Variations to a Portrait: Norman Manea in Dialogue with Robert Boyers

Norman Manea, photo credit Isolde Ohlbaum

Norman Manea is one of the world’s foremost contemporary writers on émigré life and the many nuances of political, cultural, and personal reality it engenders. While his moving prose has the unmistakable mark of creative excellence, it is also marked by his personal experience. Manea is a survivor of Holocaust deportation and internment and a political refugee who has lived in exile from his native Romania for over thirty years. In this candid interview with friend Robert Boyers, Manea opens up about many of these experiences, including the inspiring egalitarian ethos of his native region in Romania, his emotional relationship to Kafka, and his ongoing struggle to identify as both a “creative” and an “intellectual.”

While Manea’s themes have a certain consistency, his work in The Lair and The Black Envelope (both novels, but with very different aesthetics), The Fifth Impossibility (a collection of essays), and Compulsory Happiness (a series of four novellas) – all published this year in the Margellos World Republic of Letters series from Yale University Press – display a remarkable stylistic breadth. Viewed together, they illustrate the author’s willingness to push the boundaries of language again and again (and again). In a way, this is an unsurprising modality for a writer whose personal goal as an intellectual is to be radical and relentless in the pursuit of “thinking deeply.”

Norman Manea is Francis Flournoy Professor of European Culture and writer-in-residence at Bard College. A novelist and essayist, he first published in Communist Romania in the 1960s, producing a string of socially critical works that led to his departure in 1986. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages, and he has received many important cultural and literary prizes, including the MacArthur Fellowship (U.S.), the Nonino International Literary Prize (Italy), the Prix Médicis Etranger (France), and the Nelly Sachs prize (Germany). He is a member of the Berlin Academy of Art and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and the French government has named him Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

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