Andrei Codrescu Biography
Andrei Condrescu comments:
Nationality: Romanian-American. Born: Sibiu, Romania, 1946. Career: Visiting assistant professor, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 1979-80; visiting professor, Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado; professor of English, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, 1984—; regular commentator on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. Awards: Big Table Younger Poets Award, 1970; National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, 1973, 1983; Pushcart Prize, 1980, 1983; A. D. Emmart Humanities Award, 1982; National Public Radio fellowship, 1983; Towson University Prize for Literature, 1983; General Electric/CCLM Poetry Award, 1985; American Romanian Academy of Arts and Sciences Book Award, 1988; George Foster Peabody Award (San Francisco Film Festival), best documentary film, 1995; best documentary film award, Seattle Film Festival, 1995; Cine Award, 1995; Golden Eagle Award, 1995; ACLU Civil Liberties Award, 1995; Romanian National Foundation Literature Award, 1996. Agent: Jonathan Lazear, 930 First Avenue North, Suite 416, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401, U.S.A.
The Repentance of Lorraine. New York, Pocket Books, 1976.
The Blood Countess. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1995.
Messiah. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Why I Can't Talk on the Telephone. San Francisco, Kingdom KumPress, 1972.
Monsieur Teste in America and Other Instances of Realism. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1987.
License to Carry a Gun. Chicago, Big Table/Follett, 1970.
The Here What Where. San Francisco, Isthmus Press, 1972.
And Grammar and Money. Berkeley, California, Arif Press, 1973.
A Serious Morning. Santa Barbara, California, Capra Press, 1973.
The History of the Growth of Heaven. New York, George Braziller, 1973.
A Mote Suite for Jan and Anselm. San Francisco, Stone Pose Art, 1976.
For the Love of a Coat. Boston, Four Zoas Press, 1978.
The Lady Painter. Boston, Four Zoas Press, 1979.
Diapers on the Snow. Ann Arbor, Michigan, Crowfoot Press, 1981.
Necrocorrida. Los Angeles, Panjandrum, 1982.
Selected Poems: 1970-1980. New York, Sun Books, 1983.
Comrade Past and Mister Present: New Poems and a Journal. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1986; second edition, 1991.
Belligerence: New Poems. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1991.
Alien Candor: Selected Poems, 1970-1995. Santa Rosa, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1998.
Road Scholar, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1993.
For Max Jacob. Berkeley, California, Tree Books, 1974.
The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius (autobiography). NewYork, George Braziller, 1975.
In America's Shoes (autobiography). San Francisco, City Lights, 1975.
A Craving for Swan (essays). Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1986.
Raised by Puppets Only to be Killed by Research (essays). Reading, Massachusetts, Addison-Wesley, 1988.
The Disappearance of the Outside: A Manifesto for Escape (essays).Reading, Massachusetts, Addison-Wesley, 1990.
The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile's Story of Return and Revolution (reportage). New York, Morrow, 1991.
Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond (introduction) by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain. New York, Grove Weidenfeld, 1992.
The MUse is Always Half-Dressed in New Orleans and Other Essays.New York, St. Martin's Press, 1993.
Zombification: Stories from National Public Radio (essays). NewYork, St. Martin's Press, 1994.
Road Scholar: Coast to Coast Late in the Century (reportage), with photographs by David Graham. New York, Hyperion, 1994.
The Dog with the Chip in His Neck: Essays from NPR and Elsewhere.New York, St. Martin's Press, 1996.
Elysium: A Gathering of Souls: New Orleans Cemeteries (foreword), by Sandra Russell Clark. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1997.
Hail Babylon!: In Search of the American City at the end of the Millennium (essays). New York, St. Martin's Press, 1998.
Ay Cuba: A Socio-Erotic Journey to Castro's Last Stand (reportage), with photographs by David Graham. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1999.
A Bar in Brooklyn: Novellas & Stories 1970-1978. Santa Rosa, California, Black Sparrow, 1999.
Land of the Free: What Makes Americans Different (nonfiction, withDavid Graham, edited by Michael L. Sand). New York, Aperture, 1999.
The Devil Never Sleeps and Other Essays. New York, St. Martin'sPress, 2000.
Contributor, Walker Evans: Signs ("with an essay by Andrei
Codrescu"), by Walker Evans. Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 1998.
Editor and Contributor, American Poetry since 1970: Up Late. NewYork, Four Walls Eight Windows, 1987.
