The Rumpus International Rivers Interview #4: Dumitru Tsepeneag on the Danube

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Dumitru Tsepeneag is a Romanian novelist, essayist and one of the founders of the Romanian Oniric literary movement. Established in the mid-60s, the Oniric group was inspired by surrealism and built an aesthetic platform centered on dreams. As one of the only Romanian counter-cultural literary movements at that time, the Oniric Group was largely suppressed. With Ceaucescu’s rise to power, the movement was banned entirely. Tsepeneag’s Romanian citizenship was officially revoked in 1975, at which time he immigrated to France. Since the fall of communist Romania in 1989, Dumitru Tsepeneag has split his time between Paris and Bucharest.

[To learn about The Rumpus International Rivers Interview project click here.]

Three of Tsepeneag’s books have recently been translated into English and published by Dalkey Archive Press: Vain Art of the Fugue, Pigeon Post, and The Necessary Marriage. What struck me first when sitting down to read Tsepeneag’s books was the lack of narrative—or, rather, its insignificance. Whatever narrative exists serves as paper-thin camouflage; sheep’s clothing for what lurks beneath.

And what lurks beneath are structures—complicated, spiraling, head-over-toes, hand-sculpted structures.  In Vain Art of the Fugue, my favorite of the three, Tsepeneag adopts the fugue—a style of composition highlighted by multiple voices or instruments harping on one central musical ‘phrase’—as a model. The result is multiple iterations of a hopelessly simple story: one man trying to ride the bus to the station. As characters, symbols and events crop up, fly by, collide and disappear, the task takes on surreal, impossible proportions. If at times difficult, Tsepeneag’s imaginatively rich texts are also intensely rewarding.

The following interview was conducted in the summer of 2009 and translated from French with the help of Aude Jeanson.

The Rumpus: Could you describe the circumstances of your exile?

Dumitru Tsepeneag: After multiple trips to Paris and being accused of participating in ‘heinous’ activities in regard to the state, I found my Romanian nationality revoked by ‘presidential decree’ in 1975. Because I hadn’t asked for political asylum like everyone else, I had to live and travel with the infamous Nansen Passport from then on. This wasn’t easy…I finally obtained my French citizenship in 1983.

Rumpus: Did you start writing in French immediately?

Tsepeneag: My first book published in France was translated and titled Exercices d’Attente in 1972. It was a collection of short works written and published in Romania. In 1973 I was ready to publish the novel Arpièges, which I had started writing in Romanian and of which I had published some fragments under the title Vain Art of the Fugue. Some years later, I finished Necessary Marriage.

Vain Art of the Fugue was the only one of my novels to be met with relative public recognition: it was nominated for the Prix Médicis by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Milan Kundera pocketed the prize instead and the public never clamored to buy it.

My editor, who was tired of paying for translations, asked me: “Why don’t you write in French?” He was right.  It was a difficult period for me, and not only in material terms: I had severed relations with the Romanian exiles who had become politically conservative and even extremely right wing; I was giving chess lessons to earn a living. Luckily we spoke quite a bit of French at home so it wasn’t too difficult for me to write in my adopted language.

I got a grant in Berlin thanks to an American friend, the poet Christopher Middleton. It was there I started to write Le Mot Sablier. The text is particular, a type of linguistic hourglass : the first pages are written in Romanian, with French slipping in little by little, ending a battle of words in which French is victorious: the last pages of the book are written entirely in French.

As my editor had no desire to frighten readers with the Romanian pages, he had them translated and published the whole thing in French in 1984. It was only years later, in Romania, that I was able to publish the book as I wrote it.

Rumpus: When did you decide to return to writing in Romanian?

Tsepeneag: I published two more books in French: Roman de Gare (1985) and later, Pigeon Post (1989). That same year the wall came down, and seized by the frenzy of radical political change, I decided to renounce French and return to Romanian. It’s true that in Romanian I feel more relaxed, as if I’m wearing slippers…but I came to this decision primarily for other reasons: I had only published three collections of texts in Romania. Even before my exile I was prohibited from publishing, I was ignored and forgotten. In going back to Romanian I had the opportunity to take my revenge.

Rumpus: Vain Art of the Fugue, Pigeon Post and Necessary Marriage were initially published 20-odd years ago. Did you revisit the texts when you realized they’d be republished?

Tsepeneag: For me, literature is the daughter of music: a bit heavy and more level headed than its mother. Literature submits to the same principles of successive perception, which allows it to build progressively. The narrative image has more dimensions than the painted image—literature is more complex than painting. Initially, this complexity represents a disadvantage, because the reader has to concentrate much more than when they’re looking at a canvas. It gives the author, on the other hand, the opportunity to feel like a creator: they can offer their readers a world in which there’s room for everyone, as every reader has their own reading and vision.

It’s not the subject of narration that interests me, but the structure. That’s why I stay in touch with my old works, which I reread regularly. I don’t hesitate to take up previously used images or even whole scenes. While I was writing Hôtel Europa in the early 90s, the first of a trilogy, I was rereading Vain Art of the Fugue. I took a whole scene—an episode in a train—from my old text and changed very little.

Many images of animals, mammals or birds, resurface regularly in my narratives. They are not symbols, but chromatic benchmarks. For me, music has always been the perfect construction—an inaccessible ideal. In Necessary Marriage, I tried to repeat entire phrases without the reader noticing. My work doesn’t have the rigor of music, but I hope it alludes to it.

