Romanian literature

by Laszlo Csiki

Romanian literature, body of writings in the Romanian language, the development of which is paralleled by a rich folklore—lyric, epic, dramatic, and didactic—that continued into modern times.

The old period

The earliest translations into Romanian were from Slavonic and consisted of interlinear verses or interpolations in 15th-century religious texts. From the same period date the so-called rhotacizing texts, preserved in 16th-century copies, which were written in Maramureş, in northern Transylvania, probably under the impetus of the Hussite movement. These include the Psalter of Şcheia and the Codex of Voroneţ, which contains the Acts of the Apostles and the Psalter of Voroneţ.

The first book printed in Walachia in 1508 was a Slavonic liturgical book. A certain Deacon Coresi printed Romanian translations of the Acts of the Apostles (1563). Other publications of his that survive are the Tîlcul evangheliilor şi molitvenic (“Sermons and Book of Prayers”) and Evanghelia cu învăţătură (1581; “Commentary on the Gospels”); they all encouraged the use of Romanian. In this period some secular literature was also produced, but it consisted mainly of translations from Greek, Slavonic, Byzantine, and Asian books.

The printing of Romanian religious books continued in the 17th century and was given new impetus in Transylvania, Walachia, and Moldavia by the controversy resulting from the Protestant Reformation. A Moldavian metropolitan, Dosoftei, a great scholar and theologian, fled to Poland during the fighting between Poland and Turkey and in 1673 published there the first Romanian metrical psalter, which was also the first poetry to be written in Romanian. He returned to Moldavia in 1675 and in 1679 translated the liturgy from the Greek. His other outstanding contribution to Romanian literature was his Viaţa şi petrecerea sfinţilor (1682–86; “Lives of the Saints”), in which he introduced popular idioms and encouraged the development of a more flexible prose style.

Toward the end of the 17th century, the monastery of Snagov, near Bucharest, became a centre of literary activity, and books were printed in Romanian, Greek, Slavonic, and Arabic. Religious literature reached its climax with a translation of the Bible (1688) that became the basis for all later translations.

Historiography was at its height with the humanist historiographers of 17th-century Moldavia, whose leader was Miron Costin. He wrote a chronicle of Moldavia in Romanian and a poem on the history of his country in Polish. The chronicle was continued by his son Nicolae, who also pioneered the collection of folklore and legends. Dmitry Kantemir (Dimitrie Cantemir), prince of Moldavia, a great linguist and historiographer, wrote Latin histories of Romania, Moldavia, and the Ottoman Empire. A special place among Moldavian historians is occupied by Nicolae Milescu, who wrote theological, historical, and travel works.

The 18th century

Most Romanian literature of the 18th century presents a picture of social oppression and decadence under Ottoman rule. A rich secular and apocryphal literature circulated in manuscript, but there was no progress in comparison with that of the past. In Moldavia a new cultural centre arose at Rădăuţi. The principal achievements of the century were the Minei (“Lives of the Saints”) of 1776–80 and 1807–15 (each in 12 volumes, published in Râmnicu Vâlcea and in the monastery of Neamţ, respectively), whose rich and lucid language put them alongside the Bible of 1688.

Lyric poetry was cultivated toward the end of the century in love songs (1769–99), in the tradition of the ancient Greek poet Anacreon, by Alecu Văcărescu. Alecu’s father, Ienăchiţă, a moralist poet, also wrote the first Romanian grammar, while his son Iancu, the father of Romanian poetry, overshadowed his predecessors with his poems. The fourth poet of the Văcărescu family was Nicolae. The lyric tradition was carried on in Walachia by B.P. Mumuleanu.

The national renaissance

The first landmark of this period was the uprising of Tudor Vladimirescu (1821) in Walachia against the Ottoman Turks and the return of the national rulers. Romanticism carried forward the falling wave of the Latinist movement. In the second half of the 19th century, a serious literary criticism, which originated in German philosophy and French culture, inaugurated modern Romanian literature.

