The impressive variety of George Călinescu’s essayistic output has a distinct place in 20th-century Romanian literature. The essay is protean, impressionistic, and artificial in the oeuvre of this most famous and controversial literary critic, also a noted novelist and a well-known playwright, poet, and translator. His essays elude classical definitions of the genre, but neither do they impose a new definition. These “impure” essays often extend over the borders into the literary review, the treatise, and the monograph. Often contradicting himself, Călinescu ranges from extreme congeniality and playfulness (e.g. “Domina bona” , on I.L.Cararagiale’s plays), to pedantic, outright misunderstanding (e.g. his interpretation of Ion Barbu’s “Mallarméan” poetry). Pedantry brands many of Călinescu’s essays during his later years (after Romania came within the zone of Soviet influence), when he shifted his attention to opportunistic issues, writing admiring essays on socialist-realist authors and using lukewarm satire against the weaknesses of the petty bourgeoisie. Throughout his career, however, Călinescu’s writing is always agile, exploiting the powers of aphorism and metaphor. If, at times, the attitude of the critic is unreasonable, the style is always recognizable, with passages of imposing beauty.
After translating into Romanian many Italian writers, as well as Horace, Laurence Sterne, and Hans Jacob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, and having determined his priorities (“I never read a book: I translated it…When I judge, I create… I had to be a bad poet in order to become a just critic,” Ulysse, 1967), Călinescu set out to analyze the life and works of Mihai Eminescu, the “national poet” whose legacy was to become intertwined with Călinescu. The mythological aura of this last European Romantic touched Călinescu, who came to be called, in the Romania of the 1970s and 1980s, “the divine critic.”
Călinescu’s vocation was that of a builder (expressed especially in his 1953 novel Bietul Ioanide [Poor Ioanide]), who dreams of transforming the Balkanic city of Bucharest into a majestic metropolis with imposing monuments and vast plazas. The grandiose—Călinescu’s mode of choice—is advocated by his essays in ways unprecedented in Romanian culture. The inspiration from both the urban utopias of the Italian Renaissance and his own whim accounts for his fetish of the monumental. Some of Călinescu’s most influential essays follow in the same grandiose vein. His 1941 Istoria literaturii române de la origini pînă în prezent (History of Romanian Literature) is conceived as collection of historical essays on authors and periods written with verve, little objectivity, and in the highly personal style characteristic of Călinescu’s criticism.
The monumental History (over 1000 pages in folio) concludes with a powerful and controversial mise en abîme of the entire history of Romanian literature, an essay entitled “Specificul naţional” (“The National Specificity”), in which Călinescu articulates a geonational and racial theory of his personal reading of this history.
A sense of classicism pervades much of Călinescu’s late output. Impresii asupra literaturii spaniole (1946; On Spanish literature: impressions), a collection of essays on Spanish and comparative literature, begins with his influential “Clasicism, romantism, baroc” (Classicism, Romanticism, Baroque), in which the essayist analyzes the opposition between classicism and Romanticism viewed as ideal types: the classical is healthy and well balanced, while the Romantic is abnormal, exceptional, unbalanced, and “sick.”
Călinescu finds that friendship, proper to French neoclassicism and to such 19thcentury Romanian writers as Vasile Alecsandri, Mihail Kogălniceanu, Costache Negruzzi, Ion Ghica, Titu Maiorescu, and Ioan Slavici, fades rapidly in the first decades of the 20th century (Ulysse). The classical mind is indifferent to events, rather than being absorbed by them. According to Călinescu, modern Romanian culture presents a monochromatic interest in the event, which is sanctioned as the non-negotiable truth of the past and dealt with in the form of the novel. The typically novelistic character is driven by primary instincts, accompanied by a twisted consciousness and complex overinterpretive techniques. The classical is to be seen in the abolition of the genius, reduction of the biographical, of the inner diary. Accompanying his taste for nationally oriented traditionalism is Călinescu’s view on the the classicism of the Volk (people), whose imposing anonymity and objectivity destroy personal invention and discard claims to creative subjectivity.
Any great writer is, ultimately, a classic, a dispassionate “peripathetician” in dialogue with his friends. The classic writer attains universality, gives apothegmatic, “architectural” formulations, and “builds solid bodies.” Călinescu’s selfassured attack on the French aphoristic writings of the exiled Romanian writer E.M.Cioran, at the time a persona non grata in Romania, depends heavily on metaphor to demonstrate “the banality of Cioran’s aphorisms” in a heavy-handed dismissal of the “failed architectonic function of Cioran’s aphorisms.”
