An aesthetic of fatality

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The Boundless Garden: Selected short stories Vol.1 by Alexandros Papadiamandis (various translators; 338 pp, Denise Harvey, 2008)

Times Literary Supplement, 25 July 2008

Alexandros Papadiamandis (1851–1911) has rarely been published in English. This is not a simple matter for a writer many Greeks believe to be the saint of modern Greek storytelling, its Dickens or its Chekhov. In 1964 Philip Sherrard included a translation of “The Seal’s Lament”, a Papadiamandis story about the drowning of a young girl, in his anthology The Pursuit of Greece. In 1983 Peter Levi published his translation of The Murderess, Papadiamandis’s novella about a woman who kills young girls in order to spare them the pain life inflicts on women, and in 1987 a slim selection of stories translated by Elizabeth Constantinides slipped out quietly as Tales From a Greek Island (Johns Hopkins University Press). That is all, until now.

The Boundless Garden, first of a new three-volume English edition of Papadiamandis’s stories, was initiated by Sherrard in the early 1990s and is co-edited by his widow, Denise Harvey. It seeks to mend our neglect comprehensively, and is also a memorial tribute to Sherrard’s lifelong efforts to restore poetry and spirituality to what he felt to be the aridity of modern existence. The Skiathos-born Papadiamandis, wedded to rural island Greece, simultaneously pantheistic and Orthodox, widely versed in European literary tradition, crowned Sherrard’s pantheon in his exploration of themes – emigration, displacement and exile, lost innocence, paganism and the power of evil, urban solitude, the hazards of the sea, the shattering of a homogeneous past by the momentum of modernity. These things, Sherrard believed, required the restorative synthesis of poetry to make their hardship and loss bearable.

British neglect of Papadiamandis is not the usual matter of Anglo-Saxon materialism or impatience with work in translation. Some blame also belongs to the author’s fellow Greeks, who did not fully acknowledge him until long after his death. The undervaluing went through two phases: the first was partly Papadiamandis’s fault, for in his lifetime he went against contemporary Greek opinion on many subjects, from the benefits of the Bavarian regency (whose centralised western form of government had destroyed the local, autonomous administrations) to the revival of the Olympic Games; the second was a result of a posthumous war waged between Christians and folklorists who both claimed him as theirs, while modernists derided him and linguists attacked him for his refusal to come down on one side of the katharévousa vs. demotikí argument. As late as the 1960s the Greek critic Zissimos Lorenzatos was writing that

We must decide seriously at some stage what we are going to do with Papadiamandis. At  the moment, everyone acknowledges him or accepts him, and no one wants anything to do with him. The Greeks do not want him as a spiritual guide, and the Christians scarcely want him as one of their number.

The dispute gets more complex, as an argument not only between Christians and secular Greeks , but between those Christians who claimed him as a believing writer and those irritated by his unpredictable humanity, as it appears in stories such as “The Monk” (in which a devout sacristan, temporarily displaced to Athens from his monastery on Mount Athos, is lured into rash socializing with the church housekeeper and her unmarried daughters by their accusation that he is too proud to accept their hospitality).

An element in this undervaluing is Papadiamandis’s own guileless refusal of status. He was culturally an anti-modern writer who rejected Greece’s ideological, sanitizing  drift to the West, formed few allegiances in a country ardent for modernity, and represented no school or movement. His literary credo was to allow his stories to pursue reality through their shaping of “that which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled”. (The quotation is I John 1, verse 1, cited in an excellent introduction to this volume by Denise Harvey’s co-editor, Lambris Kamperidis.)

This suggests that Papadiamandis’s reality is merely a physical one. It isn’t. Nor is it merely Christian, though it has a strong spiritual content. It “was a beautiful and charming sight”, says the narrator of “At Saint Anastasia’s”, recalling a priest’s chanting at a ruined church in the mountains,

there in the impressive marble ruin, made all the more resplendent in the dancing light of fifty candles stirred by the breath of the nocturnal wind. It was a sight at once lambent and sombre, bright yet mysterious, among the giant oaks that proudly lifted up their mighty boughs to make tall crowns, their rustling leaves scintillating like flakes of gold in the torchlight gleam. And in the shadows and murky spaces amidst the branches, one might imagine unseen spirits lurking and waiting, that had existed of yore, fine-limbed Dryads and slender Orestiads holding sway over the dense oak forests, and today metamorphosed into nocturnal spirits, afraid to emerge into the light of the paschal candles.

