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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Life and Opinions
of Zacharias Lichter

Matei Calinescu

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To purchase The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter

Title: The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter
Author: Matei Calinescu
Genre: Novel
Written: 1969 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 151 pages
Original in: Romanian
Availability: The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter - US
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  • Romanian title: Viaţa şi opiniile lui Zacharias Lichter
  • Translated by Adriana Calinescu and Breon Mitchell
  • With an Introduction by Norman Manea

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Our Assessment:

A- : appealing, unusual philosophical-fictional portrait

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 27/8/2018 Costica Bradatan

  From the Reviews:
  • "Only now has his account of Lichterís deeds and sayings entered the English language in this inspired rendition by Adriana Calinescu, the authorís widow, and Breon Mitchell, a distinguished translator of German literature. In a certain sense, the translation could hardly be more topical. Like a disease, the theatre of the absurd can flare up anywhere, and Zacharias Lichter is a reminder of how to laugh at our own times." - Costica Bradatan, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter is presented as a sort of collection of biographical sketches of its titular hero, a shopkeeper's son who was a promising scholar -- "He graduated with an outstanding dissertation on the Enneads of Plotinus" -- who not only abandoned the academy but any sort of role in traditional bourgeois society. He haunts the city's street and parks, "clothed in squalid beggar's rags", and he does occasionally go around actually begging -- his appearance, surely, rather than his line ("Help a poor metaphysician"), apparently convincing enough that he can collect enough to sustain himself. Lichter is a wandering, public philosopher -- with disciples, as in ancient Athens (though they are not a major presence here) --, and not one given to quiet reflection: "Words burst from his mouth in torrents". He is very much the kind of word-person who believes in speech over writing. Only rarely does he write anything down -- often a poem, which he then often tosses aside as soon as he's put it down on paper.
       A shadow(y)-biographer collects and presents this material on Leader: the novel is presented in short chapters of only a few pages each, each focused on a different aspect or opinion of the strange man. Many describe Lichter's attitude and opinion on specific subjects -- 'On Courage', 'On Women', 'On Poetry', 'On Mirrors', 'On Self-Indulgence' --, making for a collection that captures much of the breadth of Lichter's personal philosophy. A few of Lichter's poems -- some rescued by his biographer from the trash -- are also interspersed in the text; Lichter's attitude towards poetry is ambivalent: on the one hand he wants to distance himself from it, casting aside his own poetry as soon as he's set it down; on the other, he wonders (and shudders): "am I myself anything other than a poet ?"
       An Epilogue-chapter has Lichter confront his (would-be) biographer -- denouncing the project, and arguing that: "you are writing about yourself, not me". Not that he wants the biographer to write about him, either -- or, if so, at least have it be a "fictional life"; instead, he finds himself annoyed by the biographer's "serious-mindedness".
       (Still, he annoyance about this project is less than in that of analyst Doctor S., who also "shows an interest in all that Lichter says and does", much to Lichter's chagrin: Lichter is not only suspicious of the processes and methods of analysis but considers them misguided and downright dangerous: understanding, especially of man and his essence, can only be found differently.)
       For all the serious-mindedness he accuses his biographer of, Lichter nevertheless is presented, and comes across, as a larger (and louder) than life figure, and even if he's not quite the: "combination of Diogenes, Nasreddin, and a Jewish prophet" that some eventually begin to see him as in their tall tales about the picaresque figure, one can see where they're coming from. Lichter is on board, too: "Haven't I tried to be a clown to the very end, unto madness ?" The serious biographer won't go quite that far -- the Lichter that comes across in this portrait is neither sad nor ridiculous clown-figure, but rather only clownish in his extremes. The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter is a portrait and exploration of a man living true to his searching philosophy, not an entertainer -- though there's an undeniable showmanship element to how he presents and conducts himself.
       There are few individuals in Lichter's world, with much that the biographer describes a world of 'him' versus and/or in contrast to 'them' (and, often, 'us'); even the biographer is just one more awe-struck follower among presumably many. Lichter does engage with some individuals however, from regularly reading the Bible to an old woman to spending time with his one close friend, the hard-drinking and almost entirely wordless Leopold 'Poldy' Nacht, whom the teetotaler Lichter considers: "one of the great philosophers of contemporary Europe". Lichter is in awe of and aspires to Poldy's thinking, "free of all signification".
       A comic contrast is a professor of English phonetics, Adrian Leonescu, whose: "complete lack of interest in ideas is compensated for by his remarkable ability to pronounce words" -- a void of meaning that is the antithesis of Lichter's constant (but presumably not quite so well-pronounced) meaning-full spouting. Here, as in much of the story, there is -- notwithstanding Lichter's concluding complaints -- actually quite a bit of humor, tending nicely to the absurd.
       Calinescu's unusual novel quite impressively presents this figure, and a life lived according to specific ideas and ideals that stand in contrast to the bourgeois society around him. Lichter isn't simply a critical outsider, but manages to almost inhabit a parallel world, going his own way with little concern for the conventions that he nevertheless is familiar and occasionally prods and teases. He is very much a 'character', but the narrator-as-biographer reveals more of the depth to his thinking and actions -- profound reflection couched in the presentation of this colorful character.
       The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter is also about how to capture and convey thought and experience (and 'truth'); the question of language extends to, for example, a chapter: 'On Mathematical Language', while the ridiculous phonetic-man Adrian Leonescu is another (extreme) manifestation. Meanwhile, Lichter's speech and accompanying wild gesticulations are described early on already as if: "his entire being is partaking in the violent effor of expression, as if imbued with the necessity of saying". Appropriately, Calinescu pays close attention to form and expression in his writing, and much of the novel is quite stylized, the sentences and descriptions carefully phrased; so too, there's much concision -- all in contrast to what is described (but never presented) as Lichter's torrents of words, or the long time-spans of much of his (in)activity. The question of speech -- embraced by Lichter -- versus the written word -- chosen by his biographer -- is also one brought up repeatedly over the course of the novel.
       As Norman Manea notes in his Introduction to The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter, it's: "surprising that such an unusual book should have come out at all under the repressive Ceaușescu regime", but it did, in 1969 -- during: "a brief period of relative liberalization". Certainly it helped that the novel is not overtly political (or even time-specific), but rather more subtly subversive. Manea notes that in a preface to a new, 1995 (i.e. post-Ceaușescu) edition, Calinescu mentioned setting the novel in the 1930s as: "dodge to mislead the censors", but one of the reasons The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter holds up so well is because of the lack of specificity as to time and place. While perhaps obviously a product and reflection of Romanian conditions, most of the larger issues addressed -- and, as a philosophical work, it deals with a lot of larger issues -- tend to the universal, and can be appreciated as such. It is a welcome (re)discovery, and even now an impressive work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 February 2018

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The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Romanian-born Matei Călinescu (1934-2009) emigrated to the US in 1973 and taught at Indiana University.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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