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Norman Manea’s Exiled Shadow

Freed from the dreary, nauseating oppression of Ceausescu’s communist surveillance state, the great Romanian author is thrown back on himself, books, and the Jews

David Mikics
September 19, 2023

©Basso Cannarsa/Opale

©Basso Cannarsa/Opale

On Sept. 11, 2001, Norman Manea was teaching a class at Bard College on Nabokov’s Pnin. Manea cut his class short, noting the mismatch between the unfolding terrorist atrocity and Nabokov’s delightful novel about a hapless émigré professor. History had arrived with a vengeance, but hardly for the first time in Manea’s life. Born in Bukovina (like Paul Celan, another Romanian Jew), Manea was sent at the age of 5 to a concentration camp in Transnistria, where he remained until the end of the war. As a teenager he was briefly a passionate communist, but he soon turned away from Romania’s Draconian regime, which at one point tossed his father in prison for loaning someone a bicycle. During Ceausescu’s long tyranny Manea became a distinguished Romanian author, continually harassed by the state and refusing to court the dictator’s favor. Manea turned down several chances to emigrate to Israel, but finally left Romania in 1986, going first to Berlin and then to America.

At the age of 87, Manea retells his story in his new autobiographical novel, Exiled Shadow—subtitled “a novel in collage,” since it contains lengthy excerpts from authors ranging from Thomas Mann to Junichiro Tanizaki. These quoted passages encircle the meandering, curious tale of an aged Romanian Jewish professor in love with his half-sister, who has several names (Tamar, Tamara, Agatha). She is mirrored by other tantalizing women—an English teacher, a professor, a rabbi. The hero exchanges letters about the communist past with his friend Günther, a German who hosts him during his stay in Berlin. Eventually, he arrives in America, and teaches at a college that resembles Bard.

The spur for Exiled Shadow was Peter Schlemihl, a slight yet haunting novella from 1814 by Adelbert von Chamisso. In Chamisso’s story, Peter Schlemihl sells his shadow to a man in a gray suit in exchange for an inexhaustible bag of money. But Peter soon discovers that he cannot go out in daylight without being ridiculed. Everywhere he goes, people can see he lacks a shadow. He can never become ordinary; his presence is shocking. Women spurn him, reacting with pity and horror. Peter refuses to sell his soul to the man in gray in order to get his shadow back. Instead, he throws away his bag of gold and magically acquires seven-league boots, which enable him to travel to the farthest reaches of the globe and devote himself to the solitary study of natural science.

Chamisso was not a Jew, but his Peter Schlemihl has many Jewish overtones. The word schlemihl, derived from Shelumiel, a biblical name identified by the Talmud (Sanhedrin 82b) with the sex-addled Zimri of Numbers 25:14, still means a luckless loser—“Jewish texts say these lost ones are loved by God,” Manea notes. Exiled from the ranks of the normal, Peter resembles a Jew who has achieved wealth but lacks a shadow, i.e., the bourgeois solidity of the surrounding gentiles. Chamisso dedicated his eccentric tale to his friend Julius Eduard Hitzig, a Jewish convert to Christianity. (Since he was French by birth, Chamisso, like the German Jews, was never considered a real German.) Late in the story, Peter is mistaken for a Jew because of his long beard. His trajectory in the novella’s final episodes resembles that of the Wandering Jew, doomed to travel the earth alone—though Peter, unlike the Wandering Jew, is happy in his solitude.

Manea’s most permanent book is October, Eight O’Clock, his collection of short stories about his childhood in the camp in Transnistria. The book is a miraculous compound of intrigue and pain, where Manea agilely inhabits a small boy’s point of view. Manea’s essays on politics and art in the Eastern bloc, collected in The Fifth Impossibility and On Clowns, rank with those by Havel and Milosz. Manea’s short story “The Interrogation,” from another collection, Compulsory Happiness, inspects the relation between a torturer and his victim with Dostoyevskian pointedness. Exiled Shadow, a rambling and tangent-obsessed book, cannot match these earlier works. Much of Manea’s life story is taken from his autobiography, The Hooligan’s Return, which is the book to read before this one.

But Exiled Shadow, loosely sketched as it is, has moments of great tenderness, like this dream of incest:

Tamar would curl up in her brother’s seashell, or eggshell, as they called it, or spoon, or lair, and they would fold themselves into each other, naked, skin on skin, two felines folded up, inseparable, one, as they wished, let the years, assaults, ages, and torrents pass over them. Nothing would touch them, untangle them.