Transylvanian Latinism crossed the Carpathians and had beneficial effects on the Greek-inspired culture of Walachia. Ion Heliade Rădulescu, who came under this influence, founded the first Romanian newspaper in Walachia and the Societatea Filarmonică (1833), which later created a national theatre in Bucharest. He was a pioneer of Italian influence, which was taken up in Moldavia by Gheorghe Asachi, who introduced the historical short story, wrote verses in Romanian and Italian, and founded a periodical, Albina Românească. The outstanding literary personality among a galaxy of minor poets and translators who enriched the Romantic heritage was Grigore Alexandrescu. Alexandrescu wrote Poezii (1832, 1838, and 1839) and Meditaţii (1863), fables and satires influenced mostly by French writers. A literary magazine, Dacia Literară, edited by Mihail Kogălniceanu, a leading statesman and father of modern Romanian historiography (1840), marked a beginning of the traditionalist trend in literature. Alecu Russo, another leader of 1848, enriched literature with a biblical prose poem, Cântarea României.

Leading writers of the second half of the century were Vasile Alecsandri and Mihail Eminescu. Alecsandri’s rich output comprised poetry (Doine şi lăcrimioare [1853] and Suvenire si Mărgăritărele [1856]), prose (Buchetiera din Florenţa [“A Bouquet from Florence”] and Călătorii în Africa), and plays (Fîntîna Blanduziei, Ovidiu, and Despot Vodă). He also revealed treasures of Romanian folklore in Balade (1852–53) and Poezii populare (1866). Eminescu, a philosophical lyric poet, created modern Romanian poetry. He was influenced by Hindu thought and German philosophy but remained rooted in tradition. He raised Romanian poetry to new heights and was the guiding star in every aspect of cultural life. His writings include short stories and political and philosophical essays.


The 20th century

Romanian literature of the 20th century was rooted in the traditions of the 19th. Important figures spanned both centuries, and the genres, literary groups, and methods of criticism they established in the 19th century continued into the 20th. For example, Junimea (“Youth”), the literary circle Titu Maiorescu founded in 1863, reacted against the prevailing interest in literary form at the expense of content and pointed toward a later reassessment of the uses of literature. Playwright Ion Luca Caragiale died in 1912 but was relevant to the 20th century as the creator of Romanian social comedy. His satirical sketches are more than mere criticisms of contemporary conditions; they provide a description of the Romanian national character and the Balkan attitudes of the period. Similarly, Barbu Ştefănescu Delavrancea created the historical national drama that played such an important role in the formation of national identity throughout the 20th century. Moses Gaster pioneered modern Romanian folklore research.

Literary movements of eastern and western Europe at the beginning of the century were reflected in Romania. The social and political ideology of the periodical Viaţa Româneascǎ (“Romanian Life”) (1901) was similar to that of the Russian Narodniki, members of a movement known as narodnichestvo (“populism”) that was centred on awakening the peasantry to the ills of autocratic power. The critic Constantin Dobrogeanu Gherea’s theories followed Karl Marx, although Western Modernism also influenced Romanian writers. Ovid Densuşianu clearly followed Symbolism, as did the poets Ion Minulescu and George Bacovia, while Impressionism was taken up by the literary critic Eugen Lovinescu and the poet Nicolae Davidescu, whose epic Cântecul omului (1928–37; “The Song of Man”) aimed at re-creating world history.

Between the wars

In the period of national unity following World War I, the novel began to compete with lyrical poetry. Writers took inspiration from society or recent events, principally the war. Liviu Rebreanu wrote about the peasants’ difficult lot and the need for the redistribution of land; Răscoala (1932; The Uprising) described the Romanian peasant uprising of 1907. His best work, Pădurea spînzuraţilor (1922; The Forest of the Hanged), was inspired by his brother’s fate during World War I. In it, he describes the tragedy of a Romanian soldier forced to turn against his own people as a member of the Austro-Hungarian army. He tries to flee but is caught and hanged as a deserter.

