- The Fall of Athens by Gail Holst-Warhaft
The Fall of Athens is a book about a country, Greece, and its capital, Athens, that its writer Gail Holst-Warhaft has come to love. The author’s Greek friends assist her in unraveling the threads that take us, the readers, deep into the mazes of the multifaceted Greek world. This fragmented process of remembering and narrating specific events is conducted in a vivid, poetic, almost singing way. Holst-Warhaft’s lifelong experience as a translator of Greek into English along with her collaborations as a harpsichordist in Greek musical and theatrical performances have assisted her in gaining precious knowledge and intimacy with Greek musicians, poets, playwrights, and directors, such as Mikis Theodorakis, Thanassis Athanassiou, Mariza Koch, Karolos Koun, Iakovos Kambanellis, and Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke.
It is mainly all these Greeks, and many more, that aid the author in creating her 18 chapters, which can be read independently, yet are all unified by the underlying theme of giving birth and dedicating one’s self to art. Lasting friendships with giants of Greek culture are the result of Holst-Warhaft’s discoveries of, and serious engagement with, Greek music and poetry. According to Holst-Warhaft, Greece is a country that since antiquity has deeply believed in the power of art. Both Greek music and poetry are interwoven with politics, and this is thickly illustrated throughout this book by experiential essays, oftentimes accompanied by photographic snapshots that take place during World War II or the years of the junta. As the words unfold, the book resembles [End Page 410] a creative autobiography that is out of chronological order, in several layers, and with lots of bright flashbacks—all touched by a hint of magic.
The author deeply meditates on how Greeks are passionate people. In fact, here lies what has much intrigued Holst-Warhaft: how Greeks both adore life and enjoy living. She traces the core of the Greek stance toward life to the Greeks’ attachment to this world, which is also the cause of their suffering. It is as if Greeks are constantly complaining on how life is short—a philosophy that, by extension, they bring also into their traghoudhi (singing), a word stemming etymologically from Greek tragedy.
The Preface of the book explains how the author’s Greek pseudonym came to be Elektra, a result of her being so Greek that, among Greeks, she could not bear a funny foreign name anymore. Interestingly, she chose that name due to its rich consonants that sound “like biting into dark chocolate” (2). Chapters 1 through 18 are each self-sustained stories, which are nevertheless interwoven into the rest of the narrative in a way that makes the book resemble a loom.
Holst-Warhaft’s wanderings bring to mind Michael Herzfeld’s theory on Greece’s double-headed past, his so-called Hellenic and Romeic thesis, two positions that indicate a distinction between an outward directed conformity to international expectations about national image and an inward looking, self-critical collective appraisal (Herzfeld 1986, 18–19). Looking into Greece from the outside, the writer views Greek people as simultaneously ancient and modern because Greece has an extraordinarily ambiguous and complex historical relationship to the idea of Europe itself and, more generally, to the stereotyped entity we call Western culture.
It has been argued that Greeks have a confused identity. Western Europe asked them to be European, while the foreign Greek lovers—the so-called philhellenes to whom the author dedicates a chapter—asked them to be ancient (192–209). Let us not forget that only in the early nineteenth century did Greece enter the modern world as an independent nation, freeing itself from 400 years of Turkish rule. A debate over what exactly it meant to be Greek followed. It seems imperative that the name Greece be prefixed with the word modern or contemporary in order to convince its admirers that one can still find people living there. Yet today, the ancient Greek tradition still seems to be prominent. The stamp of Hellas on...