1 November 2018

Gaudeamus, by Mircea Eliade

Mircea Eliade (1907-86) wrote Gaudeamus (‘let us rejoice’) in 1928, but it was not published until 1986; only a three-page extract had appeared in 1928.  It has now (2018) been published in an English translation by Istros Books, which specialises in Balkan literature.  The text has been translated by Christopher Bartholomew with an informative introduction by Bryan Rennie and a lengthy afterword by Eliade’s nephew, Sorin Alexandrescu, translated by Alistair Ian Blyth, who is probably the most prolific translator of Romanian literature into English.

A portrait of Eliade’s student life, Gaudeamus is a sequel to his Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent (Romanul adolescenului miop) published in English by Istros in 2016, which deals with his time at school.  Now he is at university in Bucharest (1925-28) and he wrote Gaudeamus in a couple of week-long bursts in February and March of his graduation year.  Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent had already appeared in serial form, and is referred to in this book (his friends argue about their depictions in it).

Gaudeamus  poses as autobiographical, but to what extent it has been fictionalised is unclear (according to the introduction checkable aspects have been shown to be accurate, while other parts are clearly fiction).  It is best therefore to refer to the narrator rather than Eliade as the central character.  The narrator is extremely intelligent and ambitious, but the narrative shows how the university experience does not differ much in place or time: the neuroticism generated by the relentlessness of reading and exams, the worry that one is slipping behind, the pursuit of excellence beset by distractions, desire for members of the opposite sex; such aspects of student life are constant.

The changing seasons provide the backdrop to the narrator’s academic career.  He hardens, from being sociable, offering his attic living space for the formation of a student club with singing and drinking, to a semi-recluse who sees himself above the common man, his view of his peers literally a lofty one.  Gradually he eschews company, to the point his friends become concerned he is mentally ill.  However, he does not remain on his mountain top entirely, as even at this early stage in his career he is writing articles for the press.  However, as time progresses he narrows his focus to private study instead of the communal activity of lectures, working punishing hours until his head swims.  Gaudeamus is, among other things, a hymn to books and the reading obsession.

When he is socialising with his peers he engages in earnest conversations about the meaning of life, though these are of a higher tone than the usual intellectual fumblings of undergraduates.  The keyword is mediocrity, the greatest sin in his eyes, yet a label he is happy to assign his peers without compunction.  He may be precocious, but there is an underlying smugness in his sense of superiority.  We learn less than we might expect about Bucharest in the late 1920s as the focus is relentlessly on him and the exercise of his will.  He sees himself explicitly in heroic terms, with hints here of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, overcoming distractions while remaining above the bourgeois herd.

Unfortunately self-aggrandising can have unfortunate consequences for those in the hero’s orbit.  His views of sex relations are drawn largely from Dante and Cervantes, not particularly useful models in the twentieth century, and expressed in a misogynistic rather than chivalric attitude.  This results in the poor treatment of the two main women in his life, Nișka and Nonora, treatment he justifies in philosophical terms.  In particular he sees himself as the creator and moulder of Nișka’s personality – to which worryingly she concurs (a hallmark of emotional abuse).  He considers women’s education as a prelude to a lifetime of domestic concerns and therefore inevitable mediocrity, and those men weak enough to become so entangled prey to the same consequence: domesticity as the enemy of promise.  While tempted, he takes pride in having the strength of character to withstand their attractions.

Incapable of seeing women on equal terms with himself, unfortunately for them he sees his ability to remain immune from banal romantic attraction as a test of his personality, whatever the emotional havoc he might wreak on anyone unfortunate enough to fall in love with him.  For him romance is an intellectual exercise best conducted through lengthy correspondence (that with Nișka is reproduced verbatim, presumably written by Eliade, not the person Nișka is modelled on, at least one hopes so, in which he ignores, even revels in, her extreme emotional distress).  He is blunt in his assessments of their prospects to the point of brutality, seeing himself above such pettiness.

