Mira Feticu: George Steiner’s wardrobe

Roots! Read My World 2023

I believe all of us are shaped by the books we read when we were young. And I don’t shy away from saying what we read is secondary to the fact we read at all. Being exposed to books is what matters most. And it’s not just the books that matter, but our age as well. I remember how passionately I read Giovanni Papini’s Un uomo finito. I was way too young to read that book but I felt just as exhausted and disheartened in life as the character/author did. Though it’s more than that. A young reader, a child, is someone who still has an ‘empty’ wardrobe, in the words of George Steiner: “The open door which the child proffers to the day and night visitants out of the imaginary is one of pristine psychological truth. The room is, as yet, largely unfurnished. Wardrobes stand open to unicorns.” (George Steiner, Real Presences, ‘The Broken Contract’, p. 190)

As children we wait for the gods of Greek mythology, or any other mythology; we wait for the boat, and once we embark on that boat—or book, or rather: magical realm—we never leave it. But yet again, it’s more than that. Even during my childhood, I found comfort in literature. When I was twelve, my teacher gifted me The Story of San Michele by Axel Munthe. That book changed my life back then, but it also shaped me and remains part of me until this very day. I still rely on that book, much like someone relying on a dear aunt, or their grandparents. It’s a story about love for animals and for the world in general, despite the misery caused by humans. The reason the book made such an impression on me is because I read it during our years of hunger, when people would eat anything that was edible, including their chickens, if they had those, or their piglet. As a child you learn that the piglet you’ve been caressing for a year is slaughtered before Christmas. We ate it from snout to tail, including the intestines. In times of hunger you eat anything, but the image of slaughtering the piglet—the blood, the cutting of the body, the preparation, my family’s cruel satisfaction of having a proper meal for once—continues to haunt me. My body revolted, and I threw it all up. Not being able to discuss this with my family, I stumbled upon this doctor for the poor, Axel Munthe, who cared for and fought for all animals. A Swedish man that I did not know, who lived before I did and died before my parents were even born, but who I grew to love like someone that always has your back. Years ago, I visited his estate in Capri, Italy, which is a museum now. It turned out to be a reunion, because I knew the surroundings by heart, from his books. His story occupies a considerable space in my wardrobe. For me, the pristine truth, as Steiner calls it, came from a book by a Swedish man.

In my childhood, I embraced Greek mythology as a tangible reality—and I still approach it as such. I’ve noticed the same with my daughter. A few years ago, she told me that for the longest time she believed the gods from Greek mythology were ‘real’, to which I replied that they most certainly were. We laughed with delight and love, as we shared our passion for mythology. When I was young, I came across Homer, and not long after I got into the classics: Ovid, Horace, Virgil. Dante, Cervantes. Not to mention the marvelous Marguerite Yourcenar, who shaped my upbringing. If there’s any good in me, it’s because of her books. From the age of thirteen, I was in boarding school. It had a library, but I was also allowed to visit the enormous, well-stocked public library, where writers from an older generation were studying in the halls. I admired them, I learned from them, and despite      totalitarianism, communism, hunger, and the loss of my village, I was able to live in and with literature. I clung to books and text, and during that time I developed an affection for the Text that evolved into an obsession throughout my years. I cannot live without Text—it remains an ongoing revelation to me. I was already captivated by Text back then, and I continue to hold on to it. Text is the sole anchor in my life that I’ve always had and always will have. My loves from those years are still my great loves. My faith lies in literature, not in infatuation, for only literature revolves around a profound and decisive kind of love. To this day, I rely on Axel Munthe, Homer, Dante, Cervantes. Later, I encountered Borges and the world of literary studies, Barthes, Foucault, Ricoeur, who validated my intuitive tools: I was an interpreter of the Text, nothing more, nothing less. I am a worshiper, an ultra-orthodox admirer of the literary Text, which I consider to be my own Talmud.

Some people can always call a family member, regularly visit their families, have everything at their fingertips. I can relate to that sentiment when I’m in bed at night, unable to get comfortable due to a hard cover or spine. That’s when I experience the same thing. I feel at home in my family of books.

Translated by Adiëlle Westercappel