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Archive for the tag “Henry Miller”

Dispatch from Greece: Myth, Tragedy, Resistance, and Hope

persian-war

(revised from an article published originally at Wrath-Bearing Tree July 2015)

Herodotus begins his great work by tracing the historical origins of the Persian War to myths involving conflict between Europe and Asia, such as the rape of Io and Europa by Zeus, the story of Jason and Medea, and the abduction of Helen by Paris (which sparked the Trojan War). Thus, the first recording of history in the Western tradition begins in myth. History has been called past politics and politics present history; from a certain perspective the origins of many modern political relations and events are rooted in myth. The myths we choose to believe or not believe have real world consequences – they are of critical importance in shaping popular opinions and current events. Nowhere is this clearer than the current situation between Greece and its European creditors.

If Herodotus were to write an account of the current Greek debt crisis, he might well begin where he left off in his Persian Wars, far in the antiquity of Classical Greece, that time when Athens was at the height of its powers, the time most people envision today when (or if) they think about Greek culture. Invaded by the Persians and its wooden Acropolis burned down by the Great King Xerxes, Athens emerged as the victor and rebuilt the Acropolis in marble, an eternal symbol of the potential for human perfection. Athens and Greece were relegated to secondary political status after their subjection by the Macedonians and then the Romans, but any student of the Classics knows those immortal lines of Horace: Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artis intulit agresti Latio — “Greece, being captured, captured her savage conqueror, and brought the arts to rustic Latium”. For centuries after, Roman armies and laws ruled their mighty empire, alongside with Greek language (in the eastern half), culture, art, and philosophy. At Rome’s height in the second century AD, the emperors spoke better Greek than Latin; Hadrian was a famous philhellene who rebuilt Greece and Athens on an enormous scale (most of the ruins and remnants we see today date from Hadrian, not from Pericles), and Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher of the Stoic school (who take their name from the porch in the Athenian market where they met).

That same century also witnessed an unparalleled Greek cultural renaissance called the Second Sophistic, which featured a colorful and entertaining cast of literary and rhetorical geniuses. One example was Polemo of Laodicea who was so learned and so arrogant that Philostratus describes in his Lives of the Sophists how “he was said to converse with cities as his inferiors, Emperors as not his superiors, and the gods as his equals”. Another relevant personality from this period is the eminent sophist Herodes Atticus–who was one of the wealthiest private citizens in the history of the Roman Empire and also one of the foremost exemplars of the old but now lost tradition of evergetism–roughly “doing good deeds”. This was a system by which rich patrons gave back to their communities by financing new public buildings (theaters and baths, for example; the Odeon next to the Acropolis is one of Herodes Atticus’ many legacies) and large festivals and games (bread and circuses). This philanthropic practice that placed priority on civic duty declined concurrently with that of the Roman Empire as a whole, and was never to be practiced again by the rich excepting a few rare outliers such as Andrew Carnegie.

Even after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Eastern Byzantine Empire continued for another full millennium as a fully Greek institution. And after the fall of that empire in 1453 to the Ottomans, Greeks fled West with their books and set off the revival of classical learning which we call the Renaissance. Those singular founders of America were so steeped in Greek history and culture as to base their new country on the best of classical models. The architecture and symbolism of this new country was classical Greek. Most of our political vocabulary is Greek–Aristotle captured the spirit of the Greek idea of politics as a citizen’s public duty with his line “Man is, by nature, a political animal”. Indeed it is the ideal of democracy for all citizens to be aware and involved in politics.

All through the various military conquests of Athens, the Acropolis stood proud and undisturbed, even by the Ottomans who merely declared it a mosque. The extensive damage that it shows today was brought about by a great Western power, the Venetians, in 1687. The name of the Venetian admiral who ordered his cannons to fire on the Parthenon was Francesco Morosini, who was later made doge and still bears monuments to his name, including the horribly ugly central fountain in Heraklion, Crete. It should serve as a lesson in the stupidity of war that such wanton and sacrilegious destruction resulted in only a single year of control of Athens by the Venetians, whence the Ottomans regained and held it for another 150 years. After the locus of European power moved north, to France and Germany after Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire, even for an time to the small island of Britain, Greek and Roman models continued to be the normative political, cultural, and legal models. The somewhat arbitrary gateway to the British civil service was knowledge of classical Greek and Latin, and merely to know those languages allowed one entrance into a cultural and often political elite. Today’s British leaders in the Conservative Party, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, both received private elite classical education, and Johnson in particular is a noted enthusiast of the Classics. Our very idea of education itself is Greek, from the ancient tradition of paideia, which was based on learning grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy, primarily following Homer (and later Plato).

