George Călinescu

George Călinescu

Born Gheorghe Vişan
19 June 1899
Died 12 March 1965 (1965-03-13) (aged 65)
Nationality Romanian
Subject Romanian Literature History
Literary movement Modernism

George Călinescu (Romanian: [ˈd͡ʒe̯ord͡ʒe kəliˈnesku]; 19 June 1899, Iași – 12 March 1965, Otopeni) was a Romanian literary critic, historian, novelist, academician and journalist, and a writer of classicist and humanist tendencies. He is currently considered one of the most important Romanian literary critics of all time, alongside Titu Maiorescu and Eugen Lovinescu, and is one of the outstanding figures of Romanian literature in the 20th century.


Early childhood

George Călinescu was born Gheorghe Vişan on 14 June 1899, the son of a housekeeper, Maria Vişan;[1] the child was brought up by his mother's employers, Constantin Călinescu, a worker for Romanian State Railways, and his wife Maria, in their house in Bucharest. The Călinescu family, along with their housekeeper and the child, moved first to Botoşani, then to Iaşi, where Gheorghe Vişan, the future writer, matriculated at the Şcoala "Carol I." In 1907, Maria Vişan accepted the Călinescus' offer to formally adopt her son, who then took the name Gheorghe Călinescu. This was his real name until his death, but, because he used the pen name G. Călinescu, after his death an apochryphal, wrong, "George Călinescu" name was forged by the common use. As a child Călinescu did not know who his real mother was. Finding out that the housekeeper that he used to humiliate was his real mother caused him a psychological trauma.[2] He tried to hide his real origins for the rest of his life.

A model: Ramiro Ortiz

Ramiro Ortiz, who taught Italian language and literature at the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy, exercised a seminal influence over Călinescu's development. Călinescu developed a strong friendship with Ortiz; years later, he would give Ortiz credit for helping him "seize" a literary education of extraordinary quality.[3] Under Ortiz's guidance Călinescu made his first translations from Italian; during his student days he translated Giovanni Papini's autobiographical novel Un uomo finito and a novella from Boccaccio's Decameron. Again with Ortiz's help, he began work at the literary review Roma, the first issue appearing in January 1921, and travelled to Italy with his university colleagues. Călinescu's first book was written in Italian under the title Alcuni missionari catolici italiani nella Moldavia nei secoli XVII e XVIII, which appeared in 1925 and treated the Vatican's counter-reformationary propaganda efforts in Baroque Moldavia with heavy reliance on unpublished sources found in the Vatican Archives.[4]

Another model: Vasile Pârvan

If in Bucharest, alongside Ramiro Ortiz, Călinescu realized his vocation as a creative artist and scholar, his attention in Rome was focused on Vasile Pârvan, the director of the Accademia di Romania. Călinescu was captivated by Pârvan's erudition and work ethic, but also by his existential philosophy. Călinescu would always return to this "spiritual father" whenever the difficulties of life seemed to bring him to his knees. Călinescu observed that while Pârvan's natural aptitude was fairly common, his tendency to exercise all the powers of his mind in the ascetic pursuit of an intellectual ideal was transformed into an existential philosophy: Life is transitory, but man can defeat death and oblivion through creation, thus leaving a permanent record of a temporary existence. Călinescu later said, "even if not everyone is in a position to become a Pârvan, everyone can see in him a model, that is to say a way in which he too can accomplish the same renunciations."[5]

Doctorate in Literature - and beyond

In 1936, Călinescu received his doctorate in literature from the University of Iaşi with a thesis on Avatarii faraonului Tla ("The Avatars of Pharaoh Tla"), a posthumous work of Mihai Eminescu whose value he was the first to publicize. In fact, this thesis was an extract from Călinescu's earlier work, Opera lui Mihai Eminescu ("Mihai Eminescu's Work"), which he wrote out longhand in five copies and sent to the members of the Examination Committee. Afterwards he was named lecturer in Romanian literature at the Faculty of Letters of the University of Iaşi, after having won the competition for the post with the maximum possible score. In 1945, he transferred to the University of Bucharest, from which point he collaborated on the prestigious Revistă a Fundaţiilor Regale, edited by Alexandru Rosetti and Camil Petrescu, until it was closed down when the King abdicated in 1947. After 1947, he was published consistently in magazines such as Gazeta literară (later to become România literară) and Contemporanul, also collaborating on Roma, Universul literar, Viaţa literară, Sburătorul, and Gândirea.