(The volume’s translations by various hands stumble occasionally: “existed of yore” is at odds with Papadiamandis’s tonal simplicity.)

It may seem curious (and is certainly part of his attraction) that among such contradictions he has an overriding theme: one should really call it his love and concern, so devotedly does he tend it. Humanity is fragile. So much is so quickly lost, collectively on the untested paths of modernity, individually in the lives of those at the edge of survival. It does not matter if the life is a widow’s or a fisherman’s, a child’s or a long-absent emigrant’s; fragility is the signature of nature. More unexpectedly, island life is revealed to be more fragile, more precarious than urban life. Topographically Papadiamandis divides his stories between Athens and Skiathos in the north-west Aegean, but while Skiathos is the host to casual horrors and crimes, Athens is a place of less acute, generalized alienation.

How is one to escape fragility? Death alone has the power of deliverance and purification, a belief that Papadiamandis breezily plays out in his 1891 story “Poor Saint”. It opens with a group of village children playing on a high plateau, who notice that the earth at a particular place seems to emit a sweet perfume. The story their mothers tell them is that once a shepherd, accosted by Algerian pirates and asked for directions to the local kastro, took a short cut to warn the kastro’s inhabitants to pull up their drawbridge urgently. Having delivered his warning, the shepherd found himself ambushed by the pirates and was cut to pieces.

He was taken between the heather and the lentisk, where the shy spring flowers embroidered the earth’s verdant carpet. There he was dragged off by the Algerians, cheering wildly; there he washed the flowers and green branches with his blood; and there a burning stream reddened the earth, which gratefully received it…. And after that, how could the earth not give off such fragrance?

If the story also emits a fragrance of Orthodox propaganda, the unity of life and death presumed by Papadiamandis – one exerting a possessive influence over the other – is expressed as practical acceptance rather than as doctrine. The non-religious reader should not be put off reading these stories: religion in Papadiamandis’s fiction is simply an everyday presence in the nineteenth-century rural and working-class Greece he describes. (The name of Papadiamandis’s island, Skiathos, means “in the shadow of Mount Athos”.)  But if fiction is what begins to materialize as canonical religion leaves the building, Papadiamandis counts as transitional as well as rooted; his fatalism is old-fashioned and his style of address to the reader is somewhere between the spoken tradition and the written. In “The Gleaner”, an early story with a characteristically happy ending snatched from the jaws of equivocation, an unlucky widow mourns at Christmas her two sons drowned at sea and her daughter dead in childbirth. Her third son, “the idler, the good-for-nothing”, has gone abroad

and was living, they said, in America. He had shaken the dust from his feet. Had anyone seen from him, or heard from him? Some fellow countrymen claimed that he had married in those parts and had taken, it was said, a Frankish bride, an English-speaking girl, a stranger, who did not know a word of Greek. What worse fate! But what can you do? Can you curse your child, your own flesh and blood?

Papadiamandis is transitional too in the way his stories are concerned with good behaviour, with observing how people act without judging them. When, in “Civilisation in the Village” (1891), a lime-burner named Stergios allows himself to be drawn into drinking and card-playing instead of getting the doctor for his sick son, the boy dies, though his death takes place offstage. The next day, the narrative spotlight falls on Stergios, hungover and laboriously attempting to pawn his wife’s silver earrings and ring to pay for their son’s funeral.

One of seven children of an Orthodox priest, Papadiamandis had a disrupted childhood, finishing at the philosophy school at Athens university but not taking his degree. Economic hardship dogged his efforts to become a journalist and writer; he survived by translating European novels – Crime and Punishment, Dracula, The Manxman – for newspaper serialization. He  published four novels before his first story, “The Christmas Loaf”, appeared at Christmas 1887, initiating a preference for composing seasonal stories for Christmas and Easter. His attachment to the short story can be partly put down to the fact that, like the Chekhov of the 1880s, he had to fit fiction-writing into a professional working day. The form also offered him an open-ended capsule of time to operate in. It is often said of Papadiamandis’s stories that they are all middle; he was undoubtedly also influenced by Chekhov in this respect, although the situations he chooses often emerge out of the cycles of rites and seasons, of village life and its festivals and the liturgical year.

