The Greek Journey, 1937-47
By Edmond Keeley
Farrar Straus Giroux. 290 pp. $24
Reviewed by Bernard Knox
The first half of Edmond Keeley's enchanting and moving Inventing Paradise presents the reader with a vision of a Greece that no longer exists, a country in which Lawrence Durrell could bathe naked and alone off a beach near Corinth and Henry Miller could sit by himself for hours in the ancient theater at Epidaurus watching the sun go down. The beach is now lined with cafes, restaurants and hotels; the theater, when not filled for an evening performance of Greek tragedy, is thronged with tourists from the fleets of buses parked nearby. But Greece in the summer of 1939 seemed to Miller, there for the first time, an earthly paradise.
He had ideal guides for his travels. One of them was his friend the expatriate British writer Lawrence Durrell, who had for some months been living on the island of Corfu, where, in the preceding century, Edward Lear had painted his exquisite watercolors and composed his hilarious limericks: "There was an old man of Thermopylae/ Who never did anything properly . . . " Miller was also to enjoy the company of the poet George Seferis; of Ghika, "the most celebrated painter of his day"; of the sea-captain poet Antoniou, and of Constantine Tsatsos, who had publicly denounced the dictatorship of Gen. Metaxas and who, many years later, after the collapse of the colonels' regime in 1974, would be president of Greece. But the dominating figure in this impressive group was a man called George Katsimbalis, an overwhelming personality and spellbinding talker who always knew where the best retsina and food were to be found. The title Miller gave to the book he wrote about his visit was The Colossus of Maroussi. The Colossus was Katsimbalis, who lived in the Maroussi district in Athens.
Katsimbalis was also, as Keeley points out, a key figure in the brilliant flowering of Greek poetry in the 1930s. Together with a friend, he founded and funded what became the most influential Greek literary journal to emerge between the wars, publishing not only the best poet of the older generation, Sikslianos, but also, among many others, the two future Nobel laureates Seferis and Elytis. Keeley, who grew up in Greece and knows the country, its people, and their language, has translated, in collaboration with Philip Sherrard, all three of these poets and some of the less well-known members of the famous "generation of the thirties"; his book is studded with excerpts from their superb poems, excerpts that, together with his elegant prose, recreate in all its brilliance that last summer of peace as Miller, "voyaging into the light" with his guides, toured the Peloponnese, some of the nearby islands, and Crete.
By the time Miller left for the United States in December 1939, World War II was well on its way and the paradise he had enjoyed was about to become an inferno. In 1940 Mussolini invaded Albania and in 1941, poised to attack Greece, sent an ultimatum to Gen. Metaxas. It was answered by a telegram that consisted of a single word -- Ochi, Greek for no. The Greek army proceeded to drive Mussolini's legions back toward the Albanian coast, but Mussolini's call to Hitler for help brought the German panzers down through Yugoslavia, and by April 27, 1941, the swastika flag was flying over the Acropolis. Durrell was evacuated to Crete and then to Alexandria, the scene of his future "Alexandria Quartet." Seferis, an officer in the Greek Foreign office, followed the same route but was posted to Pretoria in South Africa. The other members of the group stayed in Greece and somehow managed to live through the horrors of the Italo-German occupation.
It was a savagely repressive regime, guilty not only of several brutal massacres of civilians in reprisal for partisan attacks but also of commandeering food supplies for its armies in a country that even in the best of times had to import wheat. The resultant famine took 40,000 lives in Athens in one year; trucks patrolled the streets picking up the bodies of people who had collapsed on the sidewalk. Keeley tells the stories not only of those who left but also of those who stayed. Tsatsos, on the first anniversary of Metaxas's telegram (the day is now a national holiday in Greece), delivered a lecture to his students denouncing the regime and then went underground to escape the attentions of the Gestapo; Katsimbalis, at the funeral of the poet Palamas, started the crowd singing the Greek national anthem, defying an official ban. And the poets too -- Sikslianos, Ritsos, Gatsos -- made themselves heard; Keeley prints excerpts from their poems that voice compassion and hope despite the nightmare that had engulfed their country. It did not end when the Germans left Greece in 1944; a civil war followed and dragged on until 1949. The group of friends who had enjoyed that para-
disal summer never met again. But for Durrell, Miller and Seferis it "had served at a crucial time to liberate the imagination and to provide the richest ground for a country of metaphor and myth."
Bernard Knox, past director of the Center for Hellenic Studies, is the author of many books, among them "Essays: Ancient and Modern."