For the second book in my 2022 book challenge, I chose The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter by Matei Călinescu, originally published in 1969. This was right in the middle of Romania’s Communist government, and since Călinescu left Romania a few years later, this novel has gained a cult following. Another distinguishing factor is that it’s Călinescu’s only novel, as he worked mostly as a literary critic and occasionally as a poet, both in Romania and later at Indiana University in the US.
As the title implies, the book recounts the life and opinions, mostly the latter, of a man named Zacharias Lichter. The title is a nod to the classic novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. A quick Amazon search reveals that many authors have paid similar homages in their titles, including The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe. I’m kind of intrigued by that one, actually.
Lichter is apparently a grotesque-looking man who spends most of his time alternately begging and pontificating in Bucharest’s public parks. The novel is written from the point of view of a self-appointed biographer of Lichter’s, but this person is never named, nor do they share any particular opinions of their own. We also occasionally see Lichter interact with a few friends, a few interested passers-by, and a doctor that he tries to avoid at all costs.
What I liked
Lichter has a lot of interesting things to say. I made heavy use of the highlight feature in this book, possibly more so than in any other book I’ve read. For example, he sums up the dilemma of living authentically:
For is there anything more pathetic than to live in a world of truth and have an alienated world reject you as alien; to live in the sphere of the serious and have a ludicrous world laugh at you because it finds you ludicrous?The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter, page 10
Also, you could argue that he predicted the modern wellness industry:
Thousands and tens of thousands of illnesses, one more complicated than the other, have been invented and along with them, equally complicated means of combatting them.The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter, page 114
Lichter talks a lot about living honestly and mindfully. I can see why the introduction, by his compatriot Norman Manea, put a lot of attention on the quotes. This book is eminently quotable. By the way, if you read in the Kindle app on iPad and highlight a section, it will even make an Instagram-ready quote image for you. No doubt that Zacharias Lichter would disapprove.
What I didn’t like
Calling this book a novel is a stretch. It’s really more of a collection of anecdotes interspersed with the occasional poem, and as such, doesn’t go anywhere. Characters dip in and out for no particular reason, and the anecdotes don’t build on each other. I don’t need Dan Brown levels of plot intrigue, but I need more than what I got here.
Also, nobody likes being talked at all the time, not even by an alleged genius. And some of his rants didn’t make any sense, like when he spends a whole chapter talking about how terrible writing is. Reading this “novel” is basically committing to being talked at for 150 pages. It was more tiring than Forest of the Hanged, despite the latter being more than twice as long.
You’ve probably guessed by now that this book wasn’t my cup of tea. I’m willing to concede that the fault may be on my end. Again, referring to Manea’s introduction, he talks about how the book perfectly captures the political environment of Romania in the late 1960s. And since Manea was there, he knows what he’s talking about. But I fear that much of the novel might be lost on anyone who wasn’t there, myself included.
Manea and others have also called this a subversive novel, and I have to admit that I don’t see what Călinescu is trying to subvert. I’ve also read reports that Călinescu wrote this book as a joke, thinking nobody would actually publish it. That explanation makes the most sense to me. Two stars on Goodreads.
My next book will be the first in the challenge by a non-Romanian author, Zen Beyond Mindfulness by Jules Shuzen Harris. Harris is Black, so he meets my criteria for non-Romanian authors in this challenge. This book satisfies Category 4, a book on psychology or personal development.
How do you feel about novels with no plot? Can you shed light on the political situation in Romania in the late 1960s? Leave your thoughts in the comments!