To know Greece thoroughly, Henry Miller said, is impossible; to understand it requires genius. To fall in love with it, however? That is the easiest thing in the world.
He was right.
And thus the besotted who wants to write about her love is faced with this difficulty: what can you say about it that hasn’t already been said so many times, over so many years, by so many writers, that it has deadened into cliché?
That worry itself makes me strange bedfellows with Miller, who in 1939 thought Byron had already said it all about Greece. Still, he managed to write The Colossus of Maroussi in 1941. What’s the matter with me?
The thing to do, it seems, is to visit Greece briefly and then go home and write about it, quickly and confidently, while it all makes sense to you. Once you’ve spent more time there you’ll get caught up in the paradoxes, the enigmas, and, too, the banalities that make “enigma” seem a ludicrously exotic, Orientalizing term of description, even though to you it still feels apt, it does feel enigmatic, these tiresome bureaucratic routines exoticized by you into something byzantine instead of numbingly dull and predictable.
While living—walking about, observing, filing away images in your head—you take pleasure in the variegated swirl of sensation you experience and can’t wait to get it captured on the page. Then you sit down and the war begins with the very first sentence, for by the time you’re composing the second half of the sentence you realize that you’re contradicting what you said in the first half. And off you go, one contradiction after another, binary after binary, when what you want to convey is the liveness of it all, not romanticized into a gauzy literary haze but not deflated into a flat prosaic hopelessness, either. And not universalized—it is different there. Is there anything you can just out and out state without needing to qualify it? Or apologize for its being one more echo of Byron, of Miller, of Durrell? Or, more immediately, the contemporary paragons, one more echo of David Roessel, of Sofka Zinovieff? Is there anything they haven’t said, and better?
Since I’ve been back from the January study abroad course concerned friends, colleagues, and family members have asked how Greece is doing. Great! I say to some—you included. The entrepreneurial spirit and family glue that have kept Greece going for millennia under this or that occupying power are on full display; neighborhood tavernas and cafes are filled to bursting, everyone eating and drinking and smoking (smoking ban? what smoking ban?) with live-for-today gusto and bred-in-the-bone generosity. Yet homeless people sleep on cardboard boxes in downtown Athens; Americans may have become inured to this phenomenon in our own country but until recently it was almost unheard of in Greece. A 60 year-old man and his 90 year-old mother, holding hands, chose a swifter, more independent death, a leap from the top of their apartment building, than the slow death impending from the economic distress. My former student at the University of Athens writes to me of the humiliation of digging through all her purses and pockets for spare coins as wages have been slashed but taxes and expenses multiplied; she plans to relocate to Canada and knows she’s lucky to have this choice.
How can I fully convey this?
I suspect you sympathize, readers. What are the subjects that you are dying to write about but continue to elude you, the ones you want to capture precisely because you love them and need to do right by them?