the silent witness that stores the stories, destinies and characters.
I’ll let you discover Andreea Răsuceanu and her vision through the following interview.
Andreea Răsuceanu, how did An unknown form of life begin?
The novel has been in my mind for about ten years, I have written fragments, over time, I actually started doing research for my doctoral thesis, Mahalaua Mantuleasa, the road to modernity. Three years ago I went to the City and Literature festival, where I read those first fragments, written in 2009. The room was full of critics and writers, and their feedback was very good, which made me start writing consistently. That’s how it started, three years ago I wrote the book, it was an exhausting experience. But I already had about 30% of the story, I had a starting point.
I’ve been thinking a lot about whether to make the structure like this, tripartite or not. I consulted with several publishers, writers and critics – it is not wrong to give the book to more people to read, each one comes with his own opinion, according to his horizon of expectation, as he sees the literature. But in the end, although there were all kinds of opinions, I followed my instinct, wrote it as requested, even though it may be a more demanding construction for the reader.
Andreea Răsuceanu, how much is fiction, how much is a historical document in An unknown for of life?
Everything started from the historical document, but that does not mean that I found my characters ready in the documents. You know what the documents look like, whether they are donation documents, wills, applications, etc. – they have an official character, and therefore a formal language. However, if you know how to read them, you will discover many things about those who formulated them, about their hidden desires, their ambitions, their dissatisfaction. I started, when I wrote the history of Mântuleasa street, from two acts of donation, a request addressed to the town hall and a penny. It’s hard enough to get a character out of here. (Smile). What I found was a profile, so, very vague, of the character that later became quite different: I wrote their story the way I wanted it to be, not as I think it was. In the doctoral thesis I could not interpret the documents, I could not fill the gaps in them with my imagination. And that frustration gradually built up, because I was still imagining what it must have been like. You get to live with this obsession, to see the characters, to hear them. This book was like an outlet, I think from here the force that was talked about, it just broke out of me after a long time of accumulation.
I was concerned to render the epoch as best as possible, but in an organic, lively way, without loading the text with information just for the sake of showing that I know many things about one historical interval or another. All these places (n. R. In Romanian) are very well studied, whether I have read, I have documented them, or I have beaten them many times. Until I felt like I was making them mine, I didn’t start writing.
Jumping from one to the other, I even went to Cernăteștiul about which I write. It is not about Cernătești today, near Buzău, but about the old Cernătești, which was somewhere near the Călugărească Valley. There were the founders of the Mantuleasa church, who are also characters of the book, there is even a valley of Mantia (it is about Mantu the cupe, the missing husband of the Rock). And now it is a semi-wild area, so I imagine it was even wilder, with rare houses surrounded by vines. On this narrow valley, people descended before, from the vineyards they had on the hill. I often went these ways on foot, until I felt I could write about those places as if they were mine.
Exact. I can’t write about places in the imagination, not even about Istanbul. I went and saw him. Until I lived a bit in that place I didn’t start writing. It seems vital to me that this connection between the individual and the place where he lives, or through which he just passes, but that acquires a certain significance for him.
In the foreground of the book, the one in person I, which is a kind of mourning diary, the narrator is obsessed with living once more, with Ioana, at the same time and place. This is an obsession of the search that the other characters have. This importance of places appears on many levels in the book. In fact, the book starts with the history of a place. It is about the land on which the former Mântuleasa school stood (above some huge cellars), and another piece of land next to it. Here I think it was, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Manților household, here was also the house of Elena Mangâru, at the beginning of the 20th century. Here is, in the novel, the house where Ioana lives, for a period, during the Second World War.
Is the cellar story real?
Yes, it’s real. At one point I found a document in which Elena Mangăru asked the town hall to give her a 300-meter section near Mantuleasa School, because she wanted to build a house there and the foundation could not be placed because of some cellars. from deep, that nothing could be built above them. Of course, I made the connection with the cellars from Eliade’s prose (in fact, the whole historical center of Bucharest, like the one in Cluj, is full of such wine cellars and catacombs). Certainly the Mint merchants brought the famous wine from Cernătești and stored it in these cellars. I found it extraordinary that history sometimes imitates literature, and not just the other way around, and starting from here I wrote the story of its area and of the house. That’s in my first book, The Two Mantles. After that, I began to imagine more than I found in the file folder about the piece of land near the Mantuleasa school, and it was only here that I finally felt extraordinarily free. Indeed, fiction, literature give you the greatest freedom. I could imagine, not reconstruct, the story of these women who want to create something sustainable, perennial, in a period that is against them, whether it’s the 18th century or the First World War. All live with the obsession of remaining somehow in the collective consciousness, in the memory of posterity, and choose to do so through a creative act.
How to read the book, An unknown for of life?
There have already been many things that I have enjoyed because a book does not really exist until it is read and does not create a moment for discussion, debate around it. It has been said that it is a historical, social novel, that it is a philosophical novel, that it is a very well written book, as it has not been written in Romanian literature for a long time, a book that will stand the test of time. and about its dark, morbid dimension. I enjoy all the reactions, even the ones I don’t identify with, because, as I said, it is important for a book to be read, to be alive.
