“The Fall of Athens,” Gail Holst-Warhaft’s heartbreaking yet uplifting book on Greece and the Greeks, begins with a link to a song. “A song every Greek knows. It’s by Vassilis Tsitsanis,” she notes. It is “Synnefiasmeni Kyriaki” (Cloudy Sunday). An anthem of sorrow, written during the German occupation, it is a cry of pain and resignation and, at the same time, of hope and resilience. The hope stems from the fact that nearly 80 years after it was written it remains fresh and beloved by all who sing it, as life goes on in the midst of disaster.
This start captures the essence of this book. It is written by someone who knows Greece, the Greeks, their music, emotions and society from decades of experience. From the 1960s, when she landed in Greece by chance as a 21-year-old, the author has been fortunate to know and work with grand figures of modern Greece as well as many others who, over the years, provided her with a treasure of knowledge and understanding. “So, with the help of my Greek friends, I have tried to write my own song about remembering. It is dedicated to Mikis Theodorakis, Mariza Koch, (the poet) Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, Thanassis Athanassiou, Dionysis Savvopoulos, (playwright) Iakovos Kambanellis and the many other friends who taught me how to sing in Greek,” Holst writes in her preface. She played in the orchestras of Theodorakis and Savvopoulos and wrote a book on the former, “Theodorakis: Myth and Politics in Modern Greek Music,” and published translations of some of his poems. Bouzouki player, instrument maker and composer Thanassis Athanassiou was her guide into the labyrinth of Greece’s blues, the rembetika. Singer-composer Mariza Koch is her closest Greek friend – “my lifeline to the music, the politics, the sadness and the beauty of Greece.”
And the Greeks have been fortunate that Holst took them and their country to heart. She has done more than anyone else to make fundamental parts of Greek culture known to a wider, English-speaking audience. Her “Road to Rembetika” (first published by Denise Harvey in 1975) was an exploration not only of the music and the people who made it, but of a whole culture that gave it birth. Like all of her subsequent work, it is written with the passion of an insider and the rigor of the academic that she is (she is an adjunct professor at Cornell University). Because, aside from being a musician and a prose writer, Australian-born Holst is also a poet, journalist, broadcaster and translator. And in “The Fall of Athens” (Fomite, 2016), all of her talents and her years of loving observation come together in a unique interpretation of the many levels and intransigent puzzles of Greece. The book combines Holst’s own poetry and some of her translations of leading Greek poets along with rich accounts of the country’s art and society. It is memoir, history and guide. It is about Greece and its many contradictions, its beauty and myriad miseries. It is about her friends and herself. The eclectic collection is united in a harmonious whole by Holst’s warm voice, by her unexpected adventures. From running messages for the resistance during the junta to persuading a poet’s wary sister to allow her to translate his poems. She loves her friends, she loves Greece, and describes them with unflinching honesty and humor. Her writing is elegant and precise, with a poet’s eye for the luminous detail. Here is how she describes her mother, who had just found a harpsichord in London and shipped it to her in Greece, so that Gail could join Theodorakis’s orchestra: “I rarely asked my mother for anything, but when I did, I knew she would deliver. If I had asked her to meet me in Nairobi Airport at 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning with a gun in her handbag, she would have turned up half an hour early, lit a cigarette, ordered a whisky from the bar if there was one, and sat down to wait for me, a revolver tucked between her powder compact and her handkerchief.”
On another level, the poem “Memorials” ends: “Monuments meant to mourn/for all tend instead/to distract the mind’s eye./They planted a garden for my son;/the scar on my belly still aches.”
In a brief chapter that reveals a world of learning, Holst dives into the world of dance. She notes that most Greek writers have avoided descriptions of it. Nikos Kazantzakis is an exception. “His ‘Zorba the Greek’ has become a tourist cliché of what Greek dancing is about, but the novel on which the film is based contains the most interesting descriptions of dance that I know of in Greek literature,” she writes. At an Easter celebration in a Cretan village, the dancer, a young shepherd, is in full flight – “he had thrown his head back, his feet beat the ground like wings” – when an old man interrupts the proceedings. He reports that a widow, hated for spurning a young man and driving him mad, has entered the church. The young man’s father stabs her to death. “The dance as prelude to violent action, including war, is a ritual common to many societies and cultures, from the Great Plains of the US to the Black Sea,” Holst notes. “The dance that unleashes the violence in ‘Zorba’ is full of apparent contradictions. The young man’s dancing is ‘wild and disciplined,’ his eyes look ‘wildly and modestly’ at the ground. That contradiction, I soon understood, is what good Greek dancing is about. It must balance two elements: tapeinotita – modesty, and agriada – a ferocity that can catch fire. The emotion must be kept coiled, denied an easy outlet. Without restraint, the dancer fails, however nimble his feet.” Earlier, she referred to an old man in a Cretan taverna who had taken the lead after the “twisting and leaping” of the young men. “To the casual observer it was an anti-climax. The man wore no costume and moved very little. Only the small triangles of his pointed shoes attracted the eye, hovering, delaying, feinting, syncopating, as he flirted with the lyra-player’s phrasing,” Holst writes. A grocer, sitting next to her, had fixed his eyes on the old man as he danced. “He turned to me and said softly, ‘The young men were talking to the birds; the old man is talking to the stars.’” Restraint is the language for dialogue with the stars.
“The Fall of Athens” is both witness to the music, society and history of the past few decades of Greece and a lament that combines personal experiences and the general collapse caused by the economic crisis. Holst records her own story and others’ tales, along with penetrating and analytical observations on a range of issues central to Greek society and art – from women’s laments and the use of grief in politics to the Greeks’ ongoing dialogue with their ancient heritage. Central to the book is Holst’s friendship with Mariza Koch, who briefs her by email on current developments but also guides her in matters of popular culture and folk music. The author describes a launch of her book of poetry that Koch persuaded her to hold in Athens in 2007, with Koch singing some of the poems that she set to music. The evening was a great success, with many of those dear to Holst in attendance. “I can’t remember a word of what I said,” she writes. “At some point I looked around and realized how many people in the room were old, people I had idealized all my life, people who belonged to ‘That Generation.’ Mikis Theodorakis, Iakovos Kambanellis (the playwright), Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, the film director Nikos Koundouros. And Mariza. They had come for my little book of poems. I couldn’t help the tears. And when I looked through them, everyone looked young again.”
And then there are the poems: her own and translations of work by Theodorakis, Anghelaki-Rooke, Nikos Kavvadias, Vassilis Tsitsanis and, of course, Cavafy, which form a single narrative of the Greeks’ triumphs and disasters. On Cavafy, Holst writes: “His poems are as relevant to the Athens of today as they were to the Alexandria of his own. They are, in a time of general gloom, a comfort. Greeks, he reminds us, have always had a way of muddling through. Efforts to improve them, bring them into line, reform them, are generally futile. They will muddle through, as they have always done, because they like being as they are.”
Gail Holst-Warhaft, or Elektra, as she is known to her Greek friends, has written a valuable book that bears witness to the joys and sorrows of Greece; it goes deep below the surface of events, down to the currents that shape the place and its people.