Just back from a couple of weeks in Thassos, the northernmost Greek island of the Aegean, and Kavala on the mainland. While Lorraine and I did lots of site-seeing, notably at the site of Phillipi a short drive from Kavala, and also, rather bravely, going on a jeep safari to the top of Mount Ipsarion on the green and lovely island of Thassos, we did a fair bit of lounging about too. Much of what I go to Greece for is to sink into the timelessness of olive groves, glassy seas, mountains, pine forest and fingers of cypress trees pointing up into the blue. One of the things that makes my holiday, however, is sampling the more recent treasures of its poetry.
My love affair with Greece, which I have visited well over a dozen times, started with the book My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. As a boy I re-read it and sequels such as Birds Beasts and Relatives several times. Gerald Durrell wrote about Corfu (Kérkyra) in a humorously idealised way that felt safe, funny and, for a boy that was interested in natural history, was fascinating for all the right reasons. I had read versions of the Greek Myths and children’s versions of the Illiad and Odyssey too, but these didn’t seem to connect with Durrell’s world. Later I graduated onto the work of his older brother Lawrence Durrell, whose travel writing is extraordinary and I loved his sequence of novels The Alexandria Quartet. Currently out of fashion, I remember The Quartet as being unlike anything I had read before or since.
In my twenties I began to read Greek poets in translation, starting with C.P. Cavafy, who appeared as a figure haunting the Alexandria of Lawrence Durrell. I followed it with reading George Sepheris (who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1963) and who was in the characteristic dialogue of a modern Greek writer with Classical Greece. Then an Anthology of Modern Greek Poetry translated by Kimon Friar published by the Efstathiadis Group I purchased on my first visit to Greece in 1992, introduced me to dozens of fabulous poets. This collection opened a door to the soul of Greece just as easily as I could hear the cicada from the comfort of my sun-lounger. Recently I have been reading lots of the poet Odysseus Elytis, (Nobel Prize 1979) who I fiercely admire. Greek poetry often speaks more viscerally to me in a way that English poetry of the same period does not. Perhaps it is because of the inevitable focus on islands it contains, and my connection with the channel islands means I tune into this.
And although I was reading Elytis again this trip, it was the new translation of The Collected Poems of C.P. Cavafy, with a parallel Greek text by Evangelos Sachperoglou published by Oxford World’s Classics that snared me all over again, and I find it the best translation of Cavafy I have read. I find three broad streams in Cavafy’s work. Those poems when he returns to what are to this reader at least fairly obscure historical events; his sensuous, erotically charged love poems, drenched in the poignancy of remembering lost youth and abandon. Then there are the times when he makes concrete an emotion with disarming directness. An early poem called Candles, for example, uses the image of a line of candles to express anxiety about the passage of time. Or this poem Walls. I was discussing this with Eleni, a Greek friend and singer based in Kavala, she read it again and said: “but this is what is happening to us now!” For her, the current economic travails of Greece were reflected in this poem written before 1910. It’s worth quoting in full:
Without consideration, without pity, without shame,
they built around me great and towering walls.
And now I am sitting and despairing here.
I think of nothing else: this fate is gnawing at my mind;
for I had many things to do out there.
When they were building the walls, how could I not be aware?
Yet never did I hear clatter of builders, or any sound.
Imperceptibly, they shut me off from the world outside.