Ilinca Bernea is a Romanian novelist, a poet and a stage director. She has a PhD in philosophy. She loves classical and rock music, all kinds of cats, expressionist art and existential thinkers. I had an interview with Ilinca about her most recent novel, The Black Box and more.
Ingrid Berezovschi: What’s the first thing you wrote?
Ilinca Bernea: The first thing I wrote was the text for song called The Dance of the Rats when I was five, but I was not able to write it down on paper then, my parents did the job for me. I also composed the melody for the song. It was a big family success. I have a picture showing me, my little brother and my older cousins, dancing to it.
Ingrid Berezovschi: It was your first dance performance! Now, seriously, when did you start writing and what was the reason?
Ilinca Bernea: My mother wanted me to become a pianist. She was a piano player, a very good one, but, unfortunately, for some particular reason, she had to abandon the musical career. Of course, she wanted me to follow her path… but I was not so interested in the instrument. I liked the sound of the violin better, to be honest. I sometimes wonder if I would have gone further with the study in case I’d played the violin. As far as I remember, I got stuck with the study when things turned out to be more difficult. I was pretty lazy and I found it very unjust to spend my free time studying while other children were playing. When I was 13 I quit and I promised myself to become a writer. My appetite for narratives and travels into imaginary realms has already been shaped by my grandmother, who used to invent for me stories with plenty of characters. Sometimes I even ordered her to introduce new heroes in her fantasies. I had already discovered the pleasure of reading when I took the decision to abandon the piano. The first things that we know about life are from books, that’s the truth… and for a long time we learn about reality from what we read. I had the feeling that the authors of literature were the masters of reality, back then. And in a certain way, I keep thinking so… They recreate the world upon their own measure and senses, they select from reality what they found to be essential and deliver the object of selection enveloped in meanings. This is what a master of reality does. It was a sense of freedom and power that I found in the background of the act of writing. I was a fragile, hypersensitive girl. I needed to find my strength in something. I was fascinated by science fiction, back then. But also by poets, especially by sonnets’ authors, classical and modern. I was a fan of Constanța Buzea, one of the greatest Romanian poets ever. She has been my first model and mentor. The day I met her I felt blessed.
Ingrid Berezovschi: What does writing mean for you now?
Ilinca Bernea: There are several things that literature offers me. First of all, the chance of exploring new life possibilities. when writing, I happen to test certain types of reaction and behavior, to discover clever manners of handling conflicts or dramatic situations, or ways of approaching certain difficult moments with elegance, or possible solutions to apparently inescapable dilemmas. Then, I apply these formulas in the real life. Or I imagine a character that reacts with humor to something that I would have taken harshly and I correct my temper according to his model. If being caught in similar circumstances, I follow its example. I learn from the figures that burst out of my mind. It sounds weird, but it is not… Do you remember that ”je est un autre” of Rimbaud? I am not the only one to shape characters, they shape me too, in a way.
When writing, we hold under a magnifying glass things that we usually assimilate or deal with, in a passive way. writing makes one more aware… Especially the textual arts give the instinctive side of our beings the chance to breathe, uncensored and awake, and to express itself. I don’t want to say that the other arts are less instinctual, what I mean is that textual-creations facilitate a better understanding and acceptance of the instinctive zones of our lives, by making up the hidden side of the iceberg, which is our own condition, not only transparent, but also intelligible. I also can touch, through literature, subjects that I wouldn’t dare to approach with the tools of theory or of the literary essay. There are things that cannot be generalized or transposed entirely in abstractions. Particular cases that deserve to be investigated without being transformed into epistemic, ethical or ideological materials. Literature can handle controversial and sensible subjects such are: the suicide or the extreme experience. In my novel, the Black Box, I raise, for instance, a question related to what “a beautiful death” could mean. Not everything should be exposed to a social debate. There are many gray areas and many ambiguous matters in our lives which are better to remain like this and not to be exposed to social criticism; things that are neither virtues nor crimes. It is the role of literature to deal with such things and to bring in the spotlight particular cases that cannot be drawn in terms of public morals.
Writing literature is like walking on wire, one can fall in a gulf of either ideology, banality or literary clichés.
