- Imagination, Rereading, and the Autobiographical Project in Matei Călinescu’s Work
From poetry to prose and further to many of his theoretical and critical writings, the work of Matei Călinescu is autobiographic in nature. Fundamentally so, as what he calls the “principle of imagination,” which has shaped the lifetime project of his oeuvre, determined the choice of topics and their development, and molded the hybridized discourse that comes to dominate his last theoretical volumes, leaves no stone unturned, no image of self or other unanalyzed. The true self, one would contend, is the imagined self.
One notices, on the one hand, the delicate fusion between autobiography and theory in Rereading (1993)1, and also in Despre Ioan P. Culianu şi Mircea Eliade. Amintiri, lecturi, reflecţii.2 The fusion between different genres (essay, poetry and prose) was to be seen first in The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter, his first and last novel, written and published in Romania in 1969 under Communism.3 On the other hand, since the 1990s one notices a significant turn in Călinescu’s creation towards memorial and diary writing, a turn prompted by two historical and biographical events: the possibility of publishing again in his mother tongue, and the death of his son, Matthew. [End Page 135] This painful loss determined in a way another return—to poetry4—with a volume written in Romanian.5 This collection has the significance of a double return to origins and to a minor language, but also to a mode of privileged discourse which still preserves its dignity in Romanian culture.
Tracing such a complicate lifetime trajectory would take a hefty monograph, so I will restrict myself here to sketching the relationships between imagination, memory and autobiography in Călinescu’s works. To do so I shall focus on two books only, namely A citi, a (re)citi. Către o poetică a relecturii (2003) and Despre Ioan P. Culianu şi Mircea Eliade (2nd revised edition, 2002), and make references to other writings only in passing.6
I chose the Romanian edition of Rereading for several reasons: there are relevant differences in comparison to the correspondent American edition, especially the Addendum—the new “Romanian chapter” dedicated to an inter-war novel that bears autobiographic and symbolic significance for Călinescu: Mateiu I. Caragiale’s 1929 Craii de Curtea-Veche.7 Also, the paratext of this edition and of Despre Ioan P. Culianu and Mircea Eliade (sub-title, prefaces, addenda, annexes), abounding in statements about the autobiographical and personal nature of his research, indicate the author’s suggestion that these books be read or re-read as primarily autobiographical.
What I call “autobiographical project” developed progressively and the author became aware of it only later, in the 1990’s, when it entirely surfaced out. For many years the author kept a (long lost) diary; after his arrival in the United States he went on writing irregularly in it up to the end of his life, with periods of intensified notation, in his later years. Yet, Călinescu did not publish autobiographical work proper in English, except for the book dedicated [End Page 136] to his son, published first in Romanian in 2003 (Portretul lui M) and then translated into English in 2009.8 The latter volumes comprise both the portrait of the son and the diary of the father. Matei Călinescu seems to have published for the first time an autobiographical fragment in Romanian as late as 1993 (“Interludii: lecturi” [“Interludes: readings”], in the Romanian edition of Lettre internationale [No. 5, 1993]). A first selection of his diaries—written in Romanian, during his exile, between 1973-1981 appeared in 2005.9
In a 2004 interview published in Romanian one can read a relevant confession about the self-discovery of the autobiographical nature of his literary project:
Since I was a teenager I was obsessed with the richness of my memories; my project, not formulated as such at the time, was autobiographic. Willy-nilly I patched together various fragments belonging to different genres until I ended up with a sort of autobiography, which I am yet to finish...