Today is the birthday (1909) of Eugène Ionesco (born Eugen Ionescu), a Romanian-French playwright who wrote mostly in French, and one of the foremost figures of the French Avant-garde theater. He is known primarily for his barbs against the absurdity and insignificance of human existence. Many sources cite his birth year as 1912, an error perpetrated by Ionesco himself, who wanted the year of his birth to coincide with that when his idol, Romanian playwright Caragiale, died.
He spent most of his childhood in France and, while there, had an experience he claimed affected his perception of the world more significantly than any other. Deborah B. Gaensbauer says in Eugène Ionesco Revisited, “Walking in summer sunshine in a white-washed provincial village under an intense blue sky, [Ionesco] was profoundly altered by the light.” He was struck very suddenly with a feeling of intense luminosity, the feeling of floating off the ground and an overwhelming feeling of well-being. When he “floated” back to the ground and the “light” left him, he saw that the real world in comparison was full of decay, corruption and meaningless repetitive action. This also coincided with his revelation that death takes everyone in the end. Much of his later work, reflecting this new perception, demonstrates a disgust for the tangible world, a distrust of communication, and the subtle sense that a better world lies just beyond our reach.
He returned to Romania with his father and mother in 1925 after his parents divorced. There he attended Saint Sava National College, after which he studied French Literature at the University of Bucharest from 1928 to 1933 and qualified as a teacher of French. While there he met Emil Cioran and Mircea Eliade, and the three became lifelong friends. In 1936 Ionesco married Rodica Burileanu. Together they had one daughter for whom he wrote a number of unconventional children’s stories. He and his family returned to France in 1938 for him to complete his doctoral thesis. Caught by the outbreak of World War II in 1939, he returned to Romania, but soon changed his mind and, with the help of friends, obtained travel documents which allowed him to return to France in 1942, where he remained during the rest of the war, living in Marseilles before moving with his family to Paris after its liberation.
Ionesco died at age 84 on 28 March 1994 and is buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris. His tombstone reads:
Prier le Je Ne Sais Qui
J’espère : Jesus-Christ.
[Pray to the I don’t-know-who
I hope : Jesus Christ.]
As I commonly do with writers, I’m going to give you a small section of quotes I like rather than give a formal analysis of Ionesco’s work:
It isn’t what people think that’s important, but the reason they think what they think.
Why do people always expect authors to answer questions? I am an author because I want to ask questions. If I had answers, I’d be a politician.
Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together.
It’s not a certain society that seems ridiculous to me, it’s mankind.
God is dead. Marx is dead. And I don’t feel so well myself.
Everything that has been will be, everything that will be is, everything that will be has been.
The most implacable enemies of culture — Rimbaud, Lautréamont, dadaism, surrealism — end up being assimilated and absorbed by it. They all wanted to destroy culture, at least organized culture, and now they’re part of our heritage.
The more you make revolutions, the worse it gets.
I am writing the memoirs of a man who has lost his memory.
There are more dead people than living. And their numbers are increasing. The living are getting rarer.
The fact that I despise religion doesn’t mean I don’t esteem it highly.
I’ll never waste my dreams by falling asleep. Never again.
There are many sides to reality. Choose the one that’s best for you.
I can easily picture the worst, because the worst can easily happen.
Although Ionesco is part of the French theater tradition he is decidedly Romanian, so a Romanian recipe is in order. Romanian cuisine is a diverse blend of several culinary traditions with which it has come into contact, but it also maintains its own character. It has been greatly influenced by Ottoman cuisine, while it also includes influences from the cuisines of other neighbors, including German, Serbian, Bulgarian, and Hungarian cuisine. The general category ciorbă includes a wide range of soups with a characteristic sour taste. These may be meat and vegetable soups, tripe and calf foot soups, or fish soups, all of which are soured by lemon juice, sauerkraut juice, vinegar, or borș (traditionally home made from fermented bran).
Ciorbă de burtă is a very famous Romanian tripe soup, and since my apparent obsession with tripe seems absurd to most of my friends, a recipe for tripe soup seems suitable to honor Ionesco. The Romanian journalist Radu Anton Roman said about ciorbă de burtă: “This dish looks like it is made for drunk coachmen but it has the most sophisticated and pretentious mode of preparation in all Romanian cuisine. It’s sour and sweet, hot and velvety, fatty but delicate, eclectic and simple at the same time.”
Ciorbă de Burtă
1 kg veal tripe
1 or 2 fresh beef bones with no meat
6-8 whole peppercorns
1 bay leaf
¼ cup grated carrots
3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
2 egg yolks
100 gm sour cream
salt and pepper
Put the tripe and beef bones in a saucepan with cold water to cover, and add the peppercorns and bay leaf. Bring slowly to a gentle simmer and cook covered for at least an hour, or until the tripe is cook but not slimy. Getting it just al dente takes experience. Strain and reserve the broth. Discard the bones, peppercorn and bay leaf.
Cut the tripe into strips about 3” long and ½” wide. Place the tripe and broth in a clean pot and gently reheat.
Sauté the carrots over medium heat in a little oil until soft and then add to the soup.
Mash the garlic with a small amount of oil (or water) and add to the soup. Add vinegar to taste. Check the seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed.
With the soup on a very gentle simmer, whisk the egg yolks with the sour cream. Temper the cream by whisking in to it a ladle of hot broth. Then add the cream to the soup, whisking vigorously. Heat through, still whisking.
Serve with crusty bread.