Mateiu I. Caragiale

The well-known elements of fanciful prose are being joined by new features and grouped in a personal synthesis by the writing of Mateiu I. Caragiale. If we wanted to make a connection between Mateiu Caragiale and his father, the great Ion Luca, we would need to refer to the fantastic and picturesque side of the latter's work, to which short stories like The Devil's Horse or Kir Ianulea belong. In any case, a new tributary, unknown to Ion Luca, flows into Mateiu's work and this is "aestheticism," from which he extracts the deep imagery, the colour of things, the artistic allusion, the expression of uncanny feelings. In Remember, the short story from 1924, where we are told the dark and enigmatic occurrence involving the young lord Aubrey de Vere, who finds his death on one of those sinful nights of old Berlin, the hero comes across to the author as an image out of van Dyck or van der Faes's portraits. The Northern charm of this figure was the more visible when the narrator happened to meet him in a Dutch distillery, the genuine background of Ruysdael, van Brouwer or van der Hoogh paintings, a narrow and rather dark room, like the house of a burgomaster or the head of a guild, its walls lined with smoked oak planks and shelves with rows of Delft cups and jugs (p. 38). The story's fantastic dream begins to unfold in an atmosphere saturated with the fragrances of drinks strewn with Java and Antilles spices, under the spell of the seven big Ceylon sapphires glinting in the fingers of the strange Aubrey de Vere. Remember is a night story, like the author's other work, Old-Court Philanderers, 1929. No one has managed to surpass Mateiu I. Caragiale in describing the night or the twilight. Sometimes he evokes "the smooth twilight breeze (which) cradled the crimson tassels of the roses clung to the front house terrace, carrying their fragrance to me. The evening revived the shadows, shivers passed stealthily through the mirrors" (Works, Perpessicius ed., p. 36). Sometimes the night is heavy and full of sins: "It was a night of velvet and lead, in which a mellow breath of hot wind unsuccessfully tried to clear the smog that had curdled the air. Short bouts of lightning were flashing in the distance, the forest and the sullen gardens were silent as if numbed by an evil spell; it smelled of mystery, of sin, of distraction. My progress through the darkness which wadded the lonely alleys was difficult, sometimes I had to stop, overcome with weakness" (op. cit., p. 44). Sometimes it is the unsettling charm of a lighted window shining in the night: "The quay was empty and the houses blind. Everywhere the windows were black, some being however open, one could see inside those dull quicksilver gleams that grin in the mirrors at dark. A single one up high was being webbed by feeble rays, that of a room laden with gilded trinkets, where a lamp laid on the edge of a wardrobe – more a votive light than a lamp – kept vigil, barely letting a muffled light sift out as if poisoned through layers of green enamel, one of those lights that according to black magic customs are favourable to evil spirits wandering in the dark of night" (p. 46). And then: "Oh, the charm of bright windows in the dark, who would dare to tell it again after Barbey d'Aurevilly[1]?" But the figurative sphere of the night is not the only one where Mateiu Caragiale is successful. In a page of great stylistic seductive power, which we borrow from Old-Court Philanderers, Pantazi recounts his travels, and what the author himself calls "the whirlwind of visions" deserves to arrest us. First, there is the romantic landscape with ruins: "Higher up there rose lofty ruins in folds of ivy, decaying fortresses lay invaded by poisonous verdure. Forsaken palaces dozed off in the dereliction of gardens where stone deities in a garment of moss were watching with a smile how the autumn wind was sweeping away banks of rust-coloured leaves, the gardens with fountains where the waters sparkled no more." From there, the traveller heads for the mountains, where the description uses the organic notation in depicting the ascent to "the harsh giddiness of summits, (from where) we left glades in bloom behind us, we climbed through the fir wood. …At our feet, between bald slopes and hillocks maned by thick woods, the dales spread along the tortuous riverbed of the streams that faded in the distance, in the vapour of rich fields." And in the silence of high places, a sense of the auditory settles powerfully in: "A long rustling was rising like a prayer." However, the blizzards and frost of winter