1930 was a bit of a bumper year for great literary works, all around the world, so I couldn’t resist taking part in this reading club hosted by Simon and Karen this week.
My choice is a book which is very well-known in Romania (required reading, I believe, in secondary school): Camil Petrescu’s Ultima noapte de dragoste, întâia noapte de război ( Last Night Of Love, First Night of War). It is considered one of the first modern psychological novels in Romanian literature and combines the story of a marriage beset by jealousy and lack of trust, as well as horrific scenes from the First World War (in which the author himself participated). Camil Petrescu believed that ‘humans are at their most authentic when they are confronted by love and death’ and the entire novel is a close exploration of one such individual drive to extremes by both love and the imminence of death.
To summarise the story: Stefan Gheorghidiu is a philosophy student who is flattered by the attentions of one of the most beautiful fellow students at the University of Bucharest, the angelic blonde Ela. They get married, much against the advice of their respective families, since they are penniless. But then one of Stefan’s uncles dies and leaves them an inheritance significant enough to allow them to enter ‘high society’. And everything starts to change. Stefan is not keen on the corruption and cruelty he finds in this new environment. Much to his horror, he discovers his wife is more materialistic and shallow than he had imagined and he starts suspecting her of infidelities. When Romania enters the war in 1916, he is on the frontline in the Carpathians and is considering desertion in order to have one last meeting with his wife, to convince himself that she does still love him and is faithful to him. He does not quite manage to allay his fears regarding Ela, but when his battalion finally plunges into war after a long period of waiting, he encounters so many traumatic situations and losses that he realises just how petty and meaningless his worries had been.
Back in my teens, when I first read the book, of course I was more interested in the love bits. The reverse has happened when I reread it now. (Just like with War and Peace, where the girls broadly speaking liked the peace and love bits and the boys liked the battlescenes). The love scenes, particularly one infamous one where he tries to ‘teach’ his wife philosophy while she is being kittenish around him, wearing a more or less translucent nightie, seemed both cloying and unbearably patronising. Overall, Stefan is not a nice man, he jumps far too quickly to conclusions. As soon as he sees his wife flirting with a man, he runs off to a brothel or takes up with another woman to ‘punish’ her. He is far too prone to see women as mere objects of his desire, put on earth to flatter him and obliged to listen to his opinions, even commenting how his wife’s body has gone all flabby in her old age – possibly her mid to late 20s at most! It is quite possible that Ela does end up cheating on him, but boy, does he ever deserve it!
The main protagonist no doubt reflects the chauvinistic culture of his time (and his country), and Mihail Sebastian’s journal indicates that Gheorghidiu may have had some of the less desirable traits of his creator (the two of them were friends, but Sebastian can be quite critical of him). Nevertheless, I rather think that Camil Petrescu deliberately made his ‘hero’ so unheroic and so unlikeable. This is a man who excels at tormenting himself, filling his head with all sorts of fanciful notions, over-analysing every gesture (with friends and family too, not just with his wife). He is far too enamoured with his own belly-button, and it’s only when he is finally exposed to the relentlessness of war, when he sees the futility and horror and sheer repetitiveness of it, as well as the appalling organisation of the army on the frontline, that he finally starts to move beyond his immediate concerns and show empathy with others.
And yet there are moments when you really warm to the young man’s initial idealism, which soon gets crushed into cynicism by the corruption and lies he sees all around him in a country where he considers that ‘it’s easier to be mediocre or a rogue, and much harder to be a decent, honest person’. After the war starts, his cynicism gives way to shock, black humour and, occasionally, despair. There are some brilliant off-the-cuff remarks which make Stefan more sympathetic:
When it’s in a farmer’s interest to drown his dog, he will convince himself gradually that the dog has rabies.
Radulescu has gathered his troops to give them a lecture about Patriotism. We all consider it a brilliant parody, until we realise, to our surprise, that he is deadly serious about it.
The ending is too abrupt and I’d have liked to see what happened to Stefan after the war, but in subject matter it reminds me of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End. There are also similarities with Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front in the descriptions of painfully tenuous advances and retreats, or, in more recent days, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. The French translators also say there is a hint of Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity in the novel.
What really stood out for me is the severe criticism that the author makes (via his main character) about the lack of Romanian preparation for the war. On the very first page, he sets the scene:
Ten pigs with sturdy snouts could have dug up the whole fortifications on the Prahova valley in half a day, with all of its barbed wire and ‘wolf holes’. The wolf holes were the kind of holes that children make in the sand when they are playing, but with spikes in them. The Army General HQ in 1916 – about the time of the Battle of Verdun – were convinced that the enemy would carelessly step right into these holes and would get spiked either in the soles of their feet or in their backs. The whole country spoke with respect of the ‘fortified valley’ in Prahova: the parliament, the political parties, the press.
There are several memorable scenes from the war, no doubt taken from Petrescu’s personal experience: coming face to face with enemy fire in a tight place and understanding your own cowardice; having a discussion with a German prisoner and realising that both of them have been brainwashed into despising the ‘enemy’ and believing their own propaganda; freezing at night without adequate clothes or blankets and having to sleep covered by the other men in his regiment to keep warm. All the more surprising then, that just a few years after he published this novel, the author was temporarily seduced by the nationalist rhetoric of the Iron Guard (the far-right militaristic group concerned about ‘ethnic purity’ and Romanian exceptionalism).
Although the novel has not been translated into English, there is a French translation by Laure Hinckel, published by Edition des Syrtes in 2006. There is also a 1980 film adaptation (considerably different from the book), directed by Sergiu Nicolaescu, which might be available online with subtitles.