As if emotional abuse was not bad enough, he commits what amounts to a rape simply to enphasise the primacy of his wants, though at the same time transgressing his principle of detachment.  Meeting Nonora in the street he invites her back to his attic, promising to be ‘good’.  Once there, despite repeated protests to stop and telling him she is engaged, he assaults her.  As he describes it, ‘I was annoyed by her resistance, like that of a virginal tease … I pushed her down.  With one arm I pinned her arms, with the other I parted her knees and subdued her thighs.  The act took place before Nonora could even comprehend, and before I could hesitate.  We pleasured our bodies.’  Not really ‘we’ when she sobs afterwards and asks why he did it.

Given Eliade’s evident approval of his alter ego’s approach to life, it is not surprising to learn he was associated with Romania’s far right in the 1930s.  There are hints in Gaudeamus of widespread anti-Semitism which the narrator may not particularly like, possibly because he looks down on the individuals espousing such views rather than because he disapproves of the sentiments themselves, but does not challenge.  He is evasive about his own political views.

The book ends with the narrator having graduated and setting off on his own, without emotional encumbrances – as we always knew he would be – on life’s adventure.  Assuming author and narrator share characteristics, they have pretentiousness (a charge Eliade himself levelled against Gaudeamus later) and self-regard in common.  The introduction confirms what I had suspected: the influence on Eliade of André Gide.  It is reasonable to assume he had read at least Les Nourritures Terrestres (1897), though he was much more rigorous intellectually than Gide.  We can admire Eliade’s strength of purpose while disliking his self-absorption.

On the other hand, self-absorption paid off as Gaudeamus is an assured achievement for a 21-year old.  In fact it is so assured one wonders if it was reworked later.  There is certainly one point, highlighted by Alexandrescu, where he must have done so.  At the end he refers to the forthcoming destruction of the house, with his attic, to be replaced by a tall, grey building.  This was the case, but it did not happen until 1935.  There may have been other changes made to the manuscript after 1928.

Whatever changes may have been made, the book as it stands captures the personality of a remarkable, but flawed, individual at a pivotal moment.  Although the narrator may no longer be an adolescent, in his way he is still short-sighted.  With his obvious intellectual abilities, as he rides off on his early morning train there can be no doubt that as he, hopefully, matures emotionally, he is destined for great things.  It is ironic he sees so much personal promise in the dawn when, in 1928, the same could not be said for the continent as a whole.

26 October 2018

Candy Crush (2015)

Candy Crush is a two-hander written by Paul Negoescu, directed by Andrei Georgescu, and acted by Alec Secăreanu and Victoria Răileanu.  Lasting 13 minutes and shot in a single take apart from a cut near the end, it follows a young couple in the minutes after they have finished making love in the man’s dingy-but-arty flat.  They get dressed, she makes a work call and he immediately picks up his laptop.  She rests on the bed and finds a long hair that isn’t hers and apparently not one of his.  He doesn’t seem at all fazed.

She goes through to the bathroom and finds a bottle of massage oil.  He says it was left by an old girlfriend, Dana, some time before, prior to getting together with her.  She probes his previous relationship and how it ended, about which he is suspiciously evasive.  He receives a text message and she asks mischievously if it is from Dana.  He says it is from his mother and gives her the phone to check.  She is using it and he asks her what she is doing, to which she replies that she is playing Candy Crush.  However, when he hands it back he sees she has deleted a number of photographs, and she says she had erased those with her in them because she does not want him to have them anymore.

He accuses her of acting strangely but she denies it.  She asks him to call her a taxi, and as they wait she asks about the expiry date of the oil.  He is caught out by the very recent manufacture, not able to explain how it could have been left by an old girlfriend months before its production, but he shrugs it off with no attempt to justify himself.  The camera pans back and forth between them, he on the bed calmly rolling and lighting a joint, which she declines, she in a chair with her arms folded.  Silence prevails until the cab arrives.

It looks like she is going to dump him for cheating but surprisingly they make arrangements to see each other the same evening.  A cut to a final shot, from the window, shows him, still smoking, looking down at her getting into the taxi and driving off.  The open ending leaves open the question whether she will forgive him, find a way to humiliate him or just stand him up; or whether he will simply ring someone else.

