George Călinescu: Părinții Otiliei (later: Enigma Otiliei) [The Enigma of Otilia]
This is Călinescu’s best-known novel and shows that he clearly knows his Balzac, with a comic tale of thwarted love, an avaricious old man, grasping and obnoxious relatives and a somewhat gothic atmosphere, set primarily in a capital city (in this case, of course, Bucharest). Felix Sima, a young man of nineteen, is an orphan. His father, a doctor, died the previous year and had left Felix enough money to live comfortably. Felix lives in Iași. His money is managed by his uncle Costake (Constantin Giurgiuveanu), who is actually Felix’s father’s sister’s husband. Felix has never met him. At the beginning of the novel he is arriving in Bucharest with a view to staying with Uncle Costake and his daughter, the eponymous Otilia. He plans to study medicine at the University of Bucharest. While he manages to find the house, it is grand and forbidding. The front door is huge and has no apparent bell or knocker. He pushes the door and it opens, where he does find a bell pull. He pulls the bell and it rings but he waits a long time before an old man arrives. When he asks for his Uncle Costake, he is told that there is no-one at home. The old man goes off and then returns. A female voice – Otilia – behind him tells the old man, who is his Uncle Costake, that it must be cousin Felix.
Felix is taken into the large sitting-room, where he finds several guests These include Leonida Pascalopol, a rich friend of Costake, and the family of Costake’s sister, Aglae. As well as Aglae, there is her husband, Simion, her daughter, Aurica, and her son, Titi. All of these characters will play a major role in the novel. The novel is a long one – over six hundred pages – and Călinescu tells a full and detailed story of the machinations of the various families, with virtually every family member having serious flaws. Felix is naïve and finds it difficult to grasp what is going on. His Uncle Costake is reluctant to give him any of his money (suggesting that he borrow some) and even”borrows” some money from Felix. Felix is suspicious about his uncle’s motives but is too shy to broach the subject with his uncle, even though he and we suspect that Uncle Costake is cheating him. Felix is soon attracted to Otilia who is, by all accounts, an attractive young woman, a couple of years older than Felix. She is studying piano at the Conservatory However, she is also flighty, likes expensive things and can be somewhat snobbish. One of the many sub-plots concerns her relationship with Pascalopol, her father’s friend and a man of around fifty but also very rich. Are they having an affair? Does either of them intend to have an affair? Otilia only visits his house in Bucharest for the first time after Felix’s arrival and with Felix. The pair are also invited, also a first time for Otilia, to his house in the country, where he grows exotic crops for sale to other parts of Europe. Later in the novel they will go off to Paris together (without Felix) for a long time but, on return, both insist that it is a father-daughter relationship and no more. We have our doubts.
The Tulea family – Aglae, Simion and their children – are straight out of Balzac. Aglae dotes on her youngest son, Titi, whom she wishes to see married to a good woman. Aglae dotes less on her daughter, Aurica, who is plain, sharp and not at all a pleasant young lady. She hates her husband. Above all, she is greedy. Felix eventually finds out, by chance, that Otilia is not Costake’s daughter. She is the daughter of her mother’s previous marriage and her surname is Marculesco. Her father had died and her mother had married Costake. She had then died, leaving Otilia with Costake, her stepfather. Costake had married Felix’s father’s sister and she, too, had died. Costake had not adopted Otilia, though it has been talked about, particularly by Pascalopol and this, too, remains a key sub-plot. As a result, Aglae considers that she should be the heir of Costake and that Otilia is just a poor cousin who has no claim on Costake’s assets, particularly as, as far as she and we know, he has not made a will. This will also remain an issue throughout the book. Simion plays a shadowy role but he clearly has health problems, both physical and mental. Aurica wants to find a husband but her chances are poor as the family cannot afford a good dowry and she is plain. She hopes that Felix is attracted to her but clearly he is not. Titi, the youngest son, has been spoilt by his mother, who treats him like a young child (he is twenty-two). He is not very bright; indeed, he seems to be quite simple. He likes painting but his painting consists of copying what he sees or the work of others. He shows no originality, though his mother praises him. To her horror he marries a woman of dubious morals and virtue though it seems that they were only cohabiting and not properly married and the relationship is broken off. He will try later with Georgeta, a woman with whom Felix has a brief fling while Otilia is in Paris.
However, the most fascinating character is Stanica Ratziu. After a while, we learn that the Tuleas have a third child, Olimpia. She had gone off with Stanica and they have had a child but have not married, something both parents consider outrageous. Indeed, Simion refuses to recognise Olimpia as his daughter. Stanica is a lawyer but not a very successful one. He spends much of the book scrounging money and when he cannot scrounge it, he is happy to cheat whoever he can. Any legal work he gets is either of a very dubious nature or for gullible clients, from whom he takes the money but does little to help. He is obsequious towards the rich, such as Costake, and often acts as a messenger and/or a spy, particularly for Aglae. The couple do eventually get married when they get the dowry they consider their due – a house – but they neglect their two month old son and he falls out of his cot and dies. Stanica will use this as an excuse to abandon Olimpia.
The novel goes into some detail as regards these various characters and plot lines. Felix is in love with Otilia and he tells her so frequently. While not entirely brushing him off, she is also not very encouraging. As she frequently says, she likes chic men (using the French word in the Romanian text). But what is her relationship with Pascalopol? What will happen on Costake’s death to his assets? And what will happen to the other characters, as they carry out their various plots and strategems? If you enjoy Balzac or any bourgeois comic novels with complex plots, conniving characters and innocent young men abroad, then you will certainly enjoy this, one of the foremost Romanian novels.
First published in 1938 by Editura Nationala”Ciornei”
No English translation
Published in French as L’énigme d’Otilia by La Nef in 1960
Translated by Aurel Georges Boeşteanu
Published in German as Rätsel um Ottilie by Der Morgen in 1961
Translated by Ingeborg Seidel
Published in Spanish as El enigma de Otilia by Losada in 1967
Translated by Luis Echávarri
Also published in Czech