AS WE KNOW from contemporary testimony, the novel Rakes of the Old Court by Mateiu Caragiale (1885–1936), appeared on March 29, 1929, in the evening, at the Cartea românească bookstore. The store created a prominent display with multiple copies, and in the months following, the volume raised great interest among sophisticated Romanian audiences. On May 1, 1929, in the newspaper Ultima oră, the poet Ion Barbu (1895–1961) published the most enthusiastic review one could ever conceive, lauding the novel in extravagant terms: “I am not aware of any graver meditation on the scope and the adventure of Being than this book, which, in a gesture of discretion and taste, hides its wisdom under the heavy velvets of oriental charm.”
Rakes of the Old Court chronicles the interactions of four characters: the narrator, Pantazi, Paşadia, and Pirgu. We learn of their characters as we read about the soul of Bucharest, about the dubious values of their world, and about their delusions. The novel was not entirely new for literary connoisseurs, as Tudor Vianu’s Gândirea magazine had serialized the story between March 1926 and October 1928. Caragiale’s sole novel was unique in tone and style, unprecedented in its structural brilliance. It took a long time (more than nine decades!) for this wonder of a book to become available in English, but finally Sean Cotter has produced a masterful translation, and Northwestern University Press has published an edition worthy of the original.
Rakes was a product of the city of Bucharest and its literary society. Everyone felt that they knew the author, but in fact they knew very little about him. Born out of wedlock to a town clerk who was 21 at the time of his birth, Mateiu bore a family name known to the local literary world: his illustrious father was the influential playwright Ion Luca Caragiale (1852–1912), the author of A Lost Letter (1884), the absolute masterpiece of Romanian theater, a mordant satire à la Molière of the corrupt political system and a thorough intellectual critique of Romanian culture in general.
We should not imagine that Mateiu was just following in his father’s footsteps, however. Quite the contrary, he did his best to distance himself from his accomplished father. Mateiu’s feelings for Ion Luca were marred by contempt and mistrust, mainly due to a rather unfortunate family situation. In 1904, they received a large inheritance. Suddenly rich, Ion Luca moved his family to Berlin, and the expense of his new lifestyle eroded what Mateiu had hoped would be his share of the fortune. When Ion Luca died in 1912, Mateiu discovered, much to his displeasure, that he was left with next to nothing.
Mateiu himself had elaborate tastes; he was a genuine dandy, fascinated by the heraldic arts, mystery stories, and by the mirages of a remote historical past. He dreamed he might be related to great noble families of the imperial past, an idea denied and mocked at every opportunity by his witty father, whose irony only added to the son’s frustration. Their conversations about the Caragiale family’s historical roots must have been quite a show: on the one hand, the street-smart accomplished playwright, and on the other his rebelliously snooty and impractical son, who only wanted to be different from everyone else, in every way and at any cost.
The narrator of Rakes states: “Alone in Bucharest from a young age, living on my own, I kept distant from the herds. The restricted circle of my acquaintances, those chosen few, would never have included Gorică Pirgu, if he were not the inseparable fellow of Paşadia, for whom I had a boundless devotion.” There is much of Mateiu in this character’s vision, in his way of describing himself as different and depicting others as a “herd.” He longed for the lost empire of Byzantium — not for the real historical regime but rather its legendary aura, with its complex cultural and religious implications. These personality traits combined with his sophisticated readings to breed his literary style.
Yet the narrator is not the only stand-in for the novel’s author. Much interested in acquiring recognition and decorations, Mateiu Caragiale did not live like a professional writer but rather like a poet searching for precious emotions, the type who barely ever sits at his desk, yet somehow the work gets written, perhaps one line per day, and the outcome is a text that nobody else could have produced. He writes very little, but the result of his efforts are marvels — all unfinished with the sole exception of Rakes of the Old Court. Behind the secret shroud of his personal life, we recognize in Paşadia’s story reflections of the author’s own drama and unfulfilled aspirations. Paşadia is the great master of dissolution and disappearance, and this novel is somehow his saga, since everything revolves around him. We discover that this fascinating character writes quite a lot, but in secret, and all his work is not meant to be read but is instead destined for the flames. From the narrator’s descriptions we can assume that this body of work must be brilliant and powerful, but that’s a guess. Caragiale loves mysteries.
