- At the Gates of Writing: Matei Calinescu and the Distance Between Rereading and Rewriting
…we cannot stop this plural at the gates of reading.-Roland Barthes, S/Z (1970)
I discovered my copy of Matei Calinescu’s Rereading (1993) in the thicket of a local secondhand bookshop among the thousands of volumes swept onto the store’s shelves by a biannual flood of undergraduates. Though remembering this first encounter with the text now evokes certain particulars—the sienna spine, the first perusal of a random page, the pleasurable clarity and balmy directness of Calinescu’s prose—I worry I’m rewriting my memory of the afternoon’s purchase subtly: injecting the scene ex post facto with a keener sense of anticipation than was actually the case. Innocent enough: there’s a sour unreliability to our memory of past feelings, but I suspect the invention goes beyond the retroactive hyping of suspense. Perhaps the book’s singular qualities—Calinescu’s bibliophilic passion, good humor, and interest in the circularity of reading time—have encouraged me to recast my purchase of Rereading unconsciously as a variant of the opening of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979): the chapter in which you, Calvino’s reader, are told “you” are about to begin reading the book you have in fact already begun. Nonetheless, even if my anticipatory memory is “revisionist,” even if some duplicity lurks in this act of half recall, the counterfeited scene seems, by the fact of its multiple revisions, true to the spirit of Calinescu’s book. It illustrates his insight into how time shapes the necessary plurality of our best textual encounters, the poly-vectorial play of meanings both compelling us to return to texts and enabling us to rewrite them. The memory’s uncertainty also echoes a productive gap in Rereading: the lacuna where reception ends and invention begins.
While rewriting is not the most obvious concern of Rereading, it is perhaps the book’s secret theme: at times the edge of its conceptual horizon, at other times the very compass by which Calinescu navigates his theoretical terrain. [End Page 271] Calinescu acknowledges the idea’s centrality when, in the book’s epilogue, he declares “writerly rereading or mental rewriting has come up again and again and has turned out to be one of the mainsprings of literary creativity” (277). Indeed, the rewriting theme recurs throughout the text: in Calinescu’s fascination with the link between rereading and ludic creativity, in his recurrent evocation of reading as mental writing, and in the insistently intertextual overtones within his rereadings of Borges, Nabokov, and, naturally, Henry James, the compulsive reviser who could not read another author’s work without imaginatively revising it. Calinescu even offers an abbreviated assessment of the most prominent scholars preoccupied by the notion of rewriting from the Russian Formalists and Bakhtin to Harold Bloom and Gerald Genette. But, if rewriting is so thoroughly present in Rereading, one might ask, why say “secret” theme?
What remains productively elusive in Calinescu, as noted above, is a decisive differentiation between actual literary rewriting and the mental rewriting characteristic of reflective rereading. Undoubtedly, the former emerges from the latter in every case, for “all literary writing has its ultimate root in…mental rewriting” (214). But whenever Calinescu appears, at long last, to critique the pleasures and vicissitudes of rewriting as such, he defers subtly, returning us to the library and investing the act of reading with the volatile dynamism and autonomy associated with authorship. Consider the equivocality of the “creative reader,” a hypothetical creature Calinescu passingly models on James’s approach to reading (214). “A highly skilled and knowledgeable craftsman,” this figure is “a squeezer of the literary material, not so much for meaning as for new, unsuspected possibilities of meaning and creative literary play” (214). The creative reader not only constructs “a ‘virtual text’ (every reader does that) but [is] fully conscious of doing so. What is more, given the rules of the game as well as the specific problems (of diction, plot, characterization, verisimilitude, surprise) that the text poses, [such a reader] keep[s] imagining different strategies and trying out...