This relationship between war and the individual, as well as the struggle of intellectuals caught up in the pressure of historical events, provides the material for Camil Petrescu’s great novel Ultima noapte de dragoste, întîia noapte de război (1930; “The Last Night of Love, the First Night of War”), as well as for a number of Cezar Petrescu’s novels and even some of Ion Minulescu’s poems. Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu’s trilogy of novels (Fecioarele despletite [1926; “Disheveled Virgins”], Concert din muzică de Bach [1927; “A Bach Concert”], and Drumul ascuns [1933; “The Hidden Way”]) is a document of changing lifestyles and urbanization, similar to the writings of novelist Ionel Teodoreanu. Victor Popa wrote about rural subjects, while G.M. Zamfirescu’s protagonists were typical Bucharest citizens, and D.D. Pătrăscanu wittily described political life.

The leading writer of this period was Mihail Sadoveanu, who, together with I.A. Brătescu-Voineşti, represented a link with the older generation of Romanian authors. Sadoveanu wrote about the historical role of the peasantry and an almost mythologized village life, as well as about the peasants’ adoption of a modern lifestyle. He remains arguably the most important Romanian historical novelist of the 20th century.

Scholars, philosophers, critics, and translators also made contributions to the literary and intellectual life of the period. The archaeologist Vasile Pârvan commemorated the sacrifices of the war generation in Parentalia (1922); the historian and politician Nicolae Iorga founded literary periodicals and a people’s university (an adult education centre unaffiliated with the Romanian general educational system), wrote literary works, and was a great influence on the development of a national identity; the geographer Simion Mehedinţi edited a journal and published bucolic short stories; and Dimitrie Gusti established a school of sociology that had a decidedly nationalistic and village-centred disposition. Poet and essayist Lucian Blaga attempted to provide a philosophical foundation for the description of Romanian national characteristics, partly determined by geographical conditions, while Gala Galaction translated the Bible and wrote novels on biblical subjects.

Lyrical poetry of a considerable stylistic variety became the leading genre in Romanian literature after World War I. The diversity of styles can be illustrated by Nichifor Crainic’s religious traditionalist tendency, the programmatic esoterica of Ion Barbu (who was also an internationally renowned mathematician), the influence of French and German lyric poetry on Ion Pillat, and the bitter Symbolist poetry of George Bacovia. After Eminescu, who remained influential throughout the 20th century, it was Tudor Arghezi who brought about a real rejuvenation in Romanian lyric poetry. In his poems language acquires an exceptional expressiveness and harmony, and the traits of Symbolism and philosophical aspirations reach their high point. Of his volumes of poetry, Cuvinte potrivite (1927; “Suitable Words”), Flori de mucigai (1931; “Flowers of Mold”), and Cărticică de Seară (1935; “Booklet for the Evening”) are especially notable.

Influenced by the experimental prose writer Urmuz, Saşa Pană, Ion Vinea, and Gellu Naum were members of an avant-garde movement that became an important feature of Romanian literature. However, this did not prevent many of its exponents from emigrating: Ilarie Voronca, Benjamin Fondane, Tristan Tzara, and especially Eugène Ionesco established reputations as writers in France. Two notable emigrant writers who began their careers on the far right of the political spectrum rose to prominence in post-World War I Western intellectual life: Emil Cioran, writer of pessimistic aphorism, and Mircea Eliade, a leading figure in comparative religious history.

