Tuesday, March 21st, 2023

Bohemia meets bourgeoisie in Paul Bailey’s “The Prince’s Boy”

princesboyThe Prince’s Boy

by Paul Bailey

Published by Bloomberg

Published October 14, 2014
160 pgs. • Find on Amazon.com

Reviewed by C. Todd White

March 15, 2015

The Prince’s Boy is an artful novel set in Paris at the turn of the 1930s, when many a bon vivant and bohemian were migrating east, to Berlin.

To be a “bonjouriste” in our young protagonist’s home town of Bucharest was regarded as comical at first, but by the end of the 1930s it had become “an insult of the worst kind.” It is appropriate, then, that there be a dusty atmosphere to this novel, a bildungsroman of a boy born to a rich Romanian family and “slumming it” in Paris for a year, eating snails. He had come at the behest of his father, Cezar, who decided his son should have a taste of la vie de Bohème. “I think I want to write a book,” young Dinu Grigorescu proclaims to his cousin upon arrival. But what he really wants is to explore the dark corners of Montmartre as they were in the spring of 1927.

Our dandy young hero soon finds his way to brothel, where he has the good fortune of meeting the perfect man. That both men meet under these circumstances, and how their relationship is grounded on a series of feints and lies, advises the actors in this drama (and the reader as well) that this handsome whore of a man, called Honoré, was too good to be true and would probably turn disloyal. But Dinu is a romantic and a dreamer, so he returns to the house again in order to get to know the beautiful man with whom he had made love, and the two men form a tight and immediate friendship.

Honoré, we learn, is actually Răzvan Popescu, widely known as The Prince’s Boy, who had been rescued (purchased?) as a child by a wealthy prince who sought to make a gentlemen of a pauper. Răzvan had become famous for the situation, living a rich live and mingling with the most powerful people in Europe until his prince fell ill and died, and he was left again in poverty.

In some way, The Prince’s Boy reads like a mystery without a corpse. The suspense of this novel stems from a cynical suspicion that such a love could last. At the turn of every page, the reader feels certain that treachery and betrayal would soon brandish someone as evil. After all, the leading characters in the book — from Răzvan’s “pimp,” Albert, to Dinu’s wise and loving stepmother, Amalia—continually remind of us Răzvan’s dubious social standing and instability.

Without spoiling the plot, rest assured that there are climactic moments of profound revelations. Yet, at the close of the tale, one question remains: what if the love of handsome Răzvan and young Dinu would have been encouraged? What if those around them would have recognized and supported this frail fraternal union of flesh?

Bailey, a prolific British novelist of high regard, depicts a world so real that I was left wondering if there had been a Prince’s Boy and had to keep reminding myself that in a work of fiction, truth takes on a different dimension. Still, I was pulled into the era so entirely that I sought out more on the subject, and this book steered me toward a second: Jerrold E. Seigel’s Bohemian Paris (1999). Here, I learned that today’s society is much like that of Răzvan and Dinu, two young men coming of age under the aegis of a generation that so overshadowed them in might, wealth, and accomplishment that they were like saplings struggling to find sun under a dense canopy of interlocking leaves.

I was also reminded of the need for affluence to support the arts, for no one can think, or write, or create when they are striving so mightily just to get by. Rather than perennial renegades, bohemians often strive toward wealth. For the few who make the grade, such as Toulouse Latrek and Oscar Wilde (maybe Proust?), it is talent mixed with timing that buoys them toward the bourgeois life. For others, such as Rimbaud and Verlain—and our Dinu and his beloved Răzvan—not all the talent in the world will save them from the perils of their age.

The Prince’s Boy is a bright book of a darkening time. It is a haunting novel, which I find more akin to the dark Romantic tradition than high-brow Victorian. As with the equally masterful Disappearance Boy, Bloomsbury Publishing has taken great words and dressed them in befitting style, for this book is as beautiful on the outside as it is within, a proud addition to any library.

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