Literature, like art, is not meant to solve social problems or to provide crisis solutions, but to maintain the reflection over these issues in a flexible and lucid state. That’s why I prefer to write fiction instead of essays or direct and engaged texts. Most of my characters follow a moral that is not printed in their heads but in their blood. They are not quite the best qualified to play the role of social models. As you can see, I try to avoid playing the moralist, by all means.
Ingrid Berezovschi: Why the Black Box? Why this name?
Ilinca Bernea: A black box records what happens during a flight, at the board of a plane. A black box is a recording machine, like the memory… My black box is a metaphor of the emotional memory. In the moments of introspection and solitude or when being at a life’s cross road we face and explore its contents in order to find meaning or to make an important decision.
Ingrid Berezovschi: Tell me more about the book.
Ilinca Bernea:It is a book about art and beauty and about how vital the experience of beauty is! about how one can ransom through beauty and only through it, the absurdness of existence. In short. It has been a long time since I have had in mind to write about the role of artists in the life of the citadel. I didn’t want to do it in an essay, but in a more proper and revealing way. What I think is that arts are the lungs of a culture. They purify it. And I also think that the great odysseys of the soul are to be consumed on an aesthetic trajectory. We fall in love with the beauty of beings and not with other qualities. And this beauty appears to us to be a God, or a Goddess. “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness”, Tolstoy said in The Kreutzer Sonata. Otherwise, this beauty is the most hurtful experience for each one, because we would like to preserve it unaltered and it is impossible. What happens when this beauty fades away? What do we love in another being? The human part or the God part? Do we love his ardour, his youth, those sparkles in his eyes, the light in his smile? And what happens if that light disappears? What are we beyond these qualities? A network of nerves, blood, thoughts and sensations? Once deserted by grace are we still ourselves anymore?
I’ve recently read in an English cultural magazine, an article in which several contemporary authors were asked to answer a simple question: which sense is the most important? Some of them said that the sight, others that it was the touch or the sense of self… I realized that I would have said, eventually, the sense of beauty. What can I do with an accurate taste, touch, smell, view and hearing and with no sense of beauty at all? By losing this sense, life becomes tasteless and meaningless. Besides it has to do with the heart’s powers and with everyone’s capacity of loving. “If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing” said Marc Chagall.
So, the heroes of my book are artists. Painters. I’ve also been interested in presenting my views on what I would call – unconditioned art. In the period and context when the protagonists of my novel became artists – the England of the 80’s- it was easier to authentically create and to gain an audience than in the present European world, because there was a favourable blast for the independent creators back then. Now it is a bit more difficult for an artist to back out of either one of the two extremes: the academic arts and its canons and the commercial art and its afferent clichés. More difficult, but not impossible, I dare to hope. When writing the novel I imagined that the model of my characters could inspire some current artists from the free-zone, I mean from the underground. True art cannot be subordinated to a convention of thought or piled into a given aesthetical frame. That’s what I try to say in my book. Perhaps, I must add that, in the light of the most recent international events, I wondered if the matters touched by my book have the same relevance or are of any worth anymore. In such troubled political circumstances, it seems that art is a luxury concern and writing or talking about beauty as the axis-mundi of someone’s inner world appears to be an extraterrestrial issue. Life is much too hard and too insecure, one must object, we must focus on survival, on peaceful cohabitation and such matters are not essential at all. Well, I couldn’t agree less. Especially because of the excess of pragmatism and materialism, because of the utilitarian views that fed most cultures nowadays, views that systematically marginalized the aesthetical and metaphysical concerns, we came to live in such precarious circumstances. Art is vital, people. All civilizations crumbled when the arts were choked. Like a human being, a civilization that loses its sense of beauty lives a dull, tasteless life. Along with the decay of the sense of beauty, our inner lives were impoverished and we lost the fictional energy that helped us endure reality, to tame it, to master and to modify it and reality became overwhelming. As we all know, reality always plays against us, we have to fight it back somehow. In a hyper-cerebral world, poor in feeling, one cannot find himself but strange, insignificant, without a clear identity. It is not the intellect, that objectifies the things and the beings and their connections, which is responsible for our sense of identity, but the subjectivity of the particular sensitive experiences. The characters of my novel live similar times. They’re young in a critical political context, with an economic crisis and turbid social background, and they also have to deal with the uncertainty of tomorrow…
Ingrid Berezovschi: Where do you extract your inspiration from? Did you have real models to help you sketching the portraits of your characters?
