For most of the writers we love and admire, it is possible to say something comprehensive. One reader says of Saul Bellow that “throughout his life” he searched “for some ultimate and invisible spiritual reality,” and we think, yes, that is true, that is one good way of conferring upon a life like Bellow’s a sort of splendid coherence. Or we agree that the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard sought, in everything he wrote, to “be misunderstood,” reviled, alienated, the better to exempt himself from the judgment he directed at a world he considered stupid and meaningless. But what comprehensive statement will we dare to make about Norman Manea? For one thing, we who know his writing only in English translation, and thus have not read many of the titles included in the collected Romanian edition of his work, are somewhat reluctant to sum him up as if we were fully equipped to do so. And yet we have more than enough to proceed, to begin at least. Consulting what is already out there we find, inevitably, that the established line on this writer is at once useful and misleading. Ought we to think of him as a writer defined by the exercise of “conscience”? That is one of those misleading suggestions you can read even on the dust jackets of his books. Is he, in the end, one of the many gifted contributors to what is called “the literature of totalitarianism”? Or is he, as has been said, one of “the great poets of catastrophe” and thus fit to stand alongside predecessors like Kafka or Bruno Schulz, or even Paul Celan?
more from Robert Boyers at Threepenny Review here.