CULTURE

Edmund Keeley shares boyhood in ‘Borderlines’

His was an unusual childhood, his early years spent on a farm. Perhaps that wasn’t so rare in the mid-1930s but the farm happened to be in a foreign country – Greece. To children, the first place they learn well is always home. And Edmund Keeley’s late childhood spent at the American Farm School outside Thessaloniki imprinted Greece on his consciousness as his first home. At least that’s partly the message of his latest book «Borderlines: A Memoir» (White Pine Press, 2005). Whatever one knows of Keeley’s later history – translator, correspondent and friend of George Seferis; award-winning translator of modern Greek poets; literary critic; author of fiction and books that traced the paths of Durrell and Miller through Greece; Princeton professor emeritus; Fulbright fellow; Oxford DPhil and PEN Foundation member – this story leaves all that to the future, or to be told by other books, and concentrates on the 8-year-old Edmund «Mike» Keeley, the middle son of Mathilde Vossler Keeley and James Hugh Keeley, then the American consul to Thessaloniki. It is a wonderful story of boyhood: the fields of crops, cows on which to practice milking, hay barns and milk delivery wagons, after-school soccer games and a holiday in a house trailer. «What made [the Farm School] a vast playground, writes Keeley, «were the young companions you discovered there, those old enough for action and adventure, children of the school staff living in houses of various sizes scattered on the grounds, the sons and daughters of Greeks who had come over from the Pontos and Smyrna with the exchange of populations in the 1920s, the Armenians who had fled the massacres, and former students from remote villages who had stayed on after graduation.» Some of the relationships he formed at that time were friendships that lasted into adulthood. He makes it clear, the memoir serving as a sort of ode, that these formative years, that introduction to Greece, influenced the course of his life even after his return to the US. Keeley writes of his time in northern Greece with tempered nostalgia, much of it subtly overridden by the knowledge of the later years of war and poverty the country endured. But he also narrates with an easy humor, evoking the voice of the boy he was and a child’s perceptions of events and places. The memoir is a trip down memory lane that Keeley obviously relished telling, though he is honest enough to relate his growing realization of his privileged status as the son of the American consul and is equally frank and eloquent when describing his pain and misunderstanding of the international events that kept the family in the States after a short home leave in 1939, cutting off their return to Greece. It was eight years before Keeley would set foot again on Greek soil. During those years he felt exiled from a country and language that he loved – frequenting Greek diners as a teen to speak Greek and learn how Greece was faring in the war. What follows are his teenage years of learning to be an American, conforming to a culture he didn’t know, schooling in Washington DC, growing distance from his father, a summer on his grandmother’s farm in upstate NY, first chaste loves and growing fascination with English and poetry, university at Princeton, a Fulbright teaching position back at the Farm School as well as a stint in the US Navy. The memoir ends when he is accepted by Oxford for a doctorate in comparative literature, choosing to do his thesis on George Seferis and C.P. Cavafy (then little known outside Greece), and which began a long academic career of teaching, translating and writing. Professor Keeley’s translations in the 1950s – Seferis and Cavafy (with Philip Sherrard), Odysseus Elytis (with George Savidis), Angelos Sikelianos, Yiannis Ritsos and many others – brought Greek poets to a wider audience. He has made a signal contribution to the promotion of modern Greek studies and culture. The memoir is incredibly circumspect about Professor Keeley’s later work and achievement in championing Greece and the country’s men of letters. Whether or not this book is an introduction to the man who has been called the greatest living philhellene, it is a must-read for anyone with a similar love of the country. In his case, it all began on a farm near Thessaloniki.