A lifelong passion for language

Veteran scholar Emmanuel G. Kriaras appreciates the praise he has received over the course of his long career, but wishes that other colleagues could have lived long enough it share it with him. When he was just a pupil, his teacher used to call him «immortal.» Later he heard himself described as a «pioneer of the monotonic system,» «the last great Demoticist,» «a giant of Greek letters» and «teacher of the nation.» «Not that it isn’t an honor; on the contrary, it moves me greatly,» he explained. «But I’ve said it before. The honors I have received should have been experienced by deserving colleagues who happened to leave this life early.» The emeritus professor of philology, now approaching 102 years of age, conducts himself with the same mental and physical strength as ever. Kriaras is not only modesty and moderation incarnate, but also a model of consistency in word and deed. As he told Kathimerini, «Experience has taught me a lot, but I felt that I had already been formed in childhood.» Memories A genial host, he rises to greet visitors to his apartment in downtown Thessaloniki, and opens up on the subject of his monumental work, the life of the Greek language. Surrounded by hundreds of books, his eyes hardly dimmed by the years, he continues to work tirelessly on language. His memories unfold without hesitation. As he sits in the spring sunshine, he recalls Piraeus, where he was born in 1906; Crete, where he spent his childhood and adolescence; his student years in Athens and further education in Germany. Then came the German occupation and his time in the resistance, which brought imprisonment in Haidari and elsewhere. Later he went to France for postgraduate studies. Then he came to Thessaloniki, the city that was home to his research, teaching and writing, his great lexicon of Medieval Greek. He conjures up in the most extraordinary detail the myriad aspects of a career that lasted most of a century, and in which his dream was «to become good in my field.» Our meeting disrupted his daily schedule. He makes an early start to the day. «I wake up at 7 a.m. and work in the morning. My colleagues, two philologists, arrive at 9 a.m. and we work together. I employ them part-time. Then I rest. I go out less now. I don’t go for many walks. But every day I walk for an hour and a half in the living room. Luckily, I have lots of books to read now.» His gaze drifts away to a black-and-white photograph of his lifelong companion. Then he looks me in the eye again. «I’m satisfied with my life. Failures, praise, disappointments are all part of life. My one great loss was that of my wife. She was my closest companion. We were together from 1926 until her death. We happened to suit each other very well and have the same ideas. She helped me in my intellectual work. She was able to understand my work and I hers. And there was an infinite goodness in her that she passed on to me. She made me good too. I would have like to leave this life earlier, with my wife, because these years are simply survival.» Work continues to be a refuge and a consolation. His daily life revolves around it. «I’d be lost without it.» He still has plenty to do. He writes and he sorts his correspondence with Greek and foreign scholars. The fruits of that are two volumes: «Letters of Greek Scholars in the 20th Century» and «Letters of Foreign Scholars.» The first is complete, and work is progressing on the second. Beside him, with the daily press, is his current reading matter, one book on educational policy in the time of Eleftherios Venizelos, and another on the development of education in Greece, both recent publications. «The computer is an essential aid these days but it doesn’t bring happiness,» he said. «Technical culture is advancing rapidly but moral culture is deteriorating. There are scandals, not only on Greece; it’s a global phenomenon that makes one wonder whether are we ruled solely by vested interests.» His political interests have not faded. Kriaris remains a committed socialist who opposes the two-party system. He keeps up with politics through the daily press, reading two to three newspapers, always including Kathimerini, but doesn’t watch television much anymore. It hurts his eyes and the ugly things that are broadcast upset him. «Fortunately or unfortunately, if I only looked at my books I’d be happy. I say ‘unfortunately’ because the political situation is awful. We do not have a normal, measured, ethical political life.» Distillation What is the distillation of an experience lasting more than 100 years? «My feeling is that people are born with faults and weaknesses that they cannot overcome. Life is a mystery, as is death. It can’t be explained. Only religion offers any consolation.» «For me work was always a consolation. I have worshipped my work like a god. The absence of it would be a disaster. Once I was asked what advice I had for young people. ‘Work!’ I said. People who have nothing to do wither away.» From the resistance to academia In 1948, Emmanuel G. Kriaras, then 42, returned from France to a Greece then ravaged by civil war. His post in the medieval archives of Athens Academy, which he had held since 1930, was waiting for him, while his candidacy for the chair of Modern Greek Philology paved the way for a brilliant academic career. «I said, if I have anything to offer as an academic and as a person, I want to offer it to my country.» But things did not go according to plan. He lost the chair to Linos Politis. The police scrutinized his activities in the resistance to the German occupation, which had cost him time in concentration camps. The climax was the offer of the chair of Byzantine Studies at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, which confronted him with the greatest dilemma of his life. «It was a huge disappointment. I went through a major crisis that caused serious health problems. My blood pressure had gone up to 20.5 and I didn’t expect to live for more than another 20 years. But I was wrong. Just imagine, my blood pressure is now 13. Even I am impressed. I didn’t expect to live this long.»