Betting on Filip Florian

A legendary writer is created in Time, word by word, book by book, myth by myth. However, if you pay attention, you can see the signs ahead of time.

He is not the most translated Romanian writer today. This title is disputed between poet Mircea Cărtărescu, novelist Dan Lungu and Romanian writers living abroad, such as Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller and Norman Manea. 

Nor is he the only one published in America. Lucian Dan Teodorovici also had a novel published there. 

Nor is he the most prolific. On the contrary: during the past 10 years he has published three novels, one written with his brother, Matei. Moreover, he does not write essays, short stories, or journalism – like other authors do.

Filip Florian is, however, the only writer to have all literary critics declare his novel, Degete mici (Little Fingers), the best literary debut of the past 10 years. And with his most recent work, Zilele Regelui (The Days of the King), he had them talk about a new Romanian novel.

To readers and critics alike, Filip Florian came out of nowhere in 2005. He didn’t belong to any literary circle, he didn’t hang out with fashionable writers, and he was a rookie, with only a short story under his belt. He was 37 and his debut novel, Little Fingers, was built around the discovery of a mass grave in a mountain town. The story shows what happens in the town when different groups – former political prisoners, local authorities, archaeologists – try to impose their own explanation for the existence of the grave. The skeletons are either proof of a mass murder committed by the communists, or the victims of medieval pestilence. The mystery is deepened by the discovery that the skeletons are missing their little fingers, and by a monk who has a lock of hair growing at a striking pace and who appears to know more than he says. Ovidiu Şimonca, editor-in-chief of the magazine Observator Cultural, says that this is the mark of a great prose writer: keeping the reader in suspense and leaving him wanting more.

The book received the debut prize from România Literară, a prestigious cultural weekly, and from the cultural foundation Anonimul, followed shortly by one from The Writers’ Union.

Little Fingers was a breath of fresh air, remembers critic Paul Cernat. The story was clean, the characters complex and convincing, the style clear, the stake a lot more interesting than the emotional outbursts in the books of his peers. Şimonca summed up the difference stating that Florian “did not stop at navel gazing, but aimed to create worlds.”

The novel was published in the Ego.Prose collection of the Polirom publishing house, the only one that publishes young local writers. (Two years later, the novel was re-published in the Fiction Ltd. Collection, dedicated to better known authors such as Ştefan Agopian, Norman Manea or Mateiu Caragiale.) In the preface, critic Simona Sora laid the first stone of the tower of legends which were to surround Florian in the coming years. She said that Florian probably wrote many other novels and that Little Fingers is the one he chose to pull out of the drawer to mark his debut. There was no other way to explain the maturity of structure and the refinement of language.

Florian’s vocabulary represents the most obvious difference when compared to his peers. All the critics, both in reviews and in interviews for this article, point out his reach. “Reading Filip Florian I realized how poor the vocabulary of the other new wave writers is,” says critic and writer Marius Chivu. “You recognize the richness of language and style out of two or three phrases. It may sound like an outdated concept about literature today, when themes are so important, but great contemporary writers of other literatures confirm it: language is the writer’s raw material.” Matei Florian calls Filip’s style “a love of nuances” and critic Alex Goldiş compliments him in Vatra magazine with a rare remark: “a language enthusiast.” Writer Dan Lungu has also cheekily confessed his admiration in an e-mail: “Filip Florian is a jeweller, a scrupulous miniaturist, a stubborn hero. In a revolting and rebellious generation which has discovered post-communist liberties, Filip Florian is a Franciscan monk.”

After writing features for newspaper Cuvântul at the beginning of the ’90s and then being a correspondent for Radio Free Europe and Deutsche Welle, Florian quit in 1999 to become a writer. In an interview with Formula AS magazine in 2009, he remembers that, even though he was a passionate journalist, closely watching the political scene, he became frustrated, realizing his work was not changing the world, as he dreamed it would. At one point, the desire to write “burst like an abscess.” Back then, in the winter of ’98, at age 30, with his wife, his little boy and Comisaru’, his tomcat, he moved to Sinaia, a winter resort north of Bucharest, into the attic of his grandmother’s house. It took him a year to shake off the weight of political journalism. During this time, he did little else but read – from Dostoyevsky or Bohumil Hrabal, to Romanian writers like Radu Cosaşu, Mircea Cărtărescu and, not accidentally, Ştefan Agopian. He played soccer with his friends and mountaineered. He wrote nothing. After a while, his wife began to give him weird looks.