The clue to her attitude is in the deleted pictures, and the ephemerality of Candy Crush, a game without meaning or pleasure beyond the moment.  This is a candy crush relationship with no future, and she is clearly somewhat smarter than he is.  The sense is that the taxi is taking her away and she will not be coming back and, as he watches her, he knows it.  It is a beautifully realistic small film, economically told with subtle performances that convey the difficulties of negotiating relationships when commitment is in doubt.

The film is on YouTube, from Cinepub:

17 October 2018

Ana Lupas at Tate Modern

A room at Tate Modern is devoted to a work by Romanian artist Ana Lupas (b. 1940), titled The Solemn Process (1964-2008).  It comprises 21 metal objects, a display in harmony with the industrial setting of the Bankside power station.  There are also two large sets of sepia photographs in a 5x8 grid at either end of the gallery showing straw objects of varying shapes, many like doughnut rings.  Some are shown in conjunction with individuals, but these are not your typical agricultural products.

The shape is the key, as the metal objects share similar dimensions to some of the objects in the photographs.  In the first phase of the project, 1964-74, Lupas worked collaboratively with villagers in Transylvania to create these oddly-shaped straw and clay sculptures using techniques based on those employed to make harvest festival wreaths and in house building.  The results were photographed at various locations in the open air.  Unfortunately in the early- and mid-1970s the worsening political and economic climate halted their production.

Between 1980 and 1985 Lupas attempted to reverse the decay to which the organic structures were subject.  This was not successful so in the third phase, between 1985 and 2008, the objects were encased in metal to mimic the shape of the originals.  It may not have preserved them but it did hide the decay and gave an idea of the original shapes.  The final products bore a resemblance to the original sculptures in that respect, but nothing else, and might be seen as a betrayal of the original impulse to create an artwork using ephemeral materials that would eventually exist only in the photographic record and the memories of its witnesses.

What is surprising is that the initial stage was carried out during the Communist period, when one might have expected such works to be frowned on, with depictions of peasants producing something which could actually be eaten favoured by the regime.  On the other hand, she was demonstrating that ordinary everyday objects and processes could be utilised in the name of art, whether playful or, as here, solemn.  One wonders what the locals who had the wreaths hanging around made of them; they are missing from the narrative.

12 October 2018

1,000 Places to See Before You Die, by Patricia Schultz

This hefty 2003 travel book (a new edition was published in 2011) contains nearly 1,000 pages covering the world, or more accurately some of the world.  It is divided into eight sections: Europe; Africa; the Middle East; Asia; Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands; the United States and Canada; Latin America; the Caribbean, Bahamas and Bermuda.  It is heavily weighted in favour of the United States, which has nearly 200 pages devoted to it.  The whole of Asia gets less than a hundred.

Romania is represented by only two locations, occupying less than a couple of pages: ‘The painted monasteries of Moldavia’ (subtitled ‘the Sistine Chapels of the East’), and what it risibly terms ‘Count Dracula’s Castle’, i.e. Bran (subtitled ‘In a Lost Corner of Central Europe’).  The latter section is more about Dracula than Bran Castle, and calls Transylvania ‘a time-locked country that never seems to have felt the 20th century’s touch, never mind the 21st’s’.

Naturally any list of the 1,000 places one must definitely see before clogs are popped is going to be arbitrary to an extent, and there will be disagreements about what has been included and omitted.  However, for such a sizeable country with much to offer this all seems inadequate, but then the region generally is not well served by Schultz.  The Czech Republic has 7 entries, Hungary 4 and Poland 3.  Belarus, Bulgaria, Slovakia and the western Balkans are clearly not worth visiting at all.

While much of the book’s content will inevitably date, places like the painted monasteries and Bran Castle are not going anywhere so it is still of some use and may stimulate a few travel ideas.  But Romania, among others, deserves better.  Really, I cannot understand why anyone would want to shell out for this book when there are so many up-to-date country-specific guides available, all of which contain recommendations of places that are worth a visit, and without the implicit suggestion that if you die before you see them, your life will somehow have been unfulfilled.

8 October 2018

The Man Who Cycled the World, by Mark Beaumont

In 2007-08, Swindon-born Mark Beaumont circumnavigated the world by bicycle in 195 days, beginning and ending in Paris.  He had travelled unsupported over 18,000 miles through 20 countries and broken the Guinness world record by 81 days.  Having lost the record in 2010, he regained it in 2017 with a supported circumnavigation which took less than 79 days, a record he still holds.