To illustrate this point, let us watch as Paşadia and Pirgu enter the stage, superbly conveyed by Caragiale’s unique voice and rich style (as captured in Sean Cotter’s English translation):
It was one of those close couples, usually born of perversion, who are so intertwined that you can’t imagine either one alone. It was obviously vice that bound this duumvirate — what else could unite two such different men? The older one, with blackened hair, was hopelessly well-attired; his stiff but still svelte body wore a head such as our time would never trouble itself to create, and his severe face seemed to have returned from another era, its haughty features stained by revulsion and hatred. The other was much younger, flabby and flaccid; he rocked on legs that bowed around a projected belly; his grinning snout mirrored the filthiest indignity. The first, very cold, turned his melancholic gaze over the heads of the crowd, while the second’s lively patchwork eyes played restlessly, gleaming with base ill will. The overall impression the second one gave was to his miscredit, yet when placed alongside the high-borne man, his shameless, low-life mug became even more repulsive.
The mystery of this powerful image stays with us: What kind of alliance is this? What kind of bond? And then, as we immerse ourselves in their story, we suspect that somehow, in deciphering these unusual characters’ mysteries, we are in fact finding out the secrets of the city of Bucharest — this refuge for the dregs of the Orient, its politics, its culture, its traditions. This story is as quintessential to Romanian culture as A Lost Letter. The landscape burns with Byzantine nostalgia, touched by a perfume of sadness, as if the author of Ecclesiastes had read Sade’s Justine. Perhaps, in this sense, it is a book of wisdom, who knows? Perhaps, in this sense, Ion Barbu was right.
The task of translating Caragiale’s atmospheric prose must have been a semantic torment, because each page is rife with one-of-a-kind expressions and words unique to the author’s lexicon. Take, for example, this background story:
His life, according to the story he seldom told, was a terrible struggle early on. Descended from people of prestige and station, he was abandoned at birth, raised by alien hands, and then exsputed to another country for his education. On his return, he saw himself dispossessed by his family, robbed, harassed, persecuted, and by everyone betrayed. What was not turned against him? With what strident injustice did forces gather, what unremitting industry to steal his youth, what exertion to bury him in silence!
That “exsputed” gives an accurate measure of Caragiale’s style. Like any excellent poet, he pursues the art and science of the rare word. He wants that word to shine in his sentence, so he mounts the brilliant gem in a crown of syntax, the best analogue for which is perhaps the lapidary prose of Oscar Wilde. Even after nine decades, the style of Caragiale’s sole novel amazes us, his use of concise and effective images borrowed from the most vivid and colorful slang, his unusual syntax filled with double meanings and subtle innuendos, his characters who tell the truth and lie at the same time. There is nothing like it in Romanian letters, and I am not sure whether there is really anything like it anywhere else.
If I were to compare it with anything else from world literature, perhaps the closest reference I can think of would be Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s classic novel The Leopard. Di Lampedusa was a genuine prince, while Mateiu Caragiale was just the chamberlain of an empire of illusions. Whatever he claimed to be in real life, his characters are ready to prove what they are in his fiction, supporting their assertions with documents from remote centuries. And they are ready to swear to the importance of their personal fortune and to defend it at any time or cost. Every nightmare from Caragiale’s personal life made it into the text, and he took his revenge on all his enemies and adversities by writing beautifully about them. There is much of the author in his narrator, much of him in Paşadia, and much of him in Pantazi, like three disjoint images reflected in different magic mirrors.
In fact, what is Rakes about? Is it really a “book of wisdom,” as Barbu suggests? If it is wise to avoid politics, to stand apart from the sound and fury of a maddening world, then yes, the book might be wise. If this retreat leads one into a brothel, however, even one whose owners pretend to noble ancestry, shall we conclude that this is wisdom? This is the intriguing tension, the inner contradiction that this novel cannot solve. Caragiale’s vision evokes a decadent human landscape with unexpected elegance. For every vice, consummated in a refined way, there is an elevated discourse that avoids calling it by its name.
A decade after Caragiale’s passing, Ion Barbu published a poem entitled “Protocol al unui club Mateiu Caragiale” (“Bylaws of a Mateiu Caragiale Club”), an imaginary organization inspired by the everlasting attraction Rakes of the Old Court exerts upon so many of us. This secret community of readers understands Caragiale’s Bucharest, with its mixture of charm and ruthless inaction, its inexplicable twists of reality. Fortunately, through Cotter’s expert translation, this important monument of literary modernism is now accessible to an English-language audience. And that’s a blessing: to witness these four characters wandering — and wondering — through the nights of secret Bucharest is a unique literary experience, fascinating and addictive, informative and scandalous, irritating and thrilling. The degree of wisdom conveyed, however, is up for debate.