Review Archive: Tsepeneag

One of the things I want to use this place for is an archive of things I wrote and got published. I will be posting them in roughly chronological order, starting with astonishingly jejune articles from 2009. As will soon become clear, the point of this exercise is purely to gather together things I maybe don’t want to lose, rather than give anyone reading them any kind of enjoyment.

Anyway, a review from November 2009 for the Times Literary Supplement of two novels by the Romanian writer Dumitru Tsepeneag.

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Dumitru Tsepeneag is a Romanian writer who lives in France, and who writes in both Romanian and French (Vain Art of the Fugue was written in Romanian in 1971, Pigeon Post in French in 1989). Like his fellow Romanian exile, Eugène Ionesco, Tsepeneag has longstanding connections with the surrealist movement, and his fiction reflects his interest in the ludic possibilities of language and in the fantastic. His surrealism is combined with a concentration on form. In Romania, before his citizenship was revoked in 1975, Tsepeneag was a member of a group which, in his words, aimed “to renew surrealism by rejecting automatic writing.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”. In France, this interest in rules led to Tsepeneag’s tangential connection to Oulipo.

Both these novels have underlying formal structures: as its title suggests, Vain Art of the Fugue uses musical models; Pigeon Post is based on a game of chess. The risk with such overtly patterned writing is that the chosen structure may make too harsh a demand on the writer: the novel which is both structurally experimental and straightforwardly enjoyable is rare.

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Vain Art of the Fugue, which takes a few basic elements and plays variations on them, is an example of structure overwhelming pleasure. The situation Tsepeneag provides is unwieldy: a man carrying some roses runs from the house of his lover, Maria, to catch a bus to the railway station, where he is meeting a woman, Magda; on the way, he sees a cyclist with a string bag full of fish, or maybe bread. This theme is then developed. Unlike Raymond Queneau’s Exercises de style, which tells a similar bus-related story in ninety-nine different ways, this novel’s development is not a stylistic reworking of its base material. Here, the different elements – the flowers, the fish, the cyclist, the bus and its driver, Magda and Maria – are repositioned in different combinations where they change and develop. Characters blend into one another until it is impossible to know who is being referred to: “she too resembled M., or rather not M., but M., they all resembled each other”. The action moves from bus to beach to prison. The religious symbolism of Maria, Magda, bread and fish appears and reappears. Several characters discuss Zeno’s paradox, to remind readers that they are not getting anywhere.

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Pigeon Post, an accomplished and delirious comic novel, is in many ways the opposite of Vain Art of the Fugue. Whereas the earlier work is inward-looking, trying to give a public form to seemingly hermetic internal material, Pigeon Post is expansive and suggestive. On page three, we are offered the novel’s credo: “disjointedness triumphant, rising Christ-like from the dead!”, and invited to make sense of the disparate scenes set in front of us. A man is trying to write a novel, and does not know how to start: “I’m reading what I just wrote. Or transcribed. It sounds a bit false”. Just as the chessboard offers little clue as to how the game will unfold, so the self-referential scenario with which the novel begins rapidly leads into interesting patterns.

Like Vain Art of the FuguePigeon Post is composed of a series of elements which interact. These are memories, such as a truly distressing primal scene involving the narrator’s mother, and also topics of interest to the narrator or his friends, such as chess, herbal remedies, racism or Vietnamese boat people. But the reader is engaged, rather than constantly returned to his starting point. In passages ranging from a few pages to a couple of words in length, the different narrative strands interact with and illuminate each other, taking over from one another as pieces take each other in a game of chess. In the end, the black king and the white king are left in a form of stalemate, and the narrator reveals that he has been playing both colours all the time. The novel invites comparison with Vladimir Nabokov’s The Luzhin Defence (the narrator meets a chess player who is reading the novel): to Tsepeneag’s credit, such a comparison is not entirely fanciful.