Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Urmuz disappears into the small infinite

The Complete Works of Urmuz (tr. Miron & Carola Grindea) is a little Atlas Press chapbook sort of thing.  Urmuz’s complete works seem to fit easily in 33 pages.  A few of the summaries on his impressively thorough Wiki page are as long as the works themselves.

Ismail also gives audiences but only on top of the hill near the badgers’ nursery.  Hundreds of job-hunters, contributions of money and firewood are first introduced under an enormous lampshade, where each is obliged to hatch four eggs.  (from “Ismail and Turnavitu”)

Much of the prose is like this – nonsense, keeping enough coherence to give the illusion of a narrative.  Urmuz is a pseudonym, a crazy name to go with crazy prose.  The actual human was a judge and law clerk.  He killed himself in 1923, when he was 40; I do not know the dates of specific pieces – the 1910s and 1920s.

The world is falling about; so is language; so is meaning.

One day, deep into his usual philosophical researches, Stamate had for a moment the feeling that he had laid his hand on the other half of the “thing in itself,” when suddenly he was distracted by a female voice, the voice of a siren that goes to one’s heart as it wafts from afar, fading into an echo.  (from Part III of “The Funnel and Stamate”)

Reasonably, Stamate rents a sailing ship and blocks his ears with wax, pursuing the siren in the manner of Odysseus.  But at the end of the story he is still searching, “climbing into his crank-driven perambulator for a final journey,… shrinking his size in the hope that he will some time in the future penetrate and disappear into the small infinite.”

The search will never end in life.  Language and art undermine the search for truth as much or more than they assist.  So Urmuz just plunges in.

The least nonsensical Urmuz piece is the longest, “The Fuchsiad: An Heroic-Erotic (and Musical) Prose Poem,” in which the pianist Theodor Fuchs, who “spent three years hidden at the bottom of a piano” – it is still awfully nonsensical – is summoned to Olympus to copulate with Venus and produce a “new and superior race” of true art-lovers.  He does the best he can, composing a “Romance for piano” while perched in Venus’s ear.  No, that’s not what was wanted.  He is hurled into Chaos, which is a kind of Modernist music, “a shower of dissonances, of inverted and unresolved discords, of interrupted cadences, false relations, trills and especially of pauses… a longer rest broke his spectacles.”

Urmuz urges Fuchs, as the story ends – I remind myself that Fuchs was a real performer, and Urmuz “never missed a concert” (Introduction, p.11) – to continue, even if defeated and corrupted, to “bring about on this planet by dint of education a better and superior race of men for his own glory and for the glory of the piano and of Eternity.”

Anything that I hopefully identify as a statement of purpose may be a false clue, just another version of this fine stuff:

His only wish was to be able to celebrate his silver wedding anniversary.  To do this, he summoned all of his servants and, after first inviting them to peck some hemp seed, threw them into a lime pit.  (from “Going Abroad”)

Tristan Tzara admired Urmuz.  So did Eugène Ionesco.  People turning into rhinos and so on logically follows from Urmuz.  It would be useful for me to learn more about this artistic pathway between Romania and France.


  1. Urmuz's stories have a flavor all their own. And I bet they're better in Romanian.

    Ionesco and Tzara had a bit of a tiff over him. Ionesco was accused of imitating Tzara, so he accused Tzara of imitating Urmuz. Truculent Romanians squabbling over nonsense!

    Urmuz also apparently wrote a lot of music, all of it lost. Maybe it will turn up some day...

  2. Thanks for drawing Urmuz to my attention.