Editor, The Stiffest of the Corpse: An Exquisite Corpse Reader. SanFrancisco, City Lights, 1988.
Editor, Reframing America: Alexander Alland, Otto Hagel & Hansel Mieth, John Gutmann, Lisette Model, Marion Palfi, Robert Frank. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1995.
Editor, with Laura Rosenthal, American Poets Say Goodbye to the Twentieth Century. New York, Four Walls Eight Windows, 1996.
Editor, with Laura Rosenthal, Thus Spake the Corpse: An Exquisite Corpse Reader, 1988-1998. Santa Rosa, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1999.
Translator, At the Court of Yearning: Poems by Lucian Blaga byLucian Blaga. Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1989.
Nine Martinis by Lita R. Hornick, New York, Kulchur Foundation, 1987.
(2000) There were always so many things that didn't fit in my poems or essays: recipes, overheard conversations, intricate means of disposing of mean people, crushes on out-of-bounds women, and, above all, a sense of the passing of time. The capacious form of the novel could, it seemed to me, accommodate all those things and some. When I started writing one, I discovered that I was a good storyteller and that, in fact, the form was even more amazing, that it was a machine capable of activating myths and rituals and changing the status quo. After reading Messiah, a friend said, "I can't look at New Orleans the same way anymore. It's been changed." I have also changed some peoples' memory cassettes: they now remember their novelistic representations better than the experiences they were based on. The novel is not exhausted, though the purveyors of the faux-memoir and psychological realism have done their best to run it into the ground. A squad of imaginative rescuers steeped in outrageous magic (such as the city of New Orleans) are getting it putt-putting again.
* * *
Andrei Codrescu is an artistic jack-of-all trades who mixes genres and juggles conventions, combining fact with fiction to produce hybrids: not exactly novels or novellas, not exactly histories or memoirs, but, like dragons in fairy tales, new conglomerations that share characteristics of many conventional beasts. Add political and social commentary, satiric portraits, a touch of the poet's life and thought, a little Cold War history, a mixed bag of poetic images, and comic and sexual romps, and the end result is a Codrescu short-story collection or novella.
A Romanian-born naturalized American, Codrescu draws on his experiences as a journalist, a weekly radio broadcaster and commentator on National Public Radio, and as an editor of the radical literary journal Exquisite Corpse to create witty and insightful essays, seriocomic memoirs, and autobiographical poetry and fiction. However, he prides himself more on his poetry than his short stories and novels, partly because, as he admits, he regards writing fiction as a relaxing vacation from his true vocation as a poet. Besides, it may be difficult for an English-as-a-second-language writer to sustain the consistently complex syntax required by novel-length performances, especially those duplicating speech and dialogue or an extended narrative voice. (Critics have been unenthusiastic about Codrescu's prose stylistics in his novels, a failing he cheerfully admitted to in his early works when he was still perfecting his self-taught English.) Rather, Codrescu plays to his strengths, contriving strikingly vivid poetic images and word play that capture a quirky and engaging sensibility. Language aside, Codrescu's Romanian-influenced take on the culture and foibles of his adopted country is his great strength as commentator and writer, for his childhood in a late-Soviet satellite shot through with collectivist distortion and socialist blather clearly gave him a sensitive ear and eye for sham and falsehood. Codrescu is at his best in satiric essays that unmask establishment hypocrisy, as in his exuberant The Devil Never Sleeps and Other Essays, with its discussions of William Burroughs, New Orleans' libertinism, and fundamentalist Christianity.
Although he calls his loosely structured memoirs The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius, its sequel In America's Shoes, and Road Scholar: Coast to Coast Late in the Century fiction, their descriptions of why he left Romania, the culture shock he experienced in Italy and then in the United States, the experiences (particularly in the San Francisco Bay area) that helped Americanize him, and his coast-to-coast trek across the USA, marveling at American oddities (like crystal gazers in the Southwest and a drive-through wedding in Los Angeles), are too thinly disguised and too true to his biography to be pure fiction. Still, all his novels, like his poems and essays, explore autobiographical subjects based on his experiences as an expatriate enfant terrible. The third person narrative of Involuntary Genius does distance him somewhat from his personal story, but the other two narratives assertively assume the narrative "I." Likewise, The Muse Is Always Half-Dressed in New Orleans and Other Essays has its inventive fictive moments but is more a collection of essays based on personal experience than of completely fictional short stories. In prose, Codrescu prefers a comically surreal mixture of philosophy, politics, science, and sex, bound together with attacks on oppression and repression, what Bruce Shlain of the New York Times Book Review sums up as "lyrical intellectual gymnastics" mixed with "dime store philosophy" (25 January 1987: 15). Again, Codrescu's upbringing in a rigid, corrupt system may in part explain his enthusiasm for bursting the constrictions of genre while indulging in (and often mocking) ideological and philosophical commentary, happily sampling an intellectual and stylistic freedom denied under the strictures of socialist realism.