Under Communism

Călinescu was deposed from his position at the Faculty of Letters of the University of Bucharest after the establishment in power of the Communist Party of Romania. He was considered a political liability despite having shown evidence of democratic, left-leaning tendencies throughout the interwar period. In the 1950s, however, he became director of the Institutul de teorie literară şi folclor ("The Literary Theory and Folklore Institute") and coordinated the institute's publication, Studii şi cercetări de istorie literară şi folclor ("Literary Theory and Folklore Studies and Research"), from 1952 to 1965. He was reinvited to his post at the Faculty of Letters only in 1961; in the meantime, he produced numerous writings on wide-ranging subjects, from the aesthetic of folk tales to the history of Spanish literature.

Research, criticism, writings

Călinescu was the author of several fundamental texts of Romanian literary history (Viaţa lui Mihai Eminescu, Opera lui Mihai Eminescu, and Viaţa lui Ion Creangă among others). After 1945, he published significant writings on world literature (including Impresii asupra literaturii spaniole, and Scriitori străini.) His study Estetica basmului, devoted to the poetics of Romanian folk tales, underlined the range of his interests. From 1932 to 1962, he published monographs, in separate volumes, on such writers as Eminescu, fabulist Ion Creangă, realist novelist Nicolae Filimon, and poet Grigore Alexandrescu, fictionalized biographies, scholarly studies, and essays. He continued presiding over numerous academic and radio conferences and writing thousands of critical reviews until his death in 1965.

Novelist, poet and dramatist

Călinescu produced heavily descriptive realist novels in the mode of Honoré de Balzac, often with obvious polemical undertones lurking beneath their apparently objective style. The novel he considered his best, Enigma Otiliei, narrates an unhappy love story; Cartea nunţii is a disquisition on marriage; and Bietul Ioanide and Scrinul negru present the problems of intellectuals, all against the backdrop of interwar and immediate postwar Romania. Călinescu also wrote poems (Lauda lucrurilor) and plays (Şun, mit mongol) while continuing to practice journalism, although Cronicile mizantropului abruptly became Cronicile optimistului after the Communists seized power in 1947.

Civic and political activity under Communism

An intellectual with liberal-left ideas who nonetheless proved flexible enough to write praises of the King under Carol's dictatorship, Călinescu outwardly adhered to the new Communist ideology after 1947, likely noting the practical advantages of such a shift in loyalties.

He made numerous research trips to the Soviet Union (Kiev, Moscova, Leningrad appeared in 1949) and the People's Republic of China (Am fost în China nouă, in 1953), publishing his impressions in these two volumes.

From 1948 to 1953 Călinescu was mistrusted and marginalized, despite being named to the Academy of the Romanian People's Republic in 1949; even after destalinization began in the Soviet Union in 1953, the Romanian establishment continued to favor the "wooden-tongued," socialist realist models the Soviets had begun to abandon. Călinescu's total inability to write convincingly in this style resulted in his continued perception as a reactionary conservative. Nonetheless, he was invited to resume his columns on a permanent basis in 1956, marking the beginning of his rehabilitation. Before the end of his life, all of his works, with the exception of his monumental Istoria, were issued in new editions. Istoria would appear (to great acclaim) only in the 1980s, through the efforts of Călinescu's assistant Alexandru Piru.

Final years of life

In November 1964, George Călinescu was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and sent for treatment to the sanatorium at Otopeni. On 12 March 1965, in the middle of the night, he died, leaving behind, in the words of Geo Bogza, "a body of work fundamental to the Romanian people."

Post-Communist reputation

After 1989 there began a period in which Călinescu's civic activity under the Communist regime was called into question, and in which he was accused of collaborating with the authorities, notably by his former assistant Adrian Marino. A veritable "trial by press" resulted in which all of his works and activities were systematically reevaluated, proving Călinescu's perennial value and ability to offer new generations new perspectives on his own times and the whole history of Romanian literature.


Studies in Foreign Languages

Studies on Aesthetics and World Literature




History and literary criticism


Travel journals


  1. Ion Bălu, Viaţa lui G. Călinescu, 1981, ed. II. Editura Libra, 1994, p. 15
  3. Mircea Zaciu, Marian Papahagi, Aurel Sasu, Dicţionarul scriitorilor români, Editura Fundaţiei Culturale Române, 1995, literele A-C, p. 551–517
  4. Ion Bălu, Opera lui G. Călinescu, Editura Libra, 2001, pp. 21–30
  5. Ion Bălu, Opera lui G. Călinescu, Editura Libra, 2001, p. pp.36

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