I met Paul Bailey, the well-known and awarded English writer, but also a critic, at the International Literature Festival in Timișoara. He wrote sixteen books, two of which are the biographies of Cynthia Payne and Quentin Crisp. Paul Bailey has been quite translated in Romanian. His most recent book, the one that we mainly talked about in this interview, is The Prince’s Boy (Polirom publishing house, translated by Marius Chivu), a wonderful novel about the love between two Romanians (and not only) during the 1920’s.
Paul Bailey was in Romania several times, so he had many great story to tell. By the way, he wasn’t for the first time in Timișoara.
The English writer is a very warm person and he has a great sense of humor. I spent some quality time with him. And I am glad I had the opportunity to talk with him about Romania (from nowadays and from the past), Bucharest, Romanians, Emanuel and Antoine Bibesco, books, homosexuals, sex scenes in (his) literature, his favorite Romanian writers and how did he discover them, his most recent book published, The Prince’s Boy, but also about Kitty and Virgil and Uncle Rudolf, his writing process and many more.
Pentru versiunea în limba română, click aici.
Why didn’t you name the prince? His boy, for example, has a name – Răzvan Popescu.
Well, a lot of people have identified the prince as prince Emanuel Bibescu. There are two reasons I didn’t want to give him his full name. One is that, you know, in a lot of Russian novels, they say Prince D. of such and such and I thought well… it was nice. But that’s the superficial reason. The other reason is that there are a few Bibescos still alive, one of whom died last year, she was the daughter of Antoine Bibescu and his English wife, Elizabeth Asquith.
A rather common question, but I’m curious to know: how did you come up with such a subject? Why the „prince’s boy”?
There is no evidence that Emanuel adopted a boy. In my readings around Proust’s circle and Romanians who were in Paris, it struck me that Antoine was a ladies’ man, he could have got any woman that he wanted, even after Elizabeth has died. When he was in his seventies, he was still chasing women. Nothing wrong with that. But Emanuel was a much more melancholy type, a very private man, who had a huge knowledge of church architecture, which he talked about with Proust. He was a very cultivated man, much more cultivated than Antoine.
And in real life – I read so much about him! – I came to the conclusion that he was gay. I may be wrong, but I think I’m right. The point was that he had a stoke quite early in his life. This was probably caused by a venereal disease, syphilis. And this was before the discovery of penicillin, which wasn’t until the 1920’s.
I’ve been to Corcova, the family estate, where the Bibesco brothers used to go, with their mother, every summer. They have a huge house there, of which very little remains because the Russians came and destroyed a lot there. And I thought how was it like being a child from a peasant family there, in that strange and wonderful place. To not have anything else except a whole life ahead of you of working the fields. Just growing up, having children, growing old and dying. So I got the idea of this boy being bright and the prince seeing his potential. Now, there is absolutely no sexual thing in that. I made it pretty clear that the prince doesn’t have any sexual desire.
Yes, you repeated it many times…
It’s a Pygmalion story. And, of course, it still happens: people with money see poor children and help them, they give them an opportunity to learn. Best kind of altruism, I think. And that’s why he’s called the prince’s boy, because people think of sex when it actually it has nothing to do with it. He becomes, he gets to be called „the prince’s boy”, both in Bucharest and in Paris. So he has this unearned reputation.
But he has a father.
If this book it’s about anything, then it’s about the loss of a father. Because Răzvan’s father dies before he was born, then he has another father figure, the prince, who pays for his education, for an apartment in Paris, takes him out to dinner, introduces him to many people and then kills himself. So this boy is fatherless. He’s lost a father that he didn’t know and one that he did. So part of the book it’s not just about sex, but about Răzvan’s drinking and melancholy. And the fact that he can never connect with his family again, because he’s speaking another language. He’s no longer a peasant.
I come from an uneducated family, all were thinking I was a freak because I read books. So, I know how it’s like to have this background of ignorance – I’m not being cruel about it, but that’s the reality.
The historic part that you used, the Romanian language (from now and then), the portrayal of Bucharest, etc., impressed me. How did you manage to know so many things? Can you tell me what did it mean to prepare for writing this book?
