It is difficult to say whether any Romanian writings before 1800 can be described as “essays,” even though homiletic and aphoristic publications may display some essayistic features. However, soon after 1800 the conversational and familiar essay became very popular, often combined with other marginal, half-literary, or playful genres. Thus Dinicu Golescu (1770–1830) and Nicolae Filimon (1819–65) among others used the travelogue as a vehicle for moral and intellectual reflection. Vasile Alecsandri (1818–90) mixed semi-fantastic narrative with gentle irony upon the foibles of a transitional society, and his friends Ion Ghica (1867–97) and Costache Negruzzi (1808–68) used the epistolary form as their preferred mode for presenting social customs and moral and economic reflections under a literary guise. Essays of literary criticism in institutionalized forms began with I.Heliade Radulescu (1802–72) and, more clearly, with Titu Maiorescu (1840–1917). Even more frequent than these genres was the “physiognomy,” portraits of social customs and character types subjectively captured; a leading practitioner of this genre was Mihail Kogǎlniceanu (1817–91). The choice of the essay as a preferred vehicle was largely due to its flexibility, which was convenient for the insecurities of writers in a fragile and peripheral society.
More than any of the above-mentioned contemporaries, Alexandru Odobescu inscribes himself in the Western modes of the essay. His chief work of this kind was Pseudocynegeticos, sau fals tratat de vinatoare (1875; Pseudokynegeticos, or a false treatise on hunting). Originally this work was intended as a preface to a genuine textbook guide to the craft of hunting (written by a friend), but it became too long and was consequently published separately. It is a charming, whimsical, and ironic mosaic of references to hunting in many literatures (classical and modern) and arts, but it also contains personal reminiscences, natural descriptions (one of them, particularly famous, evokes the charm of the plains of Southern Wallachia), and is interspersed with passages from folktales and folk poetry. Odobescu relied heavily on intertextuality and on the contrasting effects obtained by juxtaposing local Romanian materials with quotes from Greek and Latin, as well as French, German, and English authors. Etymologies that we might now call “deconstructive” are used as connective elements. The style is ornate and digressive, with mockpompous passages, yet it always manages to remain conversational, with intimate addresses to the friend whose work he was supposed to preface. The last chapter is left blank and bears the title “the reader’s favorite chapter.” Light sarcastic allusions to the social and cultural state of Romania appear as asides. The general message of the essay is the jovial and amiable praise of a quiet, contented life in the company of natural and literary beauty.
Odobescu’s manner is expressed equally well in Citeva ore la Snagov (1862; A few hours spent in Snagov). Snagov is a small village by a lake near Bucharest, at the time itself nothing more than a small and sleepy capital city. Odobescu is particularly interested in Snagov monastery, the eldest parts of which date from the 15th century.
Humorously self-deprecating erudition, enchantment in the face of the surrounding landscape, and nostalgic historical evocation are combined with a barely noticeable narrative line. Odobescu skips nonchalantly from romanticized history to a consideration of the best way to dress and cook the tasty fish inhabiting the lake by the monastery.
In some ways Odobescu is a belated Romantic, resuming the manner of Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt, or even Karl Julius Weber, in his search for the playful side of erudition and knowledge. From another point of view his writings are in line with those of his (particularly French) symbolist and aesthetic contemporaries, giving voice to a kind of impressionistic humanism linked to an elite readership of taste and education.
Finally, it cannot be denied that, despite his essentially cosmopolitan orientation, Odobescu responded with some subtlety to the appeal of national glorification, whether in its historical past, in the exaltation of the Romanian landscape, or in the highlighting of traditional folk music and storytelling. He was effective and eloquent in promoting national values and images precisely because he did not avoid placing them in the light of cosmopolitan taste; it is also fair to add that he thus tacitly undermined the emerging rhetoric of localist chauvinism. Odobescu differs from other Romanian contemporaries precisely in having chosen the frivolous discourse of the conversational essay, in which all these threads are pleasingly woven together.
Son of general Ion Odobescu. Born in Bucharest, 23 June 1834. Studied at a lycée in Paris, baccalauréat, 1853; literature and archaeology at the University of Paris, graduated 1855. Married Saşa Prejbeanu, 1858: one daughter; often apart from his wife, and had affairs with other women. Cabinet minister for education, 1863; head clerk, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1865; prosecutor, Court of Appeal. Traveled in Switzerland and Italy, 1870, in connection with his discovery and description of the “Petroasa treasure,” a collection of objects made from precious metals, of Gothic origin, found on Romanian territory; also traveled to several other countries, including Denmark and Turkey.
Opposed the tendency toward artificially latinizing the literary language. Elected to the Romanian Academy, 1870. Professor of archaeology, University of Bucharest, from 1874. Secretary of the Romanian legation, Paris, 1882,. Principal of a teacher-training institute, Bucharest; principal of the National Educational Institute, 1891. Died (suicide by morphine overdose) in Bucharest, 10 November 1895.
Essays and Related Prose
Cîteva ore la Snagov, 1862; edited by G.Pienescu, 1961
Pseudo-cynegeticos, sau fals tratat de vinatoare, 1875; edited by G. Pienescu, 1961
Pagini regăsite, edited by G.Şerban, 1965 Note de călătorie, edited by Corneliu Popescu, 1981
Other writings: short stories, several dozen scholarly articles, an anthology of folktales and one of folk poetry, and a history of archaeology (1877). Also translated both literary and scholarly works.
Collected works editions: Opere complete, 4 vols., 1906–19; Opere, edited by Tudor Vianu, 2 vols., 1955; Opere, 12 vols., 1965–92 (in progress).
Curticapeanu, Doina, Odobescu, sau lectura formelor simbolice, Bucharest: Minerva, 1982
Manolescu, Nicolae, Introducere in opera lui Alexandru Odobescu, Bucharest: Minerva, 1976
Păcurariu, Dumitru, A.I.Odobescu, Bucharest: ESPLA, 1966
Pandele, Rodica, editor, Alexandru Odobescu: Antologie critica, Bucharest: Eminescu, 1976
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