Books of Friends
Novel and Other Poems
Often compared during his lifetime to T.S. Eliot, whose work he translated and introduced to Greece, George Seferis is noted for his spare, laconic, dense and allusive verse in the Modernist idiom of the first half of the 20th century. At once intensely Greek and a cosmopolitan of his time (he was a career-diplomat as well as a poet), Seferis better than any other writer expresses the dilemma experienced by his countrymen then and now: how to be at once Greek and modern. The translations that make up this volume are the fruit of more than forty years, and many are published here for the first time.
Vrettakos’s poems are firmly rooted in the Greek landscape and coloured by the Greek light, yet their themes and sentiment are ecumenical. His garden, his own heart, are but a microcosm of the entire world, of the whole of humanity, and both contain divine messages that the lens of poetry can help us to perceive.
His poetry sings of the beauty of the natural world and offers a vision of the paradise that the world could be, but it is also imbued with a deep and painful awareness of the dark abyss that it threatens to become. For Vrettakos, the poet has a role to play in this struggle to determine the fate of the world. He is the champion of light and truth, the high priest of beauty, whose duty it is to celebrate the world, proclaiming the cosmic message of love as that which cuts paths across the darkness. He knows only too well, however, that the poet’s voice, like God’s, is seldom heeded.
Andreas Laskaratos (1811-1901), a prominent figure in modern Greek letters, was a writer and poet, a social thinker and, in many ways, a controversialist. A life-long enemy of hypocrisy wherever he found it, on many occasions he turned against politicians, while he ceaselessly fought against corruption and religious prejudice and fanaticism.
Much of his writing is savagely satirical, but his Reflections set out calmly, clearly and wittily his uncompromising and finely reasoned beliefs. As the essence of his thought they could be read with profit by present-day politicians and teachers of any nationality, and indeed by everybody with an interest in social and moral questions.
“Moskov Selim” is set in Thrace, a corner of Europe where Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria meet. Vizyenos’ story evokes a time when Greeks and Turks could share each other’s joys and pains despite the hostile relations between their governments. Listening to the protagonist’s life story, the narrator of “Moskov Selim” discovers that this Turk is a kindred spirit, despite the gulf of nationality and religion that separates them.
The songs in this book are a sampling of the urban folk songs of Greece during the first half of the 20th century. They are the creative expression of an urban subculture whose members the Greeks commonly called rebetes. These rebetes were people living a marginal and often underworld existence on the fringes of established society, disoriented and struggling to maintain themselves in the developing industrial ports, despised and persecuted by the rest of society. And it is the hardships and suffering of these people, their fruitless dreams, their current loves and their lost loves that these songs are about, and underlying them all, their jaunty, tough will to survive.
The appeal of these songs, often compared to the American blues, is that the conflicts they express are not exclusively Greek conflicts, they are everybody’s; and they are still unresolved — in urban Greece as in urban Anywhere.
Georgios Vizyenos (1849-1896) is one of Greece’s best-loved writers. His stories, written in 1883-4, are set in his native Thrace, a corner of Europe where Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey meet. Each title poses an enigma: Where did Yorgis’ grandfather travel on his only journey? What was Yorgis’ mother’s sin? Who was responsible for his brother’s murder? At the end of each story the narrator possesses some knowledge that forces him – and his readers – to revise their earlier assumptions, which were based on incomplete knowledge. Because Vizyenos wants us to experience the difficult transition from ignorance to knowledge, he leaves us in suspense until the very end.
Cavafy is by far the most translated and most well-known Greek poet internationally. His work exists in multiple translations in a wide range of languages and major 20th-century poets as diverse as Auden, Brecht, Brodsky, Durrell, Milosz and Montale have all paid tribute to Cavafy, either by writing poems “in the style of Cavafy”, or by openly admitting their debt to his poetry in their own work.
Whether his subject matter is historical, philosophical or sensual, Cavafy’s unique poetic voice is always recognizable by its ironical, suave, witty, world-weary and aesthetic tones. It is a voice which lends itself to translation. Indeed, translations of Cavafy’s poetry are the best possible counter to the often quoted platitude that poetry is what is lost in translation. Cavafy’s is a poetry that not only survives but actually thrives in translation.
Translated by David Connolly
Fey Folk is characteristic of Papadiamandis’s work. Its characters are quaint, simple-hearted folk living their humble lives in accordance with centuries-old traditions and customs, delightfully described by Papadiamandis with both reverence and humour. The setting is the hinterland of his native island of Skiathos with its intoxicating vegetation, its hillsides, springs and ravines, where the belief in spirits and the supernatural is deeply rooted in the consciousness of the otherwise God-fearing and devout inhabitants.
Sketches of Skiathos
To live with the Skiathans is to know them, for they hide nothing and are quite generous with themselves. The sketches in this book are an attempt to capture the spirit of this ancient people living on this small island in the modern world.
“Strong, sturdy, hard working, optimistic, religious, and capable of enduring hardships after millennia of occupation and foreign rule, like most people on the planet, Skiathans love, they hate, they dream, they compete, they help each other, they have talents and frailties, they join together in sorrow and celebration. In short, they have all of those qualities which we think of as human, except Skiathans have few pretensions. Fashion is not an issue.”
A successful Hollywood couple decides that if life is structured like a movie, then why shouldn’t the last act be spent indulging themselves in the hopes of realizing any leftover dreams? So the couple sells their house, pack up all of their belongings, and together with their large black standard poodle, Guido, and twenty-two boxes start their last act by deciding to go merrily on their way to no place in particular until they find paradise.
Their first stop is Skiathos Island, Greece. What ensues is a comedy where these two Hollywood types are forced to deal with the Byzantine labyrinth of Greek bureaucracy, the peculiar Hellenic version of time, and a complete host of new challenges such as the neighbors’ goats who insist on eating their newly planted English roses.
In the process the couple learns to appreciate and treasure the innocence and the generosity of the people of this small island and learn things about themselves that they had long forgotten in the pace and glitz of Hollywood. Paradise indeed.