New Aspects of Roumanian Literature

From an English study of Roumanian Literature by Serban Drutzu

ROUMANIAN literature is in a state of transition with potentialities for great and sustained national development. No modern European people has ever possessed such solid alluring foundations for the development of an imaginative and realistic prose and verse so utterly native. It all depends upon individual genius drawing its inspiration from Roumanian life as it actually is.

Before the World War Roumania had passed through the period of purifying her language, of acquiring in translation the best of the foreign classics, both ancient and modern, of preserving her folk lore in adequate prose and verse, and of recording popular phenomena briefly but not without movement or background. Today she possesses a flexible, highly inflected Romance language containing fewer Slavonic, Greek, Turkish, and Tartar words than at any time in its history and capable of shades of meaning and of harmonies never known before; a wealth of literary concepts, both native and foreign; a prose and verse, somewhat mediaeval in thought and expression yet untainted by the isms of Western Europe, and now eager to try new forms and ideas. She has a theatre which is already beginning to rival the drama of Moscow, Berlin, Paris and London. But more significant than all she has developed two schools of criticism, each the complement of the other. She lacks, however, a national novelist in the Western sense. Before her story-tellers and poets there is opening a vista of infinite possibilities, unsurpassed by the Italy of Dante, the England of the pre-Elizabethans, the France of Racine and Corneille, or the Germany of Schiller and Goethe.

Several influences have contributed toward formulating a Roumanian language as a vehicle of essentially native interpretation. The ancient Dacians were readily enough influenced by the legions of the Emperor Trajan and by the civil and military authority of Rome in whose langunge that authority was interpreted. For ten centuries the Dacians and their descendants allowed that influence to dominate them almost untouched by the Slavonic hordes around them upon whom the Persian-Hellenic influence of Byzantium was to leave an indelible impression. Russian Orthodoxy and Byzantine art were to devour each other in the mountains of Transylvania and leave scarcely a trace. Of all the Eastern European peoples, the Roumanians deeply rooted in Roman concepts, took only what it pleased them to take from the long conflict waged between Slavonic and Greek cultures.

Other influences were later at work: Almost simultaneously with the news of the German Reformation came that of the invention of movable type; both of these things had a signal effect upon the Latinized descendants of the Dacians. One brought the Roumanian language into the Church; the other gradually opened vast stores of foreign literature, of native tradition, for those who would take the trouble to learn the printed word which soon, as was natural alone in the near East, forsook the Cyrillic and the Greek alphabets for the Roman. The translators for the presses of Wallachia during the reign of Prince Constantine Brancovan laid the foundations of Roumanian as a literary language just as the seventeenth century passed into the eighteenth.

In the years of Turkish vassalage that followed, the Greek overlords who came to maintain the authority of Stamboul in the mountains and fields of the Roumanian people brought with them a culture that was a curious mixture of neo-Hellenic and French. The most significant of this was easily implanted without uprooting what the Romans of the legions had sown. So deeply was it absorbed that when the Russians with their neo-Slavonic reached Moldavia the new culture easily survived the military occupation. Then came the Roumanian repercussions of the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic expansion. A long succession of French refugees came bearing the double message of liberty and letters. Transylvania fed by the new ideas from Wallachia and Moldavia became restive under its German and Magyar oppressors whose yoke this cradle of the Roumanian people had endured since 1688 until the cradle, in spite of its continued political thraldom, surpassed its preceptors in their asylums of the South. With the desire for liberty came the necessity of moulding the vernacular in such a way as to express liberty. Dictionaries were compiled, patriotic poems and essays written, and, in due time, became an inspiration in Wallachia and Moldavia. It was during this period of social and cultural development that the generous aid of France won the undying gratitude of the hearts of the Roumanians. Persons unfamiliar with the details continue to be baffled by the still well-sustained Gallic influence in Roumanian life and thought. The truth is not enigmatical, however; the Roman soil in which the Roumanians had been thriving easily absorbed the seeds of French thought when scattered by the eloquent and logical language of Voltaire.