Two things about Bucharest first: when I came here many years ago, I spent a morning with Caramitru at the National Theater. In his office, he had lots of photographs with Bucharest in the 1920’s; it was fascinating: all the men had hats and the women were all dressed in the fashion of the time. I was struck by that. And I was greatly impressed by Olivia Manning’s novels of war, particularly the first one, based in Bucharest. And then, last year, I reviewed a biography of Olivia Manning, which named some of the places in Bucharest, including a very nice shop from which you could buy foie gras and smoked salmon, tea and that luxury hard to find, Dundee marmalade, a similar shop for rich people that you would also find in London or Paris. I didn’t find that when I came here, in 1980, such a shop would have been seen, maybe, like a sinful place. Anyway, what struck Olivia was the five o’clock ritual: wives were preparing cakes and coffee, waiting for their husbands to come home from work and eat a little bit, before dinner. People here ate at about 9:30 pm, an incredible hour!
Bucharest was a city of restaurants – a famous one was Capșa, which is still there, but doesn’t look anymore like the one in the thirties. But I do know it was considered to be The Little Paris. And the boulevards are very wide, we don’t have that in London.
It’s a city of apartments, not houses, very few people had houses. So, when Dinu’s father has a house in Bucharest, it’s his way of showing off. He’s based on Eugen Ionesco’s father, by the way, who was an incredible well-known lawyer; and Eugen Ionesco hated him, hated him so much! In 1936, I think, left the country and swore he’ll never come back and never speak Romanian again. It was because of his father.
Just like that, as a little piece of social history.
And now let’s get back to the question (we laugh).
When I wrote this book and the other ones with Romanian subject – Uncle Rudolf and Kitty and Virgil -, I read a huge amount of books. But when you write, you have to not show what you’ve read. You can’t do that. Otherwise, people think you’ve done a research, and I don’t want people to think that.
When Dinu arrives back in Bucharest, for example, it’s not that much different from Paris. And, you know, the male brothel from Paris really existed, so did Albert Le Cuziat – that was his name -, and the prince, Emanuel Bibescu.
So, basically, your research is reading a lot…
Yes, I read for pleasure. Sometimes, a thing happens: I find something which I can use. So I note it somewhere in my head.
Tell us something amazing that you found out about Antoine Bibescu.
Why do you want to know about Antoine? In the book, I’m talking about his brother, Emanuel.
Yes, I know. There’s the answer: I want to see why didn’t you choose Antoine for a story, why did you prefer Emanuel.
Oh, I see. Let’s start with this: Proust was madly in love with Antoine.
Let me tell you a story. There was a woman who wrote a very nice book, called Other people’s letters – actually, my friend Norman Manea recommended it to me -, I don’t remember her name, but she was very intelligent. At some point, she found out that, in Paris, she could find more of Proust’s letters. Where? At Antoine, of course. So she goes to Paris, she finds Antoine Bibescu’s phone number, she calls, a servant answers, he’s never there. She sends letters, but they are never replied to. Then, one day, she picks up the phone and she gets him. He answers, in person. He asked her how old was she; she said she was 42. Then he asked her: „What do you look like?”. And she said: „I’m a big woman. My friends call me an Amazon”. And he invites her for coffee to his house. She accepts, after telling him: „I’m trying to find as many of Proust’s letters as possible, and I believe you’ve got some”. He said: „Yes, I may be able to help you”.
So she goes to this huge house, a maid or a butler brings the coffee and stuff. He shows her all the rooms in the house, the library, he takes her upstairs and he shows her his bedroom. He makes it quite clear that, from all the rooms in the house, this is the one she would like best. She plays hard to get and they go downstairs, have a drink and so on. After this, he keeps phoning her up, he says to her: „I’ll show you these letters, but you have to be kind to me” (we laugh).
Eventually, she thinks What the hell? and she goes to bed with him. He’s seventy-five, she’s forty-two. Somehow, a few sparks fly. She’s honest, you know, she says it was quite nice. He had years of experience. He gave her a few letters, about five, but he had hundreds! In the end, she had about twenty letters. After Antoine died, Priscilla, his daughter, just gave everything to anybody. That was the kind of world we’re talking about, the rich men got their way. And Antoine was incurable.
