Nikos Davvetas was born in Athens in 1960. He studied journalism. He works as a literature critic. Since 2017 he teaches Creative Writing at Open University. He has published six collections of poetry, one collection of short stories and five novels. He has contributed to most Greek literary reviews; also he published essays and short stories in the literary magazines Waves (Canada), Agenda, Modern poetry in translation (UK) Partisan Review (USA), Erythia (Spain). Excerpts from his works have been translated into many languages, including English, German, Spanish, Hungarian and Swedish. In 2010, his novel Η Εβραία νύφη (The Jewish Bride) was honored with the Academy of Athens Award, and re-released in a newer version in 2019. His most recent novel is Ωστικό κύμα (Blast, Patakis 2016).
Nikos Davvetas spoke to Reading Greece* about writing as “a means of escape from the constant shortcomings of life […] into a version of reality more stimulating and tolerable”. Asked about his novel The Jewish Bride, he explains that the book “is not just another testimony on the Holocaust, but rather a modernist novel with number of innovations concerning the way in which individual stories and collective history are interwoven”. As for language, he notes that the language of literature is (has to be) “figurative, a language that transforms human experience into art”. He comments that in Greece “short narratives excel to this day, since they rely on a rich tradition”, and concludes that “contemporary Greek literature has no cause to envy that of Italy or Norway”.
Six poetry collections, five novels and one short-story collection. What drove you to writing and what continues to be your driving force? What would you say is the binding thread that connects these different forms of writing?
I am writing because I have not been reconciled with the reality around me; I write as a means of escape from the constant shortcomings of life. In this sense, the connecting thread of my writings is precisely the possibility through literature to create a parallel universe, to escape into a version of reality more stimulating and tolerable. Literature will always be for me “a door in the floor”.
Three publishers, an Academy of Athens award, a great number of reviews and The Jewish Bride seems today more timely than when it was first published in 2009. What is it that makes the interest in the book last through the years?
In 2009, when The Jewish Bride first circulated in Greece, we were all somewhat naïve, easily bypassing phenomena like anti-Semitism, populism, gender-based violence. Since then, the economic crisis, the financial memorandums, the emergence of pro-Nazi parties aroused public consciousness; readers were eager for narratives dealing with such issues. Still, The Jewish Bride is time-resistant, not only because of its topic, but also due to its style, a major concern in literature. This book is not just another testimony on the Holocaust, but rather a modernist novel with number of innovations concerning the way in which individual stories and collective history are interwoven.
“A novel doesn’t just narrate what has happened but what could have happened under specific conditions. In this respect, a writer should not just copy reality, but be a step ahead of reality”. What is the relationship of literature to the world it inhabits?
I am against making a plain imprint of reality in journalistic terms and earnestly in favor of fiction. The contemporary trend of making a novel some sort of documentary record of people’s problems, seems to me repellent
You have characterized literature as a big metaphor. What about language, and more specifically, the literary language? What role does it play in your writings?
The language of literature is not that of everyday communication, it is (it has to be) figurative, a language that transforms human experience into art.
It has been argued that Greek writers have a preference for short form and that short story collections have outweighed novels and longer narratives. How would you comment on this?
In 19th century Greece, the lack of a homogeneous urban tissue did not encourage the smooth evolution of the novel, as for instance in France or Germany; thus, for purely historical reasons, the short story became the major genre. Short narratives excel to this day, since they rely on a rich tradition. In essence, a novelist in Greece has no ancestors, just two or three names that joined modernism belatedly. Luckily, the novelists who appeared after 1990 in literary production have already created their own small tradition.
For the majority of Greek writers, writing is not a main profession but rather a leisure time activity. Would you agree that in a country stricken by the crisis, earning a living through writing is the exception rather than the rule? Could things be otherwise?
In a certain way, the economic crisis made us what we really were but did not accept. I lost my job, but thus devoted myself more to writing, with less financial means, fewer amenities and escapes. I try to survive as a writer, yet, the Greek state taxes its writers the way it does doctors or tradesmen!
How would you comment on current literary production in Greece? Do Greek writers have the potential to move beyond national borders and attract foreign audiences?
Nowadays, except for two or three brilliant cases, literature written across the Western world is much the same, more or less. Contemporary Greek literature has no cause to envy that of Italy or Norway; unfortunately, adequate translators who could facilitate its establishment in some inhospitable editorial environment are rare.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Yiorgos Vassilandonakis is an acclaimed composer and Associate Professor of Music Theory and Composition at the College of Charleston, and has served as a lecturer for the UC Berkeley Department of Music. His Greek-language opera The Papess Joanne, on a libretto by Vangelis Hatziyannidis, under the stage direction of Dimitris Karantzas, will premiere at the Greek National Opera (GNO) on 8 March 2020. The work was commissioned by the GNO on the occasion of its 80th anniversary.
The opera is based on Emmanouel Rhoides' controversial novel of the same name, inspired in its turn by the legend of Pope Joan, a supposed female pope who reigned for a few years during the Middle Ages. The Papess Joanne -a scathing social and ecclesiastical satire written in a conservative form of the Modern Greek language known as katharevousa- sparked a scandal when published in 1866, due to the recounting of the legend as well as its harsh critique of the clergy, and was anathematised by the church as "malevolent and profane". The book was adapted into English by Lawrence Durrell as The Curious History of Pope Joan (1954).
Yiorgos Vassilandonakisholds degrees (M.A., Ph.D.) in composition from UC Berkeley, as well as a bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude, from UCLA. As the recipient of the George Ladd Prix de Paris, he spent two years in Paris, studying advanced composition, orchestration and electronic music. During the 90's, he pursued a successful career as a film composer and arranger in the Hollywood indie movie scene. His one-act opera Dance with Me was commissioned and staged by the GNO in 2008.
Dr. Vassilandonakis has taught Composition and Music Theory at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia, as well as electronic music at the Centre de Création Musicale, Iannis Xenakis, in Paris, before joining the faculty at the College of Charleston in 2010. He has conducted the GuitArte Ensemble, the Young People's Symphony Orchestra, the Prometheus Symphony Orchestra, the UCLA Philharmonia, and the UC Berkeley Symphony. He was the Music Director at the Oakland Cathedral of the Ascension, and is the Composer-In-Residence with the Worn Chamber Ensemble in San Francisco.
Transcending stylistic boundaries, Vassilandonakis’ music is driven by a strong dramatic and formal sense. With an idiomatic and personal voice in contemporary art music, he draws upon a palette of well-assimilated influences, ranging from the avant-garde, to spectralism and electronics, echoing the music of his homeland as well as jazz. Yiorgos Vassilandonakisspoke* to Greek News Agenda on the occasion of the upcoming production of his new opera.
Was it you who proposed that the opera for GNO’s 80th anniversary be based on The Papess Joanne? What were the reasons for this choice?
The Papess has all the right ingredients for a lyrical work, the characters, the plot, the philosophical depth, the scope. How could it have not been done before? I wish it had been my idea. It was in fact GNO’s Artistic Director Giorgos Koumendakis’ idea, and a brilliant one as such, and very rightly, the opera is dedicated to him, not only for the idea, but more so for his support in seeing the project through.
To what extent does the libretto maintain Rhoides’ original language? How easy will it be for the modern audience to follow? Will there be English surtitles?
The librettist Vangelis Hatziyannidis and I had a lot of discussion about that. The novel is written in a wonderful, rich and very sophisticated version of katharevousa, which would be hard to follow, especially sung, yet without which, the work is not the same. Vangelis managed to keep the original tone but simplified the syntax and complexity in a way that we believe can be easily followed, yet stays close to the tone of the novel. There will of course be surtitles, in English and Greek, as in all GNO productions.
Rhoides’ novel evinces a strongly satirical tone, even as it describes several tragic events. Will this production bear the mark of the writer’s particular sense of dark humour?
Rhoides’ has a deep sense of caustic, intelligent humor, which I think was misunderstood in his time. His wit is unparalleled, and combined with the darkness of the subject matter creates the tone of the novel, which to me has a strong Gothic sense to it. Most of it is expressed in the form of narrator commentary in the novel however, which doesn’t translate very well to the stage. So we found other ways to keep it in the opera, as we felt it is needed to keep both dramatic balance and stay faithful to the literary tone.
Left: Composer Yiorgos Vassilandonakis Right: Writer Vangelis Hatziyannidis (photo by Gavriiloglou)
How was your collaboration with librettist Vangelis Hatziyannidis and stage director Dimitris Karantzas? How much was each one's creative process intertwined with that of the others?
Opera is the most collaborative form of creative work. Vangelis and I worked very closely for months to find the right tone and give the work the right staging character. He is brilliant, and kept finding the most inventive solutions to everything. There is so much of him in this opera. When Dimitris Karantzas got involved, which was also early on, he too brought a unique perspective which changed the way the music was written. He has this ability of stripping away anything that’s not absolutely intertwined to the story and characters, he doesn’t like effects or gimmicks, and goes very deep in the core of the work, and finds all the right things to amplify. His theater work is one of a kind, and his perspective in opera very fresh, yet, with all the respect and knowledge of how things work. His approach to movement, visual style and character development made me rethink my own compositional approach on several issues, and I’m grateful for that.
You have stated that you created two distinct musical universes for The Papess Joanne, one in accordance with the "historical and geographical context" and one echoing the "psychological, emotional, spiritual" themes of the work. Is the first "universe" influenced by ecclesiastical and/or medieval music? Will this be juxtaposed with contemporary sounds?
