Mircea Cărtărescu was, for almost two hours, David Blaine. Like a skilled magician, he managed to turn a sluggish audience consisting of high-school students into a room full of hypnotised people who couldn’t get enough of his words. He made them go through all the trials that the souls of a poet-gone-prose-writer go through and declared unequivocally that he had not come to the meeting to give advice to anyone. “This is me, one of the least formal people in the world.”
“I had trouble being admitted to high-school, I was almost the last on the list, because I was bad at maths. Really bad! I was forever getting F-s. To this day I dream at night about being quizzed in the maths class and not being able to answer, it’s one of my worst nightmares,” Mircea Cărtărescu tells the audience, and the room fills with applause. The writer thus set in motion the first cogs of the wicked plan he had come from Bucharest to fulfil: to conquer the hearts of the “Costache Negruzzi” High-school students, at the meeting organised on Saturday from 11.00h in the school’s auditorium. After Camelia Gavrilă, former director of the high-school, currently the chief inspector of the Iaşi County School Inspectorate, spoke about the demiurgic artist “one can find – sometimes overt, sometimes veiled, more subtle – in Cărtărescu’s pages,” the writer turned his eyes to the audience. A few hundred students, most of them seated, but many of them standing, had come to school on this Saturday morning to see him. Their reaction was predictable: apart from a few enthusiasts, with books by Cărtărescu resting in their laps, everyone else had bleary eyes and fought to stifle their yawns. Then Mircea Cărtărescu decided to leave the podium – “I don’t want to appear I am above anyone else,” he explained – and to stand close to the students, the way he does in his classes. “Rest assured, I didn’t put on a disguise for the meeting with you,” Cărtărescu fibs with a smile, switching the hat of the writer with the one he says he loves best, that of the “student”. “This is me, one of the least formal people in the world. I’ve always liked being a normal person, a man in the street, a natural man looking with interest at the opinions of others and at their beautiful faces, a man who has always lived his life as best as he could: with the greatest interior freedom, the way I imagine each of you lives.” Here the first eyebrows started to rise and the phones went into stand-by. All the cogs started whirring.
The hunger for literature started with a premonition
“At university, people tend to regress from the level they’ve achieved during high-school, why not admit this?” says Cărtărescu, taking a jab at the students’ quickly inflammable (and at the teachers’ well concealed) ego. “I hope I’ve stayed at the age of, maybe, not 17 or 18, like you, but at least as young as 20-something. If somebody came and woke me up at night and asked me «what are you, in fact?», I think that my first answer would be «a student». A man living among the young, living in the university. This is what I’ve always been like, how I define myself.” After finishing his introductory speech – “so that we’re not on some sort of double blind date here” –, the writer talked to the audience about the way he fell in love with literature. He was in the 6th form and, one drab day, he started rummaging through the bookshelves of his father, a simple man, a metalworker by trade. He found the second half of a book without a title and without an author. He started reading it, without knowing it was The Gadfly by Ethel Lilian Voynich, and the ending found him in tears. “It was a bewildering book, about some people called Carbonari, from the 19th century, who were making a sort of revolution in Italy. When I got to the end, I was bawling, I cried my eyes out. At the time I had no idea why. I was extraordinarily moved and touched! Maybe this was some premonition, I haven’t a clue. Without knowing why, it was for the first time I loved a book, I was crazy about it.”
“In communism, people were condemned to reading masterpieces”
Cărtărescu revealed to the students the fact that he writes without a plan, does not go back to his texts and does not edit them, and that later on he does not even re-read his novels, for fear he should find any mistakes. He told them that the best place to discover contemporary writers is not in the school curriculum but rather at the bookstalls and in bookshops. They are meant to be read under the desk, that would mean recognition for them, the author believes. If he were to rewrite Nostalgia, he’d change every phrase, he says, laughing, about the novel he believes is the one closest to his heart. But he explained to those in attendance that the appetite for reading literature, be it commercial or not, differs greatly today, because entertainment has changed. “In communism there was no such thing, people were condemned to reading; moreover, I’d add, they were condemned to reading masterpieces. Before ’89 you could not read commercial literature, such books weren’t really published in Romania. There were no detective stories, no thrillers, let alone erotic books! So people, instead of laughing with comic writers, laughed with Cervantes and with Dickens, and instead of crying when watching soap operas, they cried with Anna Karenina. This is one of the paradoxes of the totalitarian world: people were constrained , forced to read masterpieces,” Cărtărescu remarked.
“To Mircea Cărtărescu, to help him slice his wrists in envy”
The writer explained to the students that reading must grow as a building, as a pyramid. “It is only the moment you feel is part of a construction… – like a brick: by itself it has no meaning, it needs an architect to build with it, together with others –, it is only at that time that you can say you are genuinely reading,” Cărtărescu explained. When he was young, he went to the Faculty of Letters at the Bucharest University, believing he would be admitted without an admission exam, because he had come out first in the country in a literary contest. “The secretaries had a good laugh, they laughed in my face and they said «you may have the Nobel Prize, here you still have to sit the admission exam»,” Cărtărescu recounted. His student years were also the years of the famous “Monday literary circle”, where competition among poets was fierce. Cărtărescu mentioned Traian Coşovei, who died at the beginning of this year: when he published his first book, he sent a copy to Cărtărescu, with a razor blade attached to it, and with instructions written on the first page: “To Mircea Cărtărescu, to help him slice his wrists in envy”. “At the time I was convinced I wrote the best prose in the world. Maybe I did, come to think of it, I don’t know… But we lived and breathed poetry and we were so keen! Love and hate… We loved each other like brothers and we hated each other like enemies in poetry.”
Time was not enough for the students to ask as many questions as they would have liked, nor was it enough for the writer to answer them. At the end, after signing a few dozen autographs, Cărtărescu left the podium chair he had returned to sit on and was almost the last to leave the room. On his face was the smile of somebody who has applied his plan to the letter. A warm smile. Almost blinding.
by Cătălin Hopulele