Now the comma queen is back, this time probing deep into the language of Euripides and Plato. Her new book, “Greek to Me,” is a rapturous memoir of falling in love with a language. For Norris, the pursuit led to a lifetime of wonder and enchantment.
The book opens, as you might expect, with an invocation. “Sing in me, O Muse,” she writes in high Homeric style, “of all things Greek that excite the imagination and delight the senses and magnify the lives of mortals.” But the weighty mood soon gives way to the buoyant: “If that’s not too much to ask, Muse. Please?” It’s a shift typical of this lively book. From the first page, Norris reassures any readers who fear they’re about to inhale 3,000 years of dust.
She takes us on a tour of the alphabet and points out colorful myths and histories. Aeschylus, she notes, “attributes the alphabet to Prometheus,” who stole it from the gods along with fire. She sneaks us into frat houses, revealing the stories behind their mottos. “The Greek alphabet is infinite,” she writes, and it would seem that way from her nimble reflections.
Norris is often at her best when discussing the phenomenon of language: how words shape our experience. Why, she asks, do we raid Greek for our medical woes? Perhaps it’s to keep our suffering at a distance. “Would you rather have tennis elbow or epicondylitis? Water on the brain or hydrocephalus?” The Greek words, she writes, “ennoble the ailment, even if they don’t make it go away.”
Norris is equally perceptive about the way language has colored her own life. She takes us back to her childhood in Cleveland, when her father banned her from studying Latin with local nuns. Later, in the 1980s, a mentor at the New Yorker turned her on to Greek. She asked the magazine to pay for her studies, arguing that a classicist would be better prepared to catch errors in copy. She pointed out, for example, that “ophthalmologist” “is often misspelled with a ‘p’ instead of a ‘ph,’ ” the proper way to render the Greek letter phi in English. Miraculously, the magazine agreed. “Greek has been my salvation,” Norris writes. “Whenever I have been away from Greek for a while and come back to it, it revives something in me. . . . Because the earliest writing to survive was epic poetry, which invokes the gods, writing connects us earthlings to eternity.”
Norris travels to the Mediterranean to soak up the language and history, shooting “around the Aegean like a pinball.” Her trips over the years have been full of comic misunderstandings. In a Piraeus restaurant, Norris counts the tortoises in a terrarium: “mía, dúo, treis, téssereis, pénte, éxi, eftá, októ — októ chelónes!” On the way out, she writes: “I passed my waiter and said, in English, ‘You have eight tortoises!’ ‘No!’ he said, horrified. ‘We do not eat the tortoises!’ ”
On her journeys she has had reason to contemplate Aphrodite, the goddess of love. She had plenty of romantic encounters, but some — like a night with a sailor who locked her in his cabin — seem rather alarming. “My relationship with beauty (and love and sex and desire) has always been fraught,” she tells us. Yet she makes peace with the love goddess in Cyprus, swimming at the beach where she was said to bathe: “I wanted to baptize myself in the waters of Aphrodite.”
Occasionally Norris’s attention to detail lapses into the encyclopedic. But at their best, these pages leave you feeling salt-kissed and freshly tanned, languorous with ouzo.
Those needing a reason to pick up an ancient language will find much magic here to recommend the pursuit. For Norris, the argument for Greek is a personal one: It transformed her life.
The muse sings.
Greek to Me
Adventures of the Comma Queen
By Mary Norris
Norton. 227 pp. $25.95