Reviews Of Ionesco's Recent Works
Virgil Nemoianu (review date 6 February 1987)
SOURCE: "Intuitions and Subversions," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4375, February 6, 1987, p. 141.
[Nemoianu is a Romanian-born American educator and critic. In the review below, he comments on Ionesco's concerns and literary method in Non.]
Those who have marvelled at Ionesco's radical experimentalism may not realize that his mature work was actually a toning-down of the much more ferocious radicalism of his youth. At twenty-two he was still in Bucharest. He had read widely, but unsystematically. His intuitions and emotions were surprisingly deep, varied and precise for such a young man, and he had an incredible self-confidence and capacity for challenging whatever was accepted. His first book was called simply No [Non] and more than half of it is a calm and relentless demolition of some of Romania's greatest living writers. These (Arghezi, Barbu, Camil Petrescu) were not venerable traditionalists, but the shining lights of the Modernist wave, often resented for their novelty. Yet in 1934 Ionesco saw in their works the outlines of an emergent canon, and immediately set about subverting it. In the book he is paradoxical, violent and unjust, but also brilliant and amusing, and above all right on the broader issues, even when he is being prejudiced on specific ones.
To repair some of these local injustices the present French translation [of Non] is accompanied by two critical essays (by Eugen Simion and Ileana Gregori), by the translator's notes and by a generous introductory disclaimer from Ionesco himself. Here he makes the melancholy observation that the fifty years that have elapsed have turned a text that was intended as a critique of the (normal) vicissitudes of any literary commonwealth into a celebration of a society brimming with freedom, variety, and creative ferment. This is only to some extent an effect of nostalgia, and much more a result of the dreary and stupefying dictatorship that has kept hold of Romania over the past four decades.
The interest of the book is not primarily historical, however, but to be found in its tragi-comical musings about literature and life. Ionesco first reveals himself as a critical relativist. Even as he is lambasting the poetry of Arghezi, he remarks that he might well decide one day to argue the opposite case. Whenever I engage in a polemic, he suggests, an inner voice tells me that the other side is right. He illustrates this ambivalence very spiritedly by taking the first novel of his friend, the future historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, and writing two directly opposite reviews of it, one highly laudatory, the other remorselessly panning. Ultimately aesthetic value itself is cast into doubt—a shocking heresy in a culture like that of Romania, in which the beautiful had traditionally been thought of as higher than either the true or the good. That God must go the same way is inevitable. Ionesco writes: "If God exists, why write literature? And if He doesn't, why write literature?" He perhaps means to say, even more paradoxically, that if literature has no value, then it matters little whether God exists or not. What certainly did matter to this bright and sassy young man was the existence of death: the most moving and hilarious pages in the book are his "intermezzi" on human identity and its cessation. Aptly enough the crowning essay argues for the relativity of death itself, but this, like whistling in a graveyard, seems to offer only a contrived optimism.
Along the way there are many delightful things in Non: portraits of literati and instructions to the ambitious literary beginner, in the ironic vein of an eighteenth-century essay; and many amusing displays of arrogance, as when Ionesco proclaims his competence at provoking scandals, or when he favourably compares his own talent, rhythm and verve as a writer to a rival's lack of coherence and plodding style. (Marie-France Ionesco's translation here catches very well the scapegrace...
(The entire section is 7,221 words.)