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Marin Sorescu (1936-1996)


Prolific Romanian poet, playwright, novelist and essayist, an unconformist explorer of existential uncertainties and  the absurdity of human condition. Marin Sorescu's ironic voice emerged in Romanian literature in the 1960s. He became one of the most widely read and translated modern poets of his country. Sorescu was also mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate in literature.

"Ever since, tradition demands,
whoever signals the start
puts the weapon to his forehead."

(in 'Start', translated by Michael Hamburger, Selected Poems, 1983)

Marin Sorescu was born in the village of Bulzesti, Dolj, in southern Romania. His parents, Stefan and Nicolita, were farmworkers. When Sorescu was three years old, his father died. Sorescu attended secondary school in Craiova, and after the war he continued his studies in a nearby village and in a military school in Predeal.

In 1955 Sorescu entered the University of Iasi, and received his B.A. in philology in 1960. His diploma paper dealt with the poet, novelist and essayist Tudor Arghezi (1880-1880), whose rich poetic style became widely imitated. At the university Sorescu contributed to the literary magazine Viata student easca, editing it from 1960 to 1962.

After moving to Bucharest, Sorescu married Virginia Seitan. In 1963 he became the editor of the literary journal Luceafarul, where he published his first poems. Between 1966 and 1972 Sorescu served as editor-in-chief of the Animafilm Cinematographic Studios. In 1971-72 Sorescu participated in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. A bilingual edition of his verse, Ram = Frames, 25 Poems, translated by Roy MacGregor, came out in 1972.

In 1973-74 and 1990 Sorescu was a visiting writer in West Berlin. From 1978 Sorescu edited the literary review Ramuri. Some years after Eugen Barbu's attack on Sorescu's book La lilieci (By the Lilacs), Sorescu showed that parts of Barbu's massive tetralogy Incognito: Cine-roman (volume two) had been plagiarized from Konstantin Paustovsky's autobiography, entitled Life Story (1955). The crime was revealed at a meeting of the Leadership Council of the Writers' Union. Barbu was a member of the Romanian Academy and devoted to theCeauşescus. The dictator himself prevented this plagiarist's file from being made public. His wife Elena was also a member of the Academy, and her PhD thesis in chemistry was evidently ghost-written.

After the fall of Ceauşescu, Sorescu founded in 1990 a new journal, Literatorui. Sorescu was also director of the Romanian Writer Publishing House and in 1993 he was appointed Minister of Culture in the first post-revolutionary government. As a result of his long time interest in art, Sorescu had one-man exhibitions in museums. His paintings were shown first time in the Art Museum of Brasov in 1988. Marin Sorescu died of liver cancer on December 8, 1996, in Bucharest. He had suffered from cirrhosis and hepatitis. His farewell collection of verse, The Bridge, was published posthumously in 1997.

Sorescu's first book, Singur printre poeti (1964), was a collection of poetic parodies and pastiches of conventional lyrical expressions. The work was an immediate success. It was followed by Poeme. Versuri. Parodii (1965), Moartea ceasului (1966), Poeme (1967), and Tineretea lui Don Quijote (1968, Don Quijote's Tender Years). Sorescu's ironic tone developed into more serious direction in demystifying the romantic classical themes of love, death, and faith.

Sorescu often drew on history, mythology, and the realms of philosophical discourse. His existentialist themes, at the same time universal and subjective, placed his work in the wide context of the avant-garde. Noteworthy, not only in Romania, but also in other East European countries, the anti-totalitarian tactics of the absurd united a whole generation of writers.

In the center of Sorescu's poems is the author himself – he is as much an observer as an observed. In 'Perseverance he wrote: "I shall walk beside all things / Till all things / Come to me." Mostly Sorescu managed to avoid direct conflicts with authorities, but like other writers he had problems in publishing his works. Some 150 pages were cut from his large novel, Trei dinti din fata, which appeared in 1977. Poezii alese de cenzura (Censored Poems) was not published until 1991.

Monica Lovinescu at Radio Free Europe repeatedly drew public attention to Sorescu and others, whose works were ignored in Romania, because they did not adhere to Socialist Realism. In the early 1980s Sorescu was hounded by the Securitate and sentenced to three months of house arrest, after the communist regime decided that the Transcendental Meditation movement was a plot to take Romania out of the Warsaw Pact. Sorescu had been a member of the research team studying the effects of TM, along with the poet and dramatist Andrei Plesu, senior Party members Marin Radoi and Petre Gheorghe, two Minister of the Interior generals, and many other well-known public figures.  

