An interview by Victoria Cușnir
I had met him as a politician. I was still a student but was also an employee of the TV station Antena C, so I listened with lots of interest to him every time he was our studio guest. He sometimes gave acid replies, used some kind of sarcasm, was direct, perfectly understood the nuances and explained them exemplarily. Then Antena C was closed by the communists. I changed my job and my universe got reduced to music and musicians. Oleg Serebrian disappeared from my radar for quite some long time. He became our Ambassador to France. Years later I walked into a bookstore, where I noticed this: “Cântec al mării/ Song of Sea”, a novel by Oleg Serebrian. The title baffled me, but I bought it, for the sake of the author. Title and genre of the book seemed odd to me, I had known the author as a man of the political world and in no way a writer. In 2018, “Woldemar”, the second novel in the saga of a century, appeared, succeeding after “Song of Sea”. By now, everything was disrupted. The politician, the political scientist, the historian, the teacher, the diplomat Oleg Serebrian bewildered me due to the intensity of the phrase and the emotion, he had clearly become a writer of force, there were no interpretations or doubts. The political career of the past, his present official status nevertheless cast certain shadows over the writer and on several occasions has closed certain routes for his most recent novel, for the simple reason that the author is a member of the government. It’s unfair in relation to any good book.
Victoria Cușnir: A writer is a writer by nature or by nurture?
Victoria Cușnir: Stylistically, „Song of Sea” is more reserved, still the novel abounds in historical exactness. Were you afraid of being regarded with suspicion, of being considered to be an intruder?
Oleg Serebrian: Some are born writers, others become writers. Of course, innate abilities matter a lot, but education, personal experiences are equally important, and one really needs to have something to say. For me, writing is a necessity, as for all of those who undertake such effort. The causes that determine this need may vary– some do it out of pleasure or out of a playful impulse (my case), others because they really need to say something urgently or for affirmation, or in a quest for immortality. In terms of ambition… As a rule, calculated people are ambitious, they follow a path, the one they believe best suited to their nature. The right one, the obvious one, the one matching the expectations and logic of those around you, that’s how you think you can do something, really thoroughly. It was interesting for me to check several routes and see how far I could go on each one. It sounds un-modest, but I think I’ve been able to walk pretty well on each of them.
Oleg Serebrian: I think “Against Traffic” is even more “imbued” with history, but here I haven’t inserted quite so many footnotes. Some literary critics blamed me for this “academic atavism”, although… Without such explanations, many books are hard to understand properly; a reader without a thorough historical culture will not be able to understand much when reading Felix Dahn’s “Battle for Rome” or even Yasushi Inoue’s “The Tea Master”.
Now about being an intruder… I have been worried about the “reception” from the audience, because at the time when “Song of Sea” was published, I was already known to some due to my books on geopolitics. At the same time, at a certain distance in time, I ask myself this question: why would it be more natural for a person known as a writer to issue political commentary than for a political scientist to write prose?! In order to make political commentary, you really need to have the thorough formation of a political scientist, while the writers “emerge” from various professional backgrounds – doctors, diplomats, historians, journalists and even engineers (the first one that comes to mind is Evgheni Zamyatin) or military (one of the most profound children’s books, “The Little Prince”, was written by an aviation officer named Antoine de Saint-Exupery, wasn’t it?!).
Victoria Cușnir: Speaking of a story: Peter Pan isn’t just Woldemar’s imaginary friend. He seems to be a passion for you too. It’s the first book you’ve read, and, moreover, you’ve partially built the destiny of Alex, the hero of “Against Traffic” on the biography of its author, James Matthew Barrie. Your character, his way of acting, the organization, the pedanticism – you are at the extreme… How would you explain this obsession for Peter Pan?
Oleg Serebrian: God created man in His own image and likeness. Writers can’t do more with the worlds they create – everything they write and describe, for better or worse, positive or negative heroes, everything they build, are emanations of their personality. My heroes see places I’ve seen, they read books I’ve read, they hate and love things I hate or love (and it really doesn’t matter what they resort to, deliberately or unconsciously). It is natural for the heroes of a writer to immediately bear the author’s imprint. Even characters inspired from real persons, are, in the end, altered by the filter of the author’s perceptions.