But music doesn’t sum up my approach to literature—even in Vain Art of the Fugue. To ‘fugue’ I had to invent ‘trap-words,’ or words that would force the narrator to turn around and start his path anew. The reader’s impression is one of a dream—the only thing that’s left upon waking is the memory of a melody at the end of a concert.

Rumpus: I’ve read that there was a moment in your life when you were isolated, when all you did was play chess. Did this influence your work?

Tsepeneag: In so-called communist Romania, chess was held in high esteem, even if our champions were weaker than the Soviets. This game, this “sport of the mind,” was at the time a better way to establish your reputation than literature.

I was a professional chess player in Romania, but only a small-time master. When I came to France, I continued playing chess for many years: I played tournaments in numerous countries with mixed results. I wrote and published a book – La Défense Alekhine and translated two others from Russian. I taught chess in schools; I earned more money through chess than through literature.

Chess hasn’t really influenced my literature. It’s true, there’s a character in Pigeon Post, an old chess player; but it’s more of a wink, a self-portrait and not much more.

At one point I had a very complicated plan to use the game of chess as a generating structure for writing. I prepared for a long time. I finally wrote two chapters and stopped. It was too complicated and too difficult to write. And who would’ve read it?

Rumpus: But you’ve compared an author to a chess player before. In chess, the winner is the player who can organize the best set-up. Does that kind of set-up exist in literature?

Tsepeneag: There is no one ‘best set-up’, there are many—you can get to mate in endless ways. And—don’t forget!—in chess, like in literature, “the other” (the reader, the adversary, the partner, etc.) has to be a collaborator, has to work with you to get to the final goal. We depend on them! But they also depend on us…

The literary game is the abyss of human society itself: interactive, playful and tragic. We can’t live alone. For me, Robinson [Crusoe] is either a false myth or else he represents the denial of human society. We can’t play by ourselves. In literature, it’s even more complicated, because one has to play with an indeterminate number of players simultaneously and every game is different. The other player can abandon your game at any time…to go play chess.

Rumpus: In the 60s you were part of the Oniric literary group. What attracted you to dreams?

Tsepeneag: At first I met the grand poet Léonid Dimov, a marginal like myself during the years of proletcultisme and social-realism. We met, talked, drank, read each other’s works, but never published. Nothing until 1964, when there was a sort of thaw of cultural life.

Since adolescence I’ve had a passion for Romantic Fantastique literature, which continued with Expressionism and culminated with the genius of Kafka. It’s that German thread of the metaphysic—they were looking for the beyond in dreams.

On the other hand, Surrealism has been a part of Romanian literature since forever. Even before Tzara, who was originally Romanian, we had Urmuz, who was a surrealist before the term even existed. During Breton’s era too, there was a very active Romanian Surrealist group (Ghérasim Luca, Gellu Naum, etc.) closely related to the French. They had to quit their activities as soon as the Soviet communists took over.

Rumpus: But why did you feel it necessary to abandon automatic writing?

Tsepeneag: Our Onirisme movement was a synthesis between the Romantic Fantastique and Surrealism. Dimov and I rejected automatic writing. We loved surrealist painters: Chirico, Magritte, Tanguy and especially Brauner (also a Romanian), who never respected the laws that Breton imposed in his manifests. Where is automatism in the work of Chirico or Tanguy? Even Dali had to renounce it in order to be able to organize the space of the canvas according to the combined laws of dreams and pictorial aesthetics.

We could say that Romanian Onirisme was born from painting and not from surrealist literature. The visual is primordial. Dimov said, ‘Dreams are not a source, but a canon, a legislative model.’ We don’t recount our dreams; we construct them with the materials of reality. We aren’t looking for God, psychic truth or authenticity, but for esthetic effect. That’s why I baptized our movement Structural, or Esthetic, Onirism. Dreams and music were our models.

Rumpus: What led you to edit the review Seine et Danube?

Tsepeneag: I worked on a number of reviews in Paris. The first, launched in 1975, was Les Cahiers de l’Est, which lasted five years. It was published by a small press which I’d convinced to fund the review thanks to Eugène Ionesco, who was a sort of the protective patron of the project. His daughter, Marie-France, was part of the editorial team. We published literature from all eastern countries except the Soviet Union. It was because of this review that my Romanian nationality was revoked.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, I published Les Nouveaux Cahiers de l’Est with my Parisian editor POL in 1992. Our mission was the same, except this time we published Russian literature as well. It only survived four issues: the public had lost interest. The East was no longer a threat to the western world, and when there’s nothing to fear we turn our backs, we look elsewhere. Eastern literature is still the poor relative that everyone wants to forget, the Cinderella who hasn’t (yet) found her prince.

Seine et Danube was launched in 2003 with the help of Romanian authorities who had finally realized the necessity of promoting literature and Romanian culture in general. Along with focusing on the literature of the countries the Danube traversed (with an emphasis on Romania), we printed work that interested us from the banks of the Seine: French and French-Romanian authors like Cioran and Fondane. We dedicated our last edition to surrealism and Esthetic Onirisme.

Rumpus: Could you describe the last time you saw the Danube?

Tsepeneag: I see the Danube each year in Budapest, Hungary, in Bulgaria, and obviously Romania, where the river has its delta. It’s always the same: every year it’s a little dirtier, a little more polluted.

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Rumpus original art by Ilyse Magy.

The Rumpus International Rivers Interview #1, #2, and #3.


Michael Zelenko is a freelance writer and editor. He was most recently a writer for the newspaper The Reykjavik Grapevine in Iceland. Born in Murmansk, Russia, he currently resides in San Francisco where he is working on a children's book. More from this author →