Roderick Beaton and ‘George Seferis: Waiting for the Angel’

Astonishingly, Roderick Beaton’s latest book, «George Seferis: Waiting for the Angel» (Yale, 2003), is the first fully fledged biography of the poet in any language. If anything can compensate for the long delay, this book will. Drawing on his profound knowledge of Seferis’s work and on extensive archival material, much of it hitherto unknown, the author explores the poet’s sources of inspiration, illuminates his development as a man and a writer, and sets him firmly in the context of his times. The result is precisely the «subtle evaluation» its author believes biography should be. Beaton, who is Koraes Professor of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature at King’s College London, attributes his own choice of a career in Modern Greek studies to his having read Seferis’s poetry while still at school, he told Kathimerini English Edition in an interview last week. What made you write this biography? Seferis has fascinated me ever since I began to teach myself Modern Greek with the parallel Greek and English text of his poems translated by Keeley and Sherrard when I was still at school and learning Ancient Greek. I’ve been teaching his poetry to students and writing about it in articles for years, including a small book for A level students. I think that having read Seferis at such an impressionable age probably helped decide the course of my career as a specialist in Modern Greek studies. Window on entangled history What kinds of challenges did the book represent? Seferis’s life poses exciting challenges for a biographer. He was not only a poet but, as a diplomat and through his family connections, he was intimately involved in the events that determined the history of his country and of that country’s relations with the West, and particularly Great Britain, during his lifetime. So I had to get to grips with many aspects of the history of Greece in the 20th century, and I like to think that the story of Seferis’s life can now provide a particular window, for the non-Greek reader, on that incredibly entangled history. Isn’t it extraordinary that this is the first full biography of Seferis? In England, literary biography has almost overtaken literature; it’s a genre that’s taken seriously, and I think more people now read the lives of poets than read poetry. In the case of Seferis, who was really quite well-known in Britain 40 or 50 years ago, but is not today, I feel the genre of literary biography is a way of bringing him back, of finding him new readers among the British and American public. In Greece, by contrast, there are few biographies of Greek writers, and those there are, are usually by people close to their subject. Seferis’s sister, Ioanna Tsatsou, wrote an affectionate memoir «My Brother George Seferis,» that is inevitably and quite rightly a very partial memoir, both in the sense that it presents her own perspective, what she knew and her own experiences of Seferis, and obviously she supports him as a brother. This is very different from the kind of objectivity of a complete outsider like myself approaching the subject. Not that a biographer can be completely objective. I don’t think it is the biographer’s job either to praise or to blame, but to make a more subtle evaluation. Did you meet any of the Seferis family during your research? My greatest regret was that I never met Seferis himself. I sometimes wonder how different the biography might have been if I had. The experience of meeting someone is bound to color the way you approach all the material in the biography. I did meet members of his family, who were very generous in sharing reminiscences and talking to me about Seferis as a man. I was very grateful for the help I received from his stepdaughter Anna Lontou, daughter of his wife Maro. I met his sister, Ioanna Tsatsou, who died at a great age in the year 2000, and the daughter of Ioanna Tsatsou, Seferis’s niece, Despina Mylona, who was also very helpful with information and in giving me access to some of the private material held by her family. You have said that you possibly knew Seferis better than many people who had known him in his lifetime. Yes, it’s uncanny; it’s a strange sensation that, having read so much of the material in his own archives, having talked to a number of people, put all the information together, at least in a factual sense, I know things about Seferis that very few people, even those close to him, would have known. In one sense, I know him almost better than anybody; in another sense, I’m conscious of not knowing him at all. Coming to someone after their life is over, through what they’ve left behind, is a very different sort of acquaintance. When writing a biography you get to know that person almost in a way that a novelist could be said to know his characters, because you’ve seen the world through his eyes and felt things through his experiences; you can reconstruct them and imagine them for yourself. I find it fascinating. That’s not to say that it’s a novelistic or imaginary biography. It isn’t. Although I talked to a lot of people, the information that I present in the book is almost all from written sources. Was Seferis a conservative diplomat who sat on the fence and only protested against the junta when he could see the end coming? This is a misapprehension. It was a matter of professional ethos and propriety to which Seferis held strongly throughout his life that however strongly you disagree with or disapprove of or even despise the government of the country – and at times he did all of these – you never go public on this, you never make a political statement; that’s the job of the politicians. When he did make his statement denouncing the dictatorship of the colonels in 1969, it was a break with the professional principles of a lifetime, which cost him dearly both as a poet and as a diplomat. You can see from reading the poetry that he was immersed in the political dilemmas and the history of the country, but he abhorred the idea of using his art as a poet as a mere soapbox; he was terrified of being drawn down that road. He believed very seriously in the integrity of the artist; he thought it was debasing poetry to use it for ulterior ends. It wasn’t either out of cowardice or because he disagreed that he was reluctant; it was that he didn’t want to compromise his principles. He was often bitterly critical in private, and he had a devastating gift of foresight; he could see the likely consequences of the behavior of politicians. It was the fact that he had won the Nobel Prize that produced the leverage that friends and acquaintances used to get him to speak out. And his statement had an enormous impact; it really broke the dam of silence that had been created by the regime and it opened the door for a great many writers – less well-known and younger than he – to follow his brave example and to challenge the regime till the fall of the dictatorship in July 1974. His funeral on September 22, 1971 became one of the few occasions for a vast, spontaneous and peaceful protest in central Athens against the dictatorship. People turned out in their thousands with flags. «George Seferis: Waiting for the Angel» is being translated into Greek for Oceanida by Mika Provata.