Three Controversial Books

What is one supposed to understand by image and to what extent should one take it to heart? Physiologically, the image is the consciousness one is left with about an absent object. It is, therefore, the opposite of perception, i.e. representation of a present object. In other words, the image is a subjective act, an attitude, not a faithful mirror of things seen. It was noticed, for instance, and for good reason, that all those who saw the Parthenon believe they can describe it, but nobody can represent it in all its details after a while. The more so does it hold true about Bucharest, a big city with multiple facets, inherent contrasts and subject to continuous, frenetic changes, in particular after World War I.As a matter of fact, the image is an old woe of Romanians, who would like it to be always entirely favorable, benevolent, praiseful, although this is impossible, no matter what capital, country or community is at issue.I am looking now at a feature in Românul newspaper, edited by C. A. Rosetti, the March 1, 1872 issue, which says: "There has been some time since we got used to see in the Austro-Hungarian press all sorts of false news and calumnies against our country. However, we have not been accustomed to read such stuff in French journals. We notice that, recently, those journals that have always been favorable to us, and even disputed the hostile papers insulting and slandering us, have been making the same mistake."Fifty years later, in Adevărul (September 14, 1922), I. Teodorescu, a well-known journalist of the day, saddened by foreign newspaper articles that depicted Romanian realities in a disparaging light, was making these bitter remarks: "Such descriptions are troubling the Westerners' digestion and are meant to do us harm, as today's people tend to believe evil things rather than good ones, especially news coming from an unknown country in the East."And four years later, on December 7, 1926, the editorial in L'Indépendance Roumaine, the National-Liberal Party French-language publication, was clearly expressing the disappointment caused by these facts: "These last days, alarmist rumors about our country have had analogous consequences (…). A number of journalists, most of them American, giving credence to news spread in foreign papers, came to Bucharest to cover events that never took place."Romanians reveal a peculiar sensitivity towards any hasty, groundless, or vindictive opinion formulated by persons who crossed our border and, after a longer or shorter stay, think themselves entitled to give forth judgments as superficial as they are generalizing.A good example is a French writer's book, Femmes sans pudeur (Shameless Women), subtitled Moeurs roumaines (Romanian mores), written in 1923. Who was André Joubert, and what brought him to Bucharest then? The reason of his presence is revealed by Radu D. Rosetti in Universul on March 1, 1923: "Here is this Romanian banker who wishes to launch a big illustrated daily in the style of Excelsior. He does not turn to our journalists, both more educated and more intelligent than the specimen in question, whose stupidity and rudeness came to light with fireworks; moreover, without any moral guarantee, he concludes a contract with the honorable gentleman, pledging to pay him no more no less than 5000 French francs (50,000 lei) a month! A binding five-year contract!"To be fair, Joubert was not a third-rate journalist, a nobody. In 1904 he had published in Paris a poetry booklet, in 1909 his first novel, in 1910, also in the capital of France, The Odyssey of a Reporter, in two volumes, and in 1920 another novel.Attracted by the more than generous contract extended by the Romanian banker, he left behind the City of Light to settle – quite comfortably, as a matter of fact – in the "Little Paris" on Dîmboviţa river shore. During his two-year stay, he scraped together enough to build a house and, by the end of 1923, print his above-mentioned lucubration at Paris Publishers (seemingly set up ad-hoc, at 10 Edgar Quinet St., not far from Globus printing works, located at 89 Calea Victoriei).But what was it that infuriated the Romanian public opinion? According to historian Nicolae Iorga, who vented his anger in an article titled Scandal (see Universul, February 26, 1923), "The novelist, if I may call him so, was so kind to depict a friendly country, a related people, a society that welcomed him, as a place of debauchery where nobody feels embarrassed, as a horde of despicable bums; as soon as they turn fourteen, shameless women have each twelve lovers paying daily for their services, men are as worthy, doctors kill their patients, policemen hang the arrested for money, plus every now and then a foreigner or two who have been taking advantage of our stupidity since the War."And in Petronius' opinion (the literary pseudonym of scholar Grigore Tăuşan, a very active journalist between the wars, now forgotten), "The initial, psychical cause of Joubert's inspiration must be sought in the fact that, for most foreigners visiting Romania, our ethnic reality was confined to revue theaters, snobbish restaurants, and the dubious salons of the latest nouveaux riches." (Quote from Viitorul [The Future], National-Liberal Party periodical, February 27, 1923).As I do not wish to limit myself to the indignant commentaries roused by Shameless Women, I shall also reproduce a few considerations, not necessarily the sauciest, of the author:"There is almost no virgin older than 14 in Bucharest." (p. 17)"In Bucharest one is allowed anything, provided it does not become public." (p. 25)"Listen to me, for I know the women in this country: you possess (the expression in the book is much coarser), but never marry them." (p. 102).And the examples could go on.Amazed, one may think, at the storm raised by his opinion on Bucharest women, Joubert attempted a mea culpa in a letter addressed to the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was at once released to the press. "All I wanted," Joubert excused himself, "was to stigmatize a narrow circle of people which is not specific to Bucharest, but exists in every country, in every big city…"To no avail. If matters had stood so, came the retort, he should have made this clear in his book, instead of subtitling it Romanian Mores.This is how the public opinion judged then, and the government, in their turn, decided the expulsion of the author of the "uncivil book", as the official communiqué said.After so many years, the great 1923 scandal looks like a