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In September 1947, Monica Lovinescu left Bucharest for Paris. She was 24, the recipient of a French government-sponsored fellowship. Lovinescu returned home 45 years later. In 1960, her mother had died in a communist prison, incarcerated for exchanging letters with her daughter. So dangerous did dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu deem the journalist and literary critic that he had his secret police, the Securitate, stalk her for decades in France.
Lovinescu died on April 20, 2008. She endured a great deal. In November 1977, the Securitate orchestrated a vicious attack on Lovinescu; she was beaten into a coma by three men in the courtyard of her Paris apartment. Ceaușescu’s idea was not to kill her, but to leave her disfigured and decimated in spirit. Lovinescu recovered and returned to her microphone. She worked for the Paris bureau of Radio Free Europe.
This year, Romanian publisher Humanitas is celebrating Lovinescu’s work. Her books and letters are being reissued. There will be a gala. A statue will be unveiled in Bucharest. There’s already a street named after her. Following the news of her death in 2008, there were even calls for a state funeral. Lovinescu never understood what all the fuss was about her broadcasts.
Lovinescu was erudition, talent, and tenacity; “her sharp critical intelligence … operated as the blade of a scalpel in the hands of a gifted surgeon,” writes Iulia Vladimirov. “Lovinescu fought against terrorist collectivisms, the regimentation of the mind, and moral capitulation,” wrote Vladimir Tismaneanu after her death. “Thanks to her, Romanian intellectuals were able to internalize the great messages from the writings of Camus, Arendt, Kolakowski, Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, Koestler, Cioran, Milosz, Revel, Aron.” Lovinescu is remembered today for her tireless advocacy of pluralism and tolerance. She’s vilified in ultranationalist, antisemitic circles.
We’ve invited Tismaneanu and Oana Serafim to join us by Zoom to discuss why Monica Lovinescu matters. Both knew her. Both enjoyed long affiliations with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Oana having served as director of the company’s Romanian and Moldovan services — never work for the faint of heart. After Lovinescu, three successive Romania directors at RFE/RL died of sudden and rapidly developing cancers. Editor Emil Georgescu was stabbed 25 times in front of his Munich apartment. In February 1981, RFE/RL headquarters was bombed. The explosives were supplied by the Romanian intelligence service. After the bombing, the terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal received a medal from the Securitate for his role in planning the attack.
Watch for the date with Vladimir and Oana. Oana tells me she was 9 or 10 years old when she first listened to Lovinescu’s broadcasts with her grandfather and was moved and amazed by her care for language and “crystal clear thought.”
We care deeply about culture without succumbing, we hope, to the mind-numbing aspects of today’s culture wars. If you missed it, watch our recent discussion with Phillips Collection director emerita Dorothy Kosinski and Dan Weiss, president/CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, on the museum as a platform for ideas and public debate.
Sofi Oksanen— the Finnish novelist and eloquent champion of free speech, whom we’ve hosted before — has written the libretto for a new opera titled Innocence. Sofi has collaborated with composer Kaija Saariaho in a large-scale, one-act drama that takes up how individuals and societies grapple with emotional shock, trauma, loss, and resilience. We’ve invited Sofi to join us for a Zoom discussion. She’s been a staunch supporter of Ukraine. Keep an eye out for the date with Sofi.
Virginia Postrel has written for us on Guo Pei, China’s most acclaimed fashion designer. “She avoided ideological assumptions Western students pick up in design schools,” writes Virginia. She also “came of age when China was opening to the world.” Her work challenges crippling ideas in our culture today, says Virginia, namely that psychological and physical comfort are paramount, that adopting motifs from other cultures is an insult, and that injustices of the past negate accomplishments of the same era. Look for Virginia’s essay soon. Thanks to Jonathan Rauch for sending Virginia and her essay our way.
I’ll also mention here: We’ll have soon Joanne Leedom-Ackerman on her new historical novel Burning Distance set in post-communist Berlin. We’ve hosted Joanne before on her work and long affiliation with the PEN writers association that fights for freedom of expression and advocates on behalf of harassed and imprisoned authors and journalists across the globe. For more historical fiction, we’ll host Joe Horowitz on his first novel, The Marriage: The Mahlers in New York. Coming soon, too, is Elliot Ackerman. Elliot’s new novel Halcyon is about two self-made men in America’s recent past confronting a disorienting world moving rapidly past them. Spoiler alert: Scientists during the Gore Administration discover a cure for death.
On April 20, 1986, Vladimir Horowitz returned home after 61 years. Horowitz was born in Kyiv on October 1, 1903, and left the Soviet Union as a young man. He went back as a celebrated 81-year-old pianist playing Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Schumann before an adoring audience. There were six curtain calls and three encores at his historic Moscow performance. A Soviet composer remarked to American friends during intermission by saying, “I want to congratulate you as Americans — he plays with total freedom.” Many in the audience openly wept.
Horowitz’s wife Wanda, daughter of the famous conductor Arturo Toscanini, said of her husband that he never took himself too seriously. Here’s a wonderful documentary with the two. Music was in his blood. Horowitz started playing at three — not on a keyboard, but on a window that he broke, his mother recounted.
Here’s Horowitz with Schumann. And with Chopin. He was eager to connect with his audiences in the most direct, intimate sort of ways. His Chopin was terribly personal, said fellow pianist Leon Fleischer.
Monica Lovinescu and her husband Virgil Ierunca — himself a distinguished literary critic — loved music. She wanted Monteverdi played at her funeral. She once wrote in her diary about a Schubert trio — “an unexpected surprise” — that always fascinated her. Here’s the Schubert. It’s touching.
Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.
Image: Monica Lovinescu. (Puterea A Cincea)
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