Călinescu’s fidgety essayistic production reveals an author unable to abstain from writing or tame his desire for glory. It is hard to find a week, between 1930 and his death 35 years later, in which Călinescu’s name did not appear in print. His ridiculing satires against the Orthodox poets obsessed with the angels of the late 1920s and 1930s, and his dislike of quiet understatement, made him into a champion of the overblown. In a crucial reversal of the Montaignean legacy of the genre, Călinescu’s essays resist both radical self-questioning and the appetite for silence.
Born 19 June 1899 in Bucharest. Studied philosophy at the University of Bucharest, from 1918; University of Jassy, Ph.D., 1936. Taught at the Romanian School, Rome, 1923–16, and French and Italian in Bucharest, 1926–35. Contributor to various journals, from 1926; coeditor, Viaţa Românească (Romanian life), 1927–36. Married Alice Vera Trifu, 1929. Member of the Faculty of Letters, University of Jassy, 1937–45. Founder, Jurnalul Literar (Literary journal), 1939. Chair of Romanian literature, University of Bucharest, from 1945. Editor, Lumea (The world), 1945–46, and Naţiunea (The nation), 1946–49.
Elected to the Romanian Academy, 1948. Director, Institute of the History of Literature and Folklore, from 1948.
Awards: Romanian National Prize, 1964. Died in Bucharest, 12 March 1965.
Essays and Related Prose
Opera lui Mihaai Eminescu, 5 vols., 1934–36
Principii de estetică, 1939; edited by Alexandru Piru, 1974
Istoria literaturii române de la origini pînă în prezent, 1941; revised edition, edited by Alexandru Piru, 1982; as History of Romanian Literature, translated by Leon Levitchi, 1989
Impresii asupra literaturii spaniole, 1946; part in Studies in Poetics, translated by Andrei Bantaş and Anda Teodorescu, 1972
Studii şi conferinte Horątiu, Tasso, Cervantes, Tolstoi, Cehov, 1956
Cronicile optimistului, Cu un cuυînt înainte al autorului, 1964
Studii şi cercetări de istorie literară, 1966
Studii şi comunicări, edited by Alexandru Piru, 1966 Ulysse, 1967
Scriitori străini, edited by Vasile Nicolescu and Adrian Marino, 1967
Scrieri despre artă, edited by George Muntean, 2 vols., 1968
Universul poeziei, edited by Alexandru Piru, 1971; part in Studies in Poetics, translated by Andrei Bantaş and Anda Teodorescu, 1972
Texte social-politice, 1944–1965, edited by Gheorghe Tuţui and Gheorghe Matei, 1971
Literatura nouă, edited by Alexandru Piru, 1972
Gîlceava înţeleptului cu lumea: Pseudojurnal de moralist, edited by G.Şerban, 2 vols., 1973–74
Mihai Eminescu: Studii şi articole, edited by Maria and Constantin Teodorovici, 1978
Aforisme şi reflecţii, edited by I.Pîrvănescu and Al.Stănciulescu-Birda, 1984
Însemnări şi polemice (selected essays), edited by Andrei Rusu, 1988
Cronici literare şi recenzii, edited by Andrei Rusu, 1991
Other writings: four novels (Cartea nunţii, 1933; Enigma Otiliei, 1938; Bietul loanide, 1953; Scrinul negru, 1960), plays (Teatru, 1956), poetry, and works on Romanian literature and writers (including a biography of Mihai Eminescu, 1932).
Also translated many writers from the Italian.
Collected works edition: Opere, 14 vols., 1965–83 (in progress).
Bălu, Ion, G.Călinescu, 1899–1965: Biobibliografie, Bucharest: Editura Ştiiţifică şi Enciclopedică, 1975
Bălu, Ion, G.Călinescu: Eseu despre etapele creatįei, Bucharest: Cartea Românească, 1981
Călin, Vera, “Romanian Contributions to the European AvantGarde,” Cross-Currents 4 (1985):337–50
Livadă, Melania, G.Călinescu, poet şi teoretician al poeziei, Bucharest: Cartea Românească, 1982
Martin, Mircea, G.Călinescu şi “complexele” literaturii române, Bucharest: Albatros, 1981
Micu, Dumitru, G.Călinescu: Între Apollo şi Dionysos, Bucharest: Minerva, 1979
Negoiţescu, Ion, Istoria literaturii române, Bucharest: Minerva, 1991:184–88
Niţescu, Marin, “G. Călinescu,” in his Sub zodia proletcultismului: Dialectic puterii, Bucharest: Humanitas, 1995:188–208
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