The idea for Little Fingers came from news he read at the beginning of the ’90s about the discovery of a mass grave. He wrote around that idea for the following five years, no hurry, because, he says, he didn’t have a deadline. His only expectation was to be satisfied. He sent the manuscript to Humanitas publishing house in 2004, but after three months, he found out it hadn’t even been read. He tried again with Polirom, which had started publishing young writers that same year.

After the novel was published, he came back to Bucharest, but not permanently, and not to enjoy his suddenly acquired popularity. His life is built around his family, caring for his maternal grandmother, the games of Dinamo soccer team, fishing, and paying the bills. He stays away from the literary world because he doesn’t take pleasure in pointless conversations on the purpose of literature.

To write, he retreats to the mountains. When I asked his wife for a meeting regarding her role as Florian’s first reader, she modestly told me that “Filip actually wrote the books in complete loneliness. I have no role, so I have nothing to talk about.”

In time, the talk and gossip about who he is and how he works have created the image of a secluded romantic writer. Proof of his having been accepted within the pop culture is a drawing of Little Fingers on the painted bookshelf of a sophisticated boulangerie in downtown Bucharest.

Scriitorul Filip Florian fumează în biroul său

It was around 2003 when Florian asked his brother Matei to write a book together. Matei was a reporter for the weekly Dilema Veche and also wrote music reviews. They first tried to create a structure and write accordingly, but, Matei says, their styles were so different that they did not find a common pace. Then they realized they could write in parallel about their childhood spent mostly in Drumul Taberei, a Bucharest neighborhood, in an apartment building on Băiuţ Alley.

Matei wrote the first chapter, about being five and a half and about Dinamo, an impossible love for a little boy living in the heart of rival Steaua’s neighborhood. He sent the chapter to Filip, who lived in Sinaia. The answer came after a while: a chapter about Filip’s life before Matei’s birth – there are eleven years between them – and lots of other stories starring Matei as a baby boy. The game continued for two years. “We would talk about fish, football, anything really,” says Matei. “But never about what we had written or had read in each other’s chapter. The only thing we knew for sure was that Filip and Matei are us, and also two characters with their own personal lives in the book.”

The characters took on lives of their own, even though there are a lot of resemblances between the two pairs of brothers: a grandfather who loved mountaineering, an absent father, the divorce of their parents, a younger brother named after the grandfather, Mircea, and in the end, the move away from Băiuţ Alley. “It was only then that we discussed it was time to put an end to it,” remembers Matei. “We had to stop somewhere if we wanted it to be published. No doubt we could have continued writing forever.”

Critic Paul Cernat says The Băiuț Alley Lads (Băiuţeii) is a novel in the tradition of Mark Twain or Molnár Ferenc. It blends the magical time of childhood, populated by supernatural beings, as seen by Matei, and the lucid and hypersensitive time of adolescence, recreated by Filip. Matei asks many rhetorical questions and keeps everything short, whereas Filip offers  answers and writes long explanatory phrases.

The Băiuț Alley Lads was published in 2006, and then re-published a year later and once again in 2010. Just like Little Fingers, it has sold over 5,000 copies.

Around 2007, when The Băiuț Alley Lads was re-published, Florian was among the first Romanian writers to draw the attention of foreign publishers. At first introduced to the German publishing houses through a project of the Goethe Institute in Bucharest, Florian sold the translation rights of Little Fingers to Suhrkamp. Magvetö in Hungary and Czarne in Poland followed. Simona Kessler, the only literary agent in Romania, was already representing him when the offer came from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, one of the biggest publishing houses in America.

Kessler says that, in the beginning, the possibility of representing him was not under consideration as her agency does not work with Romanian writers. She specializes in corporate relations and hardly ever works with a writer directly. However, Florian was a special case. She appreciated his seriousness and reserved nature. But, most of all, she liked his books. “I am always being told that I’m not a patriot and I’m not representing Romanian writers,” Kessler says smiling. “Well, with Filip, I am doing a patriotic act, but I do it out of pleasure.”

Today, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt holds the full publishing rights for Little Fingers all over the world, except Germany: whoever wants to publish Florian needs to negotiate with them. Even if this is not the most beneficial agreement – if HMH does not promote it, the novel risks fading gradually from the public’s attention – the fact that Florian was chosen by this prestigious publishing house is a recognition of his talent and potential. Moreover, the name of the editor who signed him is an unquestionable stamp of approval: Drenka Willen, the one who introduced the US public to Nobel laureates Günter Grass, José Saramagó, Wisława Szymborska, and Octavio Paz. Little Fingers was published in the US in the summer of 2009 and sold over 2,000 copies in the first six months, with Newsweek being one of the publications that recommended it. Since then, it has been translated into Italian, Spanish, Slovenian and Slovak. 

