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Can you recall a particular text that ignited your love of literature?
You merit of me, Anya of Lincoln, an answer with a gem in it. A shard of Sappho, perhaps. But that was in my thirties. An artfully naive ballad of Heine’s. But that was in my twenties. The children’s poetry of C. J. Dennis. I remember the LP I somehow got of him when I was 6; I remember thinking THE TRIANTIWONTIGONGOLOPE was a quizzical thing with a marching beat, but I don’t remember actually getting it as literature.
I could tell you I was translating Horace’s Odes from Latin when I was 11, and I’d be telling you the truth. But I’d be lying to you if I told you I got them as poetry. I was impressed by the last ode in the collection, the Exegi monumentum. But I hadn’t gotten what it was that he was boasting so highly of achieving.
The answer lies in my uncles’ and aunts’ and cousins’ dusty, high school anthologies of Modern Greek literature, from the 70s and 60s, that I pored over in my granddad’s shed. They gave me a sampler of what I’d like and what I wouldn’t: more Karyotakis, less Palamas, more Xenopoulos, less Papadiamantis. They situated excerpts of Modern Greek literature in a chronological context and tradition; they gave an overview of what had happened and changed between 1800 and 1950 (along with the bedrock of Greek folk song, that they all either referred back to or shrunk from).
And as a result, they gave me the caution to seek out the social and the literary context of what anyone was writing. They aren’t isolated, self-wrought monuments; they’re always latticed in with what came before and what after.
And they prepared me for four masters of Modern Greek. Each of them I read before I was 12. Each of them, in his own way, a master stylist. And each of them, more so than most in Modern Greek, acutely self-conscious about the language they used (and that’s saying a lot for Modern Greek).
- Nikos Kazantzakis, for the late novels. Long, picturesque, dramatic narratives; but cast in a language of robust, lively flexibility and shading. His vocabulary at times was over-dialectal, but in Greek that was an asset, not a liability: it made it all the richer and more vigorous. And his command of syntax was unrivalled.
- Constantine P. Cavafy. A much subtler taste to acquire, and it took me longer to. His style is exquisite, though much of it in the opposite direction from Kazantzakis. Eclectic rather than folksy; elite rather than populist; understated rather than effusive. Every word well-weighted, every shift in register a grimace behind a mask.
- Yannis Makriyannis. The Noble Prize winner Seferis cultivated a mythology around this illiterate general in the Greek War of Independence being the greatest stylist of the language, writing in the purest Demotic that has ever been. A lot of that is mythology; Makriyannis’ morphology has been contaminated plenty by Puristic Greek, and Modern Greek, like all literatures, was anxious to find its own Caedmon or Homer as a founder.
But (though the narrative gets bogged down in tedious details often), at his best Makriyannis really is that good. His syntax is guileless and powerful. It owes nothing to the pedants, and everything to generations of peasants, who know how to spin a good yarn in arresting language.
- Οι τούρκοι υποψιασμένοι· να ’βλεπαν ρωμιό, κιντύνευε. “The Turks—suspicious; they saw a Greek, he was in danger.” You don’t know what a relief it is to a reader of Greek, after all the weight of centuries of Thucydides and calqued French, to be confronted with a sentence this bare.
- Nikos Tsiforos. Not a producer of high literature, and I have no doubt some Greeks are arching their eyebrows about now. He was a humorist, who started out with anecdotes about petty criminals, and branched out to serialised accounts of Greek mythology and history, their protagonists speaking and acting as if they were petty criminals. And his prose is a vindication of all the expressive potential of the Greek language. They really don’t write like him any more.