Despite the theft of the surviving friezes of the Parthenon known as the Elgin marbles, which Britain stubbornly refuses to return to Athens, Greeks have generally been Anglophiles at least since the Greek War of Independence (Lord Byron is still a Romantic hero to the Greeks), continuing during the Cretan War of Independence, and especially after the Second World War. It is thus somewhat ironic that Britain is now one of the countries that supports the failed economic policy known as austerity, to the detriment of more publicly-minded countries such as Greece. Meanwhile, those two countries both have very doubtful futures as members of the European Union–Greece because of the short-sighted preference of some of its northern counterparts, Britain because of the short-sighted preference of some of its Conservative politicians.

I needed no excuse to go back to Greece, because like the Emperor Hadrian (who was also the first Emperor to wear a beard), I am a philhellene. I feel vitality in Greece more deeply than anywhere I’ve been, a feeling I could never describe as sublimely as Henry Miller in The Colossus of Maroussi. The sea, the mountains, the enormously ancient and gnarled olive trees, Athena’s gift to her eponymous denizens, dotting the inhospitable macchia landscape combine with a historical and archaeological record so profoundly ubiquitous that nearly every footstep could be footnoted. It’s not for nothing that Xenophon’s cry “The Sea, the Sea!” still has so much resonance for Greeks. Greece feels like a place pulled directly out of the sea by the Titans, but whose Olympian successors could not be bothered to smooth the salty jagged rocks or tame the prickly country, and so left it like that for a hardy race of men to emerge from the stones and dragon’s blood. Perhaps such capriciousness of their gods in some ways led the Greeks to their search for scientific and philosophic knowledge of the world as it is, and their sense of irony and paradox.

In Greece, I have witnessed no signs of defeat about the economic situation–but when they are asked about politics their ready smiles and good-humor palpably give way to various emotions including betrayal, anger, and confusion. At any time of the day, every ATM I have seen since I have been here has unfailingly had a line of people waiting to withdraw the daily minimum allotment of 50 euro in cash. Otherwise, I see little physical difference here than from my previous visits. Admittedly, I am intentionally avoiding a visit to Athens, where protests and rebellion may be more apparent, in favor of a more low-key and touristy part of the southern Peloponnese (incidentally, northern Europeans, mostly Germans with some British, French, and others, make up almost all of the tourists I have observed around me; it is not unusual to be surrounded by hordes of Germans everywhere else in Europe, which is one of many ways to see that Germans have benefitted more than anyone from the EU). I am exploring the Mani peninsula on this trip–the southern-most part of continental Europe which seems like a long finger extending southward down middle of the swollen hand of the Peloponnese. It was described evocatively in a book by the great travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor called Mani, in which he recounts a walking tour of this land detailing its rich history and culture. He designed and built his villa overlooking the sea in the village I am staying in, Kardamyli, though it is now degraded and forgotten four years after his death. In fact, the Mani is an area of Greece that has never been conquered, which was fiercely independent and from where the Greek War of Independence began, and whose people still maintain this love of freedom. Most people told me they would rather leave Europe than become slaves to more austerity and selling off of their public land and assets.

Traveling through Greece provides evidence of a relative economic poverty compared to northern Europe and even northern Italy, where I live, but this apparent financial scarcity is augmented by a richness of life that is mostly unchanged since the Mysteries of Eleusis celebrated the sacred cycle of life and death. Compare the public spirit here (where entire villages eat and drink outside in the cool night air) with the tradition of quiet privacy of the Germans and Anglo-Saxons. The image of poverty and public debt in Greece is belied by a strong social cohesion and private wealth that still ranks it among the richer countries of the world. One of the Greek government’s main problems is that private wealth is either moved out of the country or hidden–tax evasion is almost universal here.

There is something both provincial and cosmopolitan about Greeks–a traditional and insular yet fully realized and worldly human society with a long-standing world-wide diaspora. Maybe “universal” is a better word. “Catholic” means “universal”–a Greek word for a church based in Rome that split from the Greek church over the phrase “filioque”–Latin for “and son”. In the middle of the day the sun burns so hot that few people venture outside of the shade, and yet I see Greek Orthodox priests walking in full-length black wool cassocks and long, flowing beards. The current government formed by the leftist Syriza party is the first one ever to refuse the blessing of the Greek Orthodox church before taking office. Despite this, the government has refused calls to open church property to taxation.

The general terms of the recent agreement between Greece and Germany (obviously, Germany is not negotiating alone but as a member of the European Union, along with the unelected and ominously named Troika of the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund, but for narrative reasons I prefer to follow the dominant media trend and reduce the situation to two parties–Greeks and Germans. Germany is, for reasons I will explain shortly, by far the most powerful member of all the European parties), stipulate a raise in taxes, pension and public service cuts, and a massive privatization push that would make Margaret Thatcher blush.