The Man Who Cycled the World is an account of his first trip cycling/circling the world, published in 2009.  It includes a few pages on the leg through eastern Romania (pp. 97-101) on days 16-19 of his journey, crossing the border from Ukraine. Entering Romania was a process he found easier than getting into and out of Ukraine, a country that for some reason he thought was not part of Europe.  The book is really an amplified logbook with the emphasis on the bicycle and his physical state rather than the places he passed through (‘Don’t ask me what Ukraine looks like,’ he says, ‘as I was staring two metres in front of my wheel all day’).

He seems to have seen more of Romania, which he found attractive: ‘great roads, beautiful villages and scenic rolling hills.’  As soon as he arrived, while studying his map a local shook hands and said ‘welcome to Romania!’  His first stop was Fălticeni and to get there he cycled along roads shared with horse-drawn carts, shepherds in the fields.  Arriving in town and needing an hotel, he asked a police officer in a car who said ‘follow me’ and escorted Beaumont 2km to one (albeit the hotelier was ‘grumpy’).  Beaumont says he was ‘impressed’ by Romania.

The riding was generally straightforward to the town of Roman, though he got lost in Bacău, and he camped in a field near Adjud.  The following day was through more industrial areas, reaching Buzău in the afternoon.  At Râmnicu Sărat he stopped for some supplies and a man standing next to him at the counter took them from him and paid, mentioning something about a bicicletă.  He finished the day in a field near Urziceni.  The temperature was rising and he was conscious of saddle sores.

The next day he passed by Slobozia.  He was feeling weak, having had a small breakfast as he had run out of Romanian currency, but he pushed on to the Bulgarian border.  Unfortunately the border control he arrived at was not open so he was directed to go back up the road and cross the Danube by ferry.  He did not have the fare, however the attendant waved him on to what was essentially a floating platform and he crossed free of charge.  He was close to the border, and entered Bulgaria, en route to Turkey and beyond, in less than a minute.

In the section of photographs there is one of a horse-drawn cart in Romania with the caption ‘iconic images of a world I would have loved to explore more, but the clock never stopped.’

28 September 2018

The Last Hundred Days, by Patrick McGuinness

Patrick McGuinness’s first novel The Last Hundred Days, published in 2011, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and made it onto the Man Booker longlist.  Its unnamed English narrator arrives in Bucharest in 1989, at the tail end of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime, and becomes an eyewitness to history.  Despite not having turned up to the job interview in England and having dropped out of higher education without obtaining a degree, he has been offered a job teaching at a university in Bucharest.

His unlovely parents dead and with no ties, he heads off to a country socially and ideologically entirely unlike his own, though the fat cats do well under both systems, and a shameless trickle-down system of corruption thrives in Romania (he is unembarrassedly ripped off at the airport by customs officers who pillage his belongings in front of him with the laconic explanation ‘tax’).  He is assigned the flat of his academic predecessor, the mysterious Dr (or rather ‘Dr’) Belanger, who has left all his possessions, even his clothes, behind.  Belanger, off screen for nearly the whole book, casts a long shadow over the narrator’s life.  The unorthodox job offer may seem an implausible beginning to the novel, but in the surreal world of 1989 Bucharest it comes to feel unremarkable.

The narrator falls in with another expat Briton, Leo O'Heix, also a lecturer at the university, who had wangled him the job apparently on the grounds he would be easily manipulated.  A bogus degree certificate is provided for the newcomer so he is good to go as a lecturer (a doctorate costs extra, an investment Belanger presumably made).  The new boy has no qualms about accepting fraudulent academic credentials, nor, as soon as he arrives at work, in acceding to a ‘request’ from the head of department to provide a reference to study abroad for a student he has never met.  He is compromised morally from the start, but then compromise underpins daily life in Bucharest.  You do wonder about the state of Romanian education at that time if someone without a degree could just stroll in and start teaching, but on this evidence not much teaching was going on anyway.

