Regarded as the greatest Romanian playwright of all time, Ion Luca Caragiale is one of the characters of the novel M J C. But the main character is the playwright’s son, also a highly important writer : Mateiu Caragiale. The novel is original in its approach, weaving together the real, the imaginary and the lifelike, against the backdrop of Romania’s Belle Epoque, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This world is described both from the outside and from the inside of an unusual mind, that of “the most reactionary Romanian writer.” He is a character wholly unique, haughty, non conformist, insufferable. As a young man, he obstinately forges for himself the life and appearance of a true dandy, scandalising contemporary philistines, chief among whom is his own father. As a grown man, he isolates himself within his own haughtiness, becoming the strangest figure in inter bellum Bucharest. He spends the last decade of his life in the house of boyar Marica Sion, stubbornly transforming her manor in Baragan into an aristocratic estate. With his entire being, he is now able to demonstrate what he has always desired : noblesse, elegance, style. He breaks almost completely with his times, a period in which “the elected representatives of the rabble have begun to slobber over everything.” He yearns for the pre First World War Romania, the same as many people nowadays yearn for pre Second World War Romania.
What happened in Bucharest Anno Domini 1884 ? Three years after Karl von Hohenzollern Sigmaringen, a German, was crowned King of Romania, he set about putting into effect a promise he had made as a young Prussian sub lieutenant, a promise made during tortured nights when he had sat shivering below the bastions of the Fredericia citadel, the haughty Danish stronghold during the war of the duchies. He had promised he would wage future battles only from behind battlements, targeting the enemy in the trenches, spraying him with shrapnel.
He therefore set about building lines of defences around the city on the Dimbovita that was now his capital. Ultimately, he told himself, any position can be besieged ; such is the way of the world. Why not prepare your defences in advance ? General Brialmont, the master of Belgian fortifications, had already designed for him a system capable of holding up against any attack : a ring of eighteen fortresses flanked by eighteen armoured cupolas. More than two hundred cannons and thirty thousand soldiers were to defend a circumference that ran through the peripheries of the capital. The forecast cost : ninety million gold lei.
What with one thing and another, the venerable Bratianu, the Liberal head of the incumbent government, invoking the royal motto Nihil sine Deo, allocated five million lei for the construction of the National Cathedral. In that way he placated the native priesthood, who were vexed at the magnificent inauguration of the Roman Catholic Cathedral on 15 February of that year. It had been a great blow, dealt by the popish heretics ; all the leading politicians had been in attendance at the pontifical mass officiated in the new edifice. The Orthodox clergy were rabid : we want pomp and ceremony too, a basilica for solemn services – this country is the Garden of the Mother of God, begad !
Then spring came. Officialdom and the aristocracy were consumed by a new concern : the first visit to Romania of the crown prince, the king’s nephew Ferdinand, a German dandy of nineteen, a Schuler at Leipzig University. In Bucharest, the lampposts were cleaned, and in the stables at Castle Peles an electrical generator was installed, with the castle candles being replaced by filament globes. German illumination.
High society events such as these made the headlines of the newspapers, which were printed in a thousand copies every afternoon for the people of Bucharest, until one fine day, first thing in the morning, the vendors appeared on Victory Avenue with the first issue of Universul, a daily printed in eighty thousand copies. Every member of the reading public paid five bani to follow the serialisation of Monsieur Du Terrail’s gripping novel Les Drames de Paris, the interpellations of the opposition in the Chamber, and accounts of the antics of City Mayor Fleva, who was planting poles and stretching wires above the central intersections. But above all else they read it for the sundry news items, with all the latest scandals, robberies and fires. Just then, the Belvedere tobacco warehouse was ablaze and the police were doggedly hunting the perpetrator through the aromatic smoke that suffocated the Buzesti quarter.