Does Greece have fiscal problems? Yes. Are these problems which have real present effects or are they just numbers in bankers’ ledgers? That answer is not so clear. The amount of public debt in Greece is always cited as the highest in Europe, but it is very low in absolute terms. Much lower than Germany or many other countries, who have also all flouted European Union rules as they have seen fit but never been punished let alone humiliated along the lines of the Greeks. Maybe a more appropriate question could also be “Does debt matter?” In America, there is a debt that dwarfs anything else seen in the world today, created by wars, bad tax policy, and the otherwise harmless realities of modern finance. Does it make a difference to our daily lives, or does anyone really care? No. It is used an economic excuse for a political ideology that calls for privatizing public assets and slashing public expenditures, while simultaneously and counter-intuitively cutting taxes only on huge corporations and the rich. This is called neoliberal economics, and its extreme form is called austerity. It is all a hoax with no economic justification as has been empirically proven and as most professional economists readily admit (apart from the followers of Milton Friedman, who must be either overly stubborn in the face of reality or sponsored with corporate money). What it amounts to is greed, as another economic, John Kenneth Galbraith said, “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness”.

Germany has seen its hard-won and much vaunted reputation take a huge hit in the international media during the last agreement with Greece. Why is that? Germany was the loser of both world wars, the first of which led to the second due in large part to the excessive retributive debt commitments imposed by the victorious countries (insisted on mostly by France). After the second war–the worst catastrophe of Western history for which Germany was almost single-handedly responsible–a triumph of diplomacy led by the United States allowed Germany to not only not pay back war reparations but even provided massive economic stimulus to Germany to help rebuild its country and economy. The geopolitic reason for this was to protect the West against the Soviet Union, but the consequence is that the aggressor in that war, like Japan, emerged economically dominant due in larger part to outside circumstances rather than its own natural merits (as they may like to believe). During that war, Germany took over the botched invasion of Greece from its Fascist ally, Italy, and destroyed untold lives and cultural artifacts, plundered resources and forced interest-free “loans”, and caused altogether huge economic losses in Greece that only a full-scale invasion with a sustained resistance can occur. Germany made a paltry payment of $160 million to Greece in 1960 and then closed the book on war reparations. While it is valuable to all parties to move on from the war in the name of the continuing pax Europea, it is disingenuous of Germany to take the harsh line it has on Greece given its own history. This blatant hypocrisy and self-righteousness is one part of the equation that goes beyond money and debt, and touches everyone in an emotional way. Is it right that Germany can squander two or three generations of generally good behavior and thoughtful reckoning with their past history in the matter of a few weeks or months of negotiations? In Europe, old wounds die hard, especially where the Germans are involved.

The debt negotiations with Greece and Germany appear complicated, but in large part it isn’t the finances but rather the uncertainty of political consequences that make the situation seem so labyrinthine. Economically, the amount of money that Greece needs to continue to function properly is relatively small as far as these things go–somewhere around 50 Billion euro from what I can tell. It is a small fraction of the amount of the massive bailouts given by Europe and America to private banks who have profited handsomely with public money. Likewise it is a small fraction of the annual military budget of the NATO countries. The question is not, therefore, economic, but political. I totally agree with many opinions I have read lately, including the recently fired Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, that the goal is not merely repayment of relatively small sums of debt but the humiliation of Greece and a harsh warning to any other country that may rebel and elect a government to challenge the by now entrenched neoliberal consensus. This means especially Spain and Portugal, and to a lesser extent Italy and even France. The European Union and Central Bank have sacrificed democracy and public welfare in the name of authoritative economic control and the guarantee of continued neoliberal policies. For this, they are ready to destroy the economy of one of their members and sell off a large part of its assets at cut-rate prices. It is cruel, and even the IMF has belatedly admitted that it is unrealistic and has no basis in economics

What has the humiliation of Greece caused? Human suffering and resistance. The human spirit cannot be broken by things such as increased taxes and lowered pensions and public services as easily as war and violence, but people’s lives can be made much worse, through little fault of their own, and political apathy and extremism can set in. Meanwhile, the CEO of Goldman-Sachs is fiddling while Europe burns. You see, it was Goldman-Sachs who proposed to the government of Greece a method to hide its debt in return for investments in shady funds, which obviously blew up in the financial crisis. The real criminals are such gambling bankers who exploit and destabilize entire countries and continents while not only avoiding prosecution but actually getting further governmental support and huge bonuses for their work. The problem is not Greek debt. The problem is this system of non-regulated casino banking and the greed of corporate capitalism which puts the interests of shareholders over the interests of the people and the planet and which will most likely be their undoing.

