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Matei A. Calinescu, 1934-2009

Matei Calinescu, distinguished man of letters and mentor to many younger scholars and writers in both his native Romania and his adopted country, the USA, died of lung cancer at his home on June 24, 2009.  Born in Bucharest, on June 15, 1934, he was the first child of Radu and Dora Calinescu. On the paternal side, the future writer was related to the 19th century Romanian poet D. Bolintineanu. His life-long devotion to the life of the mind was apparent to all who knew him. Just last week, the literary journal Observator Cultural, run by young, post-communist writers of the 80’s generation, devoted its issue of 18 June  to “Matei Calinescu at 75” (

With a Licénce in English from the University of Bucharest (1957), Matei contributed early to Romanian literary life, publishing six books of literary criticism, a novel, The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter, and three volumes of poetry. In 1960, he started his academic career, serving as an assistant professor, and later lecturer, in the Department of World Literature of the University of Bucharest. In 1972 he obtained a doctorate in Comparative Literature at the University of Cluj (1972). In 1973, he began his career at Indiana University as a Visiting Professor and Fulbright lecturer. He remained devoted to the university and settled with his family in lovely Bloomington, becoming an American citizen in 1979. At the time of his death, he was IU Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature (department Chair between 1996-1998) and West-European Studies. His publications in English include Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (Duke University Press, 1997)—a standard text on numerous classroom reading lists. Translated into many languages, this highly regarded work of his American period has achieved international standing.

In 1990, after publishing 14 books of literary criticism and over 150 articles, he stepped away from the “footnoting” requirements of academia and devoted himself to memoir writing. A notable result was Matthew’s Enigma (Indiana University Press, 2009), a biographical portrait of his son based on copious diary entries kept over many years. A deep meditation on the fragility and enigma of life itself, the book had a sizable impact on many, judging by the outpouring of letters, e-mail messages, and telephone calls from people all over the country. The memoir was also a searching self-investigation, as his son’s autistic condition had taught him how to “read differently” and greatly helped him write his now-classic book, Rereading (Yale University Press, 1993).

In 2004, Matei began writing a “A Different Diary of Sorts: The Exit from Time,” to be published posthumously, as a sequel to his A Diary of Sorts: 1973-1981 (Polirom, Iasi, Romania, 2005).

He was a Guggenheim fellow in 1975-76, a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow (1991), and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson  Center, Washington DC. In 2000 he received Romania’s highest honor, the medal Pentru Merit by the President of Romania, Emil Constantinescu, in recognition of his contribution to promoting Romanian culture abroad. In 2008 he was awarded a Doctorate Honoris Causa by the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj, Romania.

An erudite man “in the Borgesian manner,” as he liked to present himself, “where erudition becomes a form of invention,” Matei Calinescu offered the younger generations an alternative to ideological Manichaeism, cherishing the values of intellectual pluralism and integration. Upon hearing of his death, Norman Manea, the distinguished Romanian writer living in New York City, commented: “In coming to the United States, Matei gave up a great intellectual career in Romania, but drawing on his many talents, he continued his intense cerebral adventure in his new, foreign, yet democratic and stimulating environment. Romanian and American cultures lose a brilliant man of letters, and I will deeply miss an irreplaceable friend.”

Matei Calinescu is survived by his wife of 46 years, Adriana (Uca); by his daughter, Irena Calinescu (Tom Simpson), and grandson Rory Calinescu Simpson, all of Los Angeles. In addition, he is survived by his sister, Marina Pascot; his niece Claudia Ghestin (Jean-Pierre), his grand nephew and god-son Edouard Ghestin, and his grand-niece and god-daughter Lucie Ghestin, all of Paris, France. He was predeceased by his parents and his beloved son Matthew.

A religious ceremony will be held on Monday, June 29 at 11:00 AM, with visitation at 10:30 AM, at All Saints Orthodox Church, 6004 Fairfax Road. Father Peter Jon Gillquist will be presiding. His final resting place will be in the family cript at Turnul Severin, Romania. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made (c/o Nathan Butler Funeral Home, 219 Terre Haute Road, Worthington IN 47471-0006) to All Saints Orthodox Church, or to the Hospice of Bloomington Hospital for its compassionate expertise in end-of-life care.