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Journal of Modern Greek Studies 18.1 (2000) 209-212
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Inventing Paradise: The Greek Journey 1937-47
Edmund Keeley, Inventing Paradise: The Greek Journey 1937-47. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1999. Pp. 290. $24.00.
Investing (in) Paradise
we enter a glade
whistling with lichen,
juniper and vetch;
thistle and vipergrass
hiss in wind,
and rockrose and hellebore,
and many other plants
we have forgotten.
--Andreas Karavis, from "Saracen Island."
For generations, centuries, and millennia, Greece has been in the business of producing characters. The visitor who spends any amount of time there inevitably comes to feel like a kind of latter-day Theophrastos, author of the famous Characters, diligently recording the presence of, say, The Chatterer who is prone to delivering panegyrics on whatever may happen to come to mind or to spouting "long-winded, unconsidered talk" on "how full of foreigners Athens is getting." Then we meet The Inventor of News adept at the"fabrication of false reports," followed by The Boaster who flourishes "the letters he has received from Antipater inviting him to Macedonia." No doubt Theophrastos would have found himself right at home with Katsimbalis, one of the heroes of Keeley's deposition, or with that perambulating borborygm, Henry Miller, reveling in his proxy status, perhaps the central figure in Keeley's book.
But producing characters is not the same thing as schooling character. Character is modest, consistent, self-communing, often inconspicuous, reserved, metriopathic, and very few of us can be said to be in possession of it. Being a character in the memorable sense of the phrase, however, is no piece of baklava either. It takes work, flair, discipline, a hospitality for self-contradiction, callousness, and talent, and again very few of us can be said to rise above the level of personal nuisance or social irritant in the attempt to achieve that species of outrageousness that makes us writeable. It is in this domain that Greece specializes, inventing a paradise--paradeisos originally signified a walled-in park or garden--of exotic specimens, great orchidaceous windbags, approximately [End Page 209] tragic poets, endomorphic visionaries with a penchant for good cuisine, tormented elegists, and artesian rhapsodists whose mandate, as they see it, is to transform the dry and the mundane into the fertile and the unprecedented. The Irish of the Levant, they are practitioners of what Yeats in a confessional moment called "the emotion of plenitude," that hallucination of feeling and personal greatness which deputizes for a plenitude of being we are no longer capable of experiencing. For this we owe them a debt of skeptical gratitude.
Edmund Keeley is not altogether a character, or at least not a flamboyant one, but character is something he has plenty of. In Inventing Paradise, he offers in clear, measured, unpretentious prose--prose nerved with character--a fine and sympathetic account of the Generation of the Thirties--Seferis, Ghika, Antoniou, Gatsos, Elytis among many others--who illumined the Greek landscape and its social milieu with beautiful paintings and imperishable poems and songs. But the star actors in the eccyclema he wheels out to mark the pathos, heroism, and tragedy of the wartime and insurrectionary periods of modern Greek history are the grand Theophrastian talkers, namely Katsimbalis and the sojourning expatriates Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller, especially Henry Miller. It is true that Seferis comes into sharper focus in the concluding pages of the book, but the center of gravity remains with the boisterous declaimers, with those whom Theophrastos describes as being given to "singing in the public bath and driving hobnails into their shoes," men preoccupied with the sonic boom of their presence.
Although much of what Keeley has to tell us is redundant and can be found wholesale in Seferis's A Poet's Journal, Miller's The Colossus of Maroussi, and Durrell's Prospero's Cell--the last two in particular filled with "characters" (who are often amalgams of several originals) and with epic extravagances that eschew the arrogance of verification--we can understand his purpose with respect to...