His second solo effort, Zilele Regelui (The Days of the King), came out in 2008, a year marked by an ideological conflict initiated by critic Paul Cernat, who accused the young writers of not living up to expectations. “One of the real issues of young literature is the self-sufficiency and inability to address a different type of public, besides the young and alternative,” he wrote referring to the writers endorsed by Polirom’s Ego.Prose collection. “Instead of the superior understanding of what is human, we get either self-conscious provocations, socio-anthropological micro cuts, or kids playing literature.” He didn’t leave Florian out of his criticism saying that he lives off the glory of a single successful book, which is “neither The Leopard, nor Craii de Curtea-Veche (a famous turn-of-the-century Romanian novel).”

Some critics backed up Cernat’s opinion, others were against it. The Days of the King was published in a context of vigilance on the part of critics. It told the story of the birth of modern Romania, King Charles the First, his dentist, and the dentist’s tomcat. Built on three narratives, “the historical reconstruction of the reign of Charles I (macro history), the history of dentist Strauss’s family (private history) and the lyric fantasy of Siegfried the cat (the sacred camouflaged),” as identified by Marius Chivu in Dilema Veche, the story presents a Florian ready to take on more complex themes and difficult narrative structures. “We begin to have a novel,” Chivu writes at the end of a raving review. 

Almost all the critics considered the novel a confirmation. A few voices disagreed, but they didn’t say that the novel wasn’t good. Critic Mihai Iovănel complained about Florian’s style, which, he believes, focuses excessively on language and which, he says, is more of a purpose in itself than a means of telling the story. Alex Goldiş was dissatisfied with the characters not evolving and with the adorned style, but insisted on clarifying – when I spoke with him – that he really enjoyed the book. Still, he believes Florian could have used a better editor, one who could have eliminated the excess. The novel was a success – over 4,200 copies sold in less than 18 months. Director Radu Gabrea wants to turn it into a movie. It was bought by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – for a period of 10 years: the English translation is to be published in August 2011.

In his 2008 manifesto, Cernat claimed that not even today’s best writers can be compared to Romanian classics such as Liviu Rebreanu or Mihail Sadoveanu and that their stakes remain provincial. With the publication of The Days of the King, he restated his theory, saying that Florian’s talent and his ability to flee the “now and here-ism” is the exception that confirms the rule. An experienced critic and professor of literature, Cernat saw beyond the three stories, “each one pregnant with each other.” He looked for those things used to evaluate the talent of a great writer: the narrative structure and the capacity to create worlds. “His true merit,” Cernat says, “lies in the ability to build coherent stories, with mysteries and drawers where forgotten worlds are subtly revived.”

When we talked about Florian’s potential and about what he might need to become a great writer, Cernat strenghtened the critics’ verdict for The Days of the King: “I think it would be great if he managed, just like he did in The Băiuț Alley Lads, to grasp a social identity, but on a greater scale, which would strongly individualize him. And I think he knows and feels that, too. I am very curious to see how he will do that.” Cernat seems sure that Florian will not disappoint and that he will sooner or later deliver the book that will push him to the highest levels of literary reputation. And, he adds, Florian has 20 years to get there. (According to a theory by Ştefan Agopian, writers produce their best artistic works by the age of 60. Florian will be 43 in May.)

Florian says he has already found a story for his next book, but there is a long way to go until he finishes it. It is certain though that it will be different, because he likes every book to open a new universe. The back cover of the first edition of Little Fingers carries a note which sums up his attitude towards writing: after finishing a book, there should be a memorial service for the characters. In other words, he would not return to the beaten tracks. All he wishes is to be able to live like that, writing, for as long as possible. Of the entire publishing ecosystem, he appears to see only the part that concerns him and his writing. People who say they have read his books still amaze him. 

Until critics’ expectations are met, Florian continues to write in a solitude he defends with everything he’s got, on things he chooses against the literary trends, refining each phrase until it finds a shape that reflects him, thus, unknowingly, giving birth to myths. In the Romanian literary landscape, he stands out not only through his style and a talent for recreating worlds, but also through being a man who believes that his only acceptable destiny is that of a writer and who gave up everything to follow it. 

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Primăvară, 2010

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