Leo is in fact the star of the novel around whom much of the action revolves.  He devotes little time to his day job, instead dabbling in the black market, as cynical about daily life in Bucharest as everybody else.  On top of his other activities, legitimate but mostly otherwise, he is writing a book: initially commissioned to produce a guidebook to Bucharest, its sturdy old buildings are being torn down so quickly and replaced by shoddy blocks that he cannot keep up, and like some crazed Walter Benjamin he engages in a futile psychogeographic race to record Bucharest in his The City of Lost Walks even as it disappears around him.  At the same time he tries to save what he can from destruction, part of a network spiriting artefacts away from the bulldozers.  A church’s rood screen may end up in a minister’s flat, but at least it is preserved. 

Even the best of us can have mixed motives, and Leo is no exception.  Despite his boorish, frequently self-serving, ways Leo has a sincere affection for his adopted city.  He is scornful of Romanian politics, but equally scornful of the British diplomatic corps which turns a blind eye to the regime’s dark side in the name of good relations and business opportunities, trying to insulate itself by recreating a small slice of home (down to a pub) yet not immune to the corruption infecting the rest of the population.

On the surface the regime seems stable despite shortages and general ossification, but there are murmurings across Eastern Europe as communist governments lose their grip on power.  Through Leo, the narrator comes into contact with a wide cross-section of Bucharest life.  He has a brief relationship with the daughter of a senior party official, but a more fulfilling one with a doctor at the local hospital.  At one point he is briefly involved in a people-smuggling ring trying to help individuals reach the west, an expedition ending in tragedy.   Then he meets Sergiu Trofim, a once senior figure who had known Ceaușescu and Stalin but is now on the social periphery, and agrees to help Sergiu write his memoirs – or rather real memoirs dishing the dirt, rather than the sanitised party-approved version he is being obliged to produce, the unexpurgated typescript to be smuggled out and published in Paris.

In these various interactions the narrator quickly finds people are not always what they seem, trust is a precious commodity, and life can be disconcertingly arbitrary.  Through his eyes we are given a convincing overview of what living in a repressive society does to the psyche.  McGuinness draws out the soul-sapping ossification and apathy of daily life, showing that routinisation kills the spirit more effectively than naked repression.  Propaganda everybody sees through is pumped out; nobody believes the statistics but everybody goes along with the deception because it is the only way to survive.  The prevailing mood is one of ennui, or ‘totalitarian boredom’.  You never know who might inform on you, so the best policy is self-surveillance.  In such ways one becomes inured to the discomforts and paranoia, even finding comfort in surveillance, thereby internalising the state’s repression (something Orwell had put his finger on).

For much of the novel the focus is on the narrator, Leo and their circle.  Only in the final third does it shift to the wider political currents, an edifice crumbling like the jerry-built buildings infesting the capital.  The reader brings historical knowledge of the outcome, but from the inside the slow yet accelerating slide to the fall is initially so imperceptible it barely registers.  Despite the book covering the last few months of the Ceaușescu government, for most of that period it must have felt secure despite the injustices and economic stagnation.

The reader knows how it is going to end, and an air of inevitability hangs over the progress towards Christmas Day.  It is part of McGuinness’s skill that he can elicit sympathy for the way the deposed dictators (for it was a joint enterprise with Elena Ceaușescu, and she bore most responsibility for the bloodshed in the final days when Nicolae was in Iran) were treated and summarily executed without due process, rather than glee at them having received their just deserts.

However, will the new politicians be any better than the old ones, leaving aside that many of the old ones have retained their hold on power?  As Leo ruefully notes, ‘new brothel, same old whores….’  Neither Leo nor the narrator has anything to go back to England for, and despite having their visas revoked by the defunct regime, the novel ends with them in Bucharest, looking forward to the future, however things pan out.  For all its faults, there was something about the place which would not let them go, and now it was not the Securitate.

We are never sure how much of this is autobiographical – the narrator certainly seems to rub shoulders with powerful and influential people in ways that seem far-fetched in an Englishman newly arrived – but the observations of Bucharest feel authentic.  McGuinness was in the country at the time, and as he was born in 1968 he was the same age roughly as the protagonist.  It is difficult, however, to believe there is much autobiography in the novel, apart from eyewitness descriptions of living conditions and the events leading up to the fall of Ceaușescu.

