There were so many great books published in 1929 (Rilke, Faulkner, Elizabeth Bowen, Nella Larsen and so much more). A favourite decade of mine anyway, and I have read quite a few of them in the past, but I am going to go quite obscure with my contribution to the #1929Club hosted by Simon’s Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. This is my only contribution to this week’s extravaganza but I do urge you to read some of the other reviews and books.
In Romanian, the book is called ‘Craii de Curtea Veche’ and it has been translated as either Gallants of the Old Court by Cristian Baciu in 2011 or Rakes of the Old Court by Sean Cotter in 2021. The author, Mateiu Caragiale, was the illegitimate son of one of the best-known Romanian playwrights and authors, a master of the prose style, Ion Luca Caragiale. His father was very much influenced by German and French literature, and mocks the affected use of French phrases in the Romanian bourgeois vocabulary of the late 19th century, but Mateiu seems to have been influenced more by the Levantine style, his work has been described as quite baroque and ornate, and he uses Turkish expressions extensively.
Although it was voted the best Romanian novel in 2001 in Romania (in a rather upmarket cultural publication), I have the feeling that it lives on more in the nostalgia of readers because of its style and subject matter, rather than that it is widely read and discussed. Published in 1929, the author took over twenty years to write it, so it is firmly set in the pre-WW1 period in Bucharest and describes a vanished world in a rather dream-like haze yet not entirely devoid of a critical eye. It has been compared stylistically to Proust (although much, much shorter), but the atmosphere evoked in the book reminds me more of fin de siècle Vienna, with endless discussions in coffee houses, lush parties, and a schizophrenic feel of looking to the future while desperately clinging to the past.
But the real pleasure came in our idle conversation, the palaver that embraced only the beautiful: travel, the arts, letters, history — history especially — gliding through the calm of academic heights.
Let’s not forget that Vienna too was often at the very border with the Ottoman Empire, and some of that languorous indolence that people have associated (rightly or wrongly) with the Ottomans has certainly sweetened the disciplined Germanic spirit of the Viennese. The Bucharest described by Caragiale is caught up even more between Western and Eastern cultural influences, but there are very many attractive details in the decadence that he describes. We don’t need to know that Mateiu Caragiale was also a keen genealogist and designer of coats of arms (who believed he might have been descended from an aristocratic family) to guess that he was quite wedded to the past and regretted its demise. Of course, there is a certain element of ‘Orientalism’ in this approach, the exoticism of something which had disappeared, although no doubt Mateiu would have hated to live during the period when the Ottoman Empire was controlling parts of the Romanian principalities or attacking and laying siege to them.
The title itself is clearly ironical. The Old Court is the neighbourhood in Bucharest situated around the former royal residence, one of the oldest parts of town which had become by Mateiu’s time a largely messy and noisy commercial area. ‘Crai’ in Romanian originally meant king/leader (and is still used as such in folk tales), but its meaning has now morphed into ‘philanderer’ or ‘vagabond’. Mateiu himself said that the title was inspired by an anecdote his father told about a band of ruffians who stole the symbols of power (fancy clothes, coronets, jewels) from the ruling classes following an uprising, then paraded through town wearing them, astride on donkeys and filthily drunk. So there is clearly a carnavalesque atmosphere of role reversal there, but is it condoned or lamented? Well, the epigraph to the book might demonstrate that it is neither: simply, it is different, and the rules you are used to do not apply:
“Que voulez-vous, nous sommes ici aux portes de l’Orient, ou tout est pris à la légère…”
But what is the book about? Largely plotless, it is in fact the narrator reminiscing about his three friends, Pantazi, Paşadia and Pirgu, and the life of wine, women and elaborate food that they enjoy in Bucharest. Pantazi is the romantic nobleman who reads Cervantes in the original and who suffered from an ill-fated first love and therefore commits to a life of a rake, travelling all over the world, in an attempt to drown his sorrows. Paşadia is charismatic, handsome, wealthy, clever, passionate about history: the world seems to be at his feet, but for some reason he has become disenchanted and cynical about it all and leads a double life: the finest of intellects in the daytime, the lowest of animal instincts at night. Pirgu is low-born and keen to climb the social ranks (or at least make a lot of money): a scrounger, a bossy-boots, resourceful and resilient, the typical nouveau riche who despises the old traditions or fine intellect. Guess which one of the three thrives at the end of the novel?
The friendship between the four, if you can call it a friendship, is in fact quite dysfunctional: Pantazi mocks Pirgu’s uncouth manners, while Paşadia allows himself to be manipulated by Pirgu as if in an act of self-loathing or self-destruction. Meanwhile, the narrator observes it all but seems unable to intervene.
A strange little book, which I think must be nearly impossible to translate. I have not read either of the translations, but from what I’ve read from other reviews, Sean Cotter has done his best to convey some of the faded glamour and over-the-top flavour of the original, although I am not sure that his use of extravagant Latinate words works best as a substitute for words of Turkish origin (which are often used in a slightly pejorative sense in Romanian). The book is very funny because of its intentionally over-opulent use of language, despite its overall melancholic, dissolute feel.
In his review of the book, M.A. Orthofer singles out this particular passage as almost a description of what the author hopes to achieve with his storytelling style, and I would agree with that:
The narration undulated languidly, braiding a rich garland of notable literary blossoms from all peoples. Master of the craft of painting with words, he effortlessly found means to express, in a tongue whose familiarity he claimed to have lost, even the most slippery and uncertain forms of being, of time, of distance, such that the illusion was always complete. As though bespelled, I undertook long imaginary journeys with him, journeys such as no dream ever provided … the man spoke. Before my eyes unrolled charming throngs of tangible visions.
There is a film adaptation of this book from 1995 (which I haven’t seen), but above all, it was lovely to reread the book for the 1929 Club. It felt like opening an old perfume bottle and refamiliarising myself with some long-lost, slightly too-sweet but not cloying scent. This time around, I was also far less disposed to be lulled by the stylistic fireworks and give a free pass to this annoying bunch of men, who see women largely as fantasies, victims or sluts.
For your information, I prefer the father’s style, but nevertheless Craii remains a landmark book showing the tension between Occident and Orient in the Romanian psyche.