Since there is so little of I.L. Caragiale translated into English, I decided to offer you a short sample of his more light-hearted (yet still satirical) work; this little sketch entitled ‘The Baccalaureate’ was first published in the newspaper Universul in September 1900.
As I leave the house in the morning, a barouche carriage turns into my street. In the barouche sits Madame Calliope Georgescu, a good friend of mine. I greet her respectfully. As soon as she sees me, she stops the carriage, poking the driver in the back with her little parasol.
‘Kiss your hand, Mrs Georgescu,’ I say, stepping closer.
‘I was just coming to see you,’ the lady replies excitedly.
‘Yes, please don’t let me down!’
‘Don’t let me down. I need to ask you for a favour. This is when friendships shows its true colours, let’s see just how good a friend you are.’
‘It will be a pleasure to help, Mrs Georgescu, if I can…’
‘Of course you can! Don’t say you can’t! I know you can! You have to can!’
‘Well, what is it? Can you tell me what it’s regarding?’
‘You must know… I know you know him!’
‘He’s your friend… I know he is! Don’t say he’s not!’
‘Popescu, the philosophy teacher.’
‘We’re acquainted, that’s true… but I wouldn’t say we’re exactly friends.’
‘Never mind, I know…’
‘And you have to get into the carriage with me straightaway! We need to see him, you have to talk to him about Ovid.’
Dear Reader, you should know that Mrs Calliope Georgescu has three sons: Virgil, Horace and Ovid Georgescu. Virgil is in his third year studying Law, Horace in his second, while Ovid is hoping to start his first year at the same faculty. Ovid is sitting his baccalaureate at secondary school and for all his valiant efforts, as Mrs Georgescu points out, after overcoming all obstacles, he seems to have got stuck in his Ethics.
‘Can you imagine?’ his mother says with deep emotion. ‘Persecuting the poor boy! Wrecking his career!… Sensitive as he is, it is destroying him… You know what he told me? He said: “Mummy, if I have to repeat a year, I’ll kill myself!”… And he’s quite capable of doing that, you know how ambitious he is… Just imagine, giving him a 3, when he needs a 6 at least. And for what subject? Ethics, of all things! You’ve known Ovid since he was a baby, you know how well I’ve raised him.’
‘Of all things, Ethics! Please get in.’
The lady made room for me in her barouche.
‘But wouldn’t it be better,’ I ask, ‘if Mr Georgescu were to go and speak to the teacher directly? You know, Mr Georgescu is a man of some stature and… as a father, he has a different weight… while me, a stranger…’
‘Ha! That would be a fine thing! Georgescu! You know how indifferent he is about anything to do with the children. If it were up to Georgescu, neither Virgil nor Horace would have made it to university. If I’d left it to Georgescu, neither of them would have passed their bacchal-eurate. Please join me here!’
‘No need to use the carriage, Mrs Georgescu, I can walk.’
‘Good heavens, walk when we have a carriage? Please get in.’
I had to get in and we drove off.
‘So where are we going?’ I asked Mrs Calliope.
‘To the teacher’s house.’
‘I don’t know where he lives.’
‘Don’t worry, I do! Turn right, driver.’
The lady whacks the driver’s right arm with her parasol. ‘Faster, faster!’
She whacks to the left, to the right, then to the right again, then left. Finally, she pokes the driver’s back once again with the tip of her parasol to bring him to a halt.
‘You see those little yellow houses next to the grocer’s?’ She says. ‘You go into the courtyard, it’s the houses at the back, on the right. That’s where he lives. I’ll wait here for you.’
I get out of the barouche and head that way, praying to high heaven that the philosophy teacher won’t be at home. I go in, find his flat and knock. Sadly, heaven is not on my side today and the teacher is at home. How can I start this conversation? I commence in an oblique manner.
‘Dear Popescu, you have to admit that the rules and regulations in our schools are very strange indeed. There’s too much emphasis being placed on taking all the subjects equally seriously, which is harmful to progression or even progress, for we have to ask ourselves after all what would we like the younger generation to gain from their learning, what else but a systematic culture that will enable each one of them to be a useful citizen in their chosen field…’
The teacher stares at me blankly, not understanding a thing. I have to proceed:
‘Let me give you just a few examples of what schools do to the younger generation. I’ve seen children with excellent academic abilities being forced to repeat a year because they didn’t have pass marks in music or PE… You do realise the injustice of that, to be a year behind because of not having musical or athletic aptitude?… You have to agree, this is in the same vein, equally as absurd, as letting a young man who wants to study Law repeat a year because his Ethics is not quite there yet… What does Ethics have to do with practising Law, anyway?… Wouldn’t you agree?’
The teacher goggled at me. Seeing his confusion, I told myself that my roundabout approach was not working. I would have to grab the bull by the horns.
‘Listen, Popescu, let’s cut to the chase. Do you know why I came to see you?’
‘I’ve come to ask you to give Ovid Georgescu, whom you examined yesterday and gave a 3, well, please give him a 6…’
‘Don’t say you can’t! I know you can! You have to can!’
‘But then I’d have to give all of them…’
‘So give them all a 6!’
‘But that would…’
‘Don’t say you can’t! I know you can! You have to be able to give them all passing marks. They’re all from good families.’
The teacher himself is from a good family, so he gives in: ‘Fine, if they are all from good families, I’ll give them all a 6.’
‘My word of honour as a teacher.’
I leave very pleased with myself. Mrs Georgescu is waiting for me impatiently.
‘Well, he’ll pass them all.’
‘What do you mean, all?’
‘Naturally, because they are all boys of quality.’
‘What do you mean “of quality”?’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘He will give all the boys good marks.’
‘Especially Ovid. He’ll give them all a 6 in Ethics, because they are all from good families.’
That afternoon I get a little note from Mrs Georgescu, telling me that Ovid got the desired mark, and would I like to have supper with them. Naturally, I cannot turn down such a gracious invitation.
It was a splendid meal. We drank champagne to toast Ovid Georgescu and to wish him a brilliant career. Mrs Calliope is ecstatic, covering her beloved youngest son in kisses, her motherly emotions temporarily at peace after the exams.
‘Phew,’ says the triumphant matron, as she pours me another glass of champagne, ‘Another successful bacchal-eurate!’