The work calls for medieval musical elements, as well as specific functional church music, both Orthodox and Catholic. All of those instances of "functional" music are original however. There are some references to melodic cells from existing church music, but re-composed. There is for example a full coronation scene, which has specific musical protocol, as there is funeral music and even an original hymn to the Theotokos. However, I was careful to create a seamless musical environment between the above mentioned material and the more contemporary, character and drama related material. At its core, the music is there to paint the character’s inner world.
What was the greatest challenge you faced while creating the music for The Papess Joanne?
Besides the scale and volume of the work, which was enormous, and enough of a challenge by itself for a composer, and besides the technical requirements of writing for large forces, and making sure the pacing and proportions are always right, I think the most challenging yet also most interesting and satisfying part was to find the right tone for this complex work. Staying close to the characters, finding the right musical tone for the humorous and dark, and of course staying idiomatic at all times. I am very fortunate to have worked very closely with the singers, especially Chrissa Maliamani, who portrays the lead character.
What has been your personal journey as a composer? Does it mirror your real-life journey from Greece to the USA?
I do also see it as a journey, and a journey is perpetually in progress. It does reflect all that I have lived and experienced. In that sense, every new work of mine starts from scratch, and challenges me in a new way. I carry with me all my experiences and though not consciously, they do find ways in entering the music. I try to stay wide-eyed and deeply engaged in everything I do. Opera gives a composer several challenges and I think this work has actually changed me as a person. Staying true to oneself yet changing in constructive and useful ways is the objective in our respective journeys, and that is enough of a task in itself.
What are your plans for the future? Do you intend to maintain your creative dialogue with Greece’s cultural scene?
I really enjoy living a sort of "double life", and being simultaneously engaged in artistic life in both countries. The possibilities and potential in Greece have grown exponentially in the last 10 years, and I find it very satisfying to have my works performed in Greece. I now have several collaborators that make this meaningful and important. I also of course enjoy the very high level of how things are done in the US. Having the ability to be engaged in both is something I’ve worked hard to achieve, and something I’m deeply grateful for.
*Interview by Nefeli Mosaidi (Intro photo by Mike Ledford)
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Vangelis Hatziyannidis: "Writing for an opera was like a puzzle I really enjoyed"; Composer Minas Borboudakis on his work in 21st-century classical music; Arts in Greece | Vassilis Karamitsanis "The Greek National Opera has decisively entered a digital path"; Nikolas Karagiaouris on the past, present and future of Greek opera
Modern Greeks dominate the world's merchant marine; ancient Greeks like Homer's Odysseus sailed the Mediterranean and beyond. But what do we know about shipboard life? Not much. Reading Nikos Kavadias fills this emptiness. Scrupulously translated by Gail Holst-Warhaft, The collected poems of Nikos Kavadias offers insight on how the poet used his travels around the world as a sailor, and life at sea and its adventures as powerful metaphors for the escape of ordinary people outside the boundaries of reality. Kavadias’ poems are widely regarded as belonging to symbolism, and he has been characterized by some as a poète maudit.
To use Holst-Warhaft words in the introduction of the book: «Kavadias accepted the sea as a vocation demanding his complete loyalty. He realized that his life made him an outsider in the literary world, but he shared with many outcasts and misfits a certain pride in his difference combined with a confused nostalgia for the joys and comforts of the ordinary world of the landlubber. It is this quality that links his verse not so much to the sophisticated, cosmopolitan poets of his day, but to the versifiers of the rebetika songs».
[Translation by Gail Holst Warhaft, from "The Collected Poems of Nikos Kavadias", published by Adolf M. Hakkert, Amsterdam, 1987]
Literary critic Vangelis Hadjivassiliou comments that Nikos Kavadias is “a representative of a poetry of introverted exoticism, which projects the agony and specters of a permanently restless and wakeful conscience onto alien and often mysterious seascapes”, adding that “the difficult life of the sailor, the daily grind of work, but also the freedom of the eye to travel over new horizons opened by the increasingly longer and bolder voyages he undertook mark Kavadias' entire poetic output. The poet constantly transforms external observations of the environment into a subdued, internal drama, often of a deeply existential nature”. Indeed, critics described him as the 'poet of internal exile', and were not slow to identify in his verse and in his imagery the tendency to displace straight realistic description with scenes of reverse images which represent, in a particularly eloquent manner, the poet's journey from the open seascape into the closed and dimly lit realm of the conscience.
Nikos Kavadias was born in 1910 in Harbin in Manchuria of Greek parents. He worked as a sailor throughout his life and his poetry was inspired by his travels around the world. Although he became well-known because of his three poetic collections Μαραμπού (Marabu, 1933), Πούσι (Fog, 1947) and Τραβέρσο (Traverso, 1975), he also wrote the fiction Βάρδια (The Shift, 1954) and some other prose works: Λι (Li), Του πολέμου (On War) and Στο Άλογο μου (Of my Horse, 1987). He died on 10 February 1975.
Kavadias become known to the Greek public after his death, when some of his poems were set to music by prominent composer Thanos Mikroutsikos. 11 of Kavadias’ poems were published under the title O Stavros Tou Notou [The Southern Cross] in 1979, while in 1992, Thanos Mikroutsikos returned with Grammes ton Orizonton (Horizon Lines) with 17 poems of Kavadias set to music, of which 11 were new versions of the previous album, while 6 were new. With such great vocalists as Giorgos Ntalaras, Vassilis Papakonstantinou, and Charis and Panos Katsimichas, the album exceeded all expectations, thus contributing to making Kavvadias’ poetry widely known in Greece.
Dr Liana Giannakopoulou teaches Modern Greek Literature in the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages of the University of Cambridge. She is the author of The Power of Pygmalion. Ancient Greek Sculpture in Modern Greek Poetry (Peter Lang 2007) and editor of the anthology The Parthenon in Poetry. An Anthology (in Greek, ELIA 2009). She has also co-edited Culture and Society in Crete. From Kornaros to Kazantzakis (Cambridge Scholars 2017), a selection of papers presented at an international conference held in Cambridge. She is the current Chair of the Society for Modern Greek Studies.
Dr Giannakopoulou was interviewed by the Press & Communications Office at the Embassy of Greece in London on the present and the future of Modern Greek Studies in the UK Universities and on the Society for Modern Greek Studies.
What does the teaching of Modern Greek in Cambridge entail?
The students who wish to learn Modern Greek in Cambridge can do so by choosing one of the two papers on offer in the second or final year of their studies as one of the scheduled options of their degree. We have students from the Faculty of MMLL (Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics), from the Faculty of Classics, from the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and from the Faculty of History. This year we are also able to offer a paper at MPhil level.
Modern Greek papers in Cambridge have a broad scope for one-year papers. The curriculum comprises the teaching of literature and cinema as well as ab initio intensive language teaching that is expected to allow students to approach the nation's literature and culture in the original language. The former is carried out by myself and the latter by my colleague, Dr Regina Karousou-Fokas with whom we share the duties of running the Section.
Modern Greek is a highly sought-after course among the students despite the fact that it is a challenging option. On the one hand, it is about coping with the intense pace of language learning and literature study: students need to acquire a good reading knowledge of Greek in the short time of Cambridge’s three teaching terms (20 weeks in all). In the first two terms, they attend two hours per week of language classes which concentrate on the essentials of grammar and the development of basic vocabulary. In the last term, students are required to attend workshops on translation from Greek to English. They also become acquainted for the first time with the work of important authors such as Cavafy, Seferis, Doukas, Koumandareas, Gourogiannis, Markaris and Dimitriou as well as Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, Zoe Karelli, Ritsos, Engonopoulos etc. They are also exposed to Greek cinema, from Angelopoulos to Koutras, Boulmetis and others. They need to familiarize themselves with the historical frame in which the work appears and understand the socio-cultural context to which they belong. In examination, they are required to tackle a compulsory unseen translation, taken from a literary text of authors like Margarita Karapanou, Vassilis Alexakis, Dimitris Chatzis, Vassilis Vassilikos. They also write two essay questions based on their literature and culture choices.
The learning curve is steep indeed, but this is a challenge they all embrace with great results!
Could you give us some details on the profile of students enrolled in the Modern Greek Section of the University of Cambridge? How challenging is it to teach Modern Greek Studies to foreign students who lack common cultural background and know almost nothing about the Greek history and culture?
The students who take our papers usually have no connections with Greece and, with the exception of students form Classics, the Greek language and this is why they are considered challenging options. With no cognate language offered in the Faculty of MMLL, they attract students that are highly motivated, determined and have a high aptitude for language learning. Good progress on the subject necessitates independent work and self-motivation.
The greatest challenge here is to try and make Modern Greek literature and culture relevant to them and to show that Modern Greek is not a niche, esoteric subject that one studies in isolation but one that is intrinsically connected with the world in which they live. Issues of multiculturalism, identity, otherness, immigration as well as women’s writing, ideology and politics and many others are at the forefront of the topics they engage with through the papers offered. Many of our students emphasize how studying Modern Greek gave them a fresh outlook on to the world today.
What would motivate a foreign student to study Modern Greek literature and culture?