The opening of the nineteenth century saw a rapid development of Roumanian letters, still inspired from enslaved Transylvania, which was to be both urged on and retarded by the political convulsions, from which Roumania, whether as a vassal of Turkey, a dependent of Russia, or an autonomous State, was never to be entirely free until down to the time of the World War. Among the linguistic and literary teachers of the growing social and cultural development of the first independent period were George Lazar and his disciple, John Heliade-Radulesco, the latter of whom only died 54 years ago.

Heliade had precise and correct ideas about the formative influences of a national literature; aside from striving to demonstrate a native style, entirely by his own pen he and the group attracted to him in Transylvania translated into the "new language" a select number of foreign classics to serve as paradigms of form and diction. Although his program was greater than his power of execution, his work proved a stimulus to the young writers of the first quarter of the last century. In Moldavia, George Asachi with less genius but with similar persistence was carrying out an identical program. Both gave the ever-growing number of readers of Roumanian the gems of Homer, Plato, Dante, Fenelon, Moliere, Voltaire, Lamartine, Hugo, Dumas pere, Schiller, Goethe, Shakespeare, Byron, and others. They also introduced the foreign theatre and stimulated the lover of good reading. Their efforts to inspire original expression in the Roumanian vernacular based on foreign models was not without results.

There was, first of all, Anthony Pann who made a successful attempt to reach the masses by popular themes clothed in limpid, expressive prose and versatile verse, which however, rarely rose to the height of poetry, And there were the talented prosateurs, John Creanga and Peter Ispirescu, self-educated men, but born story-tellers, who put the legends of the people into literary form; the more studious writers, C. Negruzzi and Michael Kogalniceano; the poets Gregory Alexandrescu and Basil Alexandri. These four became the first popular interpreters of Roumanian social and political aspirations, but to discover which one has often to read between the lines or to seek archaic or local meanings of seemingly new phrases. Thus the verse of the time in striving for patriotic usefulness often exhausted itself before reaching true poetical expression; analogies of life often smothered the analogies of rhetoric.

Came then Constantine Negruzzi with his translations of the poems of Victor Hugo and his historical novel "Alexander Lapushnean," the latter of which marks the same stage of development in the Roumanian language and letters that Manzoni's "I Promessi Sposi" does in Italian. Both set a model of style and movement based on foreign models, but with backgrounds that were eloquently native.

The new literary movement was not without its critic; Kogalniceanu, who was educated in France and Germany, returned home with valuable concepts of form, movement and rhetoric.

Then came the discovery of the mines of legend, fable, and story which for ages had been handed down by word of mouth from one peasant generation to another, but which until down to the middle of the last century had lacked both popular and classical interpretation in written or printed words. And educated people, who for some time had been mildly amused by the songs of the country-side, suddenly began to discover the meaning of the phrases through which the quaint music was expressed.

In 1852 Basil Alexandri returning home from a sojourn of years among the peasants of Bukovina and Transylvania published these rustic legends and songs in literary form. The result was a revelation. Nobody had imagined that the uncouth, toiling peasant had possessed such harmonic and dramatic beauties of native birth and growth. Scores of would-be interpreters set out for the distant hamlets to search for new treasures at their source. Some found them. Thus a veritable school of folk lore interpreters was founded, which became known as the "Curentul Poporan." It became a corrective influence for the growing imported classicism and romanticism or vitalized and invigorated them.

From a painting by Elie Cristoloveanu

But the genius of Alexandri did not end with the interpretation of peasant lore, it understood the interpretation of the soul of the people as a whole. In the war of 1877, which confirmed Roumania's independence of Turkey, his songs urged the troops of Prince Charles on to battle and before the Kingdom had been established in 1881 he had founded a theatre for both comedy and history. In the former he did for Bucharest what Goldoni had done for Venice in social satire; in the latter he brought to light much that had been hidden in State archives.

In almost every phase of his work he had numerous imitators and disciples: There was George Cosbuc, the bare-foot boy of Transylvania, who was to die in the last days of the World War; and there are Eminesco and John Slavici, and Odobesco, the last famous for his modern interpretation of old chronicles. Slavici is the father of the Roumanian conte of today. His more ambitious nights lack both technique and movement. Of less realistic, but of more artistic appeal, is Barbu S. Delavrancea, who sought relaxation from the vocation of law in the avocation of letters. As a sincere supporter of the "Poporan" movement, he soon proved that there was both philosophy and psychology in folk lore. In his rhetoric he was as careful in word selection and phrases balancing as ever Flaubert was in his "Madame Bovary." He also gave a wholesome impetus to the rapidly growing national theatre at Bucharest. His "Apus de Soare" ranks with the epics of any modern nation.

