August 8, 2011

Gellu Naum

Naum and Victor Brauner, c. 1935

Gellu Naum [Romania]

Gellu Naum was born in Bucharest, August 1, 1915, the son of romantic poet Andrei Naum (who died in combat at the Battle of Marasesti, WWI) and his wife Maria. In 1933, he began studying philosophy in Bucharest and, in 1938, left to continue his studies at the University of Paris. While completing his doctoral degree (with a dissertation on the French philosopher Peter Abelard, known for his romantic poetry and letters), Naum became the central figure in an expatriate group of Romanians.

In 1935 Naum made an important new friend and mentor. The poet recalled: “One day, as I was walking on Sarindari Street, I came across an exhibition by Victor Brauner. At that time I did not know anything about Brauner, who kept on painting while living in extreme poverty. And I entered that exhibition hall as if destiny attracted me. I found a very nice young man, who asked me if I liked what I saw. And I told him I liked it a lot; that I wanted to write just like he painted. When he asked me what I was writing, I told him I was writing poems. We never parted since.”

A year later, Naum published his first book. Incendiary Traveler, accompanied by Brauner illustrations, who then introduced him to André Breton and the Paris surrealist group. Naum later befriended artists Jacques Herold and Paul Paun, who both went on to illustrate some 20 books by him.

In 1941, while on the Orient Express traveling from Paris to Bucharest, Naum—together with Gherasim Luca, Dolfi Trost and others—organized a Romanian Surrealist group. Over the next five years in Bucharest that group evolved into a veritable movement with manifestoes, magazines, books, exhibitions and other publications. At war’s end Luca, Trost, Virgil Teodorescu, Sasha Pana, Jules Perahim, Jacques Herold, Lucian Boz, Constantin Nisipeanu, Sesto Pals and others, all active in Romanian surrealism, were swiftly banned by the Communist authorities.

By 1947, Naum’s book, The White of the Bone, was rejected by censors, and for the next 20 years Naum was permitted only to write in the approved style, “socialist realism,” praising the leaders of communism (e.g., "Poem about our youth," 1960). He was also permitted to write children’s books (e.g., The Book of Apolodor) and sometimes published Romanian translations of works in French by Gerard de Nerval, Denis Diderot, Samuel Beckett, Rene Char, Jacques Prevert, Franz Kafka, Victor Hugo and even Jules Verne.

After 1967, Naum resumed publishing Surrealist poetry books, leaving us a unique look at the subconscious in more than 40 books, among them, My Tired Father (translated into English by Green Integer in 1999), The Other Side, and The Animal-Tree. His surreal novel Zenobia was published in 1985 and, in 1995, was translated into English by James Brook and Sasha Vlad for Northwestern University Press. His wife, the artist Lygia (Alexandrescu) Naum, was the inspiration and main character of the story.

In 1979 Naum published a collection of works for the theater, Insula. Ceasornicăria Taus. Poate Elenora. To read Ceasornicăria Taus (The Taus Watch Repair Shop), click here:

Although Naum was this writer’s “reluctant” mentor, he visited me in New York, summer 1985 (together with his wife), where we did a bilingual poetry reading with a circle of poets and artists that included the late Ira Cohen, Timothy Baum, and Liuba Ristic on sitar. It was a unique and historic Surrealist event.

Naum received numerous international and national awards for his work, including the 1999 European Prize for Poetry and a nomination for the Nobel Prize. Much of his work, however, remains in need of translating and editing into English.

—Valery Oisteanu


Drumeţul incendiar [with art by Victor Brauner] (Bucharest: 1936); Vasco de Gama (Bucharest: Rotativa, 1940); Culoarul somnului [with art by Victor Vrauner] (Bucharest, 1944); Spectrul longevităţuul 122 de cadavre [in collaboration with Virgil Teodorescu] (Bucharest: Colecţia suprarealistă, 1945); Athanor (Burcharest: Editura pentru Literatură, 1968); Copacul-animal (Bucharest: Editura Eminescu, 1971); Tatăl meu obosit (Bucharest: Editura Cartea Românească, 1972); Descrierea turnului (Bucharest: Editura Albatros, 1975); Partea cealaltă (Burcharest: Editura Cartea Românească , 1980); Malul albastru (Bucharest: Editura Cartea Românească, 1990); Faţa şi suprafaţa urmat de Malul albastru (1989-1993 (Buchaarest: Editura Litera, 1994; Focul negru (Burcharest: Editura Eminescu, 1995); Sora fântână (Editura Eminescu, 1995);
Ascet la baraca de tir (Bucharest: Editura Fundaţiei Culturale Române, 2000)


My Tired Father / Pohem, trans. by James Brook, with an interview between Brook and Naum (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1999); Apollodor, Book One, trans. by M. A. Christi (on line, 2009)

For the Gellu Naum website, with Apollodor, biography, and other materials, click below:

For a short film on Gellu Naum, "Voluntary Blindness," click here:

For Naum reading a poem in Romanian, click here:

From My Tired Father

My tired father used the thought-gaze

He hit something solid with a pole and turned to me with a triumphant air

In fact everything was limited to a sort of exorcism of fear Only the crossing to the other side of the gesture was important

I had heard of the terrible storms there and I had come to know them

I made identical gestures the dial had no numbers and the sun shone somewhere very low

Weeping I asked for something to drunk My wife mentioned Abend Oh if only we weren't at this moment above the masts in his barrel she sighed There he is and there he should stay I said

And if he sails in a barrel he'll be in a fine spot

Around the same time someone decided to dedicate his life to science (potassium sodium aluminum)

On the other side two groups of three executed identical but inverse movements The second part corresponded to the first The third part excluded any countertendency and became a product

A ball rolled on the floor thus transporting itself into a completely separate category

Everything upset cried out

Between the two (parallel) walls only one man still practiced the old demonstrative functions

Space was a kind of sequential panel on which I could apply anything at all

On waking I had a pulse just as blind and obscure

White the intelligent students acquired sound knowledge within the framework of a demanding program

The language of sets was integrated in small doses

The pendulum's oscillation on which I had meditated a long time showed me furthermore that there were many distinct bodies that in blending neither disturb nor exclude one another They were in some very distance places

A young woman appointed professor in a gigantic school resolved to lover her students

A photographer left his wife and felt compelled to accept the invitation of a priest retired to the south The priest succeeded in reconciling the separate couple

A man was stretched out next to his wife The ceiling reproduced the include of the roof

A yellow spot seemed to emerge from its own absence

—Translated from the Romanian by James Brook

To buy a copy of the book, My Tired Father, click below:

English language translation copyright ©1999 by James Brook. Reprinted from My Tired Father/Pohem (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1999).

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