Ilinca Bernea: There are always some suggestions coming from more or less palpable realities that I capture and process in a character or another, but, eventually, they are as fictional as possible. It is very hard to set the border between reality and fiction and I don’t think this would be necessary. The dream, the inner worlds are dimensions of life, they belong to the extended domain of existence, the surrealists showed it in a brilliant way. I use to say that reality is a particular case of the fiction.
Ingrid Berezovschi: What drove you to write about these characters? Why are they British? Why did you choose to write about a page of the recent history of England?
Ilinca Bernea: This fragment of the world is more familiar to me than others. I better empathize with it, let’s say. I also intended to overthrow a prejudice that bothers me in a large measure: the one that one carries, inescapably, in his conscience, the print marks of the cultural climate specific to his surrounding environment. It’s not true. When one has free access to libraries, documentaries, internet, international media and television, the local cultural environment is not so influential anymore. Besides, this environment becomes more and more global itself in most of the world’s countries. The cultural isolation is a reminiscence of an obsolete view. There is not such think as cultural isolation nowadays. A Chinese living in China can perfectly write about France and a French guy, who never quit his country, could write as well about China. Furthermore, I’m not interested in pointing out the differences between various European cultures, but to focus on their mutual ground and features. I grew up in a terrible regime wherein this difference was preached and accentuated and kept under a spying glass, through all propaganda tools of the system. I knew, as a child, that this “rupture” between the east and the west was politically constructed. To me the “east” was like an exile and a punishment for no fault. I’ve read as many eastern and western authors from that period and I still find their similarities than their distinctive differences much more relevant. I find what Milan Kundera and John Fowles have in common more important and valuable, for instance, than what makes them exponents of two different sides of the Iron Curtain… That frontier, so dramatically emphasized, has to fall once and forever. Since I was a child, I dreamed about the fall of the curtain and at the disappearance of this border. It is 90% conceptual. The cultural gap is a fake and a lie. I wish it disappeared, especially from the conscience of those one ready to add new layers and walls to it. Writing about a shred of the English world that I have much affinity for, I aimed to show, somehow implicitly, that the cultural-border is something very relative and doubtful.
Ingrid Berezovschi: What is your relationship with England? Where does your passion come from?
Ilinca Bernea: I grew up with Lewis Carroll’s books, I attended the English nursery school and I had an English private teacher. My father was passionate about the British cultures. And I liked English boys, when I was a child. As a teenager, I discovered Dickens, and then I came across the books of Becket and Huxley… Afterwards, I entered the rock era and I started listening to plenty of English bands and I discovered the English cinema and television and I was totally fascinated by the plays of the authors from the “Angry Young Men” wave.
Ingrid Berezovschi: For readers, most of the time, reading a book means creating an imaginary world in their heads and being a silent witness to the life presented in it. Does it happen to you too, sometimes? Do you feel like a silent witness of the plot? I mean, did it ever happen to you, while writing, to lose track of the action in the book, and let the story guide you to the end?
Ilinca Bernea: Not really. But I know what you mean. I always work with many sketches. I am the elaborated type of writer. I know from the beginning what I want to write in each chapter and I have the whole book in an open sit, from the first pages. In what concerns the narrative, I know quite clearly what I want. I have some strategies that I invariably follow in all of my novels: the characters get through certain metamorphoses, they have identity crises or are the subjects of inner mutations, they never remain unchanged from the first page to the last one, for instance. But I can be surprised by the stylistic registry in which the pieces arrange at one point. In the incipient phase, I have but a slight intuition of the tonalities that the things are to be written in. As I write, these tonalities become clearer and clearer. Sometimes, especially in the first part of the elaboration process, I come to remake whole passages, because they appear to me as lacking humour or not being dramatic enough. But, from a certain moment, more specifically, from the moment when I choose the aesthetical key of the book, it starts to write itself. I make this musical analogy: the most difficult thing for me is to elucidate if I will write the book in C Major or in D Minor, or, maybe, in A major? When this choice is made, things become simpler from the perspective of creation. Not also from the perspective of personal resources.
Ingrid Berezovschi: What do you mean?