Statistics tell us of widespread unemployment in Greece, but there is little evidence of reduced well-being where I am traveling in the relatively backwoods Peloponnese. My adopted home of Italy is also always cited for its supposed economic woes, but much of it is overblown. Things are far from perfect and serious reforms are deeply needed, but there is a general lifestyle and standard of living that is among the highest in the world. I am obviously a mere amateur observer and by no means an expert in economics and public policy. Greeks all tell me they are proud of their country, as they should be, and for the most part they were ready to leave the European Union if that is what was necessary. This would have been very bad for Greece, but they wanted freedom most of all, especially freedom from humiliation from their ostensible allies. The government of Greece paradoxically chose to agree to the even harsher German-Troika terms immediately after a national referendum voted overwhelmingly against it. For this, Greeks feel betrayed and confused. Now, things will not be any better for them economically than if they had rejected the terms, but now there is an added indignity that they will have no control over their own land.

In Greece today, from my observations, the people are as politically active and involved in their democracy as anyone–at least as much as in Italy where I live, and most certainly more than America. One of the downsides of the debt crisis and increasingly harsh austerity measures is the disengagement from politics from some people and the radicalization of others. It was under such a debt crisis that the conditions arose that allowed the rise of the Nazis. In Greece there is a neo-Nazi party with elected members of Parliament, but which has been outlawed for the time being. With increased desperation and little reason for long-term hope, there is no telling what could happen. For a deeper, more nuanced account of the situation in Greek and the best course of action, I completely concur with Jeffrey Sachs in this article.

The beauty of Greece and the spirit of its people will endure, as they always have, even if economic hard times hang over their future. The future of the European project and the peace and stability it has brought is not so sure, due completely to short-sightedness, greed, and glaring lack of leadership in European countries and its institutions. No one has come out well in this manufactured crisis, including the German coalition led by Merkel, the last four Greek governments (which were Center-Left, Technocratic, Center-Right, and Left), and the small army of European finance ministers and unelected technocrats. The primacy of debt and profit over people (the demos) is today’s foremost myth, and one hopes that this episode reveals this myth for what it is. Greece no longer has the power to overthrow mighty Troy, nor the money to rebuild the Acropolis. Let us hope that somehow a collective spirit emerges as a way out of this fiasco, and the rest of Europe realizes that it is they who are indebted and what it stands to lose.

What I Read in 2014

Despite those metaphysicians who hold that time is circular, the end of the year and the forward march of time is an opportune time for stepping outside of time, so to speak, and looking backward and forward in time to assess one’s life, what one has done well in the past, and what can be improved or attempted in the future. Like every other year, 2014 was a big year for me personally for various reasons. In this post, I will limit my discussion to books I have read, recapitulating and epitomizing each one, throwing in some digressions for good measure. The list is what it is–part of the past now, and part of my personal history and development. This year’s total of 30 or so books is not the most I have ever read in one year–I read over 40 solid books during my second deployment to Afghanistan which was 15 months, and I surely read much more during my Master’s study–but I don’t remember an overall assemblage of tomes from which I took so much enjoyment of reading itself, and not from research or other worldly duties and responsibilities. The books on this list were uniquely received and understood by me in a way that will be different for every other potential reader, owing to our mutual uniqueness of character and experience. If the list leads you to find a single good book you may not have otherwise read, I will consider myself happy (happier, rather, since my reading of these books was the original instantiation of my happiness). Unless otherwise stated, the list only includes books that I finished and not ones that I abandoned due to sudden change  of interest (Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, for example), dislike (one of the books of George Saunders, for example), or other various stories and volumes that I randomly perused or forgot I even started.

Postwar by Tony Judt

This was the only work of history I read this year, unusually for me, and was the longest of the year as well (835 pages). It covers the entirety of European history from the last years of World War Two until 2005. Considered the very best broad survey of this segment of world history. I learned many things about the nooks and crannies of Europe of which I know next to nothing (Romania and Yugoslavia, for example) and much more about the places where I supposedly know something (Italy and America, for example). The book also links together the pieces of the puzzle, including economy, culture, American foreign policy, and many other things, that led directly to the state of Europe as it currently stands.

Zorba the Greek and parts of Odyssey: A Modern Sequel by Nikos Kazantzakis

I had seen the film twice and started the book a few years ago, but I finally got around to reading the whole tale of Alexis Zorba. As is obligatory to say in such contexts, it is better than the film. Kazantzakis’ epic sequel of Odysseus’ wanderings would have ranked as the longest book of the year, but I did not finish it, and do not plan to in any hurry. It is one to be savored intermittently and at a leisurely pace. If you want to find out more about this author, I have already written a longer article called Nikos Kazantzakis the Greek. He is truly one of the great writers of the 20th century.

Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity and Philosophy and Social Hope by Richard Rorty

These are two accessible works (that is to say, not technical or jargony) of philosophy by the American pragmatist and political activist. They are quite engaging, though I have not actually made up my mind yet which parts of his thinking I disagree with. In the first book, there is a very interesting discussion and comparison between Orwell and Nabokov, not just as writers but as philosophical thinkers. Recommended for these final two chapters alone. The second book is basically Rorty explaining his same ideas in different ways, which is not necessarily a bad thing. As the most important American philosopher since Dewey, he deserves a longer explanation which I cannot give at this time. Here is one interesting quote from the latter book: “So, for pragmatists there is no sharp break between natural science and social science, nor between social science and politics, nor between politics, philosophy and literature. All areas of culture are parts of the same endeavor to make life better. There is no deep split between theory and practice, because on a pragmatist view all so-called ‘theory’ which is not wordplay is always already practice.” It is worth mentioning that these books are partly responsible for my decision (unconscious at first but very clear now) to change my reading habits largely back to fiction after a long time of focusing about exclusively on non-fiction (history, philosophy, and other theoretical pursuits).

Hadji Murad; assorted short stories by Lev Tolstoy

Tolstoy is in the literary pantheon, so it is never difficult to read or reread anything by the Count. Hadji Murad was his last completed novel (technically a novella), and was the inspiration for a short story of mine that is to be published in an anthology of veteran authors next year. One of only two pieces that I reread this year was the short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, which uses its 10 pages to their maximum story-telling potential. James Joyce considered it the best short story ever written (which obviously means the best that Joyce himself had ever read).

Anxiety of Influence and The Book of J by Harold Bloom

Bloom is the foremost American literary critic, and in the first work he describes how all literature is written with an “anxiety of influence” about drawing inspiration from and trying to surpass one’s literary forebears. Most of the book focuses on English poetry, but the ideas he puts forth are relevant to any field of study. The second book is more accessible but also more speculative. Bloom posits that the Hebrew Torah was originally the work of a single creative mind during the Enlightenment period of King Solomon, and further that this author was a woman. In his introduction to another book, The Western Canon, Bloom takes this idea a step further and claims the author was none other than Bathsheba. It is very well thought out and sound hypothesis, to the point that he includes the entire original version of the story of Yahweh supposedly created by Bathsheba in a long poem imagined by David Rosenberg. According to Bloom, Joseph would have been the heroic literary counterpart to the historical King David, whose reign would have been witnessed by the author and seen as a golden age compared to that of his incompetent grandson Rehoboam.

Very Little, Almost Nothing by Simon Critchley

The only real technical philosophy I read this year discusses the problematic idea of nihilism and how it can be overcome. A difficult read, punctuated by many interesting and inspiring quotes. One of the things that moved me was Critchley discussing the quote by Adorno about Auschwitz: “The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.” Critchley then notes, “After Auschwitz, the Kantian epistemological question ‘How is metaphysics possible?’ yields to a historical question ‘Is it still possible to have a metaphysical experience?’ For Adorno, this is because actual events–the Holocaust–have shattered the basis upon which metaphysical speculation might be reconciled with experience.” It has quite a bit of value from the point of view of contemporary metaphysics and for those interested in existentialism.

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson; Beethoven: The Universal Composer by Edmund Morris

These are two of a series of short and lively biographies for a popular audience called “Eminent Lives,” each of which I read in a couple sittings. Though I already knew quite a bit about the world’s greatest playwright and composer, respectively, the authors have a flair for story-telling, and I now have more perspective about the world these two literary and musical luminaries moved in. About Shakespeare, it was just as interesting to learn about the historical reception and scholarship of the Bard as about the few real facts that exist on the man. About Ludwig van, Morris probably captures the man, if not the music, in this quote: “His talent amazed me. However, unfortunately, he is an utterly untamed personality, not at all wrong if he finds the world detestable, but he thereby does not make it more enjoyable either for himself or others.”

Afghan Post by Adrian Bonenberger; Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War by Various Authors

The first book is a war memoirs about the author’s time before, during, and after entering the Army and spending two years in Afghanistan. It is written in epistolary form and delves into a series of interesting dialogues, of which we only read one side but can infer the rest (or imagine our own responses), with old friends and relatives as his life changes dramatically through his experiences in war. I happen to be friends with the author since we served together in the same battalion for one year in Afghanistan. This shared experience allowed me to relive and rethink some of my own ideas about the war from a different perspective, now several years removed from action, and in the end I found my own personal catharsis.

