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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Rakes of the Old Court

Mateiu Caragiale

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To purchase Rakes of the Old Court

Title: Rakes of the Old Court
Author: Mateiu Caragiale
Genre: Novel
Written: 1929 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 103 pages
Original in: Romanian
Availability: Rakes of the Old Court - US
Rakes of the Old Court - UK
Rakes of the Old Court - Canada
Les Seigneurs du Vieux-Castel - France
Die Vier vom Alten Hof - Deutschland
I principi della corte-antica - Italia
Los depravados principes de la vieja corte - España
directly from: Northwestern University Press
  • Romanian title: Craii de Curtea-Veche
  • Translated and with a Preface by Sean Cotter
  • Previously translated as Gallants of the Old Court by Cristian Baciu (2013)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : stylish take on a slice of 1910 Bucharest

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS A 4/2/2022 Costica Bradatan

  From the Reviews:
  • "A largely plotless, directionless novel set in 1910, Rakes recounts the narrator’s meetings and deambulations with three other characters (.....) (I)t is beneath its titillating surface that the novel’s real drama unfolds – the drama of a country that cannot find its soul, caught up between the Orient to which it has long belonged (Romania had severed itself from the Ottoman Empire only a few decades before) and a Europe it very much wants to re-join, without being entirely sure how, or even why. The choice isn’t simple. (...) Rakes doesn’t just describe Romania’s fissured identity: it also performs it. (...) Thanks to Cotter, we now have the best possible translation of an essentially untranslatable text." - Costica Bradatan, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Rakes of the Old Court, set in Bucharest, Romania, around 1910, is a portrait of place, times, and lifestyles -- all conveyed as much, or more so, in the style of the writing as in what is being described. It is a fin de siècle canvas of a place and slice of society with Parisian aspirations but aware too that it sits at the fringes of Europe, its cosmopolitan decadence saturated by the continental -- a still-pre-war Europe -- but also tinged by the very local.
       The narrator has a "restricted circle" of acquaintances -- if not entirely a select one: the chosen few, for example: "would never have included Gorică Pirgu, if he were not the inseparable fellow of Paşadia, for whom I had a boundless devotion". The novel is presented in four loosely connected chapters centered around a quartet of characters -- the narrator and his small circle. The narrator notes: "Alone in Bucharest from a young age, living on my own, I kept distant from the herds", and there's little mixing with the masses here, the small circle mostly concerned with themselves, dining and meeting together.
       Caragiale acknowledges his young alter-ego's limited perspective and experience -- reflected then also in the novel --, as one of the acquaintances points out to the narrator:

     They were talking about you today, before you came, they said you were working on a novel of manners, set in Bucharest, and I could barely keep from laughing. I mean, really: you and Bucharest manners. Maybe Chinese manners, as far as that goes, because you might as well be Chinese. How are you supposed to know manners, when you don't know anybody ? Aside from us, I mean, maybe if you wrote about Paşa, me Panta -- with anyone else you won't know what you're doing ... ah, yes, maybe my friend Poponel. Now if you visited some homes, met some families, that would change things, you'd see how much you'd have to write about, what characters !
       The narrator does expand his horizons some over the course of his account, notably in the final chapter, but Rakes of the Old Court remains far from a typical Bildungsroman -- as indeed Caragiale seems only limitedly interested in charting his narrator's growth, devoting much of the space to the stories of the more fully-formed others in the group.
       It's a rather loose-knit group the narrator is part of, pulled in different directions even as they repeatedly circle back to each other; they're very different characters with different backgrounds -- though all seem to enjoy a rather laid-back, easy-going lifestyle. Typically, too, they're only loosely rooted in and connected to the present-day, as much of the novel is also a lament for a lost past -- personal and general. So, for example, they happily escape the present in their imaginations:
Then a new journey began, no less beguiling, a journey into centuries past. We would find ourselves in a century dear to us, and in all senses nostalgic: the eighteenth.
       As translator Sean Cotter notes in his Preface: "The book offers atmosphere, but few events", and indeed the novel is more one of episodes and scenes than one offering a full-fledged story-arc. So also, as the narrator notes of the group's get-togethers:
But the real pleasure came in our idle conversation, the palaver that embraced only the beautiful: travel, the arts, letters, history -- history especially -- gliding through the calm of academic heights
       The novel is a motley canvas, but one rich in detail and color. If many bits feel stray, there are also longer pieces, actual stories such as in the chapter 'Confessions', which is largely one of the other character's accounts, revealing an unexpected personal history (and identity), a life of great excess, a great fall -- and then a return to previously privileged positions thanks to an inheritance (which turns out to be something rather more and different than a mere stroke of luck).
       So also, the final chapter has the narrator immersed in the Arnoteanus' household, with its three very different daughters:
Their house was a combination of way station and an inn, a brothel, a gambling house, and a madhouse, was wide open any time to anyone, the meeting place of all the cursed and inquinate of our time: professional gamblers and provocateurs, drifters, stumblers and the fallen, the broken and the broke, ravaged by the taste for a life without work and above power, willing to sate their desire by any means
       The narrator here moves in an even more condensed and extreme form of the world he otherwise knows -- though he can handle it only for a time, eventually leaving it behind him.
       In the narrator's description of listening to one man's story, Caragiale seems to suggest his own ambitions and approach:
     The narration undulated languidly, braiding a rich garland of notable literary blossoms from all peoples. Master of the craft of painting with words, he effortlessly found means to express, in a tongue whose familiarity he claimed to have lost, even the most slippery and uncertain forms of being, of time, of distance, such that the illusion was always complete. As though bespelled, I undertook long imaginary journeys with him, journeys such as no dream ever provided ... the man spoke. Before my eyes unrolled charming throngs of tangible visions.
       There is attention to descriptive detail in the novel -- how much there is already just in a simple gesture, as when one girl holds out: "her tiny, gloved hand palm up, so I could kiss the bare skin above her wrist" -- but above all Caragiale luxuriates in language. Much is high-flown, but he also (via translator Cotter) does the baser and basic very well:
Eh, what can you say, with everything and everything, with all her faults, a badmouther, a bedjumper, a bankbreaker, a blabbermouth, and a flake, who says and does everything upside-down and backwards and above all dangerously, ready to get you in trouble, still Mima had her fun side
       Translating all of Caragiale's great range is, of course a great challenge, and Cotter's discussion of his approach, in his Preface and the notes to the text, offers welcome insight into some of what he does here. Cotter notes his: "translation follows a tradition of reperformances", and gives a variety of examples of choices and approaches to specific issues. So, for example, in a note to the 'Confessions'-chapter he explains:
In this chapter, Mateiu creates a contrast with other parts of the novel by including many Greek terms in Pantazi's account of his family. Some of these exist in English, though they are rare enough to require notes here. In my translation, I have also opted for words with Greek etymologies ("petrified", "catastrophe") where they were available.
       This kind of helpful supporting material gives English-language readers a better sense of the effect of the original, though clearly it's not possible to capture the full range of Caragiale's style-play.
       The slim novel can, in translation, not easily live up to its exalted reputation in Romanian, but Cotter's flights of language shine sufficiently to give some sense of its appeal. The strong characters -- beyond the central quartet, too, in figures such as "the storied Sultana Negoianu", or the youngest of the Arnoteanu daughters, Ilinca -- and the succinctly phrased dark turns of some of the episodes easily make quite an impression too. If at times the whole has a nebulous feel, the specifics tend to be razor sharp.
       Rakes of the Old Court is a stylish -- in very distinct fashion -- late-decadent work, and it is certainly good to have it now available in an English translation that captures much of what is essential to the original.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 August 2021

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Rakes of the Old Court: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Romanian author Mateiu Caragiale lived 1885 to 1936.

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© 2021-2022 the complete review

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