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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Mircea Cărtărescu

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To purchase Nostalgia

Title: Nostalgia
Author: Mircea Cărtărescu
Genre: Novel
Written: 1989 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 321 pages
Original in: Romanian
Availability: Nostalgia - US
Nostalgia - UK
Nostalgia - Canada
Nostalgia - India
Le rêve - France
Nostalgia - Deutschland
Nostalgia - Italia
Nostalgia - España
  • Original Romanian title: Visul
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Julian Semilian
  • With an Introduction by Andrei Codrescu

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Our Assessment:

B : often fascinating, often impressive writing, but doesn't quite cohere

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 23/3/1998 Wolfgang Schneider
The LA Times . 25/12/2005 Thomas McGonigle
Publishers Weekly . 3/10/2005 .
Rev. of Cont. Fiction . Summer/2006 Aaron Chandler
San Francisco Chronicle . 1/1/2006 Christopher Byrd

  From the Reviews:
  • "Cartarescu versteht sich darauf, die realistische Beschreibung ins Irreale umkippen zu lassen, dem Irrealen aber durch Detailschärfe den Anschein des Realen zu geben; Kafka und Poe gehören zu seinenVorbildern. Nach dem furiosen Einstieg öffnet sich das Buch zum Breitwand-Erinnerungskino der Nostalgia. (...) Mircea Cartarescu ist ein Beschreibungskünstler von Rang. (...) (D)as außerordentliche Debüt eines virtuosen Erzählers, der den Leser in den Bann zu ziehen vermag." - Wolfgang Schneider, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "(T)he novel is a timeless invitation to dream and embrace the comforting power of personal memory, the only sure bulwark against the effects of totalitarian control. (...) Mircea Cartarescu's Nostalgia is gripping, impassioned, unexpected -- the qualities that the best in literature possesses." - Thomas McGonigle, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Given the author's pedigree, it's disappointing that the book, extracted from its cultural context, loses much of its power. (...) (T)he self-conscious postmodernism of this collection may prove off-putting for American readers accustomed to conventions of realist fiction." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Ultimately, though, the book seems to be a sustained effort to dislodge one from the room in which one reads, with its long undulant sentences, engrossing digressions, and flashes of the poetic and uncanny. Less adventurous readers may recoil from the experience, but the more patient will be rewarded by tautly crafted stories and meditative pleasures. Nostalgia surely deserves a place in the growing canon of contemporary world literature and, in some modest way, serves to vindicate the very idea of such a literature." - Aaron Chandler, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "For anyone with a fondness for narrative convolutions who isn't averse to that peculiar, salutary, literary form of blackout -- where one has the impression of time well spent, even if one isn't sure exactly of all that transpired -- this book is for you. And if blackouts aren't your thing but mind-warping literature is, read this book, then read it again." - Christopher Byrd, San Francisco Chronicle

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Nostalgia, billed as a novel, is only very loosely structured as one, its five stories essentially self-contained and separate, with their presentation in three sections -- 'Prologue' (one story), "Nostalgia' (three, taking up the bulk of the book), and 'Epilogue' -- imposing what is little more than a tenuous (and largely artificial) connection on them. There is some unity here -- most notably (variations on) a sense of nostalgia -- and in his Afterword translator Julian Semilian quotes the author's own explanation, in which he suggests, among other things, that: "This is a fractalic and holographic novel, in which each part reflects all others", but the pieces certainly do not add up to anything resembling a conventional novel-whole.
       The pieces, too, range in a spectrum from conventional to hard-to-pin-down. Authorial voices -- writers and would-be writers -- dominate among the narrators, and already in the very strong opening piece, 'The Roulette Player', the story-teller -- who impressively heightens the tension of how the central figure of his tale, the Roulette Player, pushes himself to the most extreme limits -- admits as to his own undertaking:

I concealed my game, my stake, my bet from your gaze. Because, finally, I staked my life on literature.
       If not as immediately or obviously death-defying as the games of Russian roulette his protagonist plays, clearly too literature is a place for such extremes, a be-all and end-all. And, indeed, in the longest piece, 'REM', the belief in what writing can aspire to is expressed most straightforwardly, as one character explains:
No, I don't wish to reach the point of being a great writer, I want to reach The All. I dream incessantly of a creator who, through his art, can actually influence the life of all beings, and then the life of the entire universe, to the most distant stars, to the end of space and time. And then to substitute himself for the universe, to become the World itself. Only in such a way can a man, an artist fulfill, his purpose. The rest is literature, a collection of tricks, well or not so well mastered, tar-scrawled pieces of paper that no one gives a damn about, no matter how filled with genius those lines of engraved signs may be, those lines that sooner or later will no longer be understood.
       Much of Nostalgia revisits the uncertainty of childhood and youth. Literature and story-telling play roles here as well: in 'Mentardy' a newcomer wins over the local kids (for a while) with his story-telling, while in 'The Twins' the narrator recalls losing himself (and his connection to his fellow students) in literature as, for example:
With each new reading, I acquired a new life. I was, by turns, with my entire being, Camus, Sartre, Céline, Bacovia, Voronca, Rimbaud, and Valéry. I barely noticed those around me.
       Yet even though 'REM' for example actually opens with a list of books (Cortázar, García Márquez, The Saragossa Manuscript, etc.) it does not get caught up entirely in the purely literary. Cărtărescu's descriptions of his characters' lives -- which, in the case of the young children, is literally down and very dirty -- is vivid and visceral. His descriptive range -- from the physical to the metaphysical -- is very impressive -- and yet this is also part of what can make the novel hard going. A poet, too, there's a poetic drift to many of these pieces, even those with the strongest narrative arc, and even if it is all very ably done it can prove disengaging. Nostalgia impresses on so many levels, and yet it can also be a book that's hard to really like, its incessant challenges -- to every sort of convention, even as it plays with conventional story-telling -- easy to admire and yet on some level annoying, too.
       The translation is solid, but doesn't always feel entirely successful; some of the bigger leaps Semilian takes -- as he describes in his Afterword -- also must be taken into account in appreciating the stories, as in 'The Twins', where he notes the first and last episodes were originally written in the third-person singular, past tense (and in a way allowing for ambiguity regarding the sex of the character), and the solution to rendering it in English he opted for was to use the second-person singular, present tense (which seems rather a major change).

       This edition of Nostalgia also comes with an Introduction by Andrei Codrescu that can only be described as so glowing that it leaves the reader nearly blinded -- suggesting the counter-productive dangers of too much rhapsodizing in trying to introduce a new author to a new audience (this was the first of Cărtărescu's works to be translated into English).
       Codrescu begins:
     This translation introduces to English a writer who has always had a place reserved for him in a constellation that includes the Brothers Grimm, E.T.A.Hoffmann, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Bruno Schultz [sic], Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Milan Kundera, and Milorad Pavić, to mention just a few of the authors who no longer seem translated, but belong to our essential library.
       By hoisting Cărtărescu -- a writer who, more than most, requires a far more delicate introduction -- into this pantheon Codrescu raises expectations far beyond what the work (in what otherwise is still tremendous isolation, with no companion volumes and little other context) can deliver to most readers. (Mis-spelling/printing Schulz's name doesn't help the argument, either .....)
       Nostalgia -- prize-winning in its French-translation, critically very well received in German and Spanish -- was a notorious flop in this translation. Instead of being a starting-point for Cărtărescu-in-English, its failure seems to have stalled his career for nearly a decade, with only Why We Love Women (brought out by the University of Plymouth Press) published to almost no notice whatsoever (in 2011) before finally Archipelago committed itself to publishing his magnum opus, the Orbitor-trilogy (starting in 2013 with Blinding). Wisely, they allow the work to speak for itself and stand on its own, not propping it up with any sort of Introduction .....

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 July 2013

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Nostalgia: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Romanian author Mircea Cărtărescu was born in 1956.

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© 2013 the complete review

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