I have at different times the last decade attended cultural events in Stockholm sponsored by culture institutions of the governments of Finland, Germany, Spain (their Goethe and Cervantes institutes are back to back, physically), Italy, France, Britain, even Greece (there’s a small Greek culture house in Stockholm), Lithuania, but not Russia (do they care about anything but the new Olympics in corruption ?) and not the US (I’ve been to the US embassy for IT/tech presentations but no culture at all).
But the country that beats them all, at least in Stockholm, is ROMANIA. They have just over twice the Swedish population and is situated far away, somewhere in Southeastern Europe. Who should care about Romania ? Well, anyone interested in an old, dynamic culture should!
The Romanian Culture Institute in Stockholm (20, Skeppsbron) , right there in the medieval Old Town near the Royal Palace, has for many years earned itself a reputation for being a true Cultural Hotspot of the Swedish capital. Members of the Swedish Academy (the Nobel Prize) frequently go there for instance. During the autumn and spring seasons they host 1-2 events/week: literature, poetry, history, art, music, film, etc. All lead by the Super Hero of Romanian culture in Sweden, Dan Shafran (boss of the institute, the big Gothenburg book fair recently having Romania as theme was his doing to a high degree), and his deputy Eva Leonte who made the author intros – in very good Swedish – to the 4th of February program.
From left to right : Henrik Nilsson, Lucian Dan Teodorovici, Ariana Stoenescu, Gabriela Adamesteanu, Dan Lungu
The institute had invited us to a discussion about short stories and a new Romanian anthology just published in Sweden, “Skräpliv” * (“Crap life“, by the new publisher 2244 aimed at literature from the Black Sea region). It was the Swedish editor Ingmar Nilsson, the romanian writers Lucian Dan Teodorovici, Gabriela Adamesteanu, Dan Lungu, all knit together well by interpreter Ariana Stoenescu. (Apart from intial presentations and Nilsson’s questions everything was in Romanian, fluently interpreted into Swedish).
“Crap life. Romanian Short Stories“
They talked for nearly two hours, and I can’t cover everything, but here are some highlights and opinions:
Short stories have earlier been very important in Romania, but there’s a drop in interest in the last few years.
People want long novels and follow soap operas on TV. It seems people want “long stories” as some sort of replacement for life. Lucian Dan Teodorovici noted that books (novels) used to be 200 pages but are now 500 pages. Novels become longer, at the same time as short stories become shorter.
One exponent for the latter is that Vodaphone recently had a short-short story competition (of questionable literary quality, some said) in Romania. There’s a big interest in short stories because of so called Social Media. Panelists said the recession for short stories may be temporary, and shorter tales may come back. (My note: short stories virtually disappeared in Sweden after a golden age in the 1940/50’s. But there are now signs that interest is coming back, eg with new short-story-only publishers like Novellix and Mix Förlag.)
You don’t start with “Shall I write a short story or a novel?”, the panel said. You begin with what kind of story you want to tell, and you pick the length and form depending on what is needed. There is a misconception that short stories are only a starting point for “learning to write novels”. Short stories are usually more difficult to write! You have to be on your toes all the time in a short story.
There are now new posibilities for the short story thanks to the Internet. There are lots of new writers from the Facebook etc generation and they write short. But what this will lead to in the longer run is hard to tell
From the audience floor I asked them to describe their creative processes. Dan Lungu answered with saying that it for him was all a very concentrated and “anti-social” thing. When his family noticed he was getting into writing mode, they’d better keep a distance. He doesn’t want to speak with anyone when writing. (During the after-mingling I talked with him a little, he knows workable English. He takes “a few days” to write a short story. The same for me: I’ll spend about one day doing a first draft, and then several days editing it, fixing it, partly re-writing the stuff.)
Lucian Dan Teodorovici who is also a publisher noted that while everyone likes short stories, they sell about 1/3 of novels. That is a problem. Maybe short stories are mostly for “high-brow” literary types ?
Gabriela Adamesteanu was pessimistic about the future for the short story. The short story is often seen as a an excercise before writing a novel, but as noted this is all wrong – the short story is much more *difficult* to write that the novel. Our times promote “long stories” in the form of TV tales (soap operas) without endings. Dan Lungu still believed in the future of short fiction, like by Hemingway. People remember “The Old Man and the Sea” (which is more like a novelette) much better than “Farewell to Arms”.
Someone from the audience asked about the future of electronic publishing. The reply was that it was yet to early to tell. It has only been a Big Thing in Romania the last two years but according to Lucian Dan Teodorovici the literary quality is as yet leaving some things to desire.
We also discussed their contributions in the anthology, which was the reason for us to gather. Here we can find some “vibes” of what I’d call – and some others also – “social science fiction”.
Gabriela Adamesteanu’s story was about a guy who had a mistress and fled to the West before the fall of the Wall – and then couldn’t marry her. She wrote a sort of dystopian presentation of the pre-fall Romanian society.
Lucian Dan Teodorovici wrote about – it is supposed to be based on a true story – a prisoner of the communist system. After being tortured and hit in the head with a hammer, he loses his memories, and his torturers decide to turn his now blank head into the New Human. He told an amazing (and sad) story of a Romanian who took part in torturing “enemies of the state” in communist times, a guy who himself *had been a survivor of Auschwitz*. How can someone first be tortured and then behave in the same way? Dan Lungu’s contribution in the collection was by himself called a sort of thought experiment, like playing around with geometry. He wrote about a man who was married to a woman – at a distance! He was some sort of stalker who also worked for the city registrate’s office, and being obsessed with observing a certain woman, he promptly entered a marriage certificate for the two of them into the files, without them even having met…
Dan Lungu also noted that if you live in Romania, you don’t have to invent incredible stories. They turn up from life and history itself, as opposed to Sweden where – he said – you’d really have to make an effort to find strange stories.
I think he refers to that Sweden has been a very quiet corner of Europe with no wars for the past 200 years. In 2014, Sweden will commemorate its last war – when the Swedes invaded Norway (but forgot about the oil) – in 1814.
Romania has had a much more different, volatile history, and this perhaps leads to a more interesting background for storytelling. It seems so at least from this highly interesting evening.
„Skräpliv. Rumänska berättelser” (Crap Life. Romanian Short Stories) is a short story anthology published in autumn 2013 by the swedish 2244 Publishing House, translated by Jeana Jarlsbo and Anna Hedman (preface: Henrik Nilsson).
* Several stories in it borders fantastic literature. The leading Swedish morning paper Dagens Nyheter labeled it “everyday surrealism à la Kafka”.
…with excerpts from the many reviews (“surrealism” and “absurdism” is often repeated) in Swedish. Try some automatic translation service on the net.