Urmuz – the genius beneath the boffoon

Written by Andreea Padurean
(Her Goodreads Profile – here)

One of the most controversial figures of the Romanian Literature – Demetru Dem or Demetrescu-Buzău, known as Urmuz, a genius who left behind a literary work of 50 pages at most.

His pen name (Urmuz) was interpreted in various ways, one of the attributed meanings being ‘I amuse’. And yes, he amused himself and the others even when he challenged the dominance of artistic traditionalism, or when he suggested that the membership fees for the newly created association of nationalist students, Vivat Dacia, should be paid in duck heads.

I am unable to make myself understood by the cadavers, complained Urmuz to a friend after being pressured by his father to enrol at the Bucharest Medical School. Known for his unconventional behaviour, the cult hero in Romania’s avant-garde scene eventually studied Law, while also taking lectures in composition and counterpoint (he grew up with a fascination for classical music and fine art).

The performances based on the fragments of his work, Bizarre Pages, constituted the first samples of avant-garde shows in Romanian theatrical tradition, even though in his opinion theatre was a ‘minor art’.

Urmuz was a satirist of automatic behavior and fundamentally a sarcastic realist with flair for depicting the “overall pointlessness of [human] existence”. He is known for his cruelty in depicting anguishing situations, in criticizing social life and in using language stripped of its metaphors.

A well-ventilated apartment consisting of three rooms, glass-enclosed terrace and a door-bell. Out front, a sumptuous living-room, its back wall taken up by a solid oak book-case perennially wrapped in soaking bed-sheets… A legless table right in the middle, based on probability calculus and supporting a vase containing eternal concentrate of the “thing in itself,” a clove of garlic, the statuette of a priest (from Ardeal) holding a book of syntax and 20 cents for tips… the rest being without interest whatsoever.

During his life, Urmuz was known mostly in his own circle of intellectuals:

  • He worked as a court reporter, even though he was genuinely “tormented by metaphysical matters”.
  • He was writing to entertain his mother and sisters.
  • Some said he was a genial but superficial prankster, a buffoon rather than a serious author, but others considered him an author of “extreme originality”, who “put his own life into play and games […] and that is why his work is more tragic than comedic or is nested in that no man’s land where tragedy and comedy overlap.”
  • As a result of disgusting experiences during the wars he was catastrophically lonely and lived an extremely ascetic and isolated life with long night walks.
  • The year 1922 brought Urmuz’s debut in print, but he was not enthusiastic about that.
  • A year later, in 1923 he commited suicide because “he wanted to die in some original way, ‘without any cause’“.

The literary work of Urmuz is highly controversial:

  • It is an intelligent literary game of witty teenagers that does not belong to any literary genre.
  • The humour is “cerebral, harder to detect and appreciate”.
  • It embodies the “lyrical nihilism” of avant-garde currents.
  • Bizarre Pages has more in common with Expressionism.
  • The source of Urmuz is in the folkloric tradition of self-parody, where the doina songs degenerate into spells or “grotesque whines”.

Urmuz was the first Romanian avant-garde writer, often paralleled with Russia’s Daniil Kharms (check the post about Kharms – here) . Seen as a revolutionist of language, who liberated texts from coherence and even semantics, he was also compared to Franz Kafka, their literature being about dehumanization, in Urmuz’s case with a predilection for mechanical oddities which colonize and modify human existence.


Next post: Surreal Humor & Absurdist Comedy – Why Is It So Weird?

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