Ilinca Bernea: I write in a rush, under the pressure of a strong urge. I’m not quite in control of my creative drive. That’s the truth. I don’t experience anything similar to a Zen mood when I write. I’m temperamental. From a certain point, things start boiling in my head (laughs) and I need to rush and to rush to get everything done as soon as possible. I am much too involved to be able to take a breath and to relax and the whole process becomes very exhausting.
Ingrid Berezovschi: It’s like a Marathon.
Ilinca Bernea: Something like that. Yeah.
Ingrid Berezovschi: Does this happen to you when you write poetry, too?
Ilinca Bernea: Not really. A poem, no matter how long it is, takes you a shorter amount of time to put it down on paper. It never took me more than two days to finish a poem.
Ingrid Berezovschi: How about painting?
Ilinca Bernea: Well, with paintings things are a little different, I put in my painting other types of energies, and I certainly have a different approach. Maybe, the fact is due to my lack of confidence in my artistic skills. In short, I don’t take myself seriously as a painter so I do the job in the relaxed mode. That’s my explanation. While handling the brush, I get out of time and I feel very calm and I have the proper inner climate to enjoy the experience. That’s why I consider painting to be my Zen practice.
Ingrid Berezovschi: Tell me something that your readers don’t know about you.
Ilinca Bernea: When I was a student, I and my friend Natalie were called chamber music freaks by her sister. I am addicted to all kinds of chamber music… you know. We can consider the music of the obscure post-punk bands that used to play in even more obscure places, chamber music, can’t we?
I’m also addicted to cats. I cannot create anything if there are no cats around. They are my muses. But this is a very long story to tell…
Ingrid Berezovschi: What earthly cultural piece would you recommend to a habitant of another planet as representative for our world?
Ilinca Bernea: It’s hard to say what could be the most representative, but I would try to cheat, I guess… I would recommend what I find to be the most beautiful: Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s third symphony…
Ingrid Berezovschi: And now a series of flash questions:
Ilinca Bernea: OK
Ingrid Berezovschi: Who is the writer you consider to have influenced you the most?
Ilinca Bernea: Yourcenar, I think. Marguerite Yourcenar.
Ingrid Berezovschi: Which is your favourite children’s book?
Ilinca Bernea: : Never-ending Story, by Michael Ende.
Ingrid Berezovschi: Your favourite actor?
Ilinca Bernea: Sean Penn.
Ingrid Berezovschi: Favourite actress?
Ilinca Bernea: Samantha Morton.
Ingrid Berezovschi: Your favourite choreographer?
Ilinca Bernea: Pina Bausch
Ingrid Berezovschi: The famous painting you would have loved to keep in your living room?
Ilinca Bernea: Either one of Hendrick Avercamp’s paintings. They have something dreamlike, fascinating.
Ingrid Berezovschi: What is your favourite smell?
Ilinca Bernea: The one of linden trees blossom.
Ingrid Berezovschi: What do you think is your best quality?
Ilinca Bernea: My passionate side.
Ingrid Berezovschi: And you most embarrassing feature?
Ilinca Bernea: My shyness.
Ingrid Berezovschi: What do you hate the most?
Ilinca Bernea: Garlic. And subways… And preachers…
Ingrid Berezovschi: Is there a piece that you dreamed to have sung in a big concert hall?
Ilinca Bernea: Manu Chao: Me quedo contigo.
Ingrid Berezovschi: Which is the most heartbreaking rock piece from your perspective?
Ilinca Bernea: Television: Little Johnny Jewel, the guitar theme…
Ingrid Berezovschi: Who is your favorite contemporary artist?
Ilinca Bernea: Alexey Terenin, a fabulous Russian painter.
Ingrid Berezovschi: Do you have a favorite place?
Ilinca Bernea: Yes, I do. Bruges. It is the most poetical, sunny, charming, colorful and appealing place I’ve ever seen. It’s my earthly paradise.
Ingrid Berezovschi: Who do you think you would have been if you were a man?
Ilinca Bernea: Someone very hot, of course, a guy with Keanu Reeves’s face, with Stephen Fry’s humor, with Michel Foucault’s mind and with Vladimir Vysotski’s temper. I’m kidding. I would have had: Vysotski’s looks, Keanu Reeves’ mind, Foucault’s humor and the temper of Stephen Fry. I’m kidding again.