I’m wondering how come that some of your characters keep, with stubbornness, the Romanian nationality – first, in Kitty and Virgil, afterwards in Uncle Rudolf and now in The Prince’s Boy. Did you intend to write about Romanians or did it just happen, somehow, when you were writing?
These books are specifically about Romanians and the different attitudes Romanians have. When I published Kitty and Virgil, it got many interesting reviews in America, because there were a lot of Romanians and I can remember some of the reactions from them. For example, somebody from Chicago wrote me and asked me how did I know so much about Romanian history. She actually told me that she discovered things about Romania that she didn’t know. Well, that was because I read all those books.
There’s something about the Romanian character that appealed to me instantly, even when I came here for the first time, even then the country struck me as mad to the point of insanity. It was like a melancholy acceptance with a strange sense of humor. Not for nothing the Dadaism was invented here, by Tristan Tzara.
I’ve seen Ionesco’s plays when I was younger and I thought they weren’t about a particular place. And then I came here; afterwards, I thought Ionesco was a realist, I’ve seen the world he was describing. He thought the 1930’s in Bucharest was madness and was part of his inspiration.
So, the Romanian characters in my books are the types of people that I wanted to talk about.
I think this is my last Romanian book. I can’t think of another Romanian character now.
Yes, you previously said that this is your last book with Romanians. Why?
Well, this book began as a bit of a joke, actually. I was here some years ago and I did make a joke, in front of the audience, about homosexuality in Romania. I’ve said: „Of course, there are no homosexuals in Romania or ever have been. That is a fact”. And about two people laughed. The rest just looked at me. And I thought, for example, about Caragiale’s son, who obviously was gay.
Anyway, two years ago I was again here and at the event some gays came. I thought it was a big change, they started showing up. So I decided to write a book about two gay Romanians, but I put them in the 1920’s.
You know, Romania is such a decadent place! In the 1930’s everyone was eating and drinking and not thinking about tomorrow, and that was part of the problem, you know? Then there was a decade or so when the influence of Queen Mary was wonderful, she was a very intelligent and clever woman. Oh, I might change my mind, I just found another Romanian character interesting enough to write about.
If I will live long enough, maybe I’ll change my mind…
Did Bibescu’s inheritors express any opinion about your book?
No, I don’t know any of them. And no one contacted me. But I’m waiting.
The only responses that I have are from American critiques – the book was published there on the 14th of October -, I’ve got wonderful reviews. Also the English reviews are o.k.
What’s the most important scene from your book for you?
Well, there’re all important. But I face it: I enjoyed writing some scenes more than others. The one that I enjoyed the most was the scene between the two brothel keepers.
That was also one of my favorite scenes.
And I liked very much writing about Albert Le Cuziat, the one that has the male brothel; I managed to have some turns of phrases similar to those from memoirs – by the way, it is very nice when you read a memoir and a person who’s in the footnote is just as interesting as the main characters.
Gay love and depression – two of the most discussed subjects nowadays. Weren’t you afraid that these already satiated your readers?
I didn’t think very much about it. Depression seems to me to be a part of everybody’s experience. I wanted to write about gay love or gay sex from a different perspective. It’s something historical about the treatment of the sex in this book: I never mention bodily parts, for one thing, and it is something romantic about this love, the boy is romantic. When he sees Răzvan in the brothel, he’s almost a changed man. Great physical passion doesn’t last forever, you know?
And now, a rather uncommon question for me: why did you dedicate the book to Marius Chivu? What’s the story behind that short note?
I dedicated the book to Marius Chivu because I met him in Neptun.
At the festival?
Yes. And I had a heart failure. He and an English writer came to my bedside in the hospital. I was removed from the local hospital, in Neptun, to the main hospital, in Constanța. They came, saw me there and helped me.
Then I met Marius when I was back here. He was learning English then. We started corresponding. Anyway, eventually, when he started working at the magazine, he was taking bits of my writings and translating them. Afterwards, he translated Uncle Rudolf, a book dedicated to Norman and Cella Manea, Norman was my first and serious Romanian friend. Our friendship began when I wrote about him in The Times Literary Supplement. I knew Norman for three years just by letters, until I met him. I met Marius twelve years ago. He’s just been staying with me in London, because I asked him to give a talk to some of my students, in Kingston. He’s a good friend. He’s worth a dedication.