The second is a collection of short stories by veteran authors written about the war experience in Iraq or Afghanistan, or as a military person in general upon returning home. Coming from many different backgrounds and experiences, the authors obviously use a variety of styles, and the stories are a mixed bag. These two books are the only contemporary war literature I have read since finishing my own time in the army, though I have been learning about some other intriguing and well-received books on that theme, and have already mentioned an upcoming collection vaguely inspired by Fire and Forget that will consist of 20 veteran authors’ stories set in the context of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Assorted Russian Short Stories

I find the Russians to be a great inspiration not only for writing but for living life with a wider understanding of the world and the people who populate it. I have already mentioned Tolstoy as the greatest of them. This year I read Gogol (The Inspector-General, The Overcoat, The Nose–which is second of two pieces this year that I reread), Pushkin (The Queen of Spades), Chekhov (many stories from a seemingly limitless short story writer), and Babel (The History of My Dovecote), and a few others I am forgetting.

The Words by Jean Paul Sartre

This is Sartre’s literary autobiography and one of his last works, I believe. It was somewhat interesting at the beginning while he leisurely lays out his family history and early years, but I struggled through most of it. It turns out that when I looked into it a bit later that Sartre was apparently attempting to disavow his literary career with this memoirs, and to discredit the act of writing itself, as opposed to direct action in the world. Whatever. Probably my least favorite book of the year.

Waiting for the Barbarians and The Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

These are considered the two best books from the South African Nobel laureate. I found them both to be quite excellent, with a very understated and seemingly simple story-telling style that nevertheless is totally compelling from start to finish. Both take place is generic nations (or empires) run by generic functionaries and military men (though I couldn’t help but imagine both the setting as apartheid-era South Africa). Both works have a deep moral force that keeps them afloat and invite the reader to think for himself.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

The author was a psychoanalyst who spent years in Nazi concentration camp, survived, and wrote this amazing book and many others. He founded his own school of existentialist psychoanalysis, called logotherapy, which states that finding meaning in one’s own life is the primary driving force in humans. The story he tells of his experience is probably the most intense story of human understanding that a person can ever tell, and I would recommend everyone to read it. Frankl was already a practicing psychiatrist and psychotherapist when he was taken to the concentration camps, and through a super-human act of human will, he was able not only to survive but to treat and inspire his fellow prisoners, and to keep keen observations of the extremes of human behavior he was witnessing everyday in order to write about it later. If Frankl could find meaning in life while in Auschwitz, how can we complain about our lesser quotidian cares and worries? Here is one representative quote: “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnesus by Patrick Leigh Fermor

These are the first among several literary travel books I read within a few months of each other and that all date from between the two world wars. The first two books are parts one and two of a trilogy, though the third installment was published unfinished in 2013 after the author’s death. They recount a walk across Europe, leaving England and debarking in the Netherlands with Istanbul as the final destination, by way of the Rhine, the Danube, and several other meanderings and tangents. This trip began in 1933 when the author was 19, and finished a couple years later. The background of the tale is itself quite significant–here was a young and idealistic Englishman (half-Irish, actually) embarking on a walking tour through old Europe–cosmopolitan, feudal, aristocratic, ethnically mixed up–before its last remains were blown away by the Second World War. His long first section walking across southern Germany took place just after the Nazis had come to power. Though he does not mention the political situation much, it is always present between the lines. This is because Fermor masterfully combines a sense of his youthful attitude with commentary from his much older authorial self–the book was written over 40 years after the trip, when Fermor was in his 60s and already long established as a war hero (he led the British-Greek resistance on Crete and abducted a German general and took him to Egypt) and travel writer (he had already published six full-length travel books, including Mani). The first book finishes with Fermor standing on a bridge on the border of Hungary and the second continues to the trip through Hungary and Romania to the border with Serbia at the so-called Iron Gates. The third presumably takes us across the last bit of the Balkans to Constantinople and thence to Greece, where Fermor would make his home later (here is a great article in The New Republic on the background behind  Fermor’s last unfinished installment). Along the way, we come to learn of the incredible amount of hospitality he received during the long sojourn, often and increasingly from old feudal lords and aristocrats of Germany and the Habsburg Empire. He sometimes stayed for weeks at a time in various castles of these learned and idle counts and barons. While the story itself stands on its own, what makes this a classic, and has led to Fermor being repeatedly named as the best English language travel writer, is his use of language. It is masterful and inimitable, and paints a wonderful picture in the reader’s mind.