Manea treasures this infantile symbiosis between the half-siblings, which recalls the brother-sister bond in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Ever the bibliophile, he cites a short story by Patricia Highsmith in which she describes the intimate courtship of snails.

Manea is melancholic by nature, a sad fool rather than an antic one. His fancies, which seem so tenuous, have a slightly desperate appeal. “I no longer trust reality. I’ve replaced it with books,” he writes, and Exiled Shadow is a bookish fantasy, resembling some of Cynthia Ozick’s fictions in its metascholarly quest. Just as Peter Schlemihl remains outside of society in spite of his riches, so Manea’s novel recedes from the reader’s grasp. Exiled Shadow feels unanchored, a product of Western freedom rather than communism’s dark collective shadow.

Manea wrote in The Fifth Impossibility that “the one-party system provided its subjects with a shared obsession with survival—sought through opportunism—and the avoidance of confrontation.” Under communism, guilt was widely distributed and eagerly denied. When Manea left Romania and went into exile, he encountered a new world where people could take risks and be responsible for themselves, actions forbidden under communism. The amorphous West with its confusing possibilities clearly posed a quandary for Manea, whose writing had been so firmly located against the background of Romanian communism and fascism. Manea has for decades now lacked his essential subject, the grim reality of totalitarianism. His unexpected freedom may be less compelling a subject than his earlier bondage, but it is nonetheless something to celebrate.

Manea avoids naming Ceausescu in his novels and essays. Instead he calls him the chief buffoon or the white clown. Totalitarianism in Romania was a tragedy, but also a “grotesque comedy,” Manea notes. Like Idi Amin, Ceausescu was a gruesome cartoon of a dictator. Manea describes the ruler’s hunting parties, where tranquilized bears were starved for days before the hunt, and “our tiny national clown” took aim at them from his helicopter. Ceausescu was just “a little white mouse, a carrier of the plague: a death’s-head of nothingness,” Manea declares.

Romania became a surveillance state par excellence, so that no citizen could ever “divulge some secret of the state: the name of his factory, the measurement of pickle jars, the formula for the atomic bomb, the number of public urinals per city district, the clown’s nickname ...” Contact with foreigners was prohibited. Women were subjected to periodic gynecological examinations to make sure that they were not using birth control to cheat the nation of its future citizens. Authors, who needed a special permit to own a typewriter, had to submit to an annual interrogation.

In 1952, Manea the 15-year-old communist was secretary of the Union of Working Youth. “Lost in the glamour of the show’s magic, that solemn, glacial farce,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I was busily trying to cover up my doubts and embarrassment by stammering the routine inquisitorial slogans ... I had taken part in meetings, expulsions, informing, and assorted rituals, which, I must admit, had an enormous effect on the ego.” Unlike so many in postwar Eastern Europe, Manea suddenly renounced his beliefs, nauseated by the ceremony of persecution that was communism.

Manea sometimes cites Mihail Sebastian, whose novel For Two Thousand Years presents an uncanny vision of a Jew surrounded by antisemites in 1930s Bucharest. Sebastian’s adored mentor was the political economist Nae Ionescu—no relation to the playwright Eugen Ionescu (later Eugène Ionesco), that strident opponent of totalitarianism. Nae Ionescu, a magnetic lecturer, taught at the University of Bucharest, where Sebastian experienced constant antisemitic harassment. In 1934, Ionescu wrote a notorious preface to Sebastian’s novel, calling Sebastian by his given name, Iosif Hechter: “Judah suffers because it is Judah ... Iosif Hechter, you are sick ... The Messiah has come, Iosif Hechter, and you have had no knowledge of him ... Iosif Hechter, do you not feel that cold and darkness are enfolding you?” Sebastian was attacked for allowing the preface to appear, as if he were authorizing Ionescu’s antisemitic tirade. But Sebastian was really putting Ionescu’s barbarism on display for all to see.