At some point, the accent falls on Marcel Proust. Dinu, one of the main characters and the teller, reads him extensively. Albert Le Cuziat met him and so on. What does Proust mean in the perspective of the book?
When I chose 1927, Proust’s last volume was published, five years after his death. Proust was all the rage and continued to be for a while. A lot of people who never read Proust know that his book is about a boy who can’t go to sleep until his mother kisses him good-night. That what’s this about in the first volume. Dinu also loved very much his mother. So he started to read Proust.
At the brothel, Albert mentions the furniture, which belonged to Mrs. Proust. That’s true, Proust gave Albert his mother’s furniture, for his brothel. Proust also gave him money to start the brothel. It was still in existence at the end of 1930, until Albert’s death. His clients were aristocrats. He had an obsession with aristocracy since he was a boy. Proust befriended him because he was very helpful with information when he wrote his book, he knew all the nonsense of the aristocrats. Anyway, the brothel couldn’t have existed only with aristocrats, because they had the titles, but not that much money. So I invented, as you know, the kinky Russian business man, who goes there just to be beaten up. Proust loved going there, in Albert’s brothel, just to watch somebody being beaten up.
It’s all part of life, you know?
I noticed that, every time Răzvan, the prince’s boy, and Dinu get together and they have sex, the episode is described very quickly, like this: „And they made love…”. Were you afraid to write a gay sex scene or you didn’t think it was necessary?
I wasn’t afraid to write a sex scene at all, but, in novels, I tend to treat sex scenes with a certain amount of skepticism. I’m not a Puritan, but I think that, sometimes, these kinds of scenes are unnecessary. This man is writing from the point of view of a previous generation: he’s writing in his sixties about something that he experienced when he was nineteen or twenty. So, he is simply recalling the ecstatic experience, not describing it in gory detail. That was deliberate. And if I would write about those sex scenes again, I would do exactly the same thing. I think that, if the reader doesn’t understand this love, that they gather with joy, then he didn’t read my book. It is perfectly clear, I really didn’t want to say more.
You mention some classic Romanian writers in the book (Creangă, Ciprian Văduva, who is a little bit hard to identify, etc.). So I have to ask: who’s your favorite Romanian author?
I mentioned Creangă, for example, because his books were, by far, the most popular ones for the boys in that period. It was like a classical text for school for Romanian children.
It still is…
Really? I didn’t know that. I have a Creangă edition from 1920, since then it hasn’t been translated with his folk tales. It’s a pity, that edition disappeared.
But Văduva is based on Bacovia, except that Bacovia didn’t commit suicide, but he drank himself steadily to death. I love Bacovia’s poetry, I loved it every since I read him the first time.
How did you discover Bacovia?
The first Bacovia poem I came across was in a Romanian grammar book. The poem was Copacii albi, copacii negri [he started saying the first stave of the poem by heart, with a wonderful Romanian accent]. I felt instantly in love and learnt it immediately. He was the one that wrote O, țară tristă, plină de umor. For me, he says everything about Romania. Marius [Chivu] thinks I rate him too highly, but I think he’s a great poet.
In general, I tend to fall in love with long-dead writers. For example, I have the most up-to-date edition of Eminescu – there are several poems by him that I think they are very beautiful. I greatly like Cioran, but his writings are mostly in French, as you know – I think he is a great comic writer; it takes a great humorist to say: „The only problem with suicide is that it is always too late”.
I never thought about Cioran in this way.
Well, most of people take him seriously. Let me share a wonderful story that Norman [Manea] told me about him. He and Cella visited him in Paris, they went to dinner. And Cioran had this young lady looking after him at the end of his life. The photographer took a picture of them having a very nice dinner, and Cioran was smiling. Cioran said to Norman: „That photograph can never, never appear in public, because it will give people the complete wrong impression: that I was happy”.
A great story!
Yes. And we mustn’t forget that Cioran knew Beckett – and Beckett was a funny writer; if you don’t get that, then you don’t understand him. Let’s put it this way: it’s graveyard humor, but it is humor.