The sixteen stories of the first volume of The Boundless Garden, dating from 1888 to 1893, are representative of his early work: they are stories of village life, and touch on the inevitability of shipwreck and drowning tragedies for island people, the heart-wrenching of emigration and exile and the alienation of civilization, generally in the form of drink and money; and somewhere in the cleft between Melville’s meditation on God’s intelligence and Conrad’s assumption that even the most unimportant character also exists in God’s eye, Papadiamandis’s religious sense infuses the stories with a delicately offered, fully textured spiritual background.

His subjects show other early modernist resemblances to Melville and Conrad, to the Stephen Crane of “The Open Boat” and the Robert Louis Stevenson of “The Beach of Falesa”. Yet their authenticity is a different kind, apparently lacking in irony, or so delicately ironic that they seem little more complex than life-drawings. They can seem like the work of a gifted folklorist of Greek landscape and seascape. But his writing has a landscape of its own. It moves from indifference, in the story “Shipwrecks’ Wreckage”, to a  readiness for tragedy in “Civilization in the Village”, and along the way there is always its particular force and beauty, shown in this passage in which  the Aegean is compared to a garden tended by the fisherman, Yannios.

Indeed, the grasses and plants in the garden of my cousin Yannios, vast, gigantic, wild or cultivated, had been constantly tilled and formed into furrows and smooth levels from the beginning, from the creation of the world. Their atoms mingled ceaselessly in shapes that were varied, unchanging and fluid, in rearing crests and lifting swells; they seethed, struck, thundered, sounded, smacked and crashed against their fellows. The west winds rolled playfully among them like mischievous children, and the offshore breezes and the alternating gusts disputed as to who should create the deepest furrows and the highest surges on their blue and purple surface, shot with phosphorescent gleams and garlanded with rings of foam….
“Black Scarf Rock” (1891)

It is in such accumulating descriptions, and a balancing economic elegance – two women overfamiliar with a priest, for example, are described as scaling “two at a time the steps of audacity”, and a returning emigrant has grown “a sort of veneer over his face… a mask of good living” – that he imposes his style. The details are fugitive and trivial, but connote the writer’s ability to furnish his paragraphs, to connect a fluent stream of both significant and insignificant particulars without either becoming insipid (the insignificant being the sort that writers often prefer to avoid). They restore the pleasure of the ephemeral that will otherwise fade; the ephemeral that’s also a part of the writer’s scheme of fragility, expressed in the frequent violence of his vision of casual brutality and prejudice, of whispering tongues and exclusion, and in the vividness of his descriptions, with their blues, purples and especially whites: the resplendent whiteness of monastery walls, of a girl’s dress, of the Greek snow that vanishes but remains as a memory of transcendence of cruelty.
What separates Papadiamandis from the Anglo-Saxon tradition is probably his aesthetic of fatality and transcendence, a mode of writing that by the end of the nineteenth century the West had judged redundant.  At the time when he was writing, his rural communal territory was being swept aside in the Anglo-Saxon world by industrialization, replaced there by jagged urbanization and questions that addressed its new mysteries. In Papadiamandis’s prose there is no neo-gothic, and nothing with which to face the mechanical problems of the twentieth century. If men’s cruelty has been contracted out to that of machines and systems in the past hundred years, perhaps there is nothing his writing can say about that.

Great post-industrial cities have changed since Papadiamandis’s time, and they now possess more than a general potential for alienation, yet for their human inhabitants the story remains much the same: a conscious struggle for survival, that goes with a survival-based suppression of their fragility. Papadiamandis’s stories, as accounts of that fragility, are no mere collection of interesting vignettes of early modern Greek fiction writing. Scrupulously coloured, achieved through the clarity of their tiny details and the author’s compassion for human vulnerability, they enact a world of profoundly contemporary reality, in which one touch of nature still “makes the whole world kin”.

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