Obituary: Kimon Friar

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The Independent Online
Kimon Kalogeropoulos (Kimon Friar), writer and translator: born Propontis, Turkey 1911; died Athens 26 May 1993.

KIMON FRIAR made Greek poetry and literature known to the English- speaking public through translations, essays, and by pioneering Modern Greek Studies as visiting professor in American universities. In the 1950s he founded and edited the literary journals Greek Heritage and the Charioteer, both published in the US and devoted almost exclusively to the history, literature and appreciation of Hellenic culture.

His magnificent translation of Nikos Kazantzakis' The Odyssey (published in the UK by Secker and Warburg in 1958) was instrumental in gaining international recognition for its author and contributed to the creation of the philhellenic upsurge that brought Anthony Quinn to the world screen in Zorba the Greek.

Born on an island in the Sea of Marmara (Propontis) to Greek parents who immigrated to the US when he was still a child, Friar grew up within the linguistically rich tradition of the Hellenic diaspora of Asia Minor and Constantinople. He joined his parents in California at the age of 13.

The family name, Kalogeropoulos, conveniently translated into 'Friar', set him apart within the Greek immigrant communities of the West Coast but saw him through his studies at the University of Wisconsin, where he completed a successful dissertation on WB Yeats's A Vision. Friar began his career as lecturer in English and American poetry and as a nascent poet himself.

He first visited Greece in 1946 and instantly fell in love with it. By 1950 he had established himself in Athens as a translator and man of letters while he developed, in the course of the following 40 years, professional and literary affiliations with New York University, the University of California, Columbia, Yale and the Poetry Center in New York City, of which he was director for several years.

Friar accepted Kazantzakis as his mentor both in real and in literary life. He spent considerable time with the author in Crete and Athens, working with him on translations of his works (notably The Saviour of God: spiritual exercises, 1960), while absorbing the nuances of the great man's overwhelming vision of life as a mystical journey toward total freedom. The Odyssey, Kazantzakis' magnum opus, is a long narrative poem composed as a modern sequel to Homer's epic. Based on traditional myths of Hellenism, its main theme is the transubstantiation of matter into spirit with its hero, Odysseus, achieving the state of a Nietszchean Ubermensch. The poem consists of 33,333 verses of 17 syllables each - three times the length of Homer's Odyssey. Its language, rhetorical style and metaphorical expressions often attempt such levels of complexity as to seem incomprehensible to the lay reader. Friar's version transforms Kazantzakis' original into a poem in the English language about a 20th-century Odysseus, a romantic, protean hero with philosophical ideas and a strong mystical bent.

Praised as a literary masterpiece in its own right by such reviewers as Lawrence Durrell and Sir Maurice Bowra, Friar's poem succeeds where the original fails, ie in gaining the reader's sympathy for Odysseus by transforming the egomaniac, superhuman achiever into a tragic overreacher who can only be pitied for his repeated failures.

Friar remained an active oppenent of the military junta that ruled Greece (1967-74) and offered protection, guidance and intellectual stimulation to writers and artists persecuted by the secret police. His US citizenship and professorial connections with major academic institutions abroad made his expulsion from Greece an embarrassing prospect to the government. He was threatened but never imprisoned or refused re-entry into the country while he continued to write and speak out against the Colonels.

Friar's talents as an essayist, editor and translator were set free in his anthologies, Modern Greek Poetry from Cavafis to Elytis (1973), and its companion volume, Contemporary Greek Poetry (1983). Their compilation took him more than 30 years of methodical selection, innumerable drafts and lengthy discussions (some preserved on tape) with almost all of the poets anthologised.

Discussing his 'boldness' in undertaking to do justice to so many different, often antithetical styles, he likens the work of the translator to that of the actor striving 'to surrender himself as much as possible to the singular vision and aesthetics' of the author he is interpreting.

He wrote important critical works on the poetry of T. Sinopoulos (The Landscape of Death), Yiannis Ritsos (A Blind Man's Script), M. Saktouris (Face to the Wall) and on the Nobel prizewinners George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis. In 1975 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Athens Academy.

Throughout his life Friar kept a firm foot on both sides of the Atlantic. His book of essays Medusa's Stone Eyes broke new ground by exploring the classical and European context of modern Greek literature. It formed the basis of his lectures in Greece and the US, where he served until recently on prestigious committeess for the National Book Award in Poetry, the National Medal for Literature and the International Publishers' Award in the Novel.

He leaves behind, stacked in a small Athenian flat, the richest extant archive on Greek poetry of the last 50 years.