For most students, there is no eminently "useful" reason for learning Modern Greek. No obvious practical gain. Few are the ones that see this as an opportunity to engage with their heritage. For most, it is the wish to explore a cultural landscape and a language that lies outside what could be considered the "canon" of mainstream European literature. To engage with literature that they would otherwise never have been exposed to and, in the case of students from the Classics Faculty, to gain a broader perspective of Greece than just the classical.
Students are attracted for different reasons. Some are initially interested mostly in the language itself, finding it refreshing or challenging to take up the opportunity to learn a modern language or to start afresh with a new language, a language with a different alphabet, different structure, a case system (as one of our students noted). A language that can also be examined through its many heritages, and whose continuity can be seen in terms of change and development.
Others find themselves immersed in modern Greece, learning about its complex relationship with the ancient Greek civilization. This is where the study of the poetry of Cavafy and Seferis, who use ancient Greek myth and history as a major component of their subject matter, is of great appeal.
Some students are attracted to the subject because they wish to gain an understanding of the country's cultural history relative to the political and economic crises faced by Greece today, as well as how Greeks themselves consider their own identity both as a nation and within Europe.
Last, but not least, in the process of engaging with the above, what students have found fascinating is the insight they gain with respect to the nation’s history. Almost no one begins their Modern Greek studies with the intention to deepen their understanding of the history of the place, but many are those who, having completed their studies, lament their previous ignorance of the rich and multi layered recent history of Greece, and comment on the connections they discover of modern Greek history with its European neighbours.
What are the prospects and what are the benefits one gets from such studies?
With the students reaching, as reported by one external examiner, "an impressive standard", it is no surprise that various students over the years have received scholarships from the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports for the International Summer School for Greek Language, Culture and History organized by IMXA in Thessaloniki. Others have self-organised and attended summer schools in Athens or other places in order to improve their language skills.
Upon graduation, as is the case for all graduates from the Modern Languages and Classics Faculties, our students find employment in a wide range of professions including language teaching (school and university level), translation/interpreting, journalism, the diplomatic service, publishing, marketing, public service, banking and investment, accountancy, law, logistics and distribution, teaching English as a foreign language, arts and recreation, speech and language therapy, and information technology among many others. Notably, former students of Greek have gone on to work for the European Union or gained experience in Greece that has allowed them to specialize in refugee studies. Others have become volunteers in refugee camps in Athens.
However, even among those whose career destination after university is not related specifically to Greek affairs, many continue their close relationship with the Greek language and culture.
Do you believe that there are more advantages for a Greek graduate to continue his post-graduate studies on Modern Greek literature, history and culture in the UK than in Greece?
I do not think that there are more advantages, but rather different ones. One thing a post-graduate degree outside Greece would offer to a Greek graduate would be a different perspective on their studies: an opening up to a wider, multicultural community, an encounter and more active engagement with other cultures and literatures, perhaps a greater realization of the need to place and justify what they do in a broader context. Their work becomes informed by a broader intercultural outlook and becomes, therefore, relevant to a wider audience.
Modern Greek Studies in the UK don’t attract a great number of students anymore and many chairs have been abolished. What are the causes for the decline of interest in such studies and how could this be reversed?
Modern Greek, just like other languages and the Humanities more generally, has been the victim of a change of priorities in Higher Education in Britain but also in modern societies more widely. Universities are now increasingly managed as businesses, and courses are evaluated in terms of their profitability. Therefore, the number of students registering for them is of crucial importance. With the increase in tuition fees, students understandably prioritize subjects that offer clearly identifiable job prospects and greater security. Universities in turn tend to support such subjects at the expense of smaller, more "niche" ones. The campaign for the support of STEM subjects at school is also affecting the number of students who take on Modern Languages at A Level – and not just Modern Greek.
This can be reversed, but in order to do so a very focused and orchestrated effort is necessary. A good precedent is the US where Greek Studies have successfully been funded by institutions and individuals willing to support the promotion of all aspects of Modern Greek culture, history and society. For this to happen in Britain, a conscious and targeted coordination between members of the academic community, the managements of the universities and the various donor institutions and individuals would be required. Already such an initiative and concerted effort led to the preservation of the Koraes Chair at King’s College London: the academic community in Britain is very fortunate indeed to count Professor Gonda Van Steen as one of its members.
I am also very proud to be part of another initiative myself at the University of Cambridge, where the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics and the Faculty of Classics have joined forces to launch in the summer of 2019 the Cambridge Centre for Greek Studies.
This is a Centre that aims to become an international hub for the very best pioneering research in cross-disciplinary Greek studies, covering the entirety of the Greek speaking world from the Bronze Age to the present day. In this aspiring, large-scale frame scholars engaged in the study of Greek culture will be encouraged to think ambitiously about issues of identity, religion, gender, imperialism, regionalism, Europe and the East, populism, technology, sexuality and the environment to name but a few. It will also encourage imaginative collaborations and the addressing of big, bold questions that take our discipline outside its comfort zones.
I hope that such an initiative will impress and inspire cultural institutions and foundations to approach and support the Centre’s efforts and aims, grasping in this way another opportunity to bring Modern Greek Studies forward.
Apart from some outstanding, world-known representatives of Modern Greek Literature, active mainly during the late 19th century and in the first decades of the 20th century, would you say that today’s Greek literature and poetry can showcase equally outstanding authors and poets? Or do we mainly imply the giants of the previous century, when we talk about Modern Greek prose and poetry?
We cannot ignore the giants of the previous century. One cannot teach Modern Greek literature and leave out Cavafy or Seferis for example. And I concede that it is very difficult to achieve the impact that authors such as Nikos Kazantzakis or again Cavafy have had abroad. But there is great admiration and respect for Seferis and Ritsos too. There are, however, also other writers who are well-known and loved in the English and French speaking world for instance, such as Petros Markaris and Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke. A well-known hurdle here is the number of translations published in English – the percentage of foreign titles in relation to the total number is very small. Big, commercial publishers do not take on translations of Modern Greek literature easily. But we are fortunate that gifted translators such as Karen Emmerich for example, work hard to make Modern Greek literature available to non-Greek speakers and various small publishers such as the Birmingham Modern Greek Translations, Denise Harvey, Colenso Books or Aiora Press support such efforts.
In our teaching programme in Cambridge we make a point of including more recent voices too, authors whose work reflects contemporary issues that put the students in contact with Greece in the 21st century. This is how they get to know all the writers I have mentioned in question 1 above. No writer becomes a "giant" in a vacuum and this is why we also try to promote contemporary and younger poets and prose writers through events that we organize in collaboration with the Society for Modern Greek Studies, the Cambridge Hellenic Learned Society and the Hellenic Centre.
Many of your research projects focus on the close relation between Modern Greek poetry and ancient sculpture. What do you believe Greek poets today draw inspiration from? Is the antiquity today an exhausted source of inspiration?
It is certainly not exhausted, but it does not take center stage either. Greek poets today draw inspiration from a wide variety of topics as recent anthologies testify. Antiquity is one of them and it is approached in an original and often subversive manner. Although Modern Greek literature was in the past a "national institution" it was also the space in which a subversive discourse against antiquity’s powerful hold of Greek identity was developed. As I have shown in my research, in both my books, from early on poets engage rather critically with the glorious classical past. Today this past is perhaps not as dominant a source of inspiration as it was in previous decades, but younger voices such as Phoebe Giannisi or Haris Psarras offer new, original perspectives on it. Antiquity has the power of transformation and adaptation and as such it can never be completely ignored.
Most academic and scientific fields especially humanities are being currently involved in an interdisciplinary/inter-scientific dialogue in order to develop interfaces, expand, and survive. Is this the case with the Modern Greek studies? Which scientific fields would Modern Greek studies develop a dialogue with?
I have seen many fascinating dialogues developing between Modern Greek studies and other fields: in the domain of literature, with which I am more familiar, I have seen comparative studies involving theatre, medicine, the visual arts and material culture, adoption studies, gender studies, film studies, (post-) colonialism, classical reception, translation, linguistics and heritage studies, cultural studies. I am sure there are many others.
You are the Chair of the Society for Modern Greek Studies. Could you please tell us more about the activities and the aims of the Society?
The main purpose of the Society for Modern Greek Studies is to provide free cultural and educational events related to Greece and Cyprus and to support the teaching, learning and research that relate to any aspect of Modern Greek and Cypriot culture. It is the UK national body representing the subject and is affiliated to the European Society of Modern Greek Studies.
The Society is open to students, academics and the general public – to everyone who shares our passion for and commitment to the promotion of Greece and Cyprus through their literature, history, cinema and any other aspect of their culture from the 19th century to today. We have two annual flagship events: a public lecture on the occasion of our AGM and a graduate research colloquium. The public lecture is given by an invited speaker, a distinguished member of the academic community, and is open to all. The SMGS Graduate Colloquium offers postgraduate students an opportunity to present their research to their academic peers and seniors, and to receive constructive feedback. We believe that this plays an extremely valuable part in our students' academic development.
The Society also has, since 2015, its own online peer-reviewed journal, MGSO which published original work by new researchers and established academics alike and which is available free of charge on the Society’s website.
On our website readers can find a list of the events we have organised in the past and the ones we are planning for the coming months; it is also a useful source of information for events organized by other bodies which are related to the Society’s interests and aims, as well as training and job opportunities. Our only income comes from our membership fee, so we always hope that more and more people will consider joining us in order to support us in our aim of maintaining the relevance and impact of Modern Greek and Cypriot culture in the wider community.
