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Lena Hoff, Nicolas Calas and the Challenge of Surrealism. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press. 2014. Pp. 450. 23 halftones, 8 color plates. Paper $65.

Lena Hoff’s Nicolas Calas and the Challenge of Surrealism is a fine study of an understudied and perhaps underappreciated (at least in English-language scholarship) itinerant poet, journalist, critic, and all-out provocateur. A strongly Marxist thinker, who did not believe in so-called proletarian art in the social realist sense (despite an early essay arguing for it), and a lifelong surrealist, who at every turn sought to modify Freudian thought as well as surrealist doctrine, Nicolas Calas (also known as Nikolaos Kalamaris, Nikitas Randos, and M. Spieros) is often mentioned in the Greek context as the one true surrealist—a characterization that Hoff somewhat unquestioningly embraces. But she also provides a much-needed examination of Calas’s work that digs deep into the archive in order to take into account the full breadth of his productivity—from poetry to art reviews to social criticism—and that outlines the rich and varied intellectual contexts in which Calas lived and wrote. “Without desire to change, surrealism is reduced to a cult,” Calas wrote, and it is his permanent revolt that Hoff tracks patiently and in great detail (254).

Turn any modernist/avant-garde stone and you will find Calas there: a correspondent and critic of the first Greek promulgator of modernism Yorgos Theotokas in the early 1930s; a translator of T.S. Eliot, whose work he did not much like, and the first to compare him to C.P. Cavafy (though George Seferis would do both much more famously a few years later); a member of the French surrealist group in Paris in the mid-to-late 1930s; a collaborator of André Breton in 1940s New York, his initial emigration there partly financed by paintings given to him by Pablo Picasso and Giorgio de Chirico; a correspondent of Leon Trotsky, while the latter was in Mexico; a correspondent and translator of William Carlos Williams; a research assistant for Margaret Mead; a contributor to the American surrealist magazine View, but also to Artforum; a regular columnist for The Village Voice in the 1960s; a beloved art history professor at Fairleigh Dickinson in New Jersey from 1963 to 1975 and begrudging visiting teacher at Allen Ginsberg’s Naropa Institute in Boulder, CO, in the late 1970s; and, no longer scorned by the Greek intelligentsia, a recipient of the Greek State Poetry Prize in 1977.

The first chapter takes us from his birth (as Nikos Kalamaris) to a wealthy industrialist Greek family in Switzerland in 1907 through his incarnation as M. Spieros, his pen name when writing socialist columns in the Greek press. In between, Calas studied law at the University of Athens, launched his career as a critic by attacking prominent poets (such as Kostas Karyotakis), and already at the age of 22 participated in ideological wars between journals, finding his intellectual home in none, as he struggled to define, under Trotsky’s influence, a politicized but not necessarily limitedly proletarian art.

The second chapter focuses on Calas’s surrealist awakening, placing him (a little cursorily) in the context of the Greek 1930s avant-garde and analyzing his first poems in Greek. Although Hoff includes an astute, brief comparative reading of Calas and Odysseas Elytis, she resists seeing parallels to Greek poetry in Calas’s work. I think she is right to claim that it is difficult to “plac[e] Calas in the same category as [Andreas] Embirikos, [Nikos] Engonopoulos and Elytis” (104), but a closer, more engaged [End Page 179] consideration of this question—and what exactly the “category” under discussion ought to be—would certainly have been fruitful. For instance, Hoff identifies Calas’s resistance to the notion of Greekness as crucial for distinguishing him from other poets, but the poetic evidence that she presents shows a skeptical attitude towards both the unquestioning embrace of antiquity and modern Athens that you might find, if not in George Seferis, at least in Andreas Embirikos.