After World War II

With the onset of communism in 1945, many Romanian writers were arrested or otherwise forced out of literary life, but a number of authors thrived under the new regime. From avant-garde beginnings the poet and essayist Geo Bogza became a disciple of socialism only to later turn against the dictatorship; Mihai Beniuc became, as he said, “the drummer of the new age,” praising the achievements of the postwar period. Demostene Botez, whose prewar poetry described the sadness of provincial life, later revealed a vigorous optimism, and Eugen Jebeleanu, who spent much of the 1930s as a left-wing journalist, produced increasingly abstracted poetry. Also among those who came to the fore during and after World War II were Maria Banuş, who expressed the struggle for peace in her poetry, Miron Paraschivescu, a lyric poet who took themes from folklore, and Marcel Breslaşu, a complex writer on a wide range of subjects.

Dramatists of the period included Aurel Baranga, who dealt satirically with the problems of contemporary life, Mihail Davidoglu, the author of plays set in mines and factories, and the intellectual but didactic Horia Lovinescu.

The critic and prose writer George Călinescu wrote the most comprehensive history of Romanian literature (Istoria literaturii române de la origini pînă în prezent [1941; History of Romanian Literature from the Beginning Until the Present) and published authoritative studies about Eminescu and other authors. Călinescu also wrote novels describing the social life of Bucharest after World War I, its gradual decay, and the part played by intellectuals in the city’s reconstruction after its decline following World War II.

In his semiautobiographical novel Desculţ (1948; “Barefoot”), Zaharia Stancu, the eminent exponent of “peasant realism,” portrays both the bygone village world and its contemporary influx of modernity. Essays and criticism were written by Mihai Ralea, who also published travel books and philosophical and psychological works, and by Tudor Vianu, who revealed in his writings a materialistic and methodological approach after first having adhered to the aesthetic school.

There was a revival in Romanian literary life in the mid-1950s and 1960s, which saw the proliferation of the work of such significant prose writers as Marin Preda, who, after depicting the life of the peasantry in Moromeţii (1955; The Morometes), expanded to a wider social panorama and produced a notable political novel, Risipitorii (1962; “The Squanderers”). In the 1960s and ’70s Romanian prose confronted the communist government and addressed the personal freedom of its citizenry, as can be seen in Alexandru Ivasiuc’s Păsările (1970; “The Birds”) and Iluminări (1975; “Illuminations”), Augustin Buzura’s Absenţii (1970; “The Absent”) and Feţele tăcerii (1974; “Faces of Silence”), or Constantin Ţoiu’s Galeria cu viţă sălbatică (1976; “A Gallery of Wild Vine”). At the same time, Fănuş Neagu depicted life in the Danube region and Bucharest in surrealistic colours in Îngerul a strigat (1968; “The Angel Cried Out”) and Frumoşii nebuni ai marilor oraşe (1976; “Handsome Madmen of the Big City”).

Following the drabness of propaganda lyrics, poetry also enjoyed a revival. The work of Ştefan Augustin Doinaş, Leonid Dimov, and A.E. Baconsky put an emphasis on the pure art of poetry and criticized the communist regime’s “social expectations” (the official concept of literature as a vehicle of class-conscious party propaganda). In the 1960s an important generation of poets emerged. Perhaps its best exponent was Nichita Stănescu, who wished to convey the totality of the universe in his metaphysical poems. Marin Sorescu, at once a poet of irony and of myth, became well known all over Europe as both a poet and a playwright. Ioan Alexandru was the poet of village life, of ancient times, and of Eastern Orthodoxy. Ana Blandiana, whose work was both emotional and philosophical, later turned to writing verses of dissent. Adrian Păunescu, who later became “court poet” to Romanian Pres. Nicolae Ceauşescu, was also a member of this generation.

After the revolution of 1989 and Ceauşescu’s execution, the metaphorical poetry of the politically active Mircea Dinescu, the postmodern playwriting and poetry of Matei Vişniec, and Mircea Cărtărescu’s densely symbolic and surreal novels became the most influential Romanian literary works. Also at this time, the Romanian literary and political essay was revived by the likes of Adrian Marino, Andrei Pleşu, Gabriel Liiceanu, and Horia-Roman Patapievici.

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