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With Dinu Grigorescu, Paul Bailey presents contemporary readers with a challenging narrator. Ailing while on the cusp of 60 in the spring of 1967 and certain that he has little time remaining, Dinu’s setting down a “memoir of a life half-lived.” Though mentioning in passing the lonely decades he endured in London after the mid-1930s, the heart of his recollection relates to what Dinu calls his “Parisian adventures.” A romantic with a “manliness denied [him] by nature,” Dinu’s an acutely sensitive esthete–when far younger and residing for a few months in a Montmartre garret (“a lavender-scented bower”), the poet manqué purchased a beret, no less, and envisioned himself writing in the mode of his literary heroes Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Proust, and Eminescu. As a narrating voice to spend time with, that precious temperament proves something of an acquired taste. And as with many acquired tastes, Dinu’s agonized and reflexively theatrical self-presentation may have limited appeal.
The child of an affluent lawyer in Romania, Dinu recalls being a frail nineteen-year old with “ghostly cheeks” who was then navigating the traumatic loss of his devout mother (he remembers weeping almost every night in bed over the seven years since her death) and the firm expectations of his social-climbing father. A gift, the trip to Paris is meant as the summer away before haute bourgeois life begins.
Dinu does not soon find himself writing bohemian poems. Instead, and although “green in the ways of the flesh and the complexities of human intercourse” and aware that the human fruit he’s desperate to devour is “nothing less than a crime against nature and a cardinal sin in the eyes of [his] Orthodox faith,” he stands elsewhere. Money in hand, he enters the doors of a shadowy establishment its saucy proprietor nicknames the Temple of Immodesty. His ensuing adventure, with a hirsute middle aged charmer and professional brute named Honoré, is a profound awakening that also shocks him, later, into a long night of weeping.
Subsequent meetings of “mutual, tender exploration” and an ascension into “the timeless space that only lovers inhabit” keep Dinu awhirl in emotion.
Between the dizzying heights of passionate love and “despair of the blankest, bleakest kind” his affair with tortured-soul Răzvan (Honoré’s a working name, just as Dinu’s client name is Jean-Pierre) reveals the older man’s exceptional history-of being a poor farmer’s child adopted by royalty (he’s the titular son), reared with all the privileges, and introduced to a “charmed and civilized life.”
In his recollections the older narrator hangs on to details of extravagant states of mind as well as opulent surrounding, exquisite pastries, dainty glasses, costly wines, sublime bisques, and delicious pleasures. If out of fashion in the eyes of most contemporary readers, Dinu’s connoisseur’s sensibility stands out for its seeming authenticity. Bailey’s conjuring of a bygone worldview offers an interesting contrast to the decidedly contemporary voice narrating a typical historical novel.
As it must, Dinu’s Parisian summer ends. His affair with his “deflowerer, [his] consummate and passionate lover, [his] precious Răzvanel,” reaches a hiatus too. Dinu returns to Bucharest, finding his father’s new bride (a “Helen of Troy I hated on sight,” at least for a time, he records) and changing politics that steadily blight his nation.
Far away from his true love and often inconsolable, Dinu continues his education (eventually becoming a journalist and esteemed critic in an increasingly insufferable city filling with “apologists for bigotry and mindless venom”), all the while yearning for a reunion with Răzvan, whose post-Dinu routine in Paris demonstrates a downward spiral with much drinking and fighting. Reunited at last in 1935, the pair continue to bewitch one another for two years before further tragedy. From that point on, Dinu’s lonely decades begin. The vital part of the “life half-lived” described and preserved for posterity, he’s ready for the hereafter.
The Prince’s Boy
By Paul Bailey
Hardcover, 97816204071965, 160 pp.