Chapter 3 addresses Calas’s years in Paris at the end of the 1930s, examining the poems he wrote in French during that time and his important theoretical surrealist book Foyers d’incendie—the first work to be published under the pseudonym that would later become his legal name in the US—in which he introduces the idea of “revolutionary sadism.” Hoff draws a compelling parallel between the two endeavors: “Just as the revolutionary must be a sadist in order to transform society and overcome obstacles, so the poet must cultivate a sadistic attitude in order to create a radically new poetry” (162). However, even though Hoff speaks generally about Calas’s “use of hallucinatory images” and ably unearths the poems’ many sources and references (whether to mythology, Salvador Dali, or Karl Marx), thus laying down the important groundwork for interpreting them, she does not fully engage with them qua poems, or explain exactly how they are “radically new” (166).

Hoff’s fourth, and perhaps strongest, chapter traces the evolution in Calas’s thought as he moves from Europe to the United States during the height of the Second World War and tries to adapt to new sociopolitical realities. Calas becomes an impresario of surrealism in New York, still holding fast to the movement’s promise and political commitments. In this, he is unlike the movement’s founder, André Breton, with whom he had a falling out at this time precisely over the degree of politicization now necessary or even possible in art. Calas during this period publishes one book of essays in English, Confound the Wise, and is very active in prominent artistic and literary journals, also briefly editing the Greek newspaper The National Herald. But what may be the most interesting aspect of Calas at this moment, and thus also about this chapter, is the work that he did not publish, or of which he published only fragments. Hoff’s deep knowledge of the Calas archive makes this chapter and the ones that follow it truly compelling, relying as they do on those unpublished materials, some of which are found in the book’s extensive Appendix. She explores his intriguing ideas about “The New Prometheus”—“a hero who was willing to assume full individual responsibility and a rebel force to inspire the common man to continue his struggles for social transformation and liberty in the face of tyrants” (175)—and the ways in which he revises the terms but not the core of his political thinking (for example, moving from the revolutionary sadism of Foyers to the concept of a “militant attitude,” from the artist-as-revolutionary to the “responsible” artist; passim).

Glossing perhaps a little quickly over the “intellectually dry and difficult period” (225) of Calas’s 1950s, Chapter 5 moves to his penultimate incarnation as an art history professor, an art critic for esteemed periodicals, such as Artforum and Art International, a “polemical columnist” (230) for The Village Voice, a gallery advisor, and an exhibition curator. Re-inspired to engage with politics by the New Left and the protest movements and willing to seriously and critically engage with new artistic movements (pop art, performance art, and so on), Calas at the same time remained true to his belief in both the “necessity of militancy within the political struggle” and [End Page 180] in an evolving, adaptive surrealism (233). As Hoff highlights through her examination of unpublished manuscripts and letters, Calas’s willingness to recognize and respond to the changed sociopolitical and cultural landscape led to disagreements with newly formed American surrealist groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s, clearly marking his uniqueness as a thinker in the American postwar context.

In the sixth and final chapter, Hoff follows Calas back to Greece and to poetry, outlining the links between his early and late work. She adeptly tracks his complex allusions and the targets of his satirical poetic critiques (ranging from nationalism and religion to revered Greek poets like Kostis Palamas and Seferis to the Greek royal family)—her reading of the anti-royalist «Ευτυχούπολις» (Happy City) is especially rich—offering a useful overview of the general tenor of his published Greek poems and discussing unpublished poems that Calas wrote in English; her analysis of an untitled poem beginning with the line “In the isles of Byron and Sappho” is masterful.

Hoff’s intention throughout the book is to reconstruct, explicate, and situate Calas’s work, and the richness and usefulness of her own work in this respect cannot be overstated. She is excellent at highlighting parallels between Calas’s thought and that of international figures from different realms, including Trotsky, the surrealist poet Benjamin Péret, the Russian futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky, and the theorist Herbert Marcuse; this is the international context in which Calas very clearly belongs. But though invaluable, this contextualization at times makes Calas himself seem elusive, a tissue of influences rather than an original thinker, even as Hoff insists on his originality. For instance, Hoff writes that “the originality of Calas as a poet lies precisely in his multiple transformations and artistic restlessness which, together with his insistence on poetry as a form of critique or protest, were defining aspects of the avant-garde experience” (63). Which is it? Is Calas original, or is he typical of the avant-garde? Hoff often seems to be trying to save Calas from being merely a Greek poet, which results in the book’s not only dispensing with some of the Greek poets, too, but also in its not fully grappling with Calas’s own ideas, sometimes taking his views at face value or too neatly integrating them in existing (non-Greek) paradigms.

