Mateiu Caragiale: Craii de Curtea-Veche (Gallants of the Old Court; later: Rakes of the Old Court)
Caragiale first published this in serial form before it was published as a book. It had considerable success in Romania because of its style. However, it went out of favour in the Communist era though it was still much read. After the fall of Communism, it regained its reputation and, in 2001, it was voted the best Romanian novel (link in Romanian/English – an interesting list of the best Romanian novels).
In his introduction, translator Sean Cotter points out the difficulty in translating this novel. At the time of writing, Romania had only been free of the Ottoman Empire for sixty-three years and the Turkish language still had an influence on Romanian. Caragiale uses quite a few words or Turkish origin and it is obviously difficult to show what that means in a translation into English. Cotter has opted to use what he calls Latinate words, i.e. words of Latin origin and, in particular those that are not common in English. He does this, he says, to create tension in English.
How much this works will depend on the reader. I saw his point but found it slightly annoying. For example he uses the word mollitious three times. This clearly has the same root as the French word mou (feminine molle), meaning soft, though mollitious apparently means luxurious; sensuous. It is not a word I have ever used or, indeed, heard of. There are other words of a similar nature.
The eponymous Old Court is where much of the action takes place. It was some sort of castle where the old rulers lived but has been demolished and rebuilt several times. There is still an old church there bearing its name but is only because of the church that it is remembered, though here are various remains of ruins there. It is clearly symbolic, as the story has the current somewhat disreputable Romanians cavorting on the traditions of the past.
The four main characters all meet at restaurant there and indulge in eating, drinking and gambling. All four are partially well-off and educated. It is Pena Corcodusa who nicknames them The Rakes of the Old Court. Thirty five years previously, she had a fling with Sergei Leuchtenberg-Beauharnais, a handsome Russian officer and grandson of the Tsar. However, he had been killed in action and she never seemed to really recover and is now a drunk.
The four men are our narrator, Pantazi, Pasadia and Gorica Pirgu. Our narrator had met Pantazi in the park. They become close friends. The man lived within a boundless absence of care, nothing and no one bothered him. Pasadia hid a passionate soul, complex, tenebrous, and which, despite his control, would betray itself in slips of cynicism. All three are gentlemen and we get a colourful and, at times improbable, back story for them. Pirgu is a different kettle of fish. Wherever he went, Gorica was greeted with open arms, if not always by the front door. The narrator slyly comments with his lack of culture or high ideals, his minute knowledge of the world of thugs, pimps, and con-men, ruined maids, whores, and hurdy-gurdies, of the depraved and their speech—without much effort, Pirgu could have become one of the foremost authors of his nation. In short, Pirgu is a womaniser, drunk, opportunist, low-life, yet the other three seem strangely attracted to him. The narrator describes him as the living incarnation of excremental Bucharest, while he himself says I want to be a whorehouse regular. Despite this, it is Pirgu who is the patriot, the other three less so.
We follow the four men in their wanderings round Bucharest and, in particular in the Old Court area. None of them does anything useful, as carousing, drinking, eating gambling and whoring are the norm.
Though they visit various places, one place they visit regularly is the Arnoteanus, which is perhaps fairly typical of the environment they frequent: there may be days without bread, but none without an argument, but the yelling would be nothing if that were all it was, but the girls fought and scrapped, they pelted each other with whatever they had at hand, clawed and bit and tore their clothes, and then both of them came running to their mother, and then beat her to a pulp.
What makes this novel so fascinating are three things. Firstly there is the language. As mentioned translator Sean Cotter has endeavoured to convey some of the flavour of it. However, this is clearly one of those books where you really wish you could read the book in the original language. As well as the Turkish-based words. Caragiale piles on the descriptions. The one in the paragraph above, about the Arnoteanus (which is, in fact, much longer) is an example. The dissolute characters are not just palmed off with a brief description; rather Caragiale piles on the metaphors, the insults, the descriptions.
Secondly, there are the characters. While Pirgu may be said to be the only wicked one (and he, of course, does not pay a price for his misdeeds), the others are hardly model citizens. They behave badly, as we have seen with the Arnoteanus but we also see with our heroes, from dubious financial behaviour to fighting over a woman and generally spending their life in a dissolute manner.
Thirdly, there is the lavish background. Possibly, the scene Caragiale describes was real but it all seems to us, nearly a hundred years later, somewhat larger than life, somewhat fin-de-siècle, totally dissolute, cut off from the real world, all somewhat exaggerated. The characters are, as we are told,professional gamblers and provocateurs, drifters, stumblers and the fallen, the broken and the broke, ravaged by the taste for a life without work and above power… No-one (perhaps the narrator excepted) has any redeeming features and no-one seems to be the sort of person we would expect to meet and frequent. We do tend to be fascinated by stories of the dissolute and this novel is certainly as good as any novel about them.
First published in 1929 by Cartea Românească
First published in English in 2011 by Paideia
Translated by Cristian Baciu (Paideia); Sean Cotter (Northwestern University Press)