The third book I read by Fermor this year was written after WWII and recounts in great detail a walking trip by the author and some friends through single long peninsula of the Peloponnesus called Mani. Fermor, who lived in Greece for decades and knew every part of Greece and its inhabitants, uses this singularly isolated and independent strip of land to describe the customs, culture, and history of its people and how they compare to other Greeks.

The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

This is another travel book that tells of the author’s trip from Venice through Palestine and Syria to Persia and Afghanistan in 1933. His purpose was ostensibly to study the origins of Islamic art and architecture, and he spends a lot of time describing the mosques and other buildings he encounters. It is also exceedingly well-written, and contains countless little short comical theatrical set pieces of dialogue that show Byron’s strong personality, sense of humor, and gifts as a writer. After finishing the trip he spent three years crafting this work, which has been called his masterpiece, and then he died on board a British vessel sunk by German torpedo whilst on his way to work for British intelligence in Egypt (and possibly Greece, as the name Byron would still carry weight there).

Abroad: British Literary Travel Writing beween the Wars by Paul Fussell

Fussell here attempts to make travel writing into a more reputable and rigorous topic of study in literary and historical circles with this book, and if he did not succeed, it is through no fault of his but of his academic colleagues. The book generally describes how the British (and, to a lesser degree, American) travel writing boom came about directly as a result of World War One–both life in the cold, muddy trenches for soldiers and scarcity and belt-tightening at home led the society in search of warmer places. Those who could not travel were still highly ready to read almost any type of travel book that did not involve England. Each chapter is on a different writer (Greene, Lawrence, Waugh, Douglass, Durrell, Auden and Isherwood, with especial praise for Byron) or aspect of the new travel industry (the British invention of the passport, for example). It was very educational for me to learn about another side of a period of history and literature I thought I had a decent grasp on, but to see with a completely new perspective.

The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller

The American expat Miller forces his way into the travel writing craze against his will. This book is on the author’s 1938 trip from Paris, where he had made his home, to Greece, where he had never been. He came on the suggestion of Lawrence Durrell, who had made his new home in Corfu and maintained decades of correspondence with Miller. Miller makes a big show about his lack of classical or formal education in regards to ancient Greece, but it becomes clear throughout the book that he know a thing or two about life. It is written in his typical (and influential) colloquial and fearless style. There are long passages of internal monologue that are both poetic and inspired. Miller held this to be his best book, and many critics agree. One person said that Miller had raised solipsism to an art form. The colossus of the title is a certain prominent man of letters and outsized personality named Katsimbalis. In fact, the main character is Miller himself, and his enthusiastic reawakening to some type of life spirit in Greece (one critic said that Miller, in this book, had raised solipsism into an art form). While visiting Crete, Miller was greeted and looked after by someone named Tsoutsou whom Miller describes as being the biggest literary figure of Crete and a man who spoke 10 languages and knew everybody. I cannot find any other references to this theory, but I found myself imagining this as a fictionalized version of Kazantzakis. Another interesting fact is that Ghika, the famous Greek artist, was a member of the circle of friends of Katsimbalis that Miller frequented. Ghika illustrated Kazantzakis’ Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, and his house on the isle of Hydra was also where Patrick Fermor wrote Mani. The Colossus of Maroussi, on the other hand, was written in America after Miller had to unwillingly return there to escape World War Two, and his panegyric on all things Greek is openly stated to also represent his distaste for all things American. It is a must-read for anyone who loves Greece, traveling, or great writing.

Justine and Prospero’s Cell by Lawrence Durrell

Justine is the first of a larger four-part work called The Alexandria Quartet. Each of the four books is written from a different character’s point of view, and the first three take place simultaneously while the last one is set six years later. Justine is a lushly stylistic novel whose every sentence is a work of literary art. The entire quartet was a bit long for me to finish this year but I will gradually finish it over time, as I am prone to bounce between many different books at the same time, sometimes putting one down for several years before finishing it. The variety is what is important for me, and the same book reread years later would be received differently–the words were the same but I had changed. I think my short digression here does something to represent the spirit of Durrell’s masterpiece. Alas, Durrell’s setting of the cosmopolitan, cultured, and romantic Alexandria which lasted for 23 centuries is now long gone, as this article in Foreign Policy magazine shows. The second book I read by him was his fictionalized travel story of his year spent in Corfu in 1938. I have visited that largest of the Ionian islands as well, and this book did more than make me want to return as soon as possible. It was rich and interesting and entertaining.

