Paul Morand And The Dwellers Of Bucharest

The author of the brilliant Ouvert la nuit series seems to be in a state of conflict with some Bucharest dwellers. Out of incontestable affection for our Capital, he tried to picture it as a "city portrait" for the Western world, and he managed to make enemies out of the very people he tried to serve in a friendly manner. Or, at least, out of the most susceptible ones. But what did this admirable French writer say about Bucharest? How did this undeniable friend of the Romanian people "libel" us? Because, from the very start, we felt that part of the hostility some Bucharest colleagues showed to this "city portrait" was understandable and somehow petty. The portrait, if it sinned, did not sin owing to any libelous intention, however! Of course, it is hard to say, because we do not know the entire book, due to censorship. Anyway, we can prove from the very beginning that the man does not say anything worse about Bucharest than what we write and say ourselves, sometimes bitterly enough. You will say: just like Cyrano, who stated he was ready to make fun of his own nose, but drastically punished any other person's hint, we, no matter how much we gossip about ourselves, do not allow foreigners to do the same. The truth is that Paul Morand praised us. But he did so for things we do not like, he was enchanted to describe only aspects that foreigners who come to visit us "love," with the feelings and curiosity people have when they sometimes visit ill-reputed cafes, Gypsy corners, and the taverns of Asia Minor harbors. It so happens that there are two opposing groups of Romanian intellectuals. The traditionalists and the modernists. It is beyond all doubt that the modernists are not keen on highlighting our oriental nature, but, not even the traditionalists are proud of the Romanian SLUM. If Morand had praised the picturesque of the Romanian peasant, the monasteries outside Bucharest, the mountain landscape, the architecture of Gorj and Râmnic, he would have probably flattered all the traditionalist circles. Bucharest itself is a condemned city in Romanian literature. And even in the other literature. Princess Bibescu, in Izvor, Le pays des Saules, although she provides one of the most insightful visions of the Romanian countryside life, speaks so contemptuously about Bucharest, that she does not even consider it necessary, if memory serves, to mention its name, in the 500 pages of her priceless book. As far as the Romanian literature is concerned, Bucharest is a cursed theme: Babylon, Purgatory, and Calea Victoriei used to be the titles of novels dealing with the city. When I told a few friends I was planning to write a novel where Bucharest would not be regarded with the traditional horror, they smiled, not trusting me. But, here comes Paul Morand, with the nasty idea of dealing with Bucharest. Not embracing the modernization theme, which would have put at least the modernists on his side, but describing, with his brilliant talent, the oriental aspect, more precisely the Bucharest SLUM. This is precisely the deficient corollary of his preferences for the picturesque: a metaphoric vision, fulgurating impressions, striking colors, comic simplifications, and telegraphic comparisons from the other pole of culture. Bucharest appears as a charming slum, but, owing to its ridiculous character, also as an EMBARRASSING one – with sordid aspects. Without any malice, without any evil intent, you can talk about the hunch of a guest who is in a ceremonious salon, showing its amusing sinuosity, comparing it to many kinds of potatoes, eggplants, or turnips, but it is exaggerated to believe that the gentleman, even if he smiled yellowishly when the others were laughing, will be grateful to you for dealing with him. Our opinion is that Bucharest life in its deep meaning is a TOO DIFFICULT theme for writers who want to see everything from the outside. Be they sons of peasants who write literature with small-town nostalgias, or foreign writers, even if they live in Bucharest for a few months. Few European capitals may be as interesting psychologically as this Capital of violent spiritual contrasts, a city where suave perversity, hypocritical ideology, selfish sentimentalism, aspiration to absolute beauty, cunning sensuality, honest love for the past, great cultural debates, and a taste for forms and ignorance of meanings create restlessness and struggles. Bucharest cannot be known just at Kiev, or based on amusing, childish information, obtained from haphazard friends. In fact, Morand's great talent appears whole when his information came somewhat directly, in the extraordinary historical raccourci at the begging of the book. It is a precise, rich view, complete in its own way, like a city that looks mazy when you walk through it, but amazingly significant when you see it from the plane. Only a free spirit, like that of this French writer, could rise and stroll so easily, with such a wealth of impressions, above our historical landscape. Unfortunately, some of our columnists were just content, as usual, to view this as "déjà vu," probably without even reading on, and without understanding the precision of the book's meanings. So, they declared this entire historical incursion useless and boring. Of course, we are sorry that Paul Morand has failed in his admirable intention (think, it is exceptionally important to even be included in a collection, with New York City and London, a collection signed by one of the most widely-read writers in the world). But we hope he will come back to the theme, to Romanian aspects, we hope he will deepen his ties with the Romanian spirit, in a new work, which will be really useful to this country.(1935)

by Camil Petrescu (1894-1957)