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📖 🇷🇴 #66: A modern classic from Romania
Poet Magda Cârneci's debut novel
It’s been a while! I took a brief hiatus to sort out my life and do some non-newsletter reading, but now I’m back. Thank you for bearing with me. If you’re new to Bookmarked, welcome! I hope you’ll enjoy following me on this trip around the world in books. And if you’ve found your way over here but are not yet subscribed, let me help you with that:
The narrator of FEM, the 2011 novel by the celebrated Romanian writer Magda Cârneci, is having a tough time. Not only is she getting ready to leave her partner, she’s also consumed by existential angst about what it means to inhibit a female body.
FEM takes the form of a letter addressed to the man the narrator is about to leave. Written mostly in the second person—though it does sometimes delve into first—the narrator begins by comparing herself to Scheherazade. She goes onto explain what that means, a process which involves recounting childhood memories and documenting her thoughts as her mind wanders. The result is a sort of sweeping review of the female experience, which draws heavily on the works of philosophers Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous.
Sometimes I understood myself without a sex, as though I woke up in the morning like a newborn with nothing between my legs, only to remember later that I have to put a costume on, not even mine, even though I keep it at my house. The costume is arcane and complicated, uncomfortable but luxurious, full of skirts, bows, zippers, embroidery; it is a costume I have to take care of constantly, to brush, clean, and repair. A borrowed costume, one I have to employ with a certain seriousness if I want to play my part, my part—who knows who chose this part for me, who gave me this burden, who trained me, who forced it into my reflexes and brain. And precisely the strange, glossy gazes of the men I encountered on the street each morning abruptly reminded me to play the part again, to identify myself with the uniform I bought from home. Clearly, by now I don’t even know if I could play another part. I’ve been in this bizarre costume, some even call it beautiful, from the start…
Cârneci refers to gender studies, queer studies, and feminist theory but resists the urge to deconstruct her narrator’s experiences through an academic lens. “I don’t theorize,” she explains, “I live.” So while the memories she recounts are largely tied to her experiences of being a woman—her relationship with her mother, getting her first period at summer camp, her first sexual encounter, the process of IVF—she leaves it to the reader to connect the dots between experience and theory and work out what it all means. And it’s all the more interesting when you consider that FEM was published ten years ago—a long time in terms of feminist discourse.
Though I was impressed by the prose and the ambition of FEM, I have to admit that at times it lost me. Reading it was a tiring experience and though the book is full of eminently quotable lines (like this: “Recently, whenever I come near any boy I feel a kind of negative, evil energy riding over my legs and arms”), it’s very heavy on mysticism and I’m certain that a lot of its content went straight over my head. Still, I’m glad I read it and if dreamy, oneiric storytelling is your thing, I’m sure you’ll get a lot out of it.
FEM by Magda Cârneci, translated by Sean Cotter (Deep Vellum, 2021 / Cartea Românească, 2011)
More books by Romanian authors:
Wasted Morning by Gabriela Adameșteanu, tr. Patrick Camiller
Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, tr. Sean Cotter
Angelus by Ruxandra Cesereanu, tr. Alistair Ian Blyth
Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent by Mircea Eliade, tr. Christopher Moncrieff and Christopher Bartholomew
The Băiuț Alley Lads by Filip Florian and Matei Florian, tr. Alistair Ian Blyth
The Passport by Herta Müller, tr. Martin Chalmers
Life Begins on Friday by Ioana Pârvulescu, tr. Alistair Ian Blyth
Sun Alley by Cecilia Stefanescu, tr. Alexandra Coliban and Andreea Höfer
Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu, tr Marina Sofia
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
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