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

This is the first book I read by Graves outside of the two Claudius books I had enjoyed several years back (after randomly finding the first one in a French hostel before starting the Camino de Santiago and finishing it within a few days). Goodbye to All That is a fictionalized (funny how many books of supposed non-fiction qualify for that adjective–that’s why it’s called literature and not documentary) memoirs of the author’s early life through trench life in World War One and his traumatic break with England and move to Majorca. It can be classified as another post-war travel book as I described earlier. I have written a much longer review of this book on my other blog in a post called Goodbye to Christmas Truces.

The World as I Found It by Bruce Duffy

This is more than a fictionalized version of history–it is a pure novel that happens to follow the real lives of eminent philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and, to a lesser extent, G.E. Moore. As a novel, it is wonderful and beautifully written. Since I happen to know quite a bit about these men and their work, I was not disappointed in any regard and found the book totally compelling. The author gave a lecture in 1991–three years after the book’s publication–in which he explains his rationale for changing and inventing facts about real people for the sake of a novel: “Was it moral, what I did? Was it moral of Max Brod not to burn Kafka’s manuscripts and papers as Kafka had instructed? I can’t really answer this question except to say there are different forms of homage. As I saw it thirty years after his death, Wittgenstein was nobody’s moral property. Like a man buried at sea , he was rightfully consigned to history.” And again here Duffy says: “In Shakespeare’s time to write plays about Julius Caesar or Prince Hamlet was not a bothersome thing, but today it is, I’m afraid. In an era of experts and unprecedented specialization–in a time when I should say we cripple ourselves by ceding far too much to the wisdom of experts–a book like mine is bothersome, for some to the point of being disorienting. For all our self-conscious poses, for all our irony and formal sophistication , not to mention our exposure to the strategies of modernism and postmodernism, many of us still like our categories straight. We are greatly bothered by confusions of fact and fiction. We are bothered by a novel that, say, in its prologue adopts the seemingly trustworthy voice of a biography only to monkey with the facts: This is unsportsmanlike, like impersonating a rightful officer of the law. Be more radical and experimental! says one camp. Be more conventional! says the other. When they rap my knuckles, critics seem to hold out these two shining alternatives, often seemingly at the same time. But again, their advice enshrines what too many naively expect nowadays. Straight categories. Fiction as some literary substitute for the old Classic Comics. Above all, the epic, churn-em-out complacency of that form I almost uniformly detest: ‘historical fiction.’ These by now are old tactics that do not trouble anyone.” In other words, long live the novel (and do not worry if its characters are real people–Shakespeare and Tolstoy didn’t). Whether you are interested in the lives of its characters or not, I can recommend this as an excellent and well-written novel that stands on its own merits.

The Collected Poems by Constantine P. Cavafy

This is the only work of poetry I read this year, which is something I would obviously like to rectify in future years. Cavafy was a Greek poet who lived and wrote about his home city of Alexandria, Egypt. He was a major inspiration for Durrell’s quartet above, and his poem “The City” was especially relevant to the latter work. His poems are a combination of historical, philosophical, and aesthetic, and are thus quite accessible and intriguing even for a poetry laggard like me. One of his poems, “The God Forsakes Antony”, was the inspiration for the Leonard Cohen song “Alexandra Leaving.” Another random (or not) connection is that Cohen also has a house on the island of Hydra and was heavily influenced by Henry Miller. Overall, Cavafy’s poems are evocative and inspirational for me, especially because I share a love of classical history and Mediterranean settings.

Runaway by Alice Munro

This collection of short stories is considered one of the best by the recent Nobel laureate. Most of her stories take place in rural Canada, where she is from. They are heavily focused on female characters and delve deep into their psyche and motivations. Munro has been called a modern, or a Canadian, Chekhov. I think this is great praise for her, and I see the resemblance but do not feel she is quite on the level of the Russian master of the short story. Time will tell, though. She does share with Chekhov a disregard for traditional plot devices and more focus on psychological aspects of the characters, especially involving sudden realizations that changes the characters’ lives in some way. Most of these stories have a deep underlying sense of humanity, and pathos. I was most moved by one called “Silence” (and not only because it contained the first cultural reference I have ever seen to ancient Greek romances by Achilles Tatius and Heliodorus). This is the most contemporary of the books I read this year, and the only one by a woman. It has helped me continue to try and expand my boundaries as a reader and explore new writers and different styles.

According to Borges, “reading is an activity subsequent to writing: more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.” Just as Borges considered himself, first and foremost, a professional reader rather than writer, I also hope to improve my reading skills and knowledge of the world each year. At a certain point, the issue becomes time and how to choose and prioritize what to read out of the infinite options–how to satisfy what Nabokov called the “Orphic thirst” of reading and rereading. I already have a long list of books to read next year and in coming years and which will lead to even more books that I have not even heard of yet. I hope to do better next year.

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