One way to make Calas’s own voice come through more strongly might have been to delve more deeply into his poems. The book’s main—and perhaps inevitable—weakness in my mind is the surface analysis of almost all of the poems that it presents. Puns are pointed out and explained and references elucidated, but in an attempt to offer an overview of Calas’s poetic work, Hoff spends very little time specifically showing us what makes it worth reading, other than its adoption and adaptation of particular modes and themes (mythological, surrealist, Marxist, satirical, autobiographical). Hoff argues that “Calas stands alone in his original attempt to inspire the creation of a Greek avant-garde, fusing poetic innovation with political radicalism” (120); this may be true, but in her account of his poetry, the latter subsumes the former. Tending to read the poems as if they are mini-essays that showcase one aspect of Calas’s beliefs or another, Hoff runs the risk of making them sound more banal than they are. Calas’s inventive poetic form (aural and visual elements, stanza and line structure, diction, register, syntax, and punctuation) is rarely considered, even though, as Hoff acknowledges, “Calas believed that form was essentially inseparable from content” (95). This is somewhat justified by the extensive scope of Hoff’s project, but the accumulation of lengthy and barely analyzed citations towards the end of the book still feels unsatisfactory. [End Page 181]

Calas referred to himself in Artforum in the early 1980s as a “poet, diagnostician, and polemicist” (264). The great contribution of Hoff’s book is to present a picture of Calas that gives equal weight to each of these facets of Calas’s personality. There has already been a renaissance of work on Greek surrealism in recent years: from Michalis Chrysanthopoulos’s (2012) and Nikos Sigalas’s (2012) books in Greek to Effie Rentzou’s (2010) incisive study in French. I trust that Hoff’s Nicolas Calas, with its lengthy Appendix of unpublished materials, its exhaustive bibliography, and its extensive citations of poems, letters, and essays—some published and many translated for the first time (the originals always helpfully appear in-text or in the notes)—will serve as an important sourcebook for the further study of Calas, and I hope that it will spur critical work on many of the important questions it broaches.

Katerina Stergiopoulou
Claremont McKenna College
Katerina Stergiopoulou

Katerina Stergiopoulou is Assistant Professor of Literature at Claremont McKenna College, specializing in American and European twentieth-century poetry and poetics, as well as in translation studies. Her essays on Ezra Pound, George Seferis, and Carl Schmitt have appeared in Journal of Modern Literature, Comparative Literature, and October.


Chrysanthopoulos, Michales (Χρυσανθόπουλος, Μιχάλης). 2012. «Εκατό χρόνια πέρασαν και ένα καράβι»: Ο ελληνικός υπερρεαλισμός και η κατασκευή της παράδοσης [“A hundred years have passed, and a boat”: Greek surrealism and the construction of tradition]. Athens: Agra.
Rentzou, Effie. 2010. Littérature malgré elle. Le surréalisme et la transformation du littéraire: la France, la Grèce, confrontations [Literature despite itself. Surrealism and the transformation of the literary: Comparisons between France and Greece]. Paris: Éditions Pleine Marge.
Sigalas, Nikos (Σιγάλας, Νίκος). 2012. ΟΑνδρέας Εμπειρίκος και η ιστορία του ελληνικού υπερρε-αλισμού: Ή μπροστά στην αμείλικτη αρχή της πραγματικότητας [Andreas Embirikos and the history of Greek surrealism: Or facing the inexorable principle of reality]. Athens: Agra.