There is a tension between the realistic depiction of Romanian life and the implausibility of the acceptance of the narrator into these social structures in a society which McGuinness emphasises was deeply paranoid.  For all his protestations that he is being pushed to the margins, the narrator seems to find himself, thanks to Leo, in the thick of things with no effort, whereas in practice he would have been frozen out.  He even manages an unlikely, albeit brief, relationship with a party princess, putting him in touch with her father who happens to be the deputy interior minister, despite possessing little to commend him to her; and this while she is still in love with his predecessor, the aforementioned Belanger, a gangster who had been living in exile in Belgrade but who returns to take advantage of opportunities opening up in post-Ceaușescu Romania.

In such ways the narrator, in a very short time, smoothly manages the transition from foreigner to insider.  In a conspiratorial society, the fewer the conspirators the better, for reasons of personal safety, and I could not see in whose interest it was to have him around.  In real life he would doubtless have been on a plane back to England within a month, having annoyed everybody and been useless at his job, but unlike Leo having no leverage with which to retain it.  Most probably, even though he has been in the city several years, Leo would have fared little better in terms of access to influential individuals, however many bribes he offered.  These outsiders are effectively ciphers for McGuinness’s exploration of the dying regime, but ring false.

The World's Greatest Railway Journeys: Hungary and Romania

Format: DVD

Rail Away APWDVD 1097

According to the box, this DVD is one of a series presenting over 50 worldwide railway journeys.  It covers Hungary and Romania, sadly devoting a mere 25 minutes to each.  Both films are dated 1997 and display modest production values.  The films are not solely about the railways; in fact they take a while to get to the topic, instead devoting time to scene-setting in the respective capitals.

That may annoy the railway buffs, as may the fact these are not specialised examinations of the railway system of either country but are essentially travelogues, with the emphasis on the journey rather than the means (though naturally there is some information on the trains).  For those not of such a persuasion, they may be pleased there is nothing of a technical nature and the commentary is pitched at a general audience.

The narration is by an American, and I found his pronunciation grated after a while.  The musical accompaniment is off-the-shelf, which reduces costs but is a shame when the country’s music could have been employed to great effect in enhancing the atmosphere.  The tone of the narration tends to be patronising, with much about the quaint old-fashioned way of life in Eastern Europe.  The box’s blurb quotes part of the narrator’s introduction to the Romanian leg:

‘Romania, a country on the borderline of the Middle and East Europe. By rail we travel from the capital Bucharest to the heart of the country. In a way travelling through Romania is like travelling through time. At places where the rails cut through the country, we see pictures that in the West belong to the past. We'll visit the centres of Bucharest and Brasov. With their little bricks and old-fashioned houses these cities provide romantic scenery.’

This is an all-too common way of describing Romania, in terms of picturesque primitivism.  The Hungarian film covers two separate journeys starting in Budapest, whereas the Romanian one focuses on a single journey from Bucharest, travelling north to Ploiești*, Sinaia, Brașov, and ending at Vatra Dornei, a distance of about 265 miles.

There is a limit to what can be included in under half an hour but it still possible to admire the countryside, even if the commentary is at times frustratingly bland about the sights along the way.  Little time is spent on Bucharest compared to the amount the Hungarian film spends on Budapest as there seems to be more to see outside the capital in Romania.

Naturally much has happened since 1997 – not least admission to the EU – so the Romanian film is not representative of the current state of the railway system, but it is still a useful introduction to that particular route.  One cannot help feeling, though, it was a missed opportunity to explore the country’s rail network more broadly, and enthusiasts are probably going to feel short-changed.  Both films are available on Youtube.  This is the Romanian episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTyQnspr5bc.

* By chance I discovered today that the Romanian artist Geta Brătescu, who died on 19 September 2018 aged 92, was born in Ploiești.

27 September 2018

Romanian muffin cases!

When I saw these muffin cases I thought there was something familiar about them.  This is exactly the order in which they were placed in the packaging.