The mix of poetry and short fiction in Why I Can't Talk on the Telephone is typically Codrescu in its defiance of genre conventions, as what has been called "apocalyptic realism" meets "sentencetheatre," jumbling together vampires, reviews of imaginary books (à la Jorge Luis Borges), speeches given by hands or hairs, and thoughts on "The Dada Council of World Revolution." The surreal How I Became a Howard Johnson provides early impressions of America in long conversations between stoned characters. Though published in 1999, A Bar in Brooklyn: Novellas and Stories 1970-1978 is a collection of short stories from Codrescu's "hip" days as a self-proclaimed radical and mock revolutionist. In Meat from the Goldrush, a tale of cannibalism, Codrescu spoofs Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude through a close-knit family of Eastern European butchers who contact their past (and that of their customers) directly: a time machine helps them transport bodies from the past, which they convert into prime cuts that are so popular they end up short-circuiting the present by killing off so many from the past—science fiction meets surrealism. A story of a quest for a mythic artifact, The Repentance of Lorraine, brings together a peculiar assortment of characters from past and present, including Roman harlots, modern Maoists, and university professors.
A horror story of sorts, The Blood Countess: A Novel is supposedly based on the life of a Codrescu ancestor. It interweaves in alternating chapters the true story of a sixteenth-century Hungarian countess, Elizabeth Bathory, and a fictive tale of her modern descendant, Drake Bathory-Kereshbur, a Hungarian-born American journalist. The cruel countess is a female version of Vlad the Impaler, having had 650 virgins killed so she could rejuvenate herself in their blood, and her life of debauchery and murder provides a disturbing study of tyranny, psychosis, superstition, and ruthless political machinations. Bathory-Kereshbur has returned to his homeland to cover Hungary's attempts to break away from the former Soviet Union and to move into the world of nations as a self-determined nation, so his position allows Codrescu to draw on his personal memories of life behind the Iron Curtain and the conflicts and hopes that ended the Cold War. However, even with Bathory-Kereshbur's confession to a dark family legacy that draws him into murder, modern events cannot compete with the nightmare images of past violence and violation that ultimately dominate this book.
As in The Blood Countess, the melodramatic Messiah: A Novel, a count-down to 2000 A.D. alternates chapters focusing on two heroines, New Orleanian Creole Felicity Odille LeJeune and Andrea Isbik, a Sarajevo refugee to Jerusalem, who together may save the world from Armageddon. LeJeune's prim and proper but senile 96-year-old grandmother hands over her $2 million-winning lottery ticket to a sleazy Baptist evangelical nicknamed "Elvis" and wishes for an orgasm just before she dies, and LeJeune's fight is a righteous one to bring the money back home. The teenaged Isbik, in turn, seduces an assortment of religious believers as a means to escape the hospice where she has been placed and finance a trip to "New Jerusalem," a.k.a. New Orleans. Codrescu draws inspiration from everything from Dr. Strangelove to Terry Southern's Candy for his enmeshed plot of warring lunacies: fanatical religious fundamentalists who disagree over absurdities, tattooed nihilists and radical revolutionaries, millennial fears and extremist rhetoric, in a mordant social commentary on the hysteria attending the change in centuries.
Codrescu is an American success story, an immigrant finding fame and relative fortune not along the typical avenues to success traveled by newcomers—the fairly forgiving paths of entrepreneurship or business—but rather down the constricted alleyways of linguistic performance, cultural commentary, and literary creation in a new language. Making one's way in this enterprise means remaining alert to nuances that escape many native speakers, and to constructing a persona both appealing and critical with none of the foundations available to native speakers. Joseph Conrad showed that literary forms can be mastered in a second language as well as in a first, but few writers have duplicated his feat. Codrescu's achievement is quite different, but nonetheless remarkable, the creation of a distinct authorial voice, one heard in radio performance and fictional prose, which draws on a Romanian past, yet is distinctively, unequivocally, American.
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