Sebastian with his preternatural acuity spoke about the “open wound” of Judaism. He credited Jews with “a tumultuous sensitivity and a ruthlessly critical sense,” “intelligence in its coldest forms and passion in its most untrammeled forms.” Manea quotes Sebastian’s remarks, but his own idea of Judaism is much more elusive. For Manea the Jew is footloose, shadowless, the perpetual outsider whose essence can never be properly defined. “The relation between self and Jew had become a complicated knot, one that could not fail to interest Dr. Freud,” Manea remarks in The Hooligan’s Return.

Sebastian was a friend of Mircea Eliade, the polymathic scholar of religion who taught after the war at the University of Chicago, and he knew that Eliade was a fervent supporter of the Legion of the Archangel Michael, later known as the Iron Guard. Eliade looked forward to a Romania that would be “frenzied and chauvinistic, armed and vigorous, ruthless and vengeful,” he wrote in 1936.

In 1937 Eliade lamented that Romania was “ravaged by poverty and syphilis, overrun by Jews and torn apart by foreigners.” And in 1939, during the German invasion of Poland, Eliade remarked to Sebastian, “Only yids are capable of blackmail by putting women and children in the front line, so as to take advantage of German scruples.” He added, “Rather than have a Romania again invaded by kikes, it would be better to have a German protectorate.”

In January 1941 came the Iron Guard’s uprising. Jews were hung from meat hooks in a slaughterhouse, under placards reading “kosher.” The guard was soon suppressed by Romania’s fascist dictator Ion Antonescu, but his regime was just as antisemitic, killing hundreds of thousands of Jews by the end of the war.

During “the obscene decade between 1935 and 1945,” as Manea called it, many of Romania’s greatest thinkers were seized by “nationalist delirium,” including the aphorist E.M. Cioran (who wrote in 1936, “the Jew is not our fellow man”). Eliade never renounced his support for the Iron Guard. After the war he presented himself as a gentle spiritual seeker and sage. In Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein he is the courtly scholar Radu Grielescu, who kisses the hand of ladies like the narrator’s wife, Vela (based on Bellow’s fourth wife, Romanian mathematician Alexandra Tulcea). When Bellow’s narrator is impressed by Grielescu’s refined manners, Ravelstein tells him, “Just give a thought now and then to those people on the meat-hooks.”

Manea became notorious in Romania when he published an article in The New Republic in 1991 detailing Eliade’s support for the Iron Guard and its antisemitic violence. For Romanians, Eliade had become a saintlike figure—even under communism, in spite of his right-wing associations and his devotion to religion.

After he attacked Eliade, “that old, boring, everlasting anti-semitism” struck again, Manea wrote in The Hooligan’s Return. Time-honored epithets were hurled at him—“traitor,” “the dwarf from Jerusalem,” “American agent.” Manea received in the mail an anonymous postcard—a Chagall painting of a Jesus-like Jew tied to a stake, his hands and feet bound by tefillin. At Bard, he was put under FBI protection. Another academic, the brilliant scholar of religion Ioan Culiano, had been assassinated in a toilet stall at the University of Chicago, perhaps because he too had drawn attention to Eliade’s fascist leanings.

Manea quotes a 1938 article by Eliade: “The Legion member is a new man, who has discovered his own will, his own destiny. Discipline and obedience have given him a new dignity ...” Nothing could be further from Manea’s skeptical trust in his sad, hopeful fantasies. For him, nationalist myths are alien and unrecognizable. “After all, what other possessions do we have, apart from exile?” Manea wrote in The Hooligan’s Return. “Dispossession should not be deplored, it is preparation for the final dispossession.”

Exiled Shadow harbors death at its margins. Manea ends with as remarkable a paragraph as he has ever written, a sublime reflection on Jewishness, imagination, and the thought of death:

He was no longer listening, the Professor was no longer listening. He had tired of these self-flagellatory meetings in the tradition of his ancestors and of the long-ago prophets and those of more recent times. The poor man had fallen asleep with his balding head resting on the cold desktop. He was happy, had reached the age of sleep and of senility. He enjoyed sleeping deeply, for many hours, as many hours as possible, and feeling rich in dreams and nightmares and sensual snores. The true gift of the dark, of the tired. The true salvation.
He mumbled. Hineni, here I am, I am here. I am ready.

With Exiled Shadow, Manea yet again makes himself present. Like his ancestors, he has the right to say hineni.

David Mikics is Professor of English at New College of Florida. He recently edited The MAD Files: Writers and Cartoonists on the Magazine that Warped America’s Brain, and is also author of Stanley Kubrick.