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...