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The prince's boy

I feel as if I was introduced to Paul Bailey by Elizabeth Taylor – it is said (how true this is I don’t know) that the young Paul Bailey was the inspiration behind the character of Ludo in her 1971 novel Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. He has also written introductions to many VMC titles, so despite having been aware of Paul Bailey for a number of years I had yet to read one of his novels. I seem to have started with Bailey’s most recent novel – despite having his first novel already tbr.

I bought The Prince’s Boy in Shakespeare and company while I was on a little trip to Paris – admittedly I was rather attracted to the cover. Reading it was a lovely little reminder of that trip – and the all too brief minutes I spent in that famous shop.

The story spans approximately forty years, moving from Paris to Bucharest and London, as we follow the emotional life of Dinu Grigorescu. In many ways, not a huge amount happens in this novel, it is the characters and their emotional and artistic lives which we explore here. The prose is deceptively simple – but flawless, and not a word is wasted in this short novel, which can be surprisingly moving at times.

In 1927 Dinu a naïve nineteen-year-old, newly arrived in Paris from Bucharest, is still deeply grieving the death of his beloved mother. Dinu is met by his older worldlier cousin Eduard. Ready at last, to taste something of life, Dinu is drawn, nervously to the Bains du Ballon d’Alsace a place notorious in Paris for offering men ‘something different’ – whatever that might be. Here Dinu meets Răzvan, (professionally named Honoré) a man already in his thirties – who Dinu is immediately captivated by. Răzvan is a fellow Rumanian, once the adopted child of a respected, wealthy man, he was the Prince’s boy, and now entrances Dinu with stories of Proust. Răzvan is Dinu’s teacher in so many ways of the world and in the ways of love. The love between these two men is sensual and very touching – destined to last a lifetime.

“It is love I am writing about here, in this memoir of a life half-lived. I have mentioned the railway porter and my inexplicable longing for him and his re-emergence as Honoré and then Răzvan. I have documented as a fact that I was drawn in my youth to men who were hairy and muscular, who represented a manliness denied me by nature. That fact, which alarmed and mystified me in the summer of 1927, causes me wry amusement now, for the brute I met in squalid circumstances on May 26 of that fateful year was none other than a prince’s boy, the adopted child of a man of exquisite refinement, who had shaken the limp hand of Marcel Proust and mingled with artists I could only dream of meeting.”

However, the summer in Paris at Dinu’s wealthy father’s expense cannot last forever – and soon Dinu is headed back to his father’s house in Bucharest. Here he finds a new stepmother installed at home – and a stepsister – and Dinu is swamped by memories of his gentle mother. It is Amalia, Dinu’s step-mother who first realises that Dinu is hiding a secret. Life in Bucharest is slower and more traditional than the life he lived in Bohemian Paris – and Dinu misses Răzvan who he knows he won’t be able to see for ages.

“Where could I hide the photograph of Răzvan? That was my first thought as I walked into the room I had been absent from all summer. Then I wondered if there was any reason why I should conceal it. He was the friend I had made in Paris, who had turned out to be the ideal companion and guide to the city for the uninformed and guileless Dinu Grigorescu. I had no cause to be secretive about this man in his late thirties, handsome as he was, captured smiling at the camera by a street photographer on the Champs-Elysées. No one was to know, unless I told them, that he was my deflowerer, my consummate and passionate love, my precious Răzvanel.”

Dinu and Răzvan’s relationship is complicated by very long periods apart, surviving on occasional letters – largely written in code. Over time, Dinu starts to learn a bit about Răzvan’s early life – and struggles to help him with the dark depressions that swamp him from time to time.

From his home in London in the 1960s – where he fled following the political upheaval of the 1940s – Dinu remembers Răzvan, and the years they spent together – years he describes as having been like a marriage.

The Prince’s Boy is something of a slow burn but I really enjoyed it – subtle and very evocative of place – it is elegantly moving, and eminently readable.

paul bailey

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