Andrei Codrescu 1946–
(Has also written under pseudonyms Betty Laredo, Tristan Tzara, and Urmuz) American poet, short story writer, memoirist, essayist, journalist, novelist, and travel writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Codrescu's career through 1995. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Vol. 46.
Romanian-born poet Andrei Codrescu is celebrated for his spare, proto-surrealistic verse, his keen observation of contemporary culture, his affection for his adopted homeland, and his mastery of American idiom. Although best-known as guest commentator for the program "All Things Considered" on National Public Radio, he has published more than 20 volumes of poetry, fiction, essays, and autobiographical works. His themes deal largely with life in communist Romania and his experiences as an expatriate living in Rome, Paris, and the United States. His writing ranges from introspective verse on urban themes as in The History of the Growth of Heaven (1971) to a collection of short stories. Monsieur Teste in America (1987), in which English becomes a "toy box" of colloquialisms, to his Gothic thriller, The Blood Countess (1995), based on the life of a Dracula-like figure from history. Although Codrescu's poetry has been influenced by Romanian avantgardists such as poet and essayist Tristan Tzara (whose name Codrescu has used as a pseudonym) and dramatist Eugene Ionesco, it has also been compared to the works of American poets Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams. His prose fiction has been compared to the works of Zoe Oldenbourg, Anne Rice, and Franz Kafka.
Born in Romania shortly before the communists came to power, Andrei Ivanovitch Goldmutter, (he changed his name to Codrescu while attending university) spent his first four years living amiably in his grandmother's castle in the hills of Transylvania. A precocious child, he was unpopular with other children. At age 16, he began to write poetry and became involved with his country's literary intelligentsia. Unfortunately, his poems, critical of the communist Ceausescu regime, caused his expulsion from the University of Bucharest. After receiving his master's degree from the University of Rome, he and his mother emigrated to the United States in 1966. He arrived in New York with no knowledge of English, but learned to speak the language on the street from hippies, poets, rock music, and other sources. He moved to Detroit, joined John Sinclair's Artist Workshop, and eventually went to California. With the publication of his first collection of poetry, License to Carry a Gun (1970), he was hailed as a promising young talent. This success was followed by his second collection of poetry, The History of the Growth of Heaven, and two autobiographical volumes of prose, The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius (1975) and In America's Shoes (1983). In 1982, he founded a new journal, the Exquisite Corpse, a monthly magazine of "books and ideas" which combines opinion, satire, and commentary on current events. A year later, he began broadcasting weekly commentary on the American scene and world events for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered". A Craving for Swan (1986), a collection of two years of his broadcast essays, resulted. In the same year, he also published Comrade Past & Mister Present, a blend of prose, poetry, and journal entries, considered one of his finest works. In 1990, he was invited to drive cross-country and record his experiences. A compilation of these adventures, Road Scholar, came out in 1993 as both book and film. Codrescu is a professor at Louisiana State University and lives with his wife Alice and two children.
Codrescu's first published volume, License to Carry a Gun, won him the Big Table award and established him as a promising young poet. In it are three personae who represent the confrontational philosophy of his early poetry: a jailed Puerto Rican poet, an ex-beatnik turned "mystical Fascist" in Vietnam, and a woman who wants to "touch something sensational / like the mind of a shark." His second collection of poetry, The History of the Growth of Heaven, is a mix of surrealism and introspection about contemporary events and personal experience. Most significant is the re-creation of his childhood in Sibiu, Romania, and Ceausescu's feared Securitate, which was housed there. Two autobiographical volumes of prose followed, The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius and In America's Shoes (1983). The Life and Times deals with his longing for self-expression in his homeland behind the Iron Curtain and the culture shock he suffered when he arrived in the United States. Shoes, written in a warm, humorous tone, details his emergence into the American way of life. His Selected Poems, 1970–1980, was also published in 1983. In 1982, Codrescu became editor of a new journal, the Exquisite Corpse, a monthly magazine which combines opinion, satire, and polemics on contemporary culture. A year later, he began broadcasting weekly commentary on the American scene and world events for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." This resulted in the publication A Craving for Swan a collection of 150 of his broadcast essays. In the same year he published Comrade Past & Mister Present, which includes several long poems as well as prose and journal entries. The volume, considered one of his finest works, is a collection of memoirs and opinion on moral, sexual, and political issues. In 1987 he published two books, a collection of essays entitled The Disappearance of the Outside, and a collection of short stories entitled Monsieur Teste in America, a tour de force on the American vernacular. His The Hole in the Flag (1991) documents with awe and revulsion the Romanian revolt of 1989. Lighter themes are encompassed in Road Scholar (1993), a compilation of Codrescu's adventures while driving cross-country in a 1968 Cadillac. The book was also made into a film. The Blood Countess is Codrescu's first novel. The book is a Gothic thriller based on Codrescu's real-life Hungarian ancestor, Elizabeth Bathory, who is depicted as a sadistic, Dracula-like tyrant of the 16th century.
Although Codrescu's earliest poems caused his expulsion from the University of Bucharest, critical reception in the West has been generally favorable. From the publication of his first collection of poetry, License to Carry a Gun, for which he received the Big Table award, reviewers have considered him a rising talent. His self-denigrating sense of humor, his keen insight on contemporary culture, and his mastery of American idiom in his essays and memoirs such as A Craving for Swan and The Hole in the Flag have also won him accolades. Reviewing A Craving for Swan, Charles Bishop calls Codrescu a "witty and insightful commentator whose unique background, gift for language, and radical common sense make this a recommended book." Alex Kozinski says in the New York Times Book Review that The Hole in the Flag is "a work of great complexity and subtlety … a gripping political detective story." While Codrescu's first novel The Blood Countess has received mixed reviews, Kirkus Reviews calls it an "expertly crafted first novel … that merits comparison with the fiction of Zoe Oldenbourg and Marguerite Yourcenar."