Although “Woldemar” is not a novel inspired by my own childhood, I intentionally slipped many easily recognizable sequences from my own childhood into it. Reading the book, my mother was surprised that Woldemar’s grandfather’s brother lived on Barklai Street in Moscow. And my grandfather’s brother, to whom I often went on vacations, lived there. And one of my first spring school holidays I spent, like Woldemar, in Moscow, although I did not go there with my grandmother, but with my great-grandmother. And the scene at the Tretyakov Gallery, in front of Wrubel’s “The Demon”, is also an account of my own experience from that first trip to Moscow. So, I wanted some of the most beautiful early memories to find their place in this book about childhood.
With Peter Pan it’s the same – it’s the book that most associates with childhood, not just because of the content, not because the hero is a little boy who didn’t want to grow up –”All children grow up, except one”–, no, because it’s the first “real” book I read, it’s the gate through which I really entered the world of literature. I was nine years old when I read “Peter Pan.” It was a slow reading, on a summer vacation. I didn’t understand much, but it was precisely this nebulosity of the text that intrigued me and made me like it. I was seized by a strange feeling that the true meaning is beyond the text and that I would sometime return to it, this text with which I felt a kind of dark “lineage”. I remember fragments, I keep them in my memory for the rest of my life. “Dreams come true, if we wish them to. You can have anything in life if you sacrifice everything else for it.” This is one of the phrases that had become like a creed for me.
”Mother Martha was right, I really lived what I was reading. It was a way of living the lives of others, but also a way of living my own life differently, because in my imagination the games I would modify at will, the scenarios described in these books, I would change the routes of travel, the course of events. During those reveries I learned about people and cities, countries and events, historical and mythological personalities. I’ve lived and seen them all, I’ve known them all. Some themes were short-lived, they lasted no longer than reading that book and maybe a few more days after that, but there were also recurring themes, to which I frequently returned, such as the friendship with Peter Pan and my quality of being a Greek god of happiness.
Victoria Cușnir: In an interview you said you have been accused of being obsolete. What does it mean to write well nowadays? Or, well, according to the trends?
Oleg Serebrian: This also depends on what we mean by “obsolete”. Is Ludmila Ulitskaya modern? I think she’s a good writer. And modernity you know what it’s like — everyone comes up with their own measurement criteria. For me, modernity does not mean abstract writing or using “language of the street”. Francis Picabia, a painter whose creation I appreciate a lot, said that applauding all idiots someone introduces to us, from behind the shield of modernity is
Apparently, there are hundreds of unfortunates dying of hunger and exhaustion on the trains heading east, every day. Someday, these terrible things will be brought to light, but no one will be able to understand all their grotesqueness. Passed through the filter of time, things always look different: the incredible can become trivial, the banal can become sensational, the betrayal can turn into heroism, and a reward might appear to be a crime… ”
SONG OF SEA
Victoria Cușnir: Your novels require a good knowledge of history in order to understand the levels and the underworlds of the text. Have you ever considered simplifying content for easier assimilation? Let us not forget that “Against Traffic” is 520 pages. Are you aware that you could have lost because of an imposing volume, despite its consistency and value?
Oleg Serebrian: I am aware, of course, but still… There are things that can be said in fifty pages and others that can only be properly conveyed in five hundred. Of course, the size of a novel has nothing to do with its value, although, as it happens, that in the list of the most important novels of all time we find mostly works of extensive proportions, such as “In Search of Lost Time” by Marcel Proust, “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy, “Buddenbrook House” by Thomas Mann, “Berlin Alexanderplatz” by Alfred Döblin, “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Doestoyevsky, “The Quiet Don” by Mikhail Sholohov, “Journey to the End of the Night” by Louis-Ferdinand Celine, “Nostromo” by Joseph Conrad, to name just a few. Without any doubt, there are also many exceptional short novels, but I think that today the tendency to produce “thin” novels is based on demand. Namely, the market requires the “novellaisation” of the novel, the chances for a thick book to get the attention of a buyer are getting lower. It is also a distinctive sign of the times we live in, in a “chronopolitical” world, where speed, rapidity reign. There’s also a publisher’s reasoning – a voluminous book not only sells harder, but also costs more. In addition, a voluminous novel poses greater translation problems – time, effort, price.