The first movement toward critical conceptions initiated by Kogalniceanu, based on French and German classical models, was soon to create divided schools: one at Jassy which drew its inspiration from the German-educated youth of the Junimea—a literary society of students, as the name implies, whose organ was the Convorbiri Literare, and whose moving spirit was Titus Maioresco—and the other created by Bogdan P. Hasdeu at Bucharest, which rather followed the impressionistic form of Jules Lemaitre rather than the classical models of the Germans. However, both discovered and developed authors and their controversies were productive of originality in thought and expression. Maioresco discovered and exploited Michael Eminesco and Hasdeu exploited Vlahutza and Delavrancea.

Eminesco became the darling of the Junimea, which sent him from the hills of Moldavia to the garrets and lecture rooms of Berlin to complete his education. He soon proved his independence, however, and became a constant bone of contention between the two schools until his death in 1889, when wide-spread praise hushed the condemnation of his enemies. In the last decade of the nineteenth century the whole nation fell under the spell of his verse, the artistic realism of his stories. So far he has had no successor.

Vlahutza's first quarry was Eminesco, not the author's form, style, or even his philosophy, but the despondent, pessimistic spirit which his writings seemed to breathe. He alleged that this spirit was not sincere but assumed and, in his poem "Unde Ne Sunt Visatorii," he tried to prove his theme. The vibrant optimism of Vlahutza carried the country triumphantly through war and invasion, and the poet's spirit still survives his death, which came in 1919. With almost uncanny perception of the coming war with its achievement of national unity his poems together with those of Cosbuc and the prose of Delavrancea, published in the Semanatorul (The Sower), not only rescued the Hasdeu school from defeat by the Convorbiri Literare, but also brought permanent victory to the Poporanisti who survived the war.

The establishment of the two critical magazines has been followed by others, while original conceptions of what should constitute Roumanian literary art have been measurably modified—the Semanatorul, for example, passed under the editorship of two university professors, Nicholas Jorga and Ovid Densusianu, and the Convorbiri Literare under Prof. Mehedintzi. The unity of a nationalistic literature became an accomplished fact when writers who had arrived contributed simultaneously or alternately to the two magazines mentioned and to those which came into life through their success—Luceafarul and Viata Romaneasca.

The fame of Jorga, author of "The History of Roumanian Literature," has now spread to this side of the Atlantic, where an American college professor has called him "a man of the highest learning and culture and an impassioned antiquarian and historical writer, whose energy and literary productiveness baffle comprehension, and yet leave him time for ceaseless political activity both in and out of the Roumanian Chamber." Densusianu has still further confirmed the national unity of letters by carrying compromise a step beyond that achieved by an interchange of magazine authors. Leaving the Semanatorul he established his own Viata Noua, which definitely bound together the Poporanisti and the foreign nurtured classicalists.

Finally come the independents who adopt the form and style most expressive of their theme: John A. Bratescu-Voinesti, who in his tales and sketches analyzes with superb realism the complexities of provincial life, and Michael Sadoveanu, who dealing with similar themes is not only a psychologist but also a great imaginative writer. In him idealism is rendered more real than truth itself. There are also poets who defy all schools and isms: St. O. Josif, Octavian Goga and the late lamented Cerna. And to complete the picture there are the prose interpreters of remote provincial life of the present day: Popovici-Banatzeanu with his "Out in the World" and Marcus Beza with his "On the Highways," Victor Eftimiu and Duiliu Zamfirescu.

Such is the present condition of Roumanian letters, whose vehicle of expression is a language with a history little older than the written Tuscan of Dante when he transformed it into Italian; such are the literary portals, of varied origins, growth, and inspiration, which open to Roumanian genius a more inviting vista for original, national development than that possessed by those other European nations whose centuries of literary history have yet to be readjusted to post-bellum life and thought.