A once-subversive, picaresque life of an imagined philosopher who speaks in torrents and trades in absurdity.
Given history, it’s unfortunate that Calinescu, a Romanian novelist who published this book in 1969 and then spent his later years as an expatriate in Indiana, should have decided that his Romanian-German-Jewish protagonist, Zacharias Lichter, be “so ludicrously ugly he produces a strong impression on even the indifferent observer”—and with a “peerless Semitic nose” to boot. Lichter may be hideous and ill-dressed (to convey, Calinescu ventures, the Platonic ideal of poverty), but he is also exuberant and irrepressible, given to waving his hands around wildly while putting the finer points on arguments that are blunt-force weapons. Where Kierkegaard spoke of the elevated triad of the aesthetic, ethical, and religious spheres, for instance, Lichter intones that the proper hierarchy for our day is “circus—madness—perplexity.” That fits because, he adds, all people are clowns, if delayed in their recognition of their essential clownness; moreover, he later holds, “words no longer mean anything,” they “are mere vehicles of a reality beyond signifiers.” Lichter would be as goofy as Vonnegut’s Bokonon, a kind of pastiche Žižek, if Calinescu did not invest in his philosophy a commitment to human freedom, and for this reason it’s easy to see why the book should have been a favorite of Romanian dissidents on its publication in 1969, a dozen or so years after Calinescu began writing the tales of his antiheroical philosopher. Sometimes Calinescu/Lichter is wonderfully prescient, prefiguring Susan Sontag when he writes that in our era “a kind of a debased religion of health, of ‘normality,’ has been created, obsessed with the problem of illness.” Mostly, though, the free-wheeling Lichter, who sometimes delivers his pronouncements in indifferent poetry, lives up to what an acolyte and apprentice of his calls “a pedagogy of beguilement.”
For students of Iron Curtain–era Eastern European letters, a lost treasure.