started to rage soon and the traveller headed towards the South, towards the places named in classical-abstract style: "the praised shores of the Hellenic and Latin seas," where the temptations of the smell were the first to welcome him: "The fragrance of oleander flowers lay bitter above the sad lakes that mirrored spires white among funerary cypresses." And whereas the figure of man was missing both from the romantic landscape of the ruins and the vision of immaculate summits, it shows up now in the description of the South like in the lovely Dalmatian evocation gleaned above in N. Iorga's depictions: "A Greek woman was smiling to us from a jasmine-curtained porch." The human bustle of Southern ports joins in: "We were bargaining with Armenian and Jewish merchants in bazaars, drinking sweet wine with sailors in smoky inns where women were belly-dancing. The variegated bustle from the sun-drowned scaffolding together with the gentle swing of the masts made us giddy, the smooth silence in the Turkish graveyards, the white overindulgence of the Eastern towns sprawling like odalisques in the shadow of haughty cedars charmed us, we let the blue magic of the Mediterranean dazzle us until, overcome by the torpor of its enamel sky and stifled by the Libyan wind, we went out by the ocean side." The road first headed towards the North, where one could see from the play of humidity and light how "the slanting rays were briskly wearing out the drizzle, dissolving the rime cake in all the faces of the rainbow, and were, never the same, intense blushing at sundown, burgeoning translucence violet blue and hoary on the long summer evenings, the fairylike brilliance of the Northern dawn above the piling of glaciers." And after this vision of oceanic north, where the panoramic evocation through the verbal noun (piling), which is so common with Maniu, also appears, the ways of the Ocean veer towards exotic South, towards the islets of the Antilles and, further on, the Indian and Chinese shores, where the sound of the bells in the pagodas produces this rich alliteration: "The hot wind was playfully petting the silvery bells of the pagodas, was bending the broad bamboo brier." The copious pages we have quoted from (op. cit., p. 89 and fol.) and which contain a quasi-quintessence of exotic descriptiveness of the sort no one attempted anymore since Alecsandri and Iorga, are composed using both romantic means like the profusion of colour, and classical, through the multitude of general epithets: "lofty ruins, long rustling, sad lakes, smooth silence," etc. and through the harmonious oratorical cadences of the ample, well-balanced periods.The power to adore and the power to hate, and especially to scorn, are the two tributaries that flow into the riverbed of Old-Court Philanderers. Separated by just a couple of pages we have the portrait of the favourite hero Pantazi and that of the character in which all the author's aristocratic resentments are concentrated, Pirgu. The pair is similar to that of Prospero and Caliban from Shakespeare's Tempest. Pantazi appears in an environment of gardens, like a Renaissance portrait, where the evening's harmonies are uttered once again: "In the fiery revival of the green, drunk on humidity and absolutely deserted, the garden would uncover towards evening, when the skies cleared up for a while, unsuspected beauties. And on the most wonderful of evenings I had the pleasant surprise of meeting my friend again on the lake's great bridge. Leaning against the shabby hand rail he fixed his eyes on the white gleam of the rising evening star" (p. 87). The literary risk of this depiction is compensated by the game of alternations and no other writer could ever try it again, if, like Mateiu Caragiale, he did not possess the power of his ascent towards the high spheres of lyrical fervour and that virtue of scorn that seems to let itself be hypnotised by what causes and teases it the most. from The Art of Romanian Prose Writers 1941
[1] Barbey d'Aurevilly, Jules (1808–1889) – French fiction writer whose great originality bordered on extravagance; he cultivated a Satanic attitude, lucid delicacy and recherché stylistic refinement, without, however, stifling the spontaneity of his creative imagination. He had a decisive influence on Mateiu I. Caragiale, and not only on him. One of his ardent admirers was Anton Holban, who undertook minute investigations of the places where the French writer had lived and been inspired by, in order to draw up a study that would remain unfinished due to his untimely death (ed. n.).

by Tudor Vianu (1897-1964)