Saturday, October 2, 2021

Mateiu Caragiale's Rakes of the Old Court (Europe)

"They were talking about you today, before you came, they said you were working on a novel of manners, set in Bucharest, and I could barely keep from laughing...maybe if you wrote about Paşa, me, Panta--with anyone else you won't know what you're doing..." [70]

That's Pirgu talking to the narrator of Rakes of the Old Court. There are four main characters in the novel: Paşadia, Pirgu, Pantazi, and the narrator.

Mateiu Caragiale's novel came out in 1929 and is set around that time in Bucharest, though there are some flashbacks to earlier periods. Our four rakes don't do much: they meet in bars and drink; pursue sex, mostly with women, though there are definite suggestions of homosexual affairs. They're rich, (with the exception of Pirgu) sophisticated, the cream of Romanian society. Or are they? 

This short novel (100 pages) doesn't have a lot of event. The first chapter shows the gathering (in a bar) where the four characters are fully introduced. (They had some awareness of each other in society before that.) Each of the remaining three chapters reveals the backstory of three characters. The narrator himself is never fully explored.

First up is Paşadia.  The name suggests--and according to the introduction it would to a Romanian as well--a Turkish origin, which is the case. Paşadia's great-grandfather escaped Turkey; he was wanted there for a double murder. He comes to Romania-to-be, 'concealed his origins because they were too base', [29] sets up as a strongman and a lord. The women marrying into this line are also all foreigners: a Serbian, a Greek, a Braşovan at a time when Braşov was not yet part of Romania. Paşadia himself is cultivated, sophisticated. Where does that come from?

Pantazi next reveals himself. Though he was born in Bucharest, he declares, "I am earliest ancestors, as far back as I know, were seafaring thieves." [42] Though there are also mentioned in that ancestral tree 'Sicilian', 'barbarians', and 'quite possibly Norse, as all until the last two [of us, my father and me] preserved red hair and blue eyes'. Nevertheless when the war to finalize Romanian independence from Turkey breaks out in 1877, Pantazi feels Romanian enough to go fight. Russia aids Romania but then betrays the nascent Romanian state; nevertheless Romania, which had had a sort of de facto independence before the war, becomes an actual nation state under King Carol I.

Pirgu gets the last word. The narrator frequently sneers at Pirgu, and the other two treat him somewhat condescendingly as well. Pirgu had been trying to get the narrator to go to the Arnoteanus', proprietors of a gambling den and whorehouse, and finally he succeeds, and the story ends with our four characters either gambling or whoring or both. We also learn more about Pirgu: he is our one true (?) Romanian; he'd been impoverished through shenanigans, and through shenanigans he regains some of his wealth at the end.

Amusing, but all clear enough in its way. I have to imagine in 1929 there was a considerable amount of discussion about what is Romanian identity, with many, no doubt, praising its great purity and nobility. Romantic nationalism was dangerously on the rise all over Europe. Caragiale demurs, suggesting Romanians are a bunch of mutts (like everyone else) and pretty corrupt bunch at that. The introduction says the novel, while it may not have been the communists' favourite, made it through that era without suppression, and you can see why: it can be read--maybe merely--as a satire on decadent aristocrats.

But the introduction, by Sean Cotter the translator, also says this is a major Romanian novel, quite possibly the greatest Romanian novel of the 20th century. Well. There's something more going on here, and that something is clearly the language. One of Cotter's Romanian friends asked when Cotter said he was translating the novel if he was going to translate it into Romanian first. Ha, ha. The language is apparently difficult, and Cotter reproduces that in the translation. There are subtleties, though, that he can't very well reproduce though he clues us in to their presence. Paşadia's story is full of Romanian words of Turkish origin; Pantazi--whose very name suggests to me a bit his Greekness--uses language full of words of Greek origin. Pirgu is given a fairly coarse demotic--he's the one who swears and uses slang. True Romanian, as it were?

Turkish is the hard one: there just aren't that many words in English of Turkish origin, and Cotter resorts to extravagantly Latinate words to reproduce the feel. Caragiale is one of those writers who has a vocabulary and ain't afraid to use it neither: think, maybe, Mervyn Peake in English. I wouldn't want to be the one to translate Peake into another language. The problem reminded me of Apuleius' The Golden Ass and Jack Lindsay's translation, which I find quite successful. Reading Apuleius in Latin one comes across a bunch of words that don't show up in other authors and seem to be obscure even for the time; Lindsay translates with words equally alien to a normal English vocabulary. But Cotter's problem is even more challenging since he's faced with words of different etymological origins.

Perhaps an example is in order, especially since the bits I've quoted so far are pretty lucid...
"I would have started conversation, if the musicians had not begun precisely that waltz for which Pantazi had a weakness, a slow, dragging waltz, voluptuous and sad, almost funereal. In its mollitious oscillation, it traced a nostalgic and endlessly somber passion,..." [5]
That passage very nearly mollitiously oscillates back into the novel a second time quite near the end. (So the novel begins with a waltz and ends with a waltz.) Anyway there's more of that. You've been warned. 😉

And another warning:
"Nene, when are you going to give this stuff up? When? You'll turn your brains to mush with all this bookwork." [69]

That's Pirgu to the narrator. But since it's Pirgu maybe us bookish types can treat him condescendingly as well... 

All in all, though, I have to say I found it pretty interesting, if not exactly a rollicking read, and even though I'm quite sure a good deal of it went past me and would be pretty hard to reproduce in English in any case. However, this is one of those few books where I could have wished for even more notes.

It came out this year from Northwestern University Press. I came across it here. (Michael Orthofer's Complete Review.) Since I needed to keep up my Romanian streak for: 


  1. You read this, how wonderful. I was wondering what in the heck it was like. The hardcover version is, I kid you not, priced at $70, which made my eyes pop.

    If I ever for some reason to a Romanian run, I will have to track this down, whether I understand it or not.

    1. $70. Wow. I wouldn't have forked over $70 for it, especially sight unseen. Fortunately my library had a copy, but even they only bought the paperback.

      Romania. One of these days. Maybe.

  2. not much Romanian lit around... my 1941 Webster's Collegiate Dictionary had "mollitie": softness, but Google never heard of it no surprise... come to think of it, i've never heard a Romanian waltz either, although i played a lot of European ones when i was in the orchestra...

    1. It is a gypsy band that's playing the waltz so it's probably Hungarian. Another example of how Romania was more multi-culti than they were willing to let on.

      The translator said he resorted to browsing in the OED to come up with some of the words. To stun and amaze us...

  3. I'm so glad you explained where you "found" this one, because I was wondering that, as I read along. I like the idea of not much happening, in terms of events.

    1. The Literary Saloon at Complete Review is a site I check out pretty regularly. Especially good for info on new releases of translated literature.

  4. I admire your devotion to expanding your horizons and reading outside the box. I still feel I have too much inside the box I need to get to but I look forward to the day I step out of it. Bravo to you!

    1. Well, thanks! There may still be a few classics I should be reading...but I'm also feeling competitive enough for Rose City Reader's European challenge to do a little hunting for that.