What are you currently involved in as an academic and what are your plans for the future?
I am involved in the teaching of our papers in Cambridge both at undergraduate and postgraduate level and in the planning of an MPhil course that will contribute to the newly established MPhil in Greek Studies that will be offered in Cambridge from the academic year 2020-21.
My future research plans involve the developing of a digital edition of the work of one of our most prominent poets – this is still in the early stages of planning. And I will of course continue to publish in the areas of my research interests.
In terms of public engagement, I will participate at the annual event held in the University of East Anglia, "Voices from Greece", on the topic of Myth. My presentation is "Myth in Greek women’s poetry". I will also continue to support the Cambridge Centre for Greek Studies in its activities to promote Greek culture and look forward to the planning and implementation of future events of the Society for Modern Greek Studies.
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Reading Greece | Professor Gonda Van Steen on her lifelong fascination with all things Greek ; Professor Roderick Beaton: "Europe is unthinkable without Greece" ; Reading Greece: Emilios Solomou on the Challenges and Prospects of Greek Literature Abroad ; Reading Greece | Richard Clogg: “I am continually struck by the ignorance of the recent history of Greece that exists in the UK”
Dimitris Tzamouranis is a contemporary artist who was born in 1967. His works have featured in numerous exhibitions at leading galleries and museums, including the Gallery Michael Haas in Berlin. Tzamouranis has been living and working in Berlin since 1990 and exhibiting in museums and galleries across Europe. Retrospectives of his work have been shown at the art museum Kunsthalle Osnabruck in Germany, at the Miro Gallery in Prague and at the Frissiras Museum in Athens, as well as at the Haas Gallery in Zurich, Switzerland.
One of the principal representatives of the movement in favor of a dynamic return to figurative painting, Tzamouranis seems torn between lyrical photorealism and coloristic expressionism. Based on allegory and metaphor, his epic compositions are known for their multitude of figures and the meticulous depiction of space, material and objects. His works remind of theater stages, where an epic narrative takes place in front of the audience urging them to interpret situations and incidents.
In an interview with Greek News Agenda*, the distinguished painter talks about his influences, his style of painting, as well as his plans for the future.
Embarkation for Cythera II, 2017, oil on canvas, 310 X 225, (courtesy of Gallery Michael Haas, Berlin)
You have been brought up in an environment where art was present in your daily life - your father being the well-known painter Sotiris Tzamouranis. To what extent has this environment influenced your decision to become a painter yourself?
Given that my father is a painter, I grew up in a house that was also a studio. My maternal grandfather was a decorator and an iconographer. In summer, my father and I would often go to Mani by car and we’d paint landscapes. Later on, I spent time in the studio of sculptor Christos Riganas as an apprentice. Childhood stimuli and inspiration obviously played a decisive role in my artistic development.
I believe that when a person is born in a certain place there are dependencies and experiences that cannot be left out. Over time, I have shaped my artistic persona and aesthetics more or less coherently. As an artist I may have changed, but my distinctive quality remains the same.
You are considered one of the main representatives of the trend to return to figurative painting. Where do you want to lead the viewer through this style?
I believe that art aims at imitating nature, the ultimate objective being the transcendence of reality and the pursuit of beauty, because it is a quality as important as truth and kindness. The beauty of a person is the flesh that becomes spirit through the medium of art, allowing us to see the soul it depicts. This is how we can see beauty - not only in a young person, but also in an aging face full of wrinkles.
Painting is a complicated experience. Conceptually, the composition of the painting may be pre-structured in the artist's brain, but it must become a physical object. The body must discipline and cope through method in order to give form to the idea. For example, if you look at details in a Rembrandt landscape, you will notice irregular color shapes. But as a whole, the painting represents an aspect of a landscape.
Thus chaos, through structure and organization, becomes harmony. I think that this process, whereby the conceptual idea through manual action transforms into visual language is what differentiates painting from photography or video. In the mechanical depiction of reality we have the reproduction of nature; in a well-made painting we transcend reality.
Kathrin and Zoe, 2018, oil on canvas, 290 X 190, (courtesy of Gallery Michael Haas, Berlin)
In what I regard as your epic compositions, you depict exceptionally the emotional intension of your central characters. Is this an attempt to decipher the psychological state of contemporary man?
Usually, the figures in my works are familiar, real people, from my family or friendly environment. My affiliation and experience with them often inspire me to create my compositions. The physiognomy of a particular person can make me look back at the history of art and recognize it in a painting of the Renaissance. The idea for my next project often comes after such an experience. The answer to the question of to what degree has the state of human existence changed through time could be found in the subject matters of painting, which are limited to life, love, death.
Traditionally, anthropocentric portrayals in paintings often project a person’s inner state to the outside world. This could be his/her position in a landscape, a room, or in an allegorical or symbolic environment.
"Art is a lie that helps us discover the truth," Pablo Picasso said. The artist with the choice of colors, themes and contrasts leads the viewer to a feeling. What is the secret to discovering it?
In my opinion, art must represent reality so as to contribute to a democratic society immediate access to the truth. The more authoritarian and oppressive a society, the more mystical and distant the culture it reproduces.
Let's not forget that around 510 BC (the beginning of democracy), something extraordinary began to take place in the streets of ancient Athens: the sculptures were no longer motionless and stylistically impersonal; they acquired movement and human characteristics.
We come across this again in Europe in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
Zoe, 2019, oil on wood, 100 X 140, (courtesy of Zina Athanassiadou Gallery, Thessaloniki)
Last June you delivered a lecture in Kalamata on "Melancholy in Art". What would you define as "melancholy" today and how does it affect art?
Melancholia was for the ancient Greeks the terrible mental illness of black bile (in ancient Greek melaena [black] + khole [bile]). In the essay "Natural Problems by Aristotle's school, the question that arises is "why do the majority of creative people have a melancholic nature"? This question marked a new beginning in the elaboration of the concept of "melancholy". In later times, especially during the Renaissance and Romanticism, melancholia was directly linked to the arts.
Besides, in modern psychology melancholia is not referred to as an illness because it is linked with creativity. In the 20th century, the concept of melancholia will change: The focus is on social loneliness; the individual’s isolation from the outside world. The individual no longer suffers from α mismatch with the world, but with himself. Questions relating to the meaning of life, where we come from and where we are going and what death is are no longer posed in the modernist era and in our times. Modernism, aided by technology, has dealt with these issues, and depression has taken the place of melancholia.
Melancholia-Altar, 2012, Polyptychon, oil on wood, 630 X 310, (courtesy of Gallery Michael Haas, Berlin)
You have chosen to live and work in Berlin. Do you miss Greece?
I have been living and working in Berlin for almost three decades, but I have direct, personal and professional connections with Greece. I often come to Kalamata and I have a studio at the village Akrogiali of Avia, where I can work.
What are your plans for the future? Will there be an opportunity to see some of your works in Greece soon?
I have scheduled an exhibition at the Zina Athanassiadou Gallery in Thessaloniki for January 2020.
I am also working on a large triptych based on Dante's Divine Comedy, which I will exhibit at the Gallery Michael Haas in Berlin.
*Interview by Marianna Varvarrigou. Translation by Magda Hatzopoulou. (Intro picture: Melancholia- Altar, detail, courtesy of Gallery Michael Haas, Berlin)
Read also via Greek news Agenda: Maria Filopoulou: an important representative of contemporary representational art in Greece; Arts in Greece | Kostis Georgiou: “Art’s purpose is to provide a zone of unlimited paths”
Vassilis Papadopoulos is a career diplomat at the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as a scholar specialized in international and cultural relations. He has graduated from the Law School of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, with post graduate studies in International and European Law in France. Since 1985 he has been a member of the Greek diplomatic corps, while most notably he served as ambassador in Kiev and Bucharest. His works of fiction have been inspired from the geographical settings while posted in the USA, Asia and Eastern Europe. Throughout his career, Vassilis Papadopoulos has specialized in EU and political issues as well as in cultural diplomacy. He gave lectures in several Universities and diplomatic academies. He wrote essays such as the role of language in international relations or the work of the famous Greek poet and diplomat George Seferis. Most recently, he published his essay “Language as a vehicle of civilization. The influence of the Greek Language.” Greek News Agenda* had the opportunity to interview him on the particular dynamics of the Greek language and its evolution throughout History.
In your book on the influence of the Greek language, you refer to its continuity. What are the most important landmarks in this continuity?
The unbroken continuity and history of the Greek language, highlighted by Greek historians and scholars, and most importantly, by Constantine Paparrigopoulos, could be marked by many milestones. They consist of both crucial decisions as well as of social phenomena. Decisions were political in nature, and this underlines the importance of politics today that many tend to underestimate, especially in literary fields. Thus the decision by Philip II, King of Macedonia, to establish Attic Greek as the official language of his court and of his kingdom is in my opinion a catalyst; and this is because it was precisely this language that, a few years later, Alexander the Great propagated throughout the vast empire he created. The decision of the Evangelists Mark, Luke, and John to write their Gospels in Greek rather than Aramaic was another major milestone. These texts are still being studied in the original today and they are written in our language, and in fact not in Attic Greek but in the spoken, “common" language of the era. The Gospel of Matthew may have been written in Aramaic, but it was also promptly translated and became well known in Greek. The decision by the Byzantine Emperor and great reformer Leo III "Isaurus" to issue legislation (the Ecloga, i.e., “Selection") for the first time in Greek, signaling the definitive and complete Hellenization of the empire was of particular significance. Legal texts are usually the last bastion of a society's linguistic tradition. A series of intellectual movements followed, including the 9th century Byzantine humanist movement that contributed to the preservation and study of ancient Greek literature by scholars, emperors, metropolitans and monks.
