Review: ‘Benjamin Fondane: The Existential Ulysses’

 

An event about Benjamin Fondane, poet and existentialist philosopher, was held in honor of the Romanian Cultural Institute’s tenth participation at the London Book Fair. Panelists included Professor Mircea Martin of the Faculty of Letters of Bucharest, Ramona Fotiade, lecturer of French at the University of Glasgow, Nicholas Lezard, star journalist for The Guardian, and Andrew Rubens, translator of Fondane’s poems.

The evidently distinguished panel discussed an evidently distinguished, though lesser-known literary figure. The event was dedicated to Fondane, also known as B. Fundoianu, as a result of the resurgence his work is making as a result of two publications recently launched by the New York Review of Books. One is Fondane’s ‘Existential Monday’ and of particular notability is ‘Benjamin Fondane: Cinepoems and Others’, a first bilingual edition in English.

 

Professor Mircea Martin is widely accepted to be the biggest authority on Fondane in Romania, and kicked off the evening with a detailed, complex train of thought regarding the subject. Fondane ‘elevated the Romanian language to great heights’ and gained notoriety as a poet in Romania from an early age, but is now know for his anti-rationalist philosophy. Particularly interesting is an exposition that the professor gave us regarding Fondane thought on the ‘decolonization of Romania’: Fondane saw Romania as a cultural colony of France as a result of the bilingualism of the upper classes, and condemned the phenomenon as a problem of ‘a lack of echo’ (in other words, of inferiority complex) that characterizes all peripheral countries/cultures. Although the Western world is so globalized and so infused with ideas of postcolonialism today, Fondane’s observation highlights the reality that even now, countries such as Romania and most of Eastern Europe, tend to be culturally overlooked. Fondane is a pioneer of national self-examination in this sense, and therefore a consequential and seminal figure.

 

Statements such as ‘these translations indicate that his work is both the present and the future’ provoked questions for the audience. One gets the impression that Fondane is a titan of postmodern sensibility; his holistic thought is representative of the linear train of thought that Europe has been following since he was writing and has continued to follow naturally. This involves, for example, ‘a world in which there are no facts left, only interpretations’.

Professor Martin suggested that if Fondane had not met his tragic end in Auschwitz, his book on Baudelaire would have been championed over Sartre’s. Dr. Fotiade remarked that he wanted to make his own Un Chien Andalou, and was an early sort of Man Ray that, unfortunately, lacked funds. Such information was striking, as the common consensus even among many people in the field of literature who were present at the event was that Fondane is not widely known. Revelations of the sort pose a challenge, and induce a weighing up of who gets written out of the history, and the essentially arbitrary reasons this tends to occur.

The highlight of the evening was Andrew Rubens’ reading of the poetic introduction of his poem Exodus:

‘Remember only that I was innocent

and, just like you, mortal on that day,

I, too, had had a face marked by rage, by pity and joy,

quite simply, a human face!’

 

This was written shortly before the poet’s death and speaks to us in the 21st century, according to Rubens. His piercing reading of it was deeply moving.

Another positive feature of the event was a documentary about Fondane, discussing his life and his ‘polymorphous identities’, all the while enlivening his personality with photos from through his life. Panels have a tendency to become drawn out and overly long; a documentary adds a bit of freshness and completion.

 

 

However, as it was an event at the Romanian Cultural Instiute, there might have been more focus on ‘Fundoianu’ than ‘Fondane’, as he wrote very interesting things about Romania. He is not only a Jewish poet, but it seems like the panelists preferred to, perhaps unconsciously, refer to him as such, which doesn’t do justice to the extraordinarily multilateral figure he was. Fondane ought to be remembered as a fundamentally cosmopolitan character, as this is what makes him strikingly original.

 

Despite this, the event was a thoroughly interesting affair, worth attending. It succeeded in its scope of posing questions, many of which were elucidated in an intellectual manner. Others remained hanging pensively over the empty chairs after the event was over, allowing Fondane to take various flexible forms in the minds of the listeners after they had gone down for the customary glass of Romanian wine downstairs.

 

 

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