Dinner with Persephone: Travels in Greece (review)
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Reviewed by
Patricia Storace, Dinner with Persephone: Travels in Greece. New York: Vintage Departures. 1996. Pp. 398. $14.00.

Ambivalence, partial understanding, and a capacity to provoke Greek readers: most non-native accounts of travel in Greece share these features. They may even be standard in the genre. That they exist in Patricia Storace’s widely discussed Dinner with Persephone should therefore come as no surprise to seasoned readers of books about Greece. Rather than tally up disagreements with Storace’s occasionally questionable conclusions, perhaps readers can submit to Storace’s art and learn from her success. For she has managed to write a popular book, which also offers something to those of us devoted to Greek studies. What might be the rewards of a generous, undefensive reading?

First and most obvious is the pleasure of reading an exquisitely written travelogue. Storace’s characterization of “chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, pistachios, the fiddly snacks the Greeks love,” as “the edible equivalent of worry beads,” for example, is just one of countless handsome turns of phrase. Three generations of Greeks pressing grapes together for goúri (“good luck”) become a “living votive image.” Greece of some 2500 islands—what Elytis winningly summed up in the late 1950s as “this small world / the Great”— appears to Storace in the early 1990s “like the human body, made up mostly of water, and like the body of someone you love, finite but inexhaustible.” And the pop lyrics inline graphic high inline graphic move so effortlessly into the English “I feel high when you’re nearby” that one hopes Storace’s poetic talent will be relentlessly pursued for more Greek translations. In sum, the pages of Dinner with Persephone are filled with powerful images, flowing language, concise expressions, and reports of stimulating conversation.

There is pleasure, too, in absorbing the impact of Storace’s careful observations. These are of linguistic as well as social and cultural nature. Storace knows Greek well enough to register the metaphorical resonance of common expressions, the everyday use of which she also thoroughly understands. Insight and analogy can flow from a simple observation at a stunning speed—sometimes more quickly than the mind can grasp right away: [End Page 381]

It is ironic to hear that the word that would be the equivalent of our “preservation” is anapaleosi, which in its literal meaning is not restoration at all, but making something old again, reinfusing a house with antiquity, the architectural equivalent in a way of Katharevousa, the “purified” Greek which was conceived in the eighteenth century, and which was designed to reinfuse spoken modern Greek with classical Greek, in the broad effort to make the new nation of Greece a neoclassical nation.

Condensed in this one long thought-sequence is a rich theory of how Greeks have reworked the past. A distilled draft is poured on readers here, but more or less diluted versions grace Storace’s table throughout Dinner with Persephone. Near the beginning of the book, readers are told that people outside Greece are more likely to know a great deal about Greek antiquity than anything at all about modern Greece. Given Greece’s own preoccupation with questions of origins, “the lost world of Greece [is] the present.” Later, Storace calls the past “the Greek frontier, and the modern Greek sense of the past grows, above all, out of the invention and composition of their relation to that past.” It is no small gift that this popular English-language travel journal compares katharevousa and demoticist claims on the past, or introduces Kostis Palamas’s demoticist rehabilitation of past foundations. What other opportunity will American readers find to learn about Palamas and his circle, of such eminence in Greece and total obscurity in the English-speaking world? “He . . . invented a way for modern Greece to proceed, finding parents, a house, and a heritage for this abandoned orphan. The history of modern Greece is above all the history of the forming of a nation. Knowing something of Palamas and his generation dramatizes what a cultural frontier Greece was, and how consciously they set about to settle it.”

Not all of Storace’s conclusions are on the mark, although they rarely just fall flat, in...