The culmination was the renaissance that started during the Paleologian era, which however did not last long due to the Ottoman conquest. Finally, the mass movement of Byzantine scholars to Italy after the fall of Constantinople carried over and thus saved Greek cultural heritage, especially in Venice, Rome, and Florence, and from there on throughout the West. The decision of the Patriarchal Council of 1593 proved to be crucial as regards the survival and continuity of the Greek language during the Ottoman occupation, and consequently for that of the Greek nation. It instructed all the Metropolises in Ottoman territories to establish schools and to even help the destitute to participate in education: "Each bishop should spend as much care and effort as possible in his parish so that the Divine and Holy scriptures can be taught, and aid those willing to teach and those willing to learn, if they are in need". I’d say that the Greek Enlightenment movement is the next major landmark in the continuity of the Greek language. The work of prominent Greek teachers and scholars; the establishment of schools and universities; the work of Adamantios Korais; all contributed to the revival of our language and at the same time laid the foundations for Greek independence. We owe to the genius of Dionysios Solomos that our demotic language, the common language of the people, acquired an equal status with the traditional literary standard, for the first time ever. Drawing on Cretan literature, folk song tradition and Rigas Feraios, he literally provided structure and shape to the language spoken by the people and used it in unparallel ways to create aesthetic emotion through his poetry. His decision to write in colloquial Greek was exceptionally significant. Finally significant was the decision of the new Greek state to establish as its official language the simple katharevousa in 1834, which was reflected in the 1911 Constitution. In 1976, after many decades of intense controversy, political, literary and social, it was replaced by the demotic language.
Why have elites for many centuries and in many countries tended to adopt the Greek language?
This phenomenon is indeed impressive, and the first example that comes to mind is the Roman Empire. Following the conquest of the Greek cities, while Latin remained the official language of the state, the prominent Roman families that usually ruled Rome, as well as the intellectual elites of the empire, considered it almost compulsory to speak Greek. Similar reactions had earlier been observed in Asia, in the lands conquered by Alexander the Great, and later in the countries influenced by the Byzantine Empire, for instance Arab or Slavic, but also in the West, especially after the fall of Constantinople, even up to the twentieth century. The phenomenon is certainly not accidental. Studying Greek was a prerequisite for education and knowledge. It was the key to familiarization with ideas and achievements that were first formulated in the Greek language. The cultural accomplishments of Greek cities, especially from the fifth century BC onwards and up to the Hellenistic times, had an overwhelming appeal to scholars of the then known world. Knowledge of Greek allowed for Plato or Thucydides to be studied in the original, a deeper understanding of philosophy or medicine or even a deeper aesthetic appreciation of Sophocles' tragedies or Homer's epics. There were other civilizations that made a significant contribution to the global cultural edifice. The uniqueness of Greek civilization was unquestionably its anthropocentric orientation, which proved to be more universal and lasting, perhaps because it reflected human nature to a remarkable degree.
How close is the Greek language to its origins?
It is by now well established and widely accepted that the Greek language is one and indivisible. Throughout the centuries it has undergone the changes that every living organism experiences, but without any gaps, despite the incredible adventures and transformations of the Greek nation. To characteristically quote Elytis: I know only of one language, one single language, Greek, as it evolved from ancient Greek, which should be our great pride and support. [...] For the Greek poet to still say today "sky" or "sea" or "sun" or "moon" or "wind", as Sappho and Archiloch used to say, is no small matter. It is very important. We communicate every moment, talking to our roots. It is interesting to compare Greek texts that are 500 years apart, as for example, the works of Alexandros Papadiamandis with Georgios Phrantzes’ chronicle of the fall of Constantinople, or Saint Basil the Great with Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, or the Gospel according to Mark with Xenophon. We find that the differences are not as great as those for instance between Moliere and Malraux, which are only 300 years apart, or those between Shakespeare and Eliot, that are 500 years apart. The continuity of Greek is impressive, despite the Greek language question that has tormented us since the Ptolemaic period, or perhaps precisely because of the centuries-long effort of Greek scholars to imitate and write in Attic Greek, which was the original paradigm for centuries.
You recently published a long essay on Seferis entitled "Diplomacy and Poetry". Do you think Seferis goes back to earlier layers of the Greek language?
As a rule, no; I believe that the earlier layers of the Greek language are sensed in Seferis’ poetry through his subjects and style, for they almost never alter the striking linguistic clarity and homogeneity of his verse written with such simple materials. Seferis was deeply aware of all Greek intellectual tradition and believed that no art is created out of nothing, that the poet must be the natural continuation of all his forefathers. He often read Aeschylus in the original, as he did with Erotokritos. His poems reflect our entire long literary heritage, but always assimilated in such a manner that never alters the simple, unpretentious, Doric language in which he expresses himself. The image of Socrates' apology in "Kichli" is very typical:
"And then the voice of the old man reached me; I felt it
falling into the heart of day,
quietly, as though motionless:
‘And if you condemn me to drink poison, I thank you.
Your law will be my law; how can I go
wandering from one foreign country to another, a rolling stone.
I prefer death.
Whose path is for the better only God knows.’"*
On the contrary, much more of the historical elements of our language are to be found in Elytis who, unlike Seferis, loves to create new words or to use older ones, as par excellence in "Axion Esti":
the infighting Zephyr, the erebus-killing pomegranate
the flaming swift-footed kisses"
“Conqueror of Hades and savior of Eros”
“Hail Mother of Dreams and hail Pelagic
Hail Anchorbearer and Star-Quintessence”*
At a time when the use of English is dominant worldwide, what are the implications for Greek?
During my travels, I have noticed a Chinese person speaking English to a Moroccan or a Japanese speaking English to a Brazilian, and I am not surprised. I am merely astonished with the small vocabulary they use, and how worn out the English language becomes in this international course of globalization. As for us, I am occasionally surprised by trendy Greek expressions that appear suddenly out of nowhere. In most cases, they are just a translation of a corresponding English or, more likely, American expression. But the same is true in other languages I speak, such as French and Spanish. The diffusion of English through American mass culture is immense and the outcome is not positive. But we said that language is a living organism, it is constantly evolving, and I can’t see how this could stop. Nevertheless our heritage is profound. Our language, as we’ve noted, has articulated some of the most important advances in human thought. Moreover, our language is what kept the nation alive for centuries, and if we allow it to wear out, so will we. I believe that the only antidote is the serious and organized teaching of the Greek language in schools including original texts from every era. We could perhaps emulate countries with an excellent education system such as Finland and adapt it to the richness and history of our language. We could also adopt the American system in our Universities, where in the first year of every school basic literary and historical texts are taught. I have read many thoughts and suggestions on the subject, but I have not seen any results. Let's hope.
Is there room for new interest to learn Greek?
From my experience as Ambassador to foreign countries, I quickly realized that the appeal of the Greek language as an ark of intellectual creation is receding at Universities and Colleges abroad, due to the undeniable need of students to make a living after graduation. The solution I would consider consists of two parts: The first would involve the organization of a better network of scholarships sponsored by private initiative. I am certain that students wishing to study Greek will use this opportunity and the bond forged through the Greek language will be enduring and unbreakable. There are already significant programs from major donors in place around the world. We could perhaps standardize this. The second part involves the prospect of employment through the knowledge of Greek. This obviously is more difficult to plan, as it depends on the dynamics of Greek enterprises, private or public, around the world and their demand for Greek-speaking personnel. These would also include the Hellenic Foundation for Culture, which is in dire need of support and modernization. Culture is, in my opinion, the most important product our country has been producing over time. It is a soft power that maintains its appeal and serves our country in any crisis, in any difficulty, sometimes without us being aware of it. It is our most solid ally, because even where enormous interests are at stake, the representatives of these interests are only people, with weaknesses and dreams, with personalities and beliefs. Many of them have been influenced by Greek culture and this plays an important role.
*Interview by Kostas Mavroidis. Translated from Greek to English by Magda Hatzopoulos.
“Kichli” excerpts taken from Edmund Keeley’s translation, “Axion Esti” excerpts taken from Jeffrey Carson and Nikos Sarris’ translation.
Pela Soultatou has studied Sociology, Community Health, Health Promotion and has earned a PhD in Education from King’s College London as a scholar of IKY (State Foundation of Scholarships). She has published two novels Ανάποδες στροφές [Reverse Rhymes, Kastaniotis 2019] and Ανκόρ [Encore, Kastaniotis 2015]; a book for children ΜυΧατή ή το Μυστήριο της Χαμένης Τηλεόρασης [MyLoT or the Mystery of the lost TV, Patakis 2019); and a collection of short stories Τα φώτα στο βάθος [The lights in the background, Αpopeira 2016] that was dramatised in the theatre.
Pela Soultatou spoke to Reading Greece* about her latest writing venture, noting that “it constitutes an experimental endeavour”, “released from the burden of intentions”, where language is “a combination of three idiolects”, “the contemporary slang”, “an outdated jargon” and “a hint dialect being spoken in Crete where the story takes place”.