10 September 2018

Uneasy Rider, by Mike Carter

Published in 2008, Mike Carter’s Uneasy Rider is an account by the author of his six-month ride in 2006 on a large BMW R1200GS motorbike through 27 European countries, covering almost 20,000 miles and travelling as far as eastern Turkey.  The impetus for this epic ride was Carter having reached the age of 42, ‘the nadir of a man’s life’ in his estimation, recently divorced and generally feeling at low ebb.

Despite neither owning nor being able to ride a motorbike, he makes a drunken bet at work, which is sub-editor on the Observer, that he will spend six months riding round Europe (if he had worked at the Guardian nobody would have noticed his absence).  After some training this he eventually does, cushioned financially by letting his London flat and writing progress reports for his paper.  Uneasy Rider is the book of the journey.

One of the chapters (‘What am I doing here?’) recounts his time in Romania.  This was his second visit, the first a holiday in Bucharest five years previously with his then-wife.  He had been suspicious of the locals, fearing they were going to rob him, that Romania was ‘the end of civilisation’.  His trouble-free stay he attributed to luck.  This time, having arrived at ground level rather than by aeroplane, he can see how mistaken his assumptions had been.

His first stop is Cluj-Napoca, where he notices the prevalence of the Dracula theme: ‘the entire population of northern Romania seemed to be working for Dracula plc,’ every town claiming a connection, with the attendant souvenir business.  The one major tourist spot in Cluj is a ‘big statue of a man on a horse’, inviting comparisons in Carter’s mind between Cluj and Nuneaton.  We do not learn the identity of the man on the horse (he is referring to the Matthias Corvinus Monument), perhaps because too much hard information would break the whimsical mood.

In a fish-out-of-water moment he goes to a restaurant to find revellers wearing ‘traditional Romanian peasant costume’ and realises only when the bride enters that far from being ‘fancy dress night’, as he initially thought, he has inadvertently crashed a wedding party.  He leaves his champagne half-drunk and slips away.  Going into a bar called Diesel he gets into conversation with the barman to find yet another person keen to leave the country after Romania joins the EU.  In the nightclub downstairs he meets a ghastly Australian policeman on the pull in Eastern Europe with his mates.

Then it is on to Sighișoara, with its mediaeval citadel which Carter concedes is stunning.  However, the main industry of the place seems to be selling Dracula memorabilia and running Dracula tours.  The house Vlad was born in was now the Casa Dracula themed restaurant.  He looks around, chats to an envious car park attendant who would also like to take off on a big motorbike, and that is it for Sighișoara.

Intending to pitch camp in the forest and dine on vodka and garlic sausage (ho ho) he finds himself in a Roma village ‘somewhere in the sixteenth century’, presumably one of the abandoned Saxon settlements, though we are not told so.  Apprehensive at being there in the dusk (gypsies!), with men carrying old bolt-action rifles in evidence, he is met with warm hospitality.  He is fed, drinks vodka, and plays football with young boys.

Immediately afterwards he is riding along the Transfagarasan, a biker’s dream of a road snaking over the Fagaras Mountains.  Here you feel Romania finally comes alive for Carter as he climbs higher, an experience marred only by the atrocious state of the road surface, with potholes so big people are fishing in some (it sounds preposterous, but he mentions it again later so presumably it was true).  The views are fantastic, complete with a golden eagle riding the thermals, but they are not enough to stop him focusing on the bike and coming back down the mountain at high speed, rather a waste of a fine experience.  It results in an attempted shake-down by a corrupt local policeman and a much smaller fine at the police station.

Then it is on to Turkey.  The chapters are all very abbreviated, with only time for a few wry observations before moving on to the next place.  It is a lightweight tour of the continent and is short on analysis, so do not expect to find out much about the countries visited, including Romania.  This is more about Carter and his machine than it is about the places he visits (the subtext of the journey is to find himself after all).

24 August 2018

Constantin Brâncuși at Kettle’s Yard

Golden Fish

Kettle’s Yard is an exhibition space owned by the University of Cambridge.  It began life as the home of Jim Ede, a curator at the Tate Gallery, collector, and author of Savage Messiah (1931), about the artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.  Ede and his wife lived at Kettle’s Yard from 1957 to 1973.  The original house, originally three cottages which were combined, has a gallery next door which runs an adventurous exhibition programme devoted to modern art.  The house is retained as it was when the Edes lived there, complete with the artworks Jim collected.

