Dada today occupies a position in the twentieth century inconceivable at its point of origin in 1916. No gallery of international scope can allow itself to remain without its Richter, its Picabia, its Taeuber or its Schwitters. When the Centre Pompidou in Paris opened its doors in 1977 it was with an exhibition of Duchamp, and not Picasso. In 2005, a major Dada exhibition there was consecrated in a majestic 1,000-page catalogue, flanked by some fifty new publications on the subject; it duly travelled on to Washington and New York. The Romanian-born Tristan Tzara is celebrated in all of this as Dada’s co-founder and chief publicist, author of its most powerful and iconoclastic manifestos. Yet much less is known of his life beyond the 1916–23 lifespan of the Dada movement. A new biography by Marius Hentea, TaTa Dada, delves into Tzara’s early influences in Romanian modernism and follows his career as a writer through the thirties, the Nazi occupation of France and the anti-colonial revolts of the post-war period.

Hentea himself is of Romanian extraction, although educated at Columbia and Harvard, where he studied government before switching to literature—mainly English late modernism: his first book was a study of Henry Green, though he has also written on Waugh and Powell—at Warwick. The Romanian connection seems to be the main reason for this leap back from Vile Bodies and Afternoon Men to the era of modernism’s revolutionary ferment. The pairing of biographer and poet may indeed have been a piece of matchmaking by the publisher, for the mit Press has produced an impressive list of works on Dada. Certainly Hentea is well positioned to elucidate the Balkan context of his subject’s early life, and indeed, this is the book’s richest aspect. Tzara was born Samuel Rosenstock in 1896 in the small town of Moineşti, situated in the forested foothills of the Carpathians. A place of 4,000 souls, half of them crowded into the squalor of the shtetl, Moineşti was also an oil town, where ‘red life boils in the pits’, as Tzara would later put it, and the wind carried ‘the odour of petrol and bromide’. Its railway station opened when Samuel was three. His father was a forestry accountant, prosperous enough to have a house on the main street, just below the town square. Young Samuel was small, myopic, musical; family legend had him marching around chanting ‘Dreyfus is innocent!’. He was educated in Romanian and Hebrew at a Jewish private school, and tutored in music and languages at home.

Caught between virgin forests and oil derricks, shtetl self-builds and the spa hotels serving Moineşti’s thermal baths, the district was characterized by explosive class and ethnic tensions. Boyar landowners employed Jewish or Armenian managers to rack-rent a barely literate peasantry; the Jews themselves were divided into a longstanding city-based Sephardic community, established during the zenith of Ottoman rule over the Danubian principalities, and a much larger, poorer and more recent Orthodox Ashkenazi population, driven south from the Pale. In 1907 the region was roiled by a peasant uprising that saw class hatred vented in anti-Semitic pogroms, before the revolt was forcibly quashed by the army, with thousands killed. The turmoil persuaded Rosenstock Senior to send young Samuel to school in Bucharest, where an aunt was a successful businesswoman who owned a small chain of cinemas. The whole family relocated there soon after.

In Hentea’s vivid account, belle époque Bucharest was a cultural hothouse, a seething peripheral metropolis with gas-lit boulevards still under construction, its crowded cafés and theatres contrasted with near-medieval poverty, Parisian fashions sighted alongside peasants in sheepskins, a splendid carriage next to a buffalo cart—a place made up of ‘pieces and shards’. The city had fourteen daily papers and 25 arts magazines; Marinetti’s Manifesto appeared here in 1909 on the same day that it was published in Le Figaro. Hentea’s biography is strong on the fervid cultural politics of the period, intensified by Romania’s insecure nationhood and marginal status at the edge of Europe. According to Hentea, the hyperactive intelligentsia was divided between Herderian nationalists, led by the historian Nicolae Iorga, and radical cosmopolitans, among them the artist Iosif Iser, a pivotal figure for the Bucharest avant-garde. Here the teenage Samuel made fast friends with Marcel Iancu, scion of a haute-bourgeois Jewish family who had hired Iser as a drawing master for young Marcel; and with Ion Vinea who, as a schoolboy intellectual, had already reviewed Apollinaire’s Alcools for Facla [The Torch], a revolutionary journal of culture and politics.

In the fall of 1912, against the backdrop of the first Balkan War, Vinea, Iancu and the 16-year-old Rosenstock launched their own ‘yellow’ magazine of arts and poetry, Simbolul, with Iser’s backing. The opening number carried a violent attack on the national intellectual hero, Iorga, alongside decadent artwork by Iser and experimental poetry that confessed its debts to Baudelaire and Mallarmé; Rosenstock’s contribution, a sarcastic squib, borrowed its title from Rimbaud’s ‘Sisters of Charity’. Simbolul attracted the wrath of conservative-nationalist critics, who accused the magazine of ‘moral abandonment’ and a self-inflicted ‘alienation from common sentiments’. The charge of ‘foreignness’—instrăinare—was courted by the young editors. Political tensions were running high; after watching as the Balkan League drove the remaining Turkish forces out of the peninsula in the last months of 1912, Romania seized a swathe of northern Bulgaria amid a surge of jingoistic hysteria the following spring. When Europe erupted into war in the summer of 1914, Romania initially declared itself neutral, though two years later it would enter the fray and be bombed by Germany. Rosenstock’s poem, ‘The Storm and the Deserter’s Song’, evoked the anguish and alienation of the soldiers: Hentea parses the strong alliterative stresses and internal rhymes of the Romanian, ‘Stîlcim stîrvurile lepădate ín zapadă’, ‘We trample corpses fallen in the snow’. By this stage the 17-year-old was already experimenting with the pseudonym that would crystallize as Tristan Tzara; in Romanian, ţară means land or country, as Hentea explains, while trist, of course, is ‘sad’. In the imperfect pun, caught between French and Romanian, the high-modernist gesture itself reveals the incomplete self-effacement of the artist.

In autumn 1915, either to disentangle their son from the clamour of Bucharest’s literary sub-culture or to save him from the fall-out of a sexual scandal, the Rosenstocks dispatched young Tzara to neutral Zurich, where it was intended he would focus on his university studies in philosophy. Instead, he linked up again with Marcel, now surnamed Janco, and his brother, who were already installed there and making contact with the artists, intellectuals and revolutionaries crowding into the city from all over war-torn Europe. Early in 1916 they found their way to the back room of a café in the Niederdorf, just down the street from Lenin’s apartment, where a radical German couple, the dramaturge Hugo Ball and acrobat-chanteuse Emmy Hennings, had issued an open invitation to young artists to perform their music and poetry at the newly launched Cabaret Voltaire, a ‘literary cabaret for international solidarity and aesthetic originality’. The artist Hans Arp was painting the walls blue and the tiny stage black, hanging the room with Cubist paintings. ‘An oriental-looking deputation of four little men arrived, with portfolios and pictures under their arms’, Ball recalled. ‘Repeatedly, they bowed politely’.

The cabaret performances began sedately enough but, as Ball put it, they were soon in a race with the expectations of the audience, improvising instinctively, the whole group on stage at once. Tzara described it as ‘new art to the greatest number of people’, a ‘cosmopolitan mix of God and brothel’; Arp, as ‘total pandemonium’: