Alistair Blyth

The last surrealist

Alistair Blyth examines the impact of Gellu Naum


For Gellu Naum, the Romanian surrealist poet who died aged 86 on 29 September, poetry was an uncompromising existential choice. Surrealism, far from being merely another literary genre or style of writing, was a way of life to which he remained faithful to the very end. He made concessions neither to the literary establishment nor to the political ideology of the communist regime. He saw poetry as a means of intensifying the experience of life, as a "science of action" radically opposed to the complacent pomposity of hollow men of letters. Naum's revolt against literary and social convention was not negative and destructive, like that of the avant garde Dada movement from which surrealism sprang, but rather, as he wrote in The Castle of the Blind (1946), a vital attempt to reestablish "contact" between human beings: "this contact is like fire, like panic, like love, like water, like revolt..."

Gellu Naum's first published collection of poems, The Incendiary Traveller, which appeared in 1936, is a characteristically defiant rejection of the stale, self-satisfied banalities of the literary establishment. One of the many images through which Naum articulated his revolt against all that was sacrosanct in literature was that of, in an imagined hour of glory, defiantly "waving a pair of stinking socks next to the gates of the Romanian Academy". Naum was to remain true to the exuberant ideals of youthful rebellion for the rest of his life. In contrast to others of the surrealists of his generation, he never made the compromising transition from rebel to member of the conservative literary establishment as embodied in the Academy.

In the same volume, the incendiary traveller pours scorn on the kind of writer who "picks his brain like a nose to extract the sad snot of a poem." Naum had had enough of "bashfully smelling roses while wearing the felt boots of classic poetry". He ridicules the fake sentiment of love poetry "beneath whose powdered flesh show the hideous wrinkles of old age." It is perhaps not surprising that such provocative expressions of revolt were not included in the anthology of Naum's poetry that was published in 1995 with the financial support of Romania's Ministry of Culture.

Such subversion of social and literary convention is as much anathema to the conservative establishment today as it was sixty years ago. This is also why, during his lifetime, Naum's work never received as much critical attention or recognition as it deserved. In 1940, for example, Vladimir Streinu, an influential critic of the time, said that Gellu Naum should simply be ignored until he learnt to behave himself.

During the communist period it was difficult for Naum even to publish his poetry: bibliographies of his work cannot hide a lengthy hiatus between 1946 and 1968. In 1975, Naum had the unabridged edition of Description of the Tower, a volume of poems that includes the remarkable collage work The Advantage of Vertebrae, published at his own expense. The publisher, Editura Litera, was the only Vanity press' that existed during the communist period.

Gellu Naum: "the last authentic link to the avant garde movements which convulsed the cultural landscape of the first half of the twentieth century."

Apart from a short stint as a teacher after the war, Gellu Naum somehow managed to preserve the integrity and independence necessary to write his poetry while scraping a living as a freelance translator and writer of children's books, a situation which, in many other countries, would have been unthinkable for a writer of his stature.

Naum's poetry, as well as exposing the worn and mendacious platitudes of classic literature, sought to renew the sensation of living. Life, as opposed to the automatised existence of modern man, is re-experienced with hallucinatory intensity. Emotions and sensory perception are refelt with an unfamiliar and vivifying force:

I try to catch your shoulders using a violin as a butterfly net

but if your hair chimes it's because it's dreaming if your eyelid blooms it's because of the wind if your hand howls it's because it's night if your ears sleep it's because they're starving if your shoes laugh it's because they're thinking and if your shoulders fly away maybe it's because

it's very late...

Although Naum explores the sameinterstices of reality as the French surrealists, his poetry is unusual for its profoundly lyrical character. Naum's poetry takes a new direction to that of French surrealist poetry, which was so often merely an uncontrolled outpouring of the unconscious, severed from the sensation of life. Another important quality of Naum's work, a quality which distinguishes it from most other surrealist poetry, is its often ludic, humorous element.

NAUM'S ICONOCLASM IS NOT OF THE humourless, destructive kind which leads to intolerance and totalitarianism. Vasco da Gama, the burlesque eponymous hero of his 1940 volume of poems, replaces the incendiary traveller as the author's alter ego and vehicle for the subversion of reality:

But Vasco is another voyager

he sniffs the water with a telescope

his nostrils extend to the shore

because he eats the head of the helmsman

The reality which Vasco da Gama explores is shifting and protean. Unexpected metaphors and strange metamorphoses, reminiscent of the paintings of Salvador Dali, perturb the reader: "you finished weaving the pitchers / and hands like insects devour things"; "a hand opens like a box"; "the woman's leg is like a trumpet / from which sounds flow like green ribbons"; "in these cities men eat their own mouths / the same as you would eat a fingernail or a coat"; "the comb's waters fall in droplets which / gather and form objects".

NAUM WAS ACTIVE IN SURREALIST CIRCLES in Paris between 1938 and 1940. He returned to Bucharest in 1940 to found, with Virgil Teodorescu, Gherasim Luca, Paul Paun and Trost, the Romanian Surrealist group. The group, as well as writing collective texts and descriptions of their surrealist experiments, published a manifesto in 1945 entitled Critique of Misery, in which they advocated a "permanent effort to liberate human expression in all its forms." Romanian surrealism has been called the "last wave" of surrealism. Of the members of the group, only Gellu Naum and Virgil Teodorescu remained permanently in Romania after the war, and only Gellu Naum really remained faithful to surrealism as an aesthetic and existential project. After the war, Naum continued to produce surrealist poetry, including volumes such as Manor (1968), My Tired Father (1972), and The Blue Shore (1990). But the collective experiment was over. Naum's was a lone, albeit authentic, voice.

GELLU NAUM WAS, TOWARDS THE END OF his life, the last living Romanian scion of, and authentic link to, the avant garde movements which convulsed the cultural landscape of the first half of the twentieth century. Romania had been, before communism cast it adrift from the main currents of European cultural activity, at the forefront of the avant garde. Movements such as futurism and surrealism found fertile ground in Romania. Romanian artists, writers and dramatists such as Brancusi, Tristan Tzara, and Eugen lonesco were innovators who influenced the future course of European culture. Romanians - Tristan Tzara and Marcel lancu -were instrumental in the Dada insurrection, the revolt against the decrepit values of a civilisation that had caused the deaths of millions in the First World War.

It was natural that surrealism, which developed from the Dada movement, should take such a strong hold in Romania. Indeed, by the 1940s, the Romanian surrealists had managed to give the moribund movement a fresh impetus. This was, however, to be cut short by the new ideological strictures of communism. Part of Gellu Naum's remarkable achievement is that he was able to preserve his integrity as a surrealist in such unfavourable conditions.

Recognition came late in life for Gellu Naum: after 1990 came literary awards including a nomination for the Nobel Prize, and translations into other European languages. However, Naum continued to live in precarious material circumstances, more or less ignored by the literary establishment in Romania. A complete edition of his work - nineteen volumes of poetry and the novel Zenobia - has never been published. Only now that the last of the surrealists has gone can the movement as a whole be fully evaluated.

The loss of Gellu Naum, the last living surrealist, represents the disappearance of an entire artistic milieu, which from now on is only to be found in the library.