Camil Petrescu: Ultima noapte de dragoste, întâia noapte de război [The Last Night of Love, the First Night of War]
Our hero/narrator is Stefan Gheorghidiu. We first meet him in 1916. Romania remained neutral during the first two years of World War I but came in on the side of the Allies in 1916. Initially, the king had been pro-German while the political elite pro-Allies. When the king died, his successor was pro-Allies. The Romanians hesitated about joining the Allies but the Allies wanted them to do so, to deny Germany oil and to cut off communications between Germany and Turkey. Finally the Allies gave the Romanians an ultimatum and they agreed. They were not ready for war, as we shall see.
Stefan is called up as a sub-lieutenant. He first serves in the Prahova Valley, where the Romanians are building trenches. He comments that the trenches are like the ones they built as children when playing soldier games. He is transferred to the frontier where there is more trench-building, which attracts the same comment from our hero. He adds that the training is like the games they played as children.
In the officers’ (rudimentary) mess, there is a lot of gossip. One of the key issues is a trial taking place, where a man is accused of murder, after killing his wife for infidelity. He gets off. Opinion is divided. However, Stefan takes this opportunity to ask for leave, for a second time. He is refused. He then launches into a tirade against his commanding officer, which is completely contrary to rules, and storms out. When a fellow officer comes out both to reproach him and to console him, he threatens to desert in order to go home. We now go back in time, to find out what prompted this behaviour.
Stefan had met a woman at university and they fell in love. Without telling their families, they married. Stefan’s father – a university professor who published a liberal magazine and was always broke – has died. His mother lives with her daughters till they marry and move away. Stefan has two paternal uncles. Naé is a liberal and at times outspoken member of parliament. Také, fifteen years older than his brother, is a very rich miser. At a lunch given by Také, attended by the family, Také is critical of Corneliu, his younger brother and Stefan’s father. Stefan, for the second time in the book, speaks out of turn and attacks his uncle. This is foolish given that Také has no other heirs and the family is always worried that, on a whim, he may leave his money to charity. Two weeks later, Také dies.
To everyone’s surprise, he describes Stefan as his favourite nephew in his will and seems to leave more than he does to the others. Uncle Naé challenges the interpretation of the will. Stefan contacts lawyers who says he is sure to win. However, when Uncle Naé sues and is joined by Stefan’s mother and sisters, he acquiesces. Uncle Naé then proposed that, with the inherited money, they should all buy a metal factory which seems to be coming up for sale. They agree. It all goes horribly wrong. The partner who was accepted as it was thought he was an expert on metal, not only knows nothing about the subject but is illiterate.
Meanwhile, Stefan’s marriage does not seem to be going much better. Ela, his wife, has started flirting with a dancer. Both then behave badly and Stefan threatens her with divorce. She moves out and lives with her aunt. They reconcile. However, it is not going well and war is approaching. Petrescu indulges in a bit of mockery here, as the minister says that the Romanian army is well-prepared for war. So what if they do not have any functioning armaments. Romanian bayonets are a match for any cannon.
As Romania is waiting for war, we are following Stefan and his sorry love life in some detail. The relationship seems to be on again and off again. She moves out. but they continually meet, usually by accident. He tries having a fling with an actress to make Ela jealous. To his surprise, he never sees her with another man. We learn of other wayward wives, which makes him even more suspicious that she has been cheating on him. Finally, she sends him a message to join him on a specific day. However, he has just received his orders and, as we know from the beginning of the book, he is desperate to get leave to be able to join her.
Finally, he does get permission to leave for two days and heads home. She is not there and does not turn up till the next morning. When she does turn up she has an excuse. She makes him more suspicious when she asks for cash rather than being left money in his will. He ends up by walking out but plans on spying on her. However, he is seen in the town by his colonel and has to accompany him back to the camp, all the while wondering if he can sneak away and return to town to catch his wife in flagrante delicto. The colonel tells him tales of a man he had met and it turns out that it is the man that his wife is seeing. The tales told by the colonel are not encouraging.
However, war starts just as he gets back and the focus changes, as Petrescu shows how unprepared the Romanian army really is.
There are two main plots and two sub-plots here. The first main plot is, of course, Stefan’s relationship with his wife. Stefan is obsessed with her, This is clearly, to a great extent sexual. We see him more than once lusting after her naked body. However, initially, she seems to reciprocate. When they are at university, she accompanies him to his lectures – philosophy and maths – even though, as she later admits, she does not understand a word. When he inherits the money, she is clearly eager to help him to spend it. Things start to go wrong when she meets G. Stefan is obviously the typical controlling male. Even before we know details of this story, we have seen that he is sympathetic to the man who killed his wife when she was unfaithful to him.
The second main plot is the latter part, when Romania joins the Allies in World War I. Petrescu shows (and adds specific details in a couple of copious footnotes) how unprepared the army was. They did not have enough weaponry. More particularly, they had no idea how to fight a war. The latest army manual was dated 1888. The officers at all levels clearly had no idea about strategy or tactics. This was not too much much of a problem when they were fighting the Hungarians as they did initially, as the Hungarians seemed to be equally unprepared. However, when the Germans joined in, it got much worse. The Germans had the equipment and they knew how to fight. Indeed, the troops Stefan and his colleagues faced had fought on the Western Front. It could only end one way and, as we know the Romanians made an armistice with the Germans by the end of 1917.
Of the two secondary plots the first involves Uncle Také’s will and the subsequent fall-out and then settlement. The second concerns Romanian views on the war prior to August 1916, Uncle Naé’s views, which seem to be shared by many others, is that Romania will not fight but will still be able to annex Transylvania. This view seems to be held up to the last minute.
It is a complex but fascinating book with the story of a decidedly murky love affair mixed in with a war, While Stefan is no Julien Sorel, it does seem that there is some influence there. We know Petrescu spoke French and read French literature so he certainly would have read The Red and the Black. This book has become one of the classics of Romanian literature. Sadly but, perhaps, not surprisingly, it has been translated into seven other languages but not English.
First published 1930 by Editura de stat pentru literatură și artă
No English translation
First published in French as Dernière nuit d’amour première nuit de guerre by Éditions des Syrtes in 2006
Translated by Laure Hinckel
First published in German as Letzte Liebesnacht Erste Kriegsnacht by Kriterion in 1975
Translated by Hermine Pilder-Klein
First published in Spanish as Última noche de amor, primera noche de guerra by Gadir in 2008
Translated by Joaquín Garrigós
Also translated into Chinese, Hungarian, Polish and Ukrainian