Wednesday 9 March 2016

On Norman Manea

The Lair is a novel by Norman Manea, translated by Oana Sanziana Marian and published in 2012 by Yale University Press. I wrote this review on spec at the time for a distinguished literary periodical and it was for some reason turned down. Yesterday's blog on Claudio Magris prompts me to resurrect this.  I've cut some of it, but not much.

Norman Manea recently became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, the induction ceremony coinciding with the appearance in English of The Lair, published as Vizuina in Romania in 2010. The author has lived in the United States for the past twenty-five years, a notable exile who has continued to write in his native Romanian. Following the collapse of the Ceaușescu dictatorship in 1989 his work started to re-emerge and has now gained widespread recognition. He has a claim on our attention because he is, as Eliot said of Yeats 'one of those few whose history is the history of their own time, who are part of the unconsciousness of an age.' 

The Lair references Mann's The Magic Mountain, the Ficciones of Borges, Ambrose Bierce and (inevitably) Kafka. Everything revolves around texts - a review, a memoir and an anonymous death threat which is repeatedly discussed, speculated upon, dissected. There are many references to mirrors. 

The main character is Professor Augustin Gora, a dissident Romanian academic who has settled in New York. One day his ex-wife Lu and her lover Peter (who is also her first cousin) arrive on his doorstep looking for refuge. This banal set-up is an armature around which Manea reflects on the nature of exile. There is a plot, of sorts, but it's hard to summarise or even to recall. The Lair is densely written and the characters (most of whom have several names, some of whom share the same name) are opaque and without any distinctive traits apart from a shared tendency to deliver interminable telephone monologues in the type of language that is never encountered in life and only rarely - thank God - in novels. 

The simple business of booking a hotel room is treated thus by a character named either Beatrice Artwein, or Betty: 

"A small, simple room. A bed. A shower, toilet, mirror. Without towels, but cheap," Beatrice had explained. "Without perfumes, creams, towels. You don't forget where you are, nor what you're there for. Promiscuity intensifies the promiscuous appetite. It defies conventions, sharpens pleasure."

It's would be a challenge to find any American hotel room without towels, but perhaps Manea is making some other point here. Betty sounds like a barrel of laughs and there follows, as night follows day, a wince-inducingly atrocious passage that should be awarded the Literary Review's annual Bad Sex Award in perpetuity.

Manea has received countless cultural and literary prizes, is acclaimed in France, Italy and the United States and regarded as a likely Nobel laureate Nothing I say will dent his reputation - but The Lair is a mind-numbingly, spirit-drainingly, joylessly awful novel. 

Extracts © Norman Manea / Yale University Press

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