"Poetry must be concise, almost algebraic," Sorescu once said. Sorescu used simple, straightforward language, but within the minimalist framework, his poetry refused to succumb to any simple or "correct" interpretation. Sorescu probed fundamental questions about human life which he do not pretend to know the answers. He saw that in mass society wonder has been eliminated: "Each traveller in the tram / Looks identical to the one who sat there before him / On that very seat." The Nobel writer Seamus Heaney has pointed out in his introduction to Sorescu's Hands Behind My Back (1991), that behind the author's subversive "throwaway charm and poker-faced subversiveness, ... there is a persistent solidarity with the unregarded life of the ordinary citizen, a willingness to remain at eye-level and on a speaking terms with common experience".

With Iona (1968, Jonah), written at the beginning of reign of Nicolae Ceauşescu, Paraliserul (1970, The Verger), two one-man plays, and Matca (1973, The Matrix), about creation and destruction, Sorescu established his reputation as a major modern playwright. Stylistically they belong to the Theater of the Absurd. The trilogy was published in England under the title The Thirst of the Salt Mountain (1985). Sorescu's dramas were also produced widely in the West, Jonah in France, Switzerland, Germany, and Finland. Though Jonah, first performed in 1968, and Exista nervi (1968) drew full houses in Romania, they were considered controvesial and were withdrawn. A major theme in Sorescu's plays is entrapment, both physical and mental. His characters tend to be prisoners of cyclic movement of time, from which there is no escape.

Like the Biblical character, Jonah is entrapped in the belly of a big fish. He realizes that he is inside an endless row of bellies, and in order to gain his freedom, he must  cut open his own stomach with his pocketknife. This kind of self-destructive act was not in tune with ideynost' of Socialist Realism. The play was performed only for a brief period. "All I know I wanted to write something about a lonely man, a terribly lonely man," said Sorescu of the work. "I believe that the most frightening moment in the play is when Jonah loses his echo. He shouts 'Jo-nah' and the echo is only responding with half of his name 'Jo-' which in another language means: I." (in Columbia Encyclopedia of Modern Drama: Volume 2, eds. Gabrielle H. Cody and Evert Sprinchorn, 2007, p. 741) Jonah was staged in Romania again in 1982, and then by a group of South American students at the Bucharest Institute of Dramatic Art.  

In the 1970s  Sorescu started to write historical dramas in the Brechtian Epic-dramatic style. "For the dramatist, history is like a bone to a dog," Sorescu said in the preface of Vlad Dracula, the Impaler (1978). The play drew parallels between medieval Romania and the present. Sorescu's Prince Vlad had more to do with the real historical figure than Bram Stoker's Dracula and modern vampires of the popular culture. He is a tormented figure, a prisoner of his own sagavery, facing  "the horror, the horror."  Having founded Romania on the impailed bodied of his countrymen he eventually plans to impale himself between his victims. Varul Shakespeare (1989-90, Cousin Shakespeare) was about a harassed playwright in the grip of a writer's block, whose work do not satisfy even his characters. A personage named Sorescu appears in the prologue of the play, stating that "We stumble blindly upon the same play which we try to rewrite and which the lines are dictated to us and uttered eternally by bygone generations."

Sorescu received several awards, including the Writers' Union Prize in 1965, 1968, and 1974, the International Poetry Festival Gold Medal, Naples (1969), the Romania Academy Prize first time in 1970 and then several other times, the Poetry Prize of the Academia delle Muze, Florence (1978), the International Fernando Riello Prize, Madrid (1983), the Herder prize, Austria (1991). Since 1983 Sorescu was a corresponding member of the Mallarmé Academy. In 1991 he was appointed member of the Romanian Academy.

For further reading: Bloodaxe Poetry Introductions 2: Hans Magnus Enzenberger, Miroslav Holub, Marin Sorescu, Tomas Tranströmer by Neil Astley (2006); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 4, ed.  Steven R. Serafin (1999); The Wintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry, ed.  J.D. McClatchy (1996); World Authors 1985-1990, ed.  Vineta Colby (1995); Contemporary World Writers, ed. Tracy Chevalier (1993); Marin Sorescu între parodic și solitudine necesară by Maria Ionică (2003; Marin Sorescu--starea poetică a limbii române : stil şi expresivitate în poezia lui Marin Sorescu by Ada Stuparu (2006); Bloodaxe Poetry Introductions 2: Enzenberger, Holub, Sorescu, Transtromer by Neil Astley (2006)

Selected works:

  • Singur printre poeti. Paradii, 1964
  • Poeme. Versuri. Parodii, 1965
  • Moartea ceasului, 1966
  • Unde fugim de-acasa?, 1966
  • Poeme, 1967
  • Iona, 1968
    - Jonah  (translated by Andrea Deletant and Brenda Walker, in The Thirst of the Salt Mountain, 1985)  
  • Tineretea lui Don Quijote, 1968
    - Don Quijote's Tender Years (drawings by Florin Puca, translated by Stavros Deligiorgis, 1979) / The Youth of Don Quixote (translated by John F. Deane, 1987)
  • Exista nervi, 1968
  • Teoria sferelor de influenta, 1969
  • Unghi, 1970
    - Ram = Frames, 25 Poems (translated by Roy MacGregor, 1972)
  • O aripa si-un picior: despre cum era sa zbor, 1970
  • Tusiti, 1970
  • Paraclisierul, 1970
    - The Verger (translated by Andrea Deletant and Brenda Walker, in The Thirst of the Salt Mountain, 1985)  
  • Insomnii, 1971
  • Suflete, bun la toate, 1972
  • 80 poezii, 1982 (bilingual)
  • La lilieci, 1973-88 (4 vols.)
  • Astfel, 1973
  • Ocolul infinitului mic, pornind de la nimic, 1973
  • Matca: piesă în trei acte, 1973
    - The Matrix  (translated by Andrea Deletant and Brenda Walker, in The Thirst of the Salt Mountain, 1985)  
  • Setea muntelui de sare, 1974
    - The Thirst of the Salt Mountain: Trilogy of Plays (includes Jonah, The Verger, The Matrix, Poems, translated by Andrea Deletant and Brenda Walker, 1985)
  • Norii, 1975
  • Ruinurile Tirgovistii, by Cirlova, 1975 (editor)
  • Descîntoteca, 1976
  • Stare de destin, 1976
  • Poeme, 1976
  • Raceala, 1977
    - Raceala = A Cold (bilingual edition, 1979)
  • Apa Vie, Apa Moarta, 1987
  • Trei dinți din față: roman, 1977
  • A treia teapa, 1978
    - Vlad Dracula the Impaler: A Play (translated by Dennis Deletant, 1987)
  • Sărbători itinerante: (poeme), 1978
  • Ceramică: versuri, 1979
  • Teatru, 1980
  • Viziunea viziunii: roman într-o doară, 1981
  • Luptatorul pe doua fronturi, 1981
  • This Hour, 1982 (translated by Michael Hamburger)
  • Symmetries: Selected Poems, 1982 (translated by John Robert Colombo and Petronela Negosanu )
  • Fîntîni în mare: poezii, 1982
  • Selected Poems, 1983 (translated by Michael Hamburger)
  • Drumul, 1984
  • Iesirea prin cer, 1984
  • Tratat de inspirație, 1985
  • Abendrot Nr. 15, 1985
  • Let's Talk About Weather, 1985 (translated by Andrea Deletant and Brenda Walker)  
  • Ușor cu pianul pe scări: cronici literare, 1985
  • The Biggest Egg in the World, 1987 (translated by Seamus Heaney et al.)
  • Cocostîrcul Gît-Sucit, 1987
  • Ecuatorul si polii, 1989
  • Varul Shakespeare, 1989-90
  • Poezii, 1990-92 (2 vols.)
  • Hands Behind My Back: Selected Poems, 1991 (introduction by Seamus Heaney, translated by Gabriela Dragnea, Stuart Friebert, and Adriana Varga)
  • Poezii alese de cenzura, 1991
    - Censored Poems, 1997 (translated by John Hartley Williams, Hilde Ottschofski)
  • Vărul Shakespeare și alte piese: teatru, 1992
  • Desfacerea qunoa elor, 1992
  • Cirip-Ciorap, 1993
  • Traversarea: poezii, 1994
  • Desfacerea gunoaielor; teatru, 1995
  • Puntea, 1997
    - The Bridge (translated by Adam J. Sorkin & Lidia Vianu, 2004)
  • Japița: roman în trei părți: inedit, 1999
  • Dánta deireadh saoil = Poemele sfârșitului, 2002
  • Săgeți postume: epigrame, fabule, parodii, versuri, proză scurtă, 2002 (edited by George Sorescu)
  • The Past Perfect of Flight, 2004 (translated by Adam J. Sorkin et al.)
  • Sonete inedite, 2005  (edited by George Sorescu)
  • Cronici drtamatice, 2005 (edited by George Sorescu)
  • Marin Sorescu în patru continente: jurnal II. inedit, 2006 (edited by George Sorescu)

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