Postage and Packing Free - Cartarescu brings together twenty short stories that he wrote for ELLE magazine. The protagonist of every story is female, but they are not individual portraits of women - it is a group portrait of womanhood.
Publication date: 25 November 2011
Hardback 230 x 150mm full colour
The implied question to which the title Why We Love Women introduces a series of narrative answers is not “Why do you love women?” but “Why do we love women?” The “we” refers not to men in general but to the multiple biographical selves and literary personae of Mircea Cartarescu, spanning early childhood, youth and manhood in the closed world of communist Romania and mature adulthood and middle age in a post-communist world of free travel and encounters between cultures (the book’s settings include San Francisco, Ireland, Amsterdam, Turin, Paris and Krakow). The women of the title are real, imaginary, fictional, fictionalised, literary, intertextual, fantastical, oneiric, ideal, historical, contemporary, tragic, burlesque, mysterious, ordinary, strange, familiar, exotic, homely, perfect, flawed, ethereal, mundane, sacred and profane, each uniquely individual and at the same time universal in her beauty.
Even when at their most (seemingly) biographical, the stories and articles of Why We Love Women are self-consciously literary, intertextual and self-reflexive. In the first story, the epiphany of ineffable female beauty triggered by the young African woman on the subway from Berkeley to San Francisco is framed and introduced in terms of what J. D. Salinger calls in The Laughing Man “unclassifiably great beauty at first sight”. Cartarescu’s literary influences are modern and American; his reference point for the revelation of absolute, ineffable female beauty is not Dante’s Beatrice but Salinger’s Mary Hudson. But the woman herself seems to transcend all times and cultures: she is African and ancient Egyptian, wearing an Indian sari, her anklet inscribed in Arabic, and the snaking threads of her Walkman earphones are like an artefact from the dawn of time. She is nothing less than “the tangible image of beauty itself”.
The journey under an inlet of the San Francisco Bay in ‘Little African Women’ takes Cartarescu to the geographical heart of one of the major influences on his 1980s poetry: the city of the beat generation. The self that Cartarescu describes in the story is 15 years younger, viewed with characteristically ironic hindsight as naïve, awkward, perhaps overawed, travelling abroad for the first time, in the year following the Revolution and the fall of the communist regime. He describes his younger self as imagining himself “walking in the footsteps of Ferlinghetti and Kerouac”. The rhythm, line, and structure of Cartarescu’s Poems of Amour (1983), Everything (1985) and Love (1994, but written in the mid-1980s) are in large part those of Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and ‘Sunflower Sutra’, but the imagery is that of a phantasmagorical, oneiric Bucharest, whose everyday ‘unpoetic’ details are rendered with hallucinatory lyrical intensity, and where the West, an almost magical, mythical realm, is accessible only through officially frowned-upon Western pop culture, for example clandestinely copied magnetophon tapes of the Beatles. In the poem ‘I’ve been given a signed copy of Ginsberg’s Howl as a present’, published in the volume Love after the Revolution, which ecstatically describes the best minds of the Romanian ‘eighties generation’ of poets, employing Ginsberg’s long line and anaphoric structure, Cartarescu writes:
as if the whole universe, spaces within spaces, ages within ages, blood within blood, rock within rock, teeth within sockets, cognisant clouds, heaven and hell, heart and brain, flame and ash,
were nothing but
the only thing which
whether you be man or woman, young or old
seems to you
never to go out of fashion
never to go out of date
The revelation of love as a macrocosmic poetic force, which Cartarescu experiences on reading Ginsberg’s Howl, is repeated on the subway heading into San Francisco, this time channelled through the microcosm of the young African woman. Likewise, ‘The Golden Bombshell,’ the final story in Why We Love Women, is an intensely sexualised mirror image of the same epiphany of woman as macrocosm/microcosm that we meet in ‘Little African Woman’. Here, the entire history of the universe, stretching over billions of years and encompassing the genesis of stars, galaxies and planets, the emergence of life, and the rise and fall of mighty empires, exists only in order to culminate in a beautiful woman, the unknown, nameless woman on the beach, who inflames erotic desire in all those who behold her, both men and women.
The two unknown women in the first story and last story of Why We Love Women, each an epiphany, the one pure and immaculate, the other the quintessence of erotic desire, frame a series of texts about the women who have played a part in Cartarescu’s life, not only his real life – consisting of the events in his biography, which, as he is at pains to point out, is wholly uneventful – but also, more importantly and profoundly, his dream life, the life of his unconscious, the life of his imagination, and his life as he has shaped and transformed it in his literary fiction. “Le Rêve”, says Gérard de Nerval, one of the Romantic visionaries with whom the youthful Cartarescu competes in nocturnal dreaming matches, “est une seconde vie”. In ‘Earrings,’ for example, Cartarescu is haunted by a synaesthetic sense of déjà vu, a fragrant colour or coloured fragrance that awakens infinite yearning and nostalgia: the nebulous memory of a woman, whose precise image always hovers tantalisingly out of reach. After many years of frustrated inner searching, the woman is finally revealed to be his mother, in a dream in which a long submerged memory from early childhood at last rises to the surface.
The women whom Cartarescu invites us to believe are real, in stories whose style and tone range from the nostalgic and elegiac to the magic realist and even self-deprecatingly comical, blur the boundaries of reality and fiction. D., his lover in the story ‘For D., vingt ans après’, is outwardly a ‘ninny’, but lives an extraordinarily rich and vivid dream life. We discover that the obsessive oneiric butterfly imagery of Cartarescu’s novel Blinding (1996, 2002, 2007) – a trilogy which itself is structured like a butterfly: left wing, body, right wing – was inspired by Mioara’s astonishing descriptions of her epic, phantasmagorical dreams. Hers is the marble palace swarming with butterflies. Hers too the endless subterranean dream catacomb paved with chalcedony and malachite in the same novel. The story also reveals the real-life prototypes of two characters in the chapter ‘The Twins’, from Cartarescu’s prose work Nostalgia (1993): Mira, with her curiously contorted fingers and toes, and Altamira, the cataleptic who sleeps for sixteen whole days and then awakes as if nothing had happened. Similarly, Esther, the “Jewish princess” in another story from Why We Love Women, is revealed to be the real-life inspiration for a nameless female character disguised as a man in the chapter ‘REM’, also from Nostalgia.
The fantastical Cydonia, a female character in the story ‘The Magical Book of My Youth,’ is doubly fictional: she exists only in the non-existent novel The Shameless Death by non-existent author Dagmar Rotluft, which the adolescent Cartarescu reads in dreamlike circumstances, before losing the book and never finding it again. Subjectively, it is the dreamlike memory of this non-existent fictional character that is real, whereas as the real fictional characters of Dumas, Stendhal and Salinger are unreal. Here, as in other stories in Why We Love Women, for example ‘Petrutza’, ‘Encounter in Turin’, and ‘The Object that Inspires Me’, we encounter what Nerval calls “l’épanchement du songe dans la vie réelle”.
Ultimately, Cartarescu would seem to suggest, the answer to the question “Why do we love women?” is ineffable, a mystery as vast and unfathomable as the universe itself, but also as flimsy as the fleeting memory of a long-forgotten dream. The final piece, which gives the book its title, consists of a long chain of statements, each preceded by the conjunction “because”, thus suggesting an infinite series, without beginning or end. The series of reasons is ironic, ludic, lyrical, sentimental, provocative, and even infuriating, all at the same time, as if to emphasise that there is no single, definitive answer. But no matter how many subjective series of reasons we might come up with, the answer is also deceptively, tautologically simple: we love women because we love women, and love is the only thing that never goes out of fashion, never goes out of date.