Earlier this year the gallery reopened after a massive expansion programme, resulting in extra floors and the inevitable café being added.  This week I visited to see an exhibition and took the opportunity to revisit the house.

A number of the works Ede collected are by Constantin Brâncuși.  Brâncuși was born in the village of Hobița, Peștișani, south-west Romania, in 1876.  He moved to Paris in 1904 and remained there for the rest of his life, dying in 1957.  The two knew each other and Ede visited Brâncuși at his studio in Paris.  There are a number of the artist’s works at Kettle Yard, helpfully itemised in the Kettle’s Yard database, of which I viewed only those on display (i.e. not those listed as being in the reserve collection):

The Prayer (reserve collection) 1907:

A photograph of one of Brâncuși’s sculptures, in the National Museum of Art of Romania, Bucharest.

Leda (reserve collection) c. 1920:

This is a photograph of one of Brâncuși’s sculptures now in the Art Institute of Chicago.

Prometheus (displayed) 1912:

Cement cast of the 1911 marble original.  Given by Brâncuși to Vera Moore in 1930 and bought by Ede from her in 1969.  It sits on top of a baby grand piano.

Golden Fish (displayed) posthumous cast, 1969:

Brass and steel.  The cast of the 1924 original sits on top of a tapering barrel which has a metal band around the top.

Nude (displayed) 1902-26?:

The end date for this drawing is 1926, when the artist gave it to Ede.  It is displayed on the wall behind Prometheus.

Oiseau dans l’espace (reserve collection) 1926-27:

This photograph is of one of a series of sculptures investigating birds and flight.

Letter with sketches of The Kiss (reserve collection) 22 December 1933:

Letter in French to Jim Ede, accompanied by pencil sketches.

There is one more reference to Brâncuși at Kettle’s Yard: a drawing by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska of an African tribal mask, with Brâncuși’s name under it, indicating Gaudier-Brzeska’s admiration for him.  On display in the attic among a number of Gaudier-Brzeska’s works, it is undated.

Update 16 October 2018: The house in which Brâncuși was born has collapsed

While not related to Brâncuși’s presence at Kettle’s Yard, I thought it worth recording the news reported by Irina Marica on the website Romania Insider on 12 October that the house he was born in had collapsed the day before.  This does not seem to have come as a surprise as the wooden structure  had been in an advanced state of decay for some time.

George Ivascu, the Romanian Minister of Culture, said the government could not intervene because the building was in private hands but added that the Gorj County Department for Culture would make an inspection, implying a bunch of local bureaucrats standing round surveying a pile of rotten lumber.  What they could do at this stage he did not say.

Getting into his stride, Ivascu added it was crucial for money to be allocated to protect historic structures at risk, but because of a lack of political will over so many years, the Ministry didn’t have the necessary funds to buy such properties.  He added that what had happened at Hobița should act as a wake-up call.  Well, that is the essence, though the minister opined at greater length.

The website Romania Journal today adds details highlighting the confusion leading to this sad state.  Brâncuși has 13 heirs, but none has been interested in taking responsibility, nor has anybody else, including Peștișani town hall.  The courtyard has been used by locals for their chickens.  Apparently in 2001 a sculptor from the capital bought the house but when he tried to change the roof the council halted the work, and the place was left roofless.

The reason the local municipality is not too bothered is perhaps because there is in Hobița a replica ‘memorial house’, opened in 1971, which houses a small museum visited, according to the curator, by 10,000 tourists a year.  This is despite Brâncuși never having lived in it.  The cynical thought also arises that perhaps the land is worth more without the ruined house on it than with it.

Perhaps someone needs to suggest to Ivascu a system of listing sites of historic importance, putting the onus on the owner to maintain them within tight rules, rather than standing by helplessly because cash is not available to buy them on behalf of the state.  Also, the local authorities should be ashamed of themselves; Brâncuși being born there is probably the biggest thing that has happened in the area, and they should have been more conscious of their responsibility towards the community’s cultural heritage.