Victoria Cușnir: None of your books were written in Chișinău, except for a little part of the first one. Have you been writing since your return from Berlin? Is writing different at home?
Oleg Serebrian: No. It so happened, that after my return from Berlin, in January this year, I did not write at all. And not just because of the office agenda. There are other factors. From time to time, when I get to have the right conditions, I’m working on the second edition of the book “Politics and Geopolitics”, a revised edition.
Victoria Cușnir: You often said that the place where you are when you write influences the rhythm, the dynamics, the atmosphere of the novel. Is consistency, likewise influenced by the place, or do you bring it with you, from home?
Oleg Serebrian: I do not know what to say about consistency, but, indeed, some errors can occur under the influence of where you write.
“That condensed air of the Mediterranean mornings of late summer, the cool air before the damp heat, the cocktail of smells of the sea, of coffee, of warm bread, of wet stone, of fish, of mimosas and of pickled olives, mixing in it the scream of the endless astonishment of the seagulls, and the cheerful cries of the fishermen…”
It’s an excerpt from “Song of Sea” written in Nice in March 2008, when I was a visiting professor there. Nice is a former Italian city, as is the Zara (now Zadar, in Croatia) described in this passage. I remember that I put these lines down on paper returning home after a very early walk to the Flower Market; I was very faithfully depicting the image of that morning – the colours, the smells, the sounds. And I didn’t even realize the “botanical” blunder I committed: mimosas bloom in March, but I was describing an incident from August. It wasn’t until a few months ago, when I was working with my translator to German, that I realized I had committed an inaccuracy.
”It would have been interesting for me to meet you, even though, unconsciously, I was afraid of what I might find out, but you neglected me, you were always taken to your own worlds. You know, I would sometimes sneak to your door and watch you with interest and revulsion through the keyhole.
When you weren’t at home, I would enter your room and try to decipher your mystery. That specific smell, a mixed aroma of lily and basil, persisted even after you had left. That smell of funerals, not of boys’ rooms. You were never an example of how orderly one can be, your belongings were always scattered around, your high school notebooks were true samples of negligence, just like the textbooks, to one exception – a letter folder you kept locked in the top drawer. I knew where you were hiding the key, and I sometimes immersed myself into those letters, written in a foreign language and guarded with compulsive accuracy. I deduced that you were writing to the boy whose photo hung over your bed, and I shuddered only at the thought that you were carrying out a secret correspondence with a dead man.
Victoria Cușnir: You have a homosexual character in every generation of the Randa family; it’s like a trademark of these novels,: Alex’s uncle, who was also a monk, Alex, Martha’s daughter, Juliana, most likely and so can we suspect Woldemar. Why did you choose to have a hero born in each generation who would break out of the moral patterns of the church and society?
Oleg Serebrian: Albert von Waldburg was Alex von Randa’s uncle, Alex was Juliana Skawronski’s uncle, Juliana was Woldemar’s aunt. Those who are more familiar with genetics or psychology will think of “The gay uncle hypothesis”, although the homosexuality of the four characters is never confirmed, it’s no more than a guess. This non-transparency can also be interpreted as a game of the author with the reader: some will consider it an illusory perception, a kind of literary trompe- l’oeil, others, like you, that it is an allusive text. In “Against Traffic” things aren’t much clearer either, the protagonist is largely inspired by a real character, the British mathematician Alan Turing who, like Alex von Randa, committed suicide after being accused of homosexuality.
Even if, as you can see, there is a suspicion on these characters, there is no reason for any of them to be blamed for “immorality” in the sense to which you refer. From the perspective of Christian morality everything remains within the limits of the Eckhartian precept, that temptation is not a sin, it’s just putting one to a test.
Of course, I chose this non-transparency absolutely deliberately, because I wanted to save the text from trivialization, to avoid an easy, but at the same time cheap road to a certain kind of success; that I do not want.
“My wife’s death had left a deep mark on me, deeper than everyone around me would have expected, especially Irmin. In fact, no: the most surprised by my reaction to Doris’ death was I. For a while I could not understand the origin of that terrible fall of the mind that I had gone through at the time. Then I understood it: a great hope had died for me, a burning dream – that of normality. I knew perfectly well that everything I had experienced by mere contingency with Doris I would never be able to relive with another woman again.”
