Exploring Romania

From a street hustler to a mad king

THE ROMANIAN: STORY OF AN OBSESSION, a memoir by Bruce Benderson, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2006. Paperback, $16.95. First published in French translation in 2004 as Autographie érotique (Rivago). Winner of the Prix de Flore, 2004.

Bruce Benderson’s frank and sexually graphic memoir about his homosexual obsession with a straight 24-year-old Romanian hustler may seem at first to be a far cry from the literary nonfiction accustomed to winning prestigious awards.

Benderson was in Budapest on an assignment from Nerve.com to research Romanian sex clubs when he fell in love with Romulus. Ordinarily my literary preferences don’t range that far down into the streets. Benderson self-medicates with codeine pills so he can write for a living, while digging deeper into a shadowy world with an unstable, untrustworthy lover. My reservations lingered. Why am I reading this? I asked myself. Do I care about the writer, his lover, the sordid club scene?

I am Benderson’s opposite — a straight woman of a certain age with no prediliction for rough trade and zero desire to pop pills. But I also write memoir, so do I understand a writer goes where she or he is drawn, which may be toward a sexual attraction or substance use others don’t understand. I stayed with the book and came away with great respect for Benderson’s craftsmanship and a better understanding of his personality and character. He won my admiration for placing his personal story within the larger context of contemporary urban and rural Romania, historic Romania, and the religious, cultural and artistic legacy of the country.

Benderson anchors the story of his obsession with Romulus in today’s Romanian underclass, about which we in the U.S. know next to nothing. He replaces our historical ignorance by interlacing his and Romulus’s sexual affair with that of a notorious, operatic love affair, which rocked Romania prior to WWII, when the last Romanian king Carol II took as his lover and consort a common woman despised by the Catholic people for being Jewish. Benderson studies Brancusi, the sculptor, and finds his place in the Romanian picture. And Benderson’s travels around the country looking at churches, homes and folk art, listening to and talking with rural people, present a more diverse picture of Romania today.

Benderson will speak at 7:30 pm Feb. 20 at Borders in Oakway Center. He’s just got to be a fabulous speaker. See you there.