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Gellu Naum

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To purchase Zenobia

Title: Zenobia
Author: Gellu Naum
Genre: Novel
Written: 1985 (Eng.: 1995)
Length: 192 pages
Original in: Romanian
Availability: Zenobia - US
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  • Translated by James Brook and Sasha Vlad

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Our Assessment:

B : challenging and largely successful surreal experiment

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Gellu Naum rose to some prominence in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He studied philosophy in Bucharest and Paris, and was close to the rest of the flourishing Romanian avant-garde movement of the time, as well as to the circle around André Breton. He returned to Romania from France in 1940 (along with Gherasim Luca -- who, however, returned to Paris in 1952), working as a (censored) poet, writer of children's books, and translator, continuing to be productive (even if little heard from outside his native Romania). Lost in the Balkans Naum's work has been less influential and less read than it deserves to be.
       Zenobia is a novel, an unlikely sustained effort from the avant-gardist Naum. Stylistically it is considerably more approachable than much of his poetry; still, it's no simple read.
       Naum himself figures as the first-person narrator, leading the reader through the maze of the novel. He falls in love with a girl who he names Zenobia (names are not firmly fixed in Naum's world -- "You can call me whatever you want, it doesn't matter" he tells a friend early on), a stunning beauty who seems his perfect mate. She is a remarkable, if slightly otherworldly figure:

For Zenobia there is nothing unimportant or common: in this respect she is like a magnifying glass in which the world changes size, naturally and by itself, in slow patterns, and doesn't strive to exist; through her, eclipses disappear in an all-absorbing clarity.
       They live as lovers, their affair intimate and ethereal, real and elusive. He never fully understands or knows slippery Zenobia. Life itself is also unreal, with an odd mix of realistic elements -- bits of normality, of recognizable day-to-day life -- grounding it.
       Later he admits to Zenobia as an invention, imagining her first appearance, ultimately willing her into existence. She is as much a literary inspiration -- a muse (and an amusement) -- as a reality. She is, ultimately, whatever he makes of her, fading and returning as he needs her.
       Naum constantly asks the reader to review what has been written, emphasizing the fiction, shifting the focus (occasionally misleadingly). The writer always makes his presence felt, but like the Naum in the text he does not seem to be in complete control, or aware of all that is happening. The random acts (even his own) and encounters seem as much out of the writer's control as that of the character.
       The novel is presented in numbered sections, each of which is one or a few paragraphs in length, 15 to 20 per chapter, episodes that follow in a general chronological order. There are seven chapters, beginning with The Swamps and ending on The Plank. Only one boasts an unusual heading -- The Last Meeting of Dante and Beatrice on a Coffee Cup Made in Sweden. There are also occasional "newsflashes" interspersed in the text, strange little items such as:
At the Nairobi airport, a Boeing 747 with 361 passengers aboard ran into a hyena, and the flight had to be canceled.
       Much of the book is a literary game. Cleverly done, much comes across even in the translation. The surrealist Naum is never an easy read, but there is a lot here that is worthwhile -- pieces, rather than a whole here. Often puzzling -- and often engrossing -- Zenobia will not be to everyone's taste. It is, however, a good and interesting read, a book that can be dipped into and perused over an extended period of time or swallowed whole in one go.
       Some patience -- and a somewhat open mind -- required, but worthwhile. And haven't you always wanted to say that you've read a Romanian avant-gardist novel ?

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Zenobia: Reviews: Other books by Gellu Naum under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Romanian author Gellu Naum was born 1 August 1915 and died 29 September 2001. He was a leading figure of the Romanian avant-garde before World War II and a prominent Surrealist.

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