The sacred is in everyday life, in the falling of a handkerchief … It is strange to have to use words to say that they shouldn’t exist … Our language allows us to lie to ourselves, to run away from and to betray ourselves. I don’t believe that words enable us to love, to live or to survive. So what are they for? To write, perhaps.
– Marius Daniel Popescu
Marius Daniel Popescu was born in Craiova, Romania in 1963. In 1990 he moved to Lausanne, Switzerland. Whilst working by day as a bus driver, he had two collections of poems published by the Swiss publishing house Antipodes – one of which won the Prix Rilke in 2006. He continued to edit the literary review, Le Persil, but it wasn’t until the publication of La Symphonie du loup – by Parisian publisher José Corti in 2007 – that his work was discovered, with rapture, in France. The first edition soon sold out and the novel ran into its third French edition, selling over 4,500 copies within a year of publication.
Critics are quick to sketch Popescu as an outsider figure, pointing out that despite being a prize-winning author, he continues to work as a bus driver in Lausanne. And yet it is this close-up experience of the everyday that is the source of his literary power and his popularity, which baffles the figures normally associated with Parisian literary life. Training his gaze upon the specific and tangible, his work has an almost English feel, making up an oeuvre little expected from French literature.
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La Symphonie du loup (The Symphony of the Wolf)
The novel opens with an elderly voice telling his grandson the story of his father’s accidental death, a story that will entwine with that of the boy’s own birth. The novel is mostly narrated in the unusual second person singular “you” form. This “you” designates the protagonist, but also draws the reader headlong into the novel to adventure beside the characters, living through events often of the most trivial, banal nature but rendered literary by their humanity, by the gaze shed upon them.
These four hundred pages form a startling epic, which travels over borders and through generations, spanning an era from Communist Romania to contemporary Switzerland. Moving between the intimacy of human relationships to visionary portrayals of the human condition, La Symphonie du loup assembles a motley group of characters presented through a patchwork of short texts, like cuttings in a scrapbook: a child being washed in his grandmother’s basin, a horse sacrificed at the hands of newly redundant factory workers, a perilous train journey clutching on to the door handles outside, loaves of bread scattered one snowy night returning to Romania, tales of love, adolescence and death.
The voices in La Symphonie du loup stagger into French – this foreign language – alert to the appearances as well as meanings of new words. Popescu continually plays with words, demonstrating a peculiar lucidity – surely that offered by the writer’s awareness of working in a non-native tongue. With an element of homage to Eastern European oral traditions, the tale demonstrates a rhythm and energy especially effective when read aloud.
- “Composition magistrale, images à couper le souffle, profusion de sens : ce livre fera trace, à n’en pas douter.” (A masterly composition, breathtaking imagery, profusion for the senses: this book will make its mark, there is no doubt about it.) Jean-Claude Lebrun, L’Humanité, 30 August 2007
- “His prose, which he delivers in a full shamanic trance, deals with nothing and everything, it tells of life and nonsense, bears literary witness to the Romanian dictatorship and transforms biography into literature.” Roman Bucheli, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, May 2008
- “La Symphonie du loup is flawless, in terms of style as well as narrative, and it gives off an irresistible charm. It is poised halfway between a lullaby and an incantation, and keeps you absorbed in the story from the very first page. It is truly a symphony, as reflected in the title, and I simply couldn’t put the novel down until I had finished it. I am delighted that Marius Daniel Popescu has returned to Romania through his writing.” Lidia Bodea, Humanitas, Bucharest
- For more information on La Symphonie du loup see the Parisian publisher José Corti’s website.
- To read the opening pages of The Symphony of the Wolf, translated into English by Olivia Heal, click here.
- To read pages 154-161 of The Symphony of the Wolf, translated into English by Olivia Heal, click here.
- If you’ve read the book or the translated extracts, let us know what you think by commenting below.