Asked about whether Greek writers prefer short forms to longer narratives, she comments that “the large proportion of readers are more apt to grasp these bulky and heavy books from those large bookstores”. As for the potential of the new generation of Greek writers to attract foreign audiences, she explains that “we are trapped in a language spoken in just two countries of all planets” and concludes that “the Greek editors-just like most Greek entrepreneurs not seem very keen with the idea of translating and exporting our domestic intellectual products abroad”.
Your latest writing venture titled Reverse Rhymes received rave reviews upon publication. Tell us a few things about the book.
This novel emerged through another larger piece of writing, which was then scrapped. So in a sense, it constitutes an experimental endeavour. This left me a considerable degree of freedom to develop a story out of nowhere, released from the burden of intentions.
My third book is intermingling the holy family with the Greek family, to describe in depth, but in a rather satirical manner, the peculiarities of a single mother with her only son relationship. Hence, I invented a reverse Virgin Mary and a reverse Jesus Christ. Mary, the mother, has been a sexually overactive woman who does not seem to see her son as a brilliant, charismatic and virtuous person, as usually is the case in our mediterranean families. Likewise, her son Manolis (a diminutive of Emmanuel, the foretold name of the Messiah in the Old Testament) is quite the contrary of what we have in mind as features of Jesus Christ’s personality.
During New Year’s eve, Manolis is out with friends, but totally broke. He finds an excuse to drop in at his place and search for his mother’s hoard, while she is spending time at a friend’s miserable party. Manolis is looking for the “treasure” in every single part of the little flat, when he discovers his mother’s personal diary. He is tempted to read it and the “dark side” of his mother’s face is revealed. From that point on, the time is reversed and the plot resembles -but again in a satirical way- crime fiction.
Your language is quite powerful in its realism and bluntness. What role does language play in your writings? How is raw realism combined with magic realism in your books?
I embarked upon a combination of three idiolects, the contemporary slang spoken by the 18th years old Manolis, an outdated jargon spoken by his mother Maria in her 40s and a hint dialect being spoken in Crete where the story takes place.
But what I find challenging is that I let the narrator being influenced by the characters’ language. In this sense, the style does not change dramatically from the hero to the writer, but the second follows the first although in her own way. I have experimented with this in my previous novel, “Encore”.
The book touches some key social issues, such as patriarchy, domestic violence and the place of women in modern Greek society. Does literature offer a way to deal with such issues and help societies move a step forward in this respect?
To be honest, I had no purpose to teach anything to anyone about what it means to be a single-mother in a deprived neighbourhood and yet wishing to indulge into carnal pleasures but to live decently, as Maria, my main character, does. I had no plans to help the society understand what it means for a youngster to be a real NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) obliged to join the army in a while and encountering the dark side of his mother’s face. I wished to tell a story and this what I did; hopefully well.
You have experimented with various forms of writings: from scientific articles to novels, novellas and black comedy. Would you say that the theme dictates the form? Is there a binding thread?
It’ s like having a garden with different sorts of flowers and plants. I do what I have to do with each one of them, I water them, I trim the down and so on. Maybe I don’t have all the time of the world to take care of them equally, and at times I focus on one particular kind, to be honest. However, I feel it is more colourful and fragrant like this. Unusual though, I know. Readers and critics prefer you to represent just one, max two, different forms. But we take our risks in life, in order to fulfil our desires. I could not do otherwise. On the occasion, I wish to add to the list above a book for schoolchildren I have recently published.
It has been argued that Greek writers have a preference for short form and that short story collections have outweighed novels and longer narratives. How would you comment on this?
Now you trigger my academic side, which means that I cannot actually comment on this without having a set of data. I am not quite sure this is the case. On the contrary, I think that the large proportion of readers are more apt to grasp these bulky and heavy books from those large bookstores, feeling that they afforded for something big that worths their money. There are, of course, those few who still prefer quality to quantity, we almost know them by their first names in our little book-lovers’ community. But we live in capitalism, difficult to survive in the contest with the market.
Writer Nikos Mandis has argued that “the novel is one of the means that will enable Greece to enter a broader map and communicate with people beyond its borders”. Does the new generation of Greek writers have the potential to attract foreign readers?
I have not read the whole of Niko’s thought, so I am ambivalent as what exactly he means by that. It sounds pretty optimistic and I would love to share this view. But it is true that we are trapped in a language spoken in just two countries of all planet and the Greek editors-just like most Greek entrepreneurs not seem very keen with the idea of translating and exporting our domestic intellectual products abroad.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
One of the most emblematic lyric voices of post-war poetry, Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke was born in Athens in 1939. She completed university studies in Athens (Greece), Nice (France) and Geneva (Switzerland). She holds a degree from the School of Translators and Interpreters (English, French, Russian). Her first published work, in 1956, appeared in the literary magazine “Kainourgia Epochi” (New Era). Subsequent to that, approximately 20 of her poetry collections have been circulated. In 1962 she won the Prix Hensch, Geneva’s 1st Prize for Poetry. In 1985 she won 2nd Greek National Poetry Award.
Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke is also considered one of the foremost translators of English and Russian literature into Greek. She has translated, among others, Dylan Thomas, Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Walcott into Greek. In addition, she has lectured and read poems at U.S. and Canadian universities (Harvard, Cornell, Dartmouth, State University of N.Y., Princeton, Columbia, to name but a few). In 2000 she was the recipient of the Kostas and Eleni Ourani Award (literary distinction by the Academy of Athens). Her works have been translated into more than ten languages and her poems can be found in various anthologies worldwide.
The Anorexia of Existence
I am not hungry, I am not in pain,
I don't stink.
Maybe I suffer deep inside
and don't know it.
I only pretend to laugh
I don't desire the impossible
nor the possible;
bodies forbidden for me
don't satiate my glance.
At the sky I look sometimes
full of desire
at the moment the sun withdraws its shine
and the azure lover surrenders
to the spell of the night.
My only contribution
to the whirlpool of the world
is my steady breath.
But I also feel another
an agony suddenly seizes me
for the human pain
that stretches on the earth
like a ritual tablecloth
drenched in blood:
it covers myths and gods
identical to life
it is eternally reborn.
Yes, I want to cry now
but even the source of my tears
has dried out.
[Translated from the Greek by the author]
Her poetry, although gloomy at times, does not communicate angst and despondence. Working within a broad literary and historical tradition, she often resorts to myths and legends, which she weaves with Penelopean skill within the textures of her on creations. Many of the female personae she creates, or more accurately recreates, speak in refreshingly “feminine” voices and thus present a heretofore absent point of view. In so doing, they put into question long-established assumptions and force us to look at familiar characters (such as Odysseus and Penelope, for example) in new ways. But these new ways are so much destructive as creative, for the reader is made aware not only of the sadness and ugliness of life but also of its possibilities and of the potentialities of the living body.
The range and power of Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke's language is evident as she recasts and reweaves the Greek idiom into forms that are powerful and new. Her verse has the clarity of contemporary vision layered with more than two millennia of Greek language and poetry. She takes everyday experience and turns it into an allegory of modern life. Her poems anchor the abstract metaphysics of myth in the ordinary rituals of everyday existence. Her allusive, anti-elegiac, nonrhyming verse, in asymmetrical bundles of loosely connected, unpunctuated strrophes, moves from the grand historical symbols back to the individual futile body.
Eleni Fourtouni has described Rooke as living in Athens half the time and dedicating the other half to her home on the isle of Aegina, “writing poetry, cultivating her pistachio orchard, and healing her friends’ wounds with her laughter and love”.
Persa Apostoli is a graduate of Medieval and Modern Greek Studies at the Universities of Athens (B.A., Ph. D) and King's College, University of London (M.A.). She works as an Associate Lecturer at the Hellenic Open University (Department of European Studies: 2003-2010, Department of Hellenic Studies, 2010-). She has also taught Modern Greek and Comparative Literature for the Universities of Peloponnese and Patras and has participated in several Research Programmes.
Major publications: “The European Itinerary of the Picaresque Novel and its Traces in 19th Century Greek Literature (Transformation and Continuity)” (Neohelicon, 2004); “The Second Acknowledged Model of Gr. Palaiolugue’s O Polypathis (1839): F. Bulgarin’s Ivan Vyzhigin (1829)” (Comparaison, 2006); “Women’s publishing activity (arts’ and literary periodicals 1900-1940): the cases of Artemisia Landraki and Kornelia Preveziotiou”, in S. Denissi (ed.), Women’s artistic and literary activity in Greek Periodicals 1900-1940 (Gutenberg, 2008); Marietta Giannopoulou-Minotou, The authentic story of Pope Joan (ed.) (Periplous, 2011); The Picaresque Novel and its Traces in 19th Century Greek Literature. From “Hermilos” to “Pope Joan” (Artemis, 2018). She is a member of the Greek General and Comparative Literature Association and the International General and Comparative Literature Association. Principal research interests: 19th and 20th century Greek prose-writing, comparative literature, Greek literary journals and women's writing.
Persa Apostoli spoke to Reading Greece* about her latest writing venture, noting that “the purpose of the book was to act as an introduction of Greek readers into the history of the picaresque novel” and “remedy the lack of a broader research on the topic in Greek, despite the extensive international bibliography”. She comments both on the origins of the picaresque novel in Greece, and the main features of the picaresque novel and the pícaro, explaining that among pivotal picaresque themes are “the disparity between perception and reality and the alienation of humans from the world that surrounds them”, and that “the picaresque myth presents a world turned upside down, where all values are reversed and reality becomes slippery”.
