Interview with Dumitru Tsepeneag

Context N°20

by Céline Bourhis

CÉLINE BOURHIS: When and where did you write this book?

DUMITRU TSEPENEAG: I started writing this book around the end of the 1960s when I still lived in Romania. I finished it when I was in Paris in 1971. I managed to get one part of the novel published in a Romanian magazine but I couldn’t get the whole book to be published since it was considered to be against the realist-socialist aesthetic: a kind of two-headed monster, whose heads would devour one another. Moreover the writer was regarded as a figure opposing the totalitarian power of Ceausescu. Thus, it was published in its French version in France by Flammarion in 1973. It was finally published in Romanian in 1991 after the political regime changed. It was translated into Serbo-Croatian in 2002. I was nominated for the Médicis prize but it was Kundera who won it.

CB: There are dreamlike elements (Onirisme) in your novel. Can you explain what this movement is about, and how it was created?

DT: In the 1960s, the ideological control was a little less intense. The cultural authorities just made sure, thanks to censorship, that the political regime was not attacked. They thought that literature couldn’t make a difference. This enabled me and a few young writers to create a literary group that got its inspiration from surrealism, and denied it at the same time. It found its fame in Romania before the Communist years. Our group was called “the Dream-like movement.” Our ambition was to renew surrealism by totally rejecting any kind of automatic writing. With dreams, we looked for structure, rules, criteria—not subject matter. We said that we didn’t dream but that we created dreams.

CB: Can you explain to us the way you proceeded to write your book? Can you talk about the recurring episodes in your novels?

DT: Lessing already made a parallel between literature and music when he made the distinction between arts of successivity (music, literature) and arts of simultaneity (plastic arts in general). His criterion was perception, the way the reader, the audience, the spectator, etc., receives arts. Of course, one can object to this and argue that a painting is perceived gradually. This is not what matters. What is obvious is that a musical work is composed to be played in a period of time, it is linked to time as well as to literature, the link between the two being undeniable.

Writers have always tried to imitate music. They first did it in a superficial way by trying to produce euphonic effects, then in a more in-depth way by working on the structure itself. For instance: the refrain in poetry. This is the most elementary recurrence. As for me, I’ve always been an inveterate formalist. This link between literature and music has always inspired me. I started by writing more or less dreamlike short stories. I didn’t tell about my dreams, I made them up. The dream was only a legislative model for me, which was essential, of course. Music was the other essential element. That is why my dreamlike style had nothing to do with the other surrealists. They cultivated with rather inane serious automatic writing and objective chance.

Dream itself is linked to music. First, it doesn’t exist without an interpretation. It is unsteady, vanishes easily. It needs to be structured to contribute to art. Thus the surrealist approach was absurd. And yet they had great intuition: considering that the effect of literature (like in music) starts with the first written line: there is nothing before, nothing after the last word. Everything happens within the succession of words and images. There is no other reality than the one happening in front of the readers’ eyes (since each reader builds his own reality thanks to the text he reads, etc.).

Concretely, Vain Art of the Fugue is obviously built like a musical fugue, like a canon for two voices. It is not possible to have the same rigor in literature as in music. There is no point in even trying! However this is more than just a mere suggestion. The musical character is complicated with an Oulipian constraint: some words work like traps. The main character runs, goes from one point to another (the paradox serves to show the vanity of any solution gained thanks to a spatial displacement), he thinks, he stumbles on a wordtrap, on the word “garden” for instance: thus, he is going to end up in a garden. Or he staggers on the word “beach” and ends up on a beach, and so forth. In between a musical fugue and snakes and ladders, the structure is never fixed, the reader is rather free of his reading, he can actively participate in it.

But there is a general recurrence in my whole work. I use, again and again, images or even whole scenes in my various novels or short stories.

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