Five Fascinating Books on Greece
Many writers have come to Greece and have been profoundly changed by the experience; there are many more books I could have included on this list. These, however, are books that have either entertained, or instructed, or moved me – or in some cases have done all three. If any books on Greece have been particularly important to you I would love to hear about them.
1. The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller
Henry Miller, vagabond extraordinaire, forced to flee Paris at the approach of the Nazi army, was invited by Lawrence Durrell to join him at his idyllic villa on the island of Corfu in Greece. Miller promptly fell in love with the place, and after his journey wrote what amounts to an extraordinary love note in homage to Greece and the Greeks. From Corfu he journeyed to Athens, and from there he toured much of the mainland. He met all the major literary figures of the time, including the flamboyant, exuberant poet Katsimbalis, the "colossus" of the title. Though himself without financial resources, he was wined and dined wherever he went and treated as artistic royalty. Miller himself considered this his best book. If you have heard of Miller in connection with his more ribald works, such as "Tropic of Cancer", don't be alarmed. "The Colossus of Maroussi" is in another vein entirely and has nothing of the overt sexuality for which Miller became infamous. It is simply a superbly written travel book.
2. Inventing Paradise: The Greek Journey 1937-47 by Edmund Keeley
This fascinating book is basically told in three parts. First of all, it tells of the pre-war friendship of Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell, and their circle of literary friends in Greece which included George Katsimbalis, who would later become Miller's "colossus", and George Sefaris, who would become Greece's first winner of the Nobel prize for literature. In this first section