Asked about the main challenges researchers in Greece are faced with, she notes that although “most Greek academic libraries have been modernized and enriched”, “research in Greece continuous to be an arduous and poorly paid, if not a self-financed occupation, especially as regards the field of Humanities”. She concludes that “a long-standing strategy on the part of the official state, as well as various initiatives by Greek and foreign institutions…which somehow act as cultural ambassadors, could contribute to a more effective promotion of modern Greek literature in the international book market”, while “priority should be given to the financing and promotion of translations, along with the participation in international fora and book fairs, cooperations and further actions”.
Your latest writing venture, The Picaresque Novel and its Traces in 19th Century Greek Literature, was shortlisted for the O Anagnostis Literary Review Awards 2019. Tell us a few things about the book.
The book is a revised and further enriched version of my doctoral thesis submitted to the University of Athens in 2003. It aims to remedy the lack of a broader research on the topic in Greek, since, despite the extensive international bibliography, this bibliography was mostly unknown to the Greek public and the few other Greek scientific articles were focused on specific works or specific aspects of the genre. Thus, the purpose of the book was to act as an introduction of Greek readers into the history of the picaresque novel, a literary genre which emerged in 16th-century Spain and was spread both in European and non-European countries until at least the mid-19th century (some researchers support that it has survived to the present). In this context, the first part of the book briefly lays down the milestones vis-à-vis the appearance and development of the picaresque novel, its predecessors and origins, as well as its primary traits.
At the same time, the book aspires to act as an introduction into the history of the reception of the picaresque genre by international literary critique from the moment it first appeared until the present day, a history equally fascinating. The book discusses how the socio-political, ideological and aesthetic changes that took place throughout the centuries and from country to country decisively determined this reception intertwined with the evolution of the genre and lays special emphasis on the role of translations and the adaptations to the respective languages. It also follows the various different aspects of the picaresque novel that have been featured within the framework of different theoretical approaches and methods, which are chronicled in the book, accompanied by a detailed and up-to-date bibliography.
The second part traces the origins of the picaresque novel in the Greek-speaking world during the abovementioned period: whether translations took place, what kind of respective references and comments appeared in the press, in forewords, dictionaries and so on, whether there exist foreign editions of that time in the National Library and the Library of the National Parliament that prove some kind of potential interest of Greek readers in the genre. There is also a mapping of the Greek prose landscape through the examination of typical prose texts that “converse” with the picaresque novel, starting from the fist decades of the 19th century until the publication of the emblematic The Pope Joan by Emmanuel Rhoides. The aim is not just to trace convergences and divergences from the picaresque novel, but to highlight various important features of these works, for example the way they ‘converse’ with other traditions, such as Fool’s literature, Mock-heroic Poetry, the Lives of Saints etc, the respective rhetorical means, the various sides of reality that come under scrutiny, as well as their thematic, ideological, aesthetic and other affinities.
Despite the increasing international bibliography on the picaresque novel, the genre remains virtually unknown in the Greek literary world. How did the picaresque novel reach the Greek world of letters in the 19th century?
Up until the 19th century, translations directly from Spanish were scarce. Thus, works belonging to the Baroque era, such as the emblematic Don Quichotte or the El Criticón, were translated into Greek through a French or Italian intermediary. Despite the fact that the Spanish picaresque novels had already been widely translated in many European languages, including our neighboring Southeastern European countries (e.g. Romania, Russia), no Greek translations of Spanish picaresque novels either from the prototype or from some French, Italian or other translation have been traced. What is traced, however, is a great number of Greek translations of the popular in many countries French representative of the genre, Gil Blas by Alain René Lesage. Thus, in Greece the picaresque genre seems to have become known mainly through this later, modified, picaresque novel, which was not only loved by readers but also acted as a model for many Greek writers, such as Grigorios Palaiologos and his novel O Polypathis [Τhe Man of Many Sufferings] , the “Greek Gil Gas”, as the author himself had called it.
Which were the main features of the picaresque novel?
The features of the picaresque novel have not been uniform or steady from text to text, from country to country or from one era to the next. Primarily a protean genre, it may relate to the Bildungsroman, the novel of manners, the social satire, the romance and other types of prose fiction.
In general, the picaresque novel constitutes a pseudo-autobiographical narration structured in episodes, which follows the adventures of a rogue wandering from place to place and among different social classes, while striving to survive in an environment which is in essence hostile towards him and contradictory. Events are presented from the point of view of the hero itself, an unreliable narrator, who, in order to justify his acts, sometimes discloses and sometimes hold things back, enticing readers into a game of deception, the same way the hero interacts with the people he meets. The main narration is often interpolated with narrations of secondary characters. This fact combined with a language that is interspersed with puns and phrases open to multiple interpretations, adds to the text’s polyphony, bringing forward pivotal picaresque themes, such as the disparity between perception and reality and the alienation of humans from the world that surrounds them.
In addition, although picaresque texts contain many realistic elements vis-à-vis the representation of social life, the causes or dimensions of a problem are often distortingly overstated while descriptions are characterized by exaggeration, which tends towards the grotesque. Finally, the world is depicted through scenes that focus on the lowest ranks of human life, where everything in translated in material terms, thus demonstrating its disparities and imperfection. In this way, the picaresque myth presents a world turned upside down, where all values are reversed and reality becomes slippery.
Starting with Don Quichotte by Cervantes, which, as you argue in the book, provides us with one of the first descriptions of the genre’s hero, which are the main traits of the pícaro?
Indeed, in one of the book’s most representative scenes, Don Quichotte meets some chained convicts, who are forced into the galleys. One of them tells the hidalgo that he has written down his adventurous life in a book that will likely surpass both the Lazarillo de Tormes and the Guzman de Alfarache (the first Spanish picaresque texts). Through this scene, Cervantes offers, of course in his own perspective, an early description of the pícaro and the picaresque genre.
The pícaro is usually a young person of low social status and a questionable origin, who tries to face the adversities of life on his own. He stands on the margins of society, aiming neither to confront nor change it, and has no high ideals since he is only interested in satisfying his hunger. Throughout his course of life, and especially during his first steps, being inexperienced and gullible, he falls victim to cunning and malicious people, a fact which introduces him to the world of deception. Easily adjustable and inventive, he resorts to whatever means (both legal and illegal), he often changes occupations, places, even his appearance and doesn’t seem to settle anywhere. Therefore, he is not a one-dimensional hero since he often appears to be volatile and inconsistent, while his character and his behavior are presented and interpreted in various ways according the general stance and the purposes of each writer.
What about the most typical picaros in the respective Greek novels?
In Ermilos by Michail Perdikaris, the hero – not himself a typical pícaro – transformed to a donkey watches from his position as a pack animal the picaresque adventures of the fisherman Meliras, who pretends to be a doctor. Similarly, in the unfinished novel Xouth the Ape by Iakovos Pitsipios, the interest lies in the ideologically charged fact that the role of the transformed servant-ape is played by the known mishellene Jacob Salomon Bartholdy. In The Man of Many Sufferings by Grigorios Palaiologos, we follow the adventurous wanderings of an initially innocent well-off young man from Constantinople, Alexandros Favinis, from the East to the West, which start when he becomes orphan, is alienated from his relatives and is thus forced to adjust and maneuver himself out the difficulties he encounters. On the other hand, in Stratis Kalopicheiros by Stefanos Koumanoudis, a young boy from Salona leaves his birthplace and starts working as a servant. However, he constantly changes masters since he is always in trouble because he insists on behaving according to the example of holy fools, apparently for reasons of faith but, as it turns out, mostly for reasons of interest. Pope Joan, the heroine of the emblematic hybrid work by Emmanuel Rhoides, which of course defies any generic classification, doesn’t need any further recommendation. Rhoides narrates the reversed life of a sinful “saint”, who dressed like a man, manages to deceive those around her for the sake of glory and love.
How do they relate to the broader socio-political environment in which they appeared?
Putting heroes such as a servant of multiple masters or a wandering rogue in the spotlight enables writers to shed light and comment on diverse aspects of social life. In Ermilos, the allegory of a human transformed to an ass is used to highlight moral dehumanization with concrete reference to the cycle of Phanariots who held high posts and introduced disastrous, in the writer’s view, western ideas and habits. The writer satirizes different social groups such as doctors and priests, as well as specific persons, such as Dimitrios Katartzis. He delves into the political shortcomings of the Greek people during the Pre-revolutionary period and urges Greeks towards a higher moral that will enable Greece’s Renaissance. Similarly, Pitsipios parodies the apery that characterizes the Greek world after the Revolution, laying emphasis onthe attachment of Greek people to western parties, theiryearn for western education and mostly the adoption of western manners and habits.
The same goes in The Man of Many Sufferings which provides an even wider panorama due to the hero’s wanderings around the Ottoman world, the Danube countries, Russia, Western European countries and the modern Greek state. Finally, in Stratis Kalopicheiros and well as in Pope Joan, criticism is articulated against specific practices related not only to the Greek ecclesiastical and monastic life. Although Pope Joan takes place during the Medieval Years of the West, due to the writer’s famous juxtaposing similes and interventions, the interest is constantly shifted from the past to the present, offering him the chance to criticize a great number of issues related to the Greek and the European reality of the 19th century.
Which are the main challenges researchers in Greece are faced with?