What is the connection with photography, I feel that many pictures appear. I’m thinking of Roland Barthes’s analysis – The luminous camera, with the idea of a punctuation point. I see the punctum, the eyes, the eyes. There you stop, there you give an extra note.
I was glad that many noticed the important role of photography in the book. The idea of photography. Photography is a vehicle of memory, first and foremost. But despite the impression that it extracts a certain moment, an instance of our existence, saves it from destruction and disappearance, in fact, the photograph includes a small death, an unrecoverable moment, past, lost forever. He can be revived, recovered through our memory, but never exactly as he was, but transformed, an ally by our perception, by nostalgia, by all the feelings that provoke us, with or without our will, the sight of a photograph. The photo also places us in a certain position of vulnerability, it exposes us to an external, foreign look: one of the characters in the book, Joan the Great, burns her photos after seeing how portraits of a recently dead woman are thrown into the trash and taken by the wind.
Do you have a go at collecting photos?
Of course, yes. All my books are illustrated. This is also due to my training in the Center of Excellence in Image Study and to my teacher Sorin Alexandrescu. He instilled my interest in the study of the image, theoretically, but not only. I tried to illustrate my book as widely as possible, in the case of the volume about Mântuleasa street I had a corpus of images with documents, mural painting, photography of museum objects, etc.
I have a pretty substantial collection of old photography, for a while I scoured through all the antique shops for this purpose.
Where is your passion for Bucharest? You are a Bucharestean of many generations if I am not mistaken.
Yes, but to know that if I were from Cluj I would still be interested in the city, that is, the space between the boundaries you exist. I think the place where you live defines you, it definitely puts its mark on you. Whenever I went on scholarships, I went to Paris with a post-doctoral scholarship, for example, it was extraordinary, however, there I could not write. I could do anything: research, I read a lot in the library, I went to classes, meetings with the research group I was a member of, but I couldn’t write. And it’s not just about literature, but also about criticism or theory. I was writing hard, stupid, repetitive. Just back home I got my hand back.
I had an interview in the spring with Attila Bartis and she said about Transylvania that there are places you call home, but you can’t really leave. Is Bucharest the same for you?
I always thought that home was the place where you were born. And I was very interested in this relationship, with the space in which you live. There is always a close connection between the individual and the place where he or she is born and lived. On the other hand, because you somehow impose your own imprint on the morphology of the place, on the other hand, because the place influences you, and in time, you go through a subtle transformation, which you sometimes don’t even notice.
For me, sometimes, Bucharest is a necessary evil, it becomes unbearable because it has become suffocating. Then I take refuge in the islands behind the great boulevards, the quiet little streets, and there you feel you breathe, you feel that time has stopped. It’s kind of weird, because these streets, even though they are surrounded by the big boulevards and their noise should be heard, doesn’t happen. There are other smells that seem to have remained from other times, and sometimes you feel that if you are not careful and still return to those places, you can be in the same place and time with your characters. However, Bucharest is the place I cannot leave for a long time, it is the only place where I can really write, especially literature.
What do our contemporary writers look like from a publisher’s perspective?
When I was proposed to take over the collection of contemporary prose from Humanitas, it is better than a year since then, I had in mind the robot portrait of the ideal contemporary Romanian writer. I wanted each book to be different, to show a different side of literature, to explore other areas. Let it be another type of fiction that offers an alternative to rather minimalist writing, purified by any kind of style elements. Not in the sense that I wanted all writers to be halophiles, but to find very personal voices, voices to walk and less beaten at this time. Of course, I also thought about the pros I really like and knew I was working on a new book.
The first of them was Augustin Cupșa with a novel (So grow the grass on us) that I read breathlessly and to which I said yes immediately. I think it’s a very strong voice and I really like that it knows how to reinvent itself from one book to another and is just as believable. He has something recognizable, there is an imprint of his writing, but he does not get bored and does not go to the same area of fiction.
Then, I wanted to publish a novel that seems to be undervalued, it’s about Diana Adamek. I do not know if necessarily undervalued, but less commented, less discussed. It comes with a very elaborate, subtle, very refined prose. He is currently working on a new novel, which will be released next year – The Year of Spells. In fact, I searched for every writer included in the collection with a very strong and unique voice and I think I found some convincing voices.
Sebastian Sifft came with a very powerful novel, with a unique formula, the Dog of love.
Bogdan Răileanu also, with his first novel, Sharp Teeth of Good, has published a volume of short prose before.
For this autumn follows the novel of Radu Vancu – Transparency, which is a beautifully written love story, and also a story of Sibiu, and a volume of short prose by Iulian Popa, Guadalajara is called.
What do you have on the bedside table now, what do you read?
Now, Middlesex. A book I didn’t read at the time and for which I have such mixed feelings. I like some things very much, but in the middle, it started to lose me, it seems too long, and it seems to perpetuate some cliches. I read a lot and diverse, but still a lot of foreign contemporary prose.
You can find and buy An unknown form of life, here.
Photo from the book launch in Cluj, October 2018.
Check the interview with Atilla Bartis.