It was the same quarter where Ion L. Caragiale, the ageing young lad from Prahova, had taken up residence, after working as a schools inspector in the provinces. Matei Smedeanu, a big cheese in the Monopolies Department and a large hearted son of the Ploiesti republic, had roped him into the pen pushers’ scheme to manufacture cigarettes. At the Belvedere. On the threshold of the age of thirty three, the man they roped in was a lamentable employé, but handsome and a bon viveur. A lad about town. Having narrowly escaped a drubbing in the doorway of the aforementioned Leopoldina, on whose charms he had gorged himself along with a bellicose cavalry major, he strategically re mustered his forces at his new workplace, using his smart moustache to enchant the young Marioara, a worker at the tobacco bundling stand. A few weeks of courting were sufficient in the run up to Easter, when he resorted to an infallible stratagem : he put the young woman in a carriage decked as if for the fair and asked the coachman to take them to the flower fight on the Chaussée ; he made her queen for an hour. That evening she no longer put up any resistance to jus primae noctis. Who was seduced ? A tallish girl of nineteen, a beginner in her trade, a beginner in everything. But also the heir to a small house with a room for a lodger, next to St Basil’s. A furnished room, with geraniums in the window and dowry bedclothes.
The swaggering Ion Luca, a man “emotionally impulsive, aggressive and boorish,” had reasons to be satisfied. He had tasted his fill of the love of wilted women ; he had ridden out plenty of stormy affairs. “Well, Rica, that’s me !” he confessed to a friend. Indeed, one night, sullying the husbandly honour of a timber merchant, “he was thrashed soundly by him ; the sister in law of the townsman and a sergeant who lived with her were barely able to rescue him.” Portrait of the playwright as a young man : Rica Venturiano. What literature, what imagination – a front of stage confession.
But by now, in the middle of the year 1884, Caragiale was a settled man ; he had bed and board at number 14, Frumoasa Street, in the house of his latest mistress. Delivered from bodily and residential worries, he lives a life of ease and writes ; three months after he moves there, Marioara is carrying the fruit of their relationship in her womb, and he is carrying it in his head : a play in four acts. The first to see the light of day is the play.
And so it was that at the beginning of October, the inspired satyr went to the anniversary of Jassy’s Junimea Society, taking the manuscript of A Lost Letter along with him in his bag. He does not relent until he has acted out the entire comedy in Maiorescu’s house on Mercur Street. The performance is a success ; the author is consecrated as a man of the theatre.
Returning to Bucharest, he takes off. He sits down at his desk and writes an unequivocal petition to the management of the Monopolies Department : “The intellectual sphere within which this play has placed me makes me incapable of continuing my life at the factory. And so either I be given a position in the Central Administration or I will be forced to resign.” Is Ion Luca taking a risk ? Not really ; he is playing hard, convinced that the staging of Lost Letter will make him a “man.” It will remove him from the rank of the pack animals. A man is somebody who shouts giddy up or whoa ; if not to intelligent bipeds, then at least to characters in a play.
And indeed, on 13 November, when the premiere of the play was held at the National, the theatre was full ; furthermore, Queen Elisabetha herself, the poetess, was seated in the central box. Let us not ask whether the author’s pregnant paramour, the tobacco leaf girl, had a seat in the stalls. The auditorium exuded nothing but elegance, velvet and top hats. Not the place to let slip humble origins. Nottara played the part of the prefect, Aristizza Romanescu that of Zoe. When the curtain came down on the final act, the cheers of the Catavencus on stage were drowned out by the applause of the audience. Caragiale made two curtain calls. It was hard to tear him away. He blew kisses, grinned, bowed. After that, of course, the triumph was celebrated : beer hall, friends, party.
After the performance, the audience too dispersed to the restaurants of the Little Paris, dining and backbiting with gusto. Under the gaze of the omnipresent Misu “Claymoor” Vacarescu, the reporter for L’Indépendance Roumaine. Who mentioned in the high life column demoiselle Burelly, who was soon to become the wife of the established Ion Luca and the stepmother of his imminent scion, who was hatching at the edge of town.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Ion Iovan demonstrates an astonishing capacity for empathy and achieves a narrative, retrospective, introspective tour de force. M J C also contains a fresco of history and social mores, a fictionalised biography, and prose of moral/psychological analysis. A world for a character and a character as big as a whole world.”
“Ion Iovan’s novel about the life and times of Mateiu Caragiale is proof that the encounter between one of today’s great talents and a great writer of yesteryear cannot help but produce a masterpiece.”
“Ion Iovan is like a magician who masters the enchanting world of Mateiu and reconstructs it in writing with the vocation of a demiurge. M J C is a book worth reading not only if you are captivated by the personality of Mateiu, but also, above all, if you still thought that contemporary Romanian literature couldn’t produce memorable books.”