With the advent of the digital era, research work has been significantly facilitated compared to twenty years ago when contemporary research tools were not available. Most Greek academic libraries have been modernized and enriched and thus constitute, together with academic research labs, incubators for university students and young scientists.
Yet, research in Greece continues to be an arduous and poorly paid, if not a self-financed occupation, especially as regards the field of Humanities, which is under attack overall. Among others, due to a short-sighted focus on “market needs”, money allotted to the respective research programs are scarce compared to other “cutting-edge” fields. Especially now after the institutional separation of Research & Technology from Higher Education, things seem to have become even more difficult.
Major difficulties are particularly faced by researchers with no stable academic working positions, although they are the ones who need research the most not only for financial reasons but also to improve their academic profile. For instance, contract teachers in the Hellenic Open University with no other main occupation are far from supported in their research work, for which they are mainly evaluated and on which their working future mostly depends. Their chances to submit or participate in the Institution’s research programs are limited, if not non-existent, while they are not financially supported in order to take part in scientific conferences etc. And of course the Hellenic Open University is just one case among so many other similar cases.
Has the relocation of the National Library of Greece at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center and its transition into a new digital era of innovation and extroversion facilitated research work?
The National Library of Greece comprises the country’s biggest research library, which houses important and quite rare material. The completion of its transfer to a new building was long awaited since researchers had no access to this material for quite some time. The excellent infrastructure of the new building together with its digital potential are undoubtedly quite conducive to the modernization of the services offered. The difference compared to the previous state of things is already more than evident.
Yet, due to its existing Regulation, the Library doesn’t seem to facilitate research to the greatest possible extent and thus satisfy its primary purpose. The pre-booking system may enable researchers to pre-order the material they are interested in, yet, in case they want to consult any additional material during their visit to the library, they cannot do so. They should pre-book anew and go to the library another day since orders cannot be carried out the same day. Most importantly, contrary to what happens in other research libraries both in Greece and abroad, researchers aren’t allowed to reproduce even one page from any journal unless 70 years have passed since the death of the respective editor and writer.
In addition, one is not allowed to make one’s own digital copies even from books or journals that do not fall within the abovementioned categories, while a researcher is allowed to do so, for instance, in the Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive (ELIA), the Library of the Hellenic Parliament and the Academic Libraries around the country. One should fill in the respect form to order copies, which, due to the increasing number of similar requests, may not be satisfied in time. I am afraid that the National Library is currently a super-modern library which, yet, rather discourages researchers and forces them to turn to other libraries in order to carry out their research. It’s more than necessary for the National Library to find as soon as possible the way to become more supportive to researchers, who have always been the main body of its users, so that its role is not in practice annulled.
It has been argued that Greek writers who live in Greece play no role in the so-called “world republic of letters”, noting that no Greek author or trend is included in textbooks and surveys of, say, Romanticism or the Avant-Garde, feminism or post colonialism, the ballad or the short story. Yet a promising development is that in recent years Greek poets and novelists have been circulating all over the world. Is there a way for the challenges of integrating Greek literature in the international field to be met?
That’s a tough question. How can a peripheral literature such as the Greek attract the attention of foreign readers in countries with diverse anthropogenic and social traits or compete with an, let’s say, Anglo-Saxon or German market? There have been Greek writers such as Emmanuel Rhoides, Konstantinos Cavafi, Nikos Kazantzakis and our Nobel laureates (Odysseus Elytis, Giorgos Seferis), who have gained some international recognition. But what about other quite remarkable modern Greek writers who don’t belong to the world literary canon, as the abovementioned writers do? As Iakovos Anyfantakis the novelist put it quite eloquently in a recent interview: “We are neither too exotic nor too global. We don’t represent something different that would entice foreign readers to explore us; nor are we international enough so that the issues we focus on are recognized beyond national borders. Τhus, even very important Greek writers, who have nothing to be jealous of its foreign counterparts, remain in the margin of world literature, lost behind the shelves of major academic libraries”. Then again, is there a recipe to be followed so that a writer can gain some kind of international recognition? I don’t think so.
Yet, no doubt a long-standing strategy on the part of the official state, as well as various initiatives by Greek and foreign institutions, among which I would include Universities, especially Universities abroad, which somehow act as cultural ambassadors, could contribute to a more effective promotion of modern Greek literature. Priority should be given to the financing and promotion of translations, along with the participation in international fora and book fairs, cooperations and further actions. This may still not be enough, yet it definitely constitutes a prerequisite.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
One of the most significant Greek prose writers of the post-war generation, Antonis Samarakis, is credited with being the most widely translated Greek author after Nikos Kazantzakis, with his works being translated in over 30 languages. Often referred to as the Greek Kafka, he is one of the most widely read Greek writers, both in his native land and around the world.
Called “a real masterpiece” by novelist Graham Greene, and “a powerful work” by playwright Arthur Miller, Samarakis' novel To Lathos (The Flaw, 1965) was eerily prophetic of the military dictatorship that was shortly to be established in Greece. Translated into English by Peter Mansfield and Richard Burns in 1969, the novel deals with the fate of a suspect detained in an unspecified police state; a plan is devised to make him attempt to escape, thereby proving his guilt, or confess to his anti-state crimes under interrogation.The flaw is the plan's failure to allow for the human factor, the fellow-feeling that the interrogator develops for the suspect during their time together. Oppressed and oppressor come face to face with their deepest human feeling, locked in a game of psychological skill.
As the plot slowly unravels, so do its main players. Professor Roderick Beaton comments that "the flaw turns out to lie in innate human goodness, for which the "perfect" totalitaritan system had failed to allow [...] The reader comes away warmed by the imagination that could create these people, but not always convinced that the world can be so neatly divided between decent individuals and inhuman systems".
Part thriller and part political satire, The Flaw is as powerful today as it was when first published. It is the best-known work of Antonis Samarakis and has been translated into more than thirty languages. The novel was awarded the coveted prize of the Twelve in Greece in 1966 and the Grand Prix de la Littèrature Policière in France in 1970. It was also turned into a successful film by Peter Fleischmann in 1974.
Samarakis' themes, which found a receptive readership particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, were the helplessness of the ordinary person in the face of growing state power, the nuclear threat, the loss of ideals, public corruption and the alienation of the individual in an uncaring, consumer society. “Samarakisʼs writings are international,” Professor Andrew Horton comments, “because the serious problems of our times are general and universal and not limited to any particular nation.” Indeed, Samarakis’ work is characterized by the element of social denouncement and reflects his personal worries about the present and future of modern societies. He wrote in simple language and natural style and approached his issues from an intense anthropocentric point of view.
The protagonists of his stories are ordinary people facing crises in their lives and beliefs - a widow bringing up a consumptive child in slum conditions, a priest tending a dying man, a soldier unable to kill the enemy with whom he feels a common bond, a man who seeks to regain his childhood innocence by buying the house in which he spent his early years. Their situations lead to a shattering of hopes and ideals or to a new affirmation of human values. What is significant about Samarakis, says Horton, is that “he remains that rare writer who speaks for the average, simple person and who sees the dangers in a modern society for totalitarianism, dictatorships and such that eat away at allowing people to live simple lives."
As in much of Samarakis's work, the characters are anonymous, the style fragmented and plain, sparing in description, but racy, with unexpected twists and an often caustic humour. His protagonists' agonised states of mind are depicted with frequent repetitions of words and phrases, often tending to stream of consciousness.
Antonis Samarakis was born in Athens and studied law at Athens University. A civil servant in the labour ministry, he resigned in 1936, when General Metaxas imposed a fascist-style dictatorship on Greece, but resumed his post in 1945. During the German occupation, he joined National Solidarity, a precursor of the main leftwing resistance organisation, the National Liberation Front. In 1944, he was sentenced to death for his resistance activities, but managed to escape and go into hiding.
From an early age, he wrote poetry for literary magazines and anthologies. But in the 1950s, he made the decisive turn to prose fiction, publishing his first collection of short stories, Ziteitai Elpis (Hope Wanted) in 1954.
Samarakis' first novel, Sima Kindunou (Alarm Signal, 1959), and second collection of short stories, Arnoumai (I Refuse, 1961), which won the state literary prize for short stories, developed the same themes and further established his reputation, enabling him to resign from the civil service in 1963 and devote himself to fulltime writing.
His longest short story, The Passport, reflects his experiences under the military dictatorship of the 1960s, when he was denied a passport unless he wrote something favourable to the regime. The story is not merely autobiographical but generalises, in a manner reminiscent of Kafka, the plight of the innocent victim of a totalitarian regime.
Samarakis has had more critical attention and commercial success in continental Europe, especially Germany, Scandinavia and France, than in Britain. His work was held in high regard by other notables, as well, among them Arthur Koestler, George Simenon, Agatha Christie, and Luis Bunuel.Translations of his works into more than 30 languages, as well as the stage and screen adaptations, attest to his ability to address issues of common humanity. Formal recognition of his work as a whole came in 1982 with the award of the Europalia Prize and the Knight's Cross of Arts and Letters in 1995
Samarakis represented Greece at conferences of Unesco and the International Labour Organisation, whose missions he also took part in. He was a goodwill ambassador for Unicef, organised an annual youth parliament in Greece, and, in 1991, was designated as his country's cultural ambassador for Mèdecins sans Frontières. After his death in 2003, «"European Day of Languages 2006" was dedicated to Samarakis, "a global man".