Macedonian blockheads and other Grecian turns
Dinner with Persephone: travels in Greece by Patricia Storace, Granta, pounds 17.99
Saturday 15 February 1997
The writing here is like that in a magazine, Granta now or the New Yorker as it was in Auden's time: perfectly acceptable to pass an hour or two, and memorable maybe once in 20 pages. The traveller is a New York poet of some wealth and eccentricity. She trots around many of the classical sites, though she is not your old-fashioned Philhellene. She crosses many glittering seas, and visits many shadowy islands. Paros is made of marble; Andros of stone and silk; and Storace has an excellent nose for the innocent nooks of provincial life.
But she is modern, and a New Yorker. Her life in Athens often reminded me of the writer Taktsis (a transvestite who was murdered): it's an accurate depiction of the lower reaches of the population, though merely a foreigner's and not as deep as that of the obsessed novelist. The New York element comes out in unexpected ways. Storace is knowing about whatever would interest an anthropologist (including mythology), but not knowledgeable. Yet her sheer eagerness, her appetite for life, makes out of the year- in-Greece exercise a victorious book.
The only classical text to which she is devoted is that of the dream interpreter Artemidorus the Daldian - "the great Oneirocritical Master", as Thomas Browne called him. Dreams are back in fashion with NY intellectuals, so perhaps he has been recently translated. Artemidorus used to interest me because of his occasional insights into poetry. He tells you it is a good omen if nymphs reveal their breasts in a dream - as they do in Catullus, "standing up breast-high from the white foam" when Peleus first saw Thetis. The result was Achilles, but old Professor Frankel said that the image reminded him of some famous actress photographed in her bath.
Patricia Storace's year in Greece was an energetic one. She spoke the language, and endured many conversations with blockheads about Macedonia. There are moments when she registers a near miss: as when she thinks how like pomegranate trees are to decorated Christmas trees, and when she calls retsina "wine's equivalent of sea-water". But she is enthusiastic enough to visit Evrytania, the most rugged and roadless of provinces when I was last there, with soldiers who had stood guard on bridges - for no obvious reason - for 25 years. Travelling on her own, she is much subject to chance wooers, and records them all gleefully, but scorns to record the physical hardships of modern travel. She has conversations which are seldom enlightening but almost always cast light on character - as on the night they decide that Christ died not to save man, but to save God.
The book has a climax, as travel books ought to have. Travelling by boat from Lesbos, she suddenly, at Istanbul, produces an ace of trumps from her sleeve. More than one theme is picked up there, as children in their finest clothes are off to be circumcised. She goes home by way of Athens, and on the last night a friend reproaches her for having lived a year in Greece without seeing a blue video. They watch a number together, including one in which a coffin has an erection and someone makes love with it: "this must be what the angels do in heaven". What would the great oneirocritical master make of that? Grind your teeth, Henry Miller.
What I liked about this book was that it was full of pep. And I liked Storace's sense of the langauge, "not voluptuous or lilting but stony and earthy, a language full of mud and volcanic rock and glittering precious stones". I also liked the well-told tragedy of a Kiphissia lady, so moving that I thought Storace could be a novelist more easily than a poet - but that, I'm sure, is because I do not know her poetry. She is probably the first true poet to have taken the Thasos ferry since Horace ran away from the Battle of Philippi; and that is a good omen, at least.
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