Victoria Cușnir: The official role seems to be detrimental to the writer. It might restrict your access to certain important awards, such as that of the EU for Literature, even though you were shortlisted by Romania. Still, most of the literary world are cautiously approaching the writer, precisely because of the man belonging to the political world. Would you have chosen a pseudonym to gain greater freedom for the writer?
Oleg Serebrian: A pseudonym, of course, would have been of great use. I once intended to use a pseudonym for literary writings (I also had it, a first name and a name that derived from the Germanized form of the day and month of birth), but it’s already too late. A pseudonym gives greater freedom to the author, no doubt, it offers yet another advantage – it removes the seal of society’s perception of the author from his literary work. Public figures, with official positions, are often unloved, a feeling that transfers over everything they do, write, say.
Victoria Cușnir: Literary critic Bogdan Crețu once said that your absence from the world of literature is a kind of handicap for the writer’s career and the promotion of his novels. Would you give up your career in politics for the sake of your novels?
Oleg Serebrian: No, of course not. Literary activity is not the way I make a living. For me, writing is a game, a pleasure, a kind of relaxation. My father loved flowers a lot. We had a real botanical garden at home. Gardening rested on him, just as writing rests on me.
Victoria Cușnir: Much has been said about the censorship of literature in the time of the USSR. Today we’re put to the “test” of „politically correctness”. To what extent do these norms constrain freedom of speech in literature?
Oleg Serebrian: They undoubtedly coerce it, like any ideology does, because the phenomenon has taken the form of an ideology. And this is not a recent thing. Allan Bloom signalled it back in 1987, in his work “Closing of the American Mind”. To stage some of Shakespeare’s plays “reversed”, with negative heroes appearing in a positive light, changing titles of books or musical works, because they do not comply to the norms of public expression today, asking to cancel the story “Sleeping Beauty” because it would prejudice gender equality, all these things I consider absurdities worthy of proletkultism.
Victoria Cușnir: How strictly are you in controlling your writing so that you don’t fall under this coercion?
Quite a lot, maybe out of inertia, because I am a man born and raised in the USSR. In my first 22 years of life I had to learn what vigilance means, in expression, how allusion is used and how much omissions can mean.
“From that day on, obsessively smelling like the ashes of history, I lived my definitive political and moral awakening. Germany could not win the war – the Russians had thrown us out of Moscow, the English ruled over sky and sea, and then the Americans… The continuation of the war seemed to me to be clearly useless, and I marvelled at the general blindness of those around me, of the tens of millions of Germans. I became convinced that the recklessness of this people will go on after Hitler will have finished turning Germany into a sea of ruins, into a vast cemetery, as Radosław had promised me three years earlier. I also recalled my father’s discussions with Major Mikuli and Count Serecky about the fatal mistake of the Austro-Germans not asking for peace in June 1918, from the positions of a Germany engaged in a promising offensive against the Entente and fortified by an advantageous peace agreement with the Russians. “
Victoria Cușnir: There is still so much unknown, regarding WW2. Delicate details. It’s one of the important landmarks of this river novel. Isn’t it becoming unimportant in some way, since a new war is in full swing? Will anyone still be interested in World War II?
Oleg Serebrian: In my opinion, historians lost the Second World War. Unlike The First World War, public opinion about the second is made up to a greater extent by literature, but also more by cinema, and in cinema, real history is often rendered faultily.
Victoria Cușnir: Can one learn about history from reading novels?
Oleg Serebrian: No, but one can’t learn about geography or biology either. “The Open Book”, Kaverin’s well-known trilogy, may motivate one to take interest in biology, but it does not teach him or her biology. Some historical novels are indeed very elaborate, very well documented. Sergeyev-Tshensky’s novels about the Crimean War or Novikov-Priboi’s “Tusima” come to mind. But they do not teach history. On the contrary, the fact that they are so rigorous may be regarded as a handicap: such novels are rather appreciated by those who have a thorough knowledge of history. They are uninteresting to the neophyte, who favours historical novels of the kind created by Sadoveanu or Dumas: captivating, attractive by topic, but far from the historical truth, even distorting historical reality.