storm in a teacup. In fact, another book on Bucharest, under this very title, written by a better-known author, Paul Morand, also caused live controversy at the time. The negative reactions determined Morand to offer explanations – without success, though. In a long article published in Universul on October 28, 1935, he wrote: "I thought I was being helpful dedicating it a whole page in twelve successive issues of a weekly with a 150,000 circulation [the Parisian weekly Marianne]. I did it because Romanians are my friends and in a way my family [he was married to a Romanian]. Nevertheless, although my volume wasn't even sold in bookstores as a book, I find myself denigrated from all sides." The writer was all the more dismayed by this reception as, in his own words, his intentions had been misinterpreted, and even distorted. When writing, for instance, that on Lipscani Street Bucharesters pronounce "fum-de-shumbre", it did not mean that Romanians as a rule cannot speak French, but that "these mistakes were made only by the lower classes, being totally absent in the elite's speech." And if he had written that in the vicinity of the Ministry of Finance there was a forest where wolves were being raised, it was only a "figure of speech, a hyperbole." "I named a park forest, and some dogs wolves, being careful though to add that those were stray dogs."And, generally speaking, was he supposed to write a "stale panegyric" to Bucharest, spread around "waves of eulogies without reserve, normally specific to funeral encomiums?" Paul Morand had been avoiding that at any price, being convinced that "in every country there are fierce chauvinists who take any interference with the ideal image they made of their homeland as a personal offense."All this happened, as I said, before his impressions appeared in a book. But neither was the presence of the book on bookstore shelves acclaimed. In the 1936 New Year issue of Vremea (Time), literary critic Petru Comarnescu launched a veritable philippic, entitled A Bucharester to Paul Morand, in which he blamed his penchant for "picturesque Orientalism", "Voivodal Byzantinism", and "modern age antics": "Being informed rather by nostalgics who judge Bucharesters from inside a declining society, you have missed the works of the rising class. You described impoverished boyars, good-family boys who are parasites more often than not," but – he continued at another place – "beyond the décor, the picturesque, and manners, you have never searched for the spirit of Romanian culture that has been residing therein in the last years."In the same context must be understood art critic and historian George Oprescu's letter, from which a few excerpts would be clarifying: "…Everything is true, yet the whole is often inaccurate, and always artificial. Not only do the trees conceal the wood, but their branches and leaves conceal the trees themselves. You had to be 'documented', so you were shown things and people that exist, but are far from being characteristic. And there might have been frequent events happening in your life that are in fact uncommon. I shall take the liberty of giving you a very striking example to make you understand my idea. I was visited the other day by an English friend who came here to make arrangements for a drawings exhibition. Other friends planned to get him acquainted with life in Bucharest and 'national cuisine'. I accompanied him, of course. In one week I ate more sarmale and carp borsch than in the previous five years. And the unfortunate guest must have drawn the conclusion that three Romanians never get together except before these dishes, and that they spend their lives listening to folk bands in night clubs. In reality, he was offered a show…"We have no way of knowing how Morand's inner self reacted to the avalanche of criticism, but we may imagine that, after a while, his frustration and grief waned, as between 1942-1943 he was appointed minister plenipotentiary of the Vichy puppet government in the capital of Romania; this was far from producing a good impression among the Bucharest public, which may have been perceived acutely by the author, as after few months he left office without even saying goodbye to his friends.Soon after Paul Morand's Bucarest, another book about Romania by a well-known American journalist, John Gunther of Chicago Daily News, didn't even make it to Bucharest bookstores. His book was a European reportage that enjoyed enthusiastic reviews in the Anglo-American media and worldwide (The Times considered it a "Baedeker of politics"). Why couldn't Inside Europe reach Romanian readers, although it comprised a large chapter (XXVI) on Romania? Well, the title of the chapter referred to a Lupescu comedy, and the chapter started with considerations on a rich country with 18,800,000 inhabitants ruled by King Carol who, in his turn, was supervised by Mrs. Lupescu. A country floating on crude oil, drowned in grain and wood, whose richness was being lost following the plundering campaigns by corrupt politicians. The capital city was a hodgepodge of a little Paris whose main avenue, Calea Victoriei, displayed silk dresses, perfumed corseted officers and elegant coaches running with their tops pulled down. The wealth produced by sweating famished peasants was swapped here for plum brandy, Danube Delta roe and big red strawberries picked on the Transylvanian hills. It also said that for three generations Romania had been ruled by a family of hereditary semi-dictators, the Brătianus."Under these circumstances, the Police General Command of the Ministry of the Interior – which obviously had careful readers on their payroll – decided, as specified in a memo sent to the Director of Press and Information at the Royal Ministry of Foreign Affairs on March 2, 1937, to call their attention on the February 24, 1937 issue of Neamul Românesc newspaper (whose editor was historian and political man Nicolae Iorga) which claimed that "interested authors" were denigrating the country in several recently published books such as Inside Europe by John Gunther, Hitler's Drive to the East by F. Elwyn Jones and Drums in the Balkan Nights by John McCoulgh.Soliciting advice on the latter two, N. Ştefănescu, chief of 3rd Department of Police General Command announced (thus pacifying) the recipient of his memo that Inside Europe had been prohibited for some time.Thus the common Romanian reader was protected from writings he might have disliked himself, but would have surely distressed the bigwigs of the day.

by Dumitru Hîncu