Key moments of Greek literature

An engaging new guide to Greek literature will soon become available to the public. So far Greece: Books and Writers, a collective work published by the Ministry of Culture and the National Book Council of Greece (EKEBI), was only available at the 2001 Frankfurt Book Fair, where Greece was the guest of honor. No date has yet been fixed for distribution, but Lenia Theofili of EKEBI says the book will retail for 12,000 drachmas. Greece: Books and Writers, is designed to combine pleasure and instruction, guiding the reader through the key moments of Greek literature, notes EKEBI director Christos Lazos, who hopes that readers will be sufficiently curious as to want to travel further through the landscape of modern Greek literature. On their journey readers can savor the illustrations imaginatively selected by Stavros Petsopoulos of Agra Publishers, who designed this handsome volume. Frescoes, Byzantine manuscripts, maps, icons, engravings and book covers enliven this panorama of Greek literature since the 11th century. Cultural interplay To a large extent the book achieves the aim set out by the publication committee in their statement of its organizing principles: First of all to trace the relationship between Greek and world literature (especially European) and secondly, to outline the importance of these writers for their times, highlighting the historical context of their literary output and showing how they renew the traditions they work within. The opening three sections, covering the period from the 11th century to 1821, are particularly strong in this regard, confidently setting Greek literature in a local and world context and delineating its development. Tina Lendari makes useful distinctions between vernacular literature and its predecessors, while Ulrich Moennig looks at the use of classical themes and animal tales in emerging Greek literature. The interplay of cultures, an ongoing influence on Greek writing, is effectively portrayed by Stefanos Kaklamanis, who depicts the ebb and flow of Venetian influence on Cretan literature in response to historical developments from the mid-14th to 17th centuries. Diaspora influence Modern Greek literature inevitably reflects the culture and society that produced it, but that society and culture were never uniform, nor were they always located within the bounds of what is now the Greek State. This volume properly emphasizes the role of Greeks in Asia Minor, the Danubian principalities, elsewhere in Europe and Egypt. Writing on the Greek enlightenment, the golden age of 150 years leading up to 1821, Elisabeth Tsirimokou notes the importance to the struggle for national liberation of Phanariots, merchants and shipowners, whom she describes as the driving force behind the Europeanization of the Greek East. In the Phanar, the Danubian principalities and elsewhere in Europe, Greeks prospered and publishing activity expanded, spreading the ideas of the enlightenment. Sections IV and V cover the nation-building period of 1821-1930, and deal with Romanticism, the first modern Greek historiography, the emergence of folklore as a field of study, and a number of individual writers in the creative period preceding 1930. Again the reciprocal flow of ideas between Greece and Europe is very much apparent in the biographies of leading writers, so many of whom lived or studied abroad but wrote in Greek. Even so quintessentially Greek a writer as Papadiamantis, who lived a secluded life far from the literary salons of Athens, was still in touch with the European mainstream through his work translating from English and French. More, please The final section goes from the 1930s to 1974, with articles on individual writers – including Seferis, Elytis, Ritsos and Kavvadias – and other topics such as the issue of national identity, avant-garde novels and literary reviews of the 1930s and 1940s. This is where the project falters slightly. All the articles are competent and informative, but the reader is left wishing for more. Why, for instance, is modern Greek drama allowed a mere three pages in a work of more than 250 pages? No criticism of the author is intended, and indeed Eleni Varipoulou has done a sterling job of cramming so much information into the space allotted, but this priority needs re-examination if there is ever to be a supplementary volume. Which brings us to the second quibble. The year 1974 was a milestone in Greek history, and arguably also marks the end of a literary period. But to draw a curtain over the intervening quarter century, as this volume does, is to lose an opportunity to show the outcome of the developments described. Rumor has it that the editorial committee chose discretion rather than valor when it came to selecting which living writers would be mentioned. But literary history has always sparked heated – and fruitful – discussion, and it is to be hoped that this omission will soon be corrected. The translations The translators deserve special recognition for their fine work. What translator has not flinched when faced with the task of rendering Greek literary criticism or commentary into readable English? Much of what is perfectly acceptable in a Greek text of this type simply doesn’t work in English. It may be that English-speaking readers frequently have little taste for the abstractions dear to some Greek critics, or that they find the Greek approach unfamiliar, but the plain truth is that they often find such texts unpalatable. John Davis, Jane Assimakopoulos and Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife have done an exceptional job. Moreover, articles by a number of authors have been translated by different people, yet the editors have achieved a laudable uniformity of tone.