“I was waiting for the news programs, and then immersing myself into the analysis of the consequences of the war with the Americans and the critical situation on the Russian front. From time to time I looked at the map of the world on the wall – a quarter of it was painted in “British green”, a sixth, in “Soviet pink”, another ten million square kilometres, in “American brown”. The “German Ashes” of Hitler’s Reich, complete with the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and the General Government of Poland, did not reach even one million square kilometres. Has Hitler ever been looking at this map?”
Victoria Cușnir: How did you choose your benchmarks for the saga?
Oleg Serebrian: The benchmarks are the great historical “slots” of the 20th century – the First World War, the interwar, the Second World War, the post-war, Perestroika, the ’90s. In parallel, there are also some signposts of psychological nature: types of characters, of personality, products of the times in which they live altered by circumstances, by events. Epochs make their mark on characters, shape people. The most interesting are the people of the crossroads of the eras, the crisis-people, facing great dilemmas. For me, this psychology-history tandem is fascinating. My interest is not for the purely psychological side, for the individual “undisturbed” by time, but for the man destabilized by the times, put to a test by history. In this sense, the twentieth century, with all its great upheavals, with its chain of catastrophes, is absolutely unique.
Victoria Cușnir: Far too few writers set out to write novels in multiple episodes. Your idea of a novel that encompasses a century of history comprising so many major events, but also the studying the way humans reacted to them all, is extremely ambitious…
Oleg Serebrian: It’s not really such a rare literary phenomenon. When it comes to a river novel, most think of Marcel Proust, but French literature offers many, many other examples. Roger Martin du Gard won the Nobel prize in 1937 for his eight-novel series about the Thibault family. In Soviet times, when Marcel Proust was totally unknown to us, French-language school textbooks presented “Jean-Christophe” by Romain Rolland. Emil Zola wrote 20 novels in the “Rougon-Macquart” series, describing the life of a family throughout the Second Empire. Balzac’s “Human Comedy” is even more impressive – over 91 novels and short stories about the Age of the Restoration, with heroes “migrating” from one work to another. Identical (and numerous!) examples can be found in English, Russian, German, American literatures, but also in the work of Romanian writers; “The Halip Cycle” by Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu would be one good example.
Victoria Cușnir: You are a historian and this perfectly fundaments the historical layer of your saga about the twentieth century. You have written three “episodes”, and there are more follow. In a way, you’ve secured material for several thick novels, on the other hand, you could spend your lifetime writing one river novel. Do you have other novels in mind that the saga doesn’t let you write?
Oleg Serebrian: I had thought about this, yes, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get to finalise these projects. Time is a limited resource. As the Polish writer Stanislaw Lec said, raw material is what matters most.
“We put an end to our lives when we no longer have a „who” or a „what” to strive for. It’s either the love and care for someone that keep us alive, or maybe the feeling of duty, the certainty of a calling. The moment you find that you have neither one nor the other, you reach the zero point, the point when you discover that death is a fatality, and life is a unique opportunity. As long as we are young, we do not perceive to what extent our birth was an unlikely, accidental event, or the fact that, once we’re born, death stands inevitably ahead of us. We live our best years as if we were sketching a draft version of our lives, mesmerized by the illusion that we will reach the moment, the great moment of our lives, when experience we will that clean version. When we start the descent, we realize that life is lived in a single version– from the beginning to the very end.”
Victoria Cușnir: Your heroes are born in much light, but you travel them through a lifelong journey through the undergrounds of consciousness and the voids of history. You kind of darken their lives. To what extent do you make your characters solve your own dilemmas?
Oleg Serebrian: It’s not about personal dilemmas, but anyway, it’s an emanation of the subconscious. It’s the opposition between childhood, a “season of a lifetime” which is by definition bright, and old age, that can be nothing but twilight. An old Caucasian proverb, (it’s also quoted in “Woldemar”), says that when we are young, we see happiness in the future, and when we get older we discover it in the past. We are all born into the light, we walk hurriedly through life and end up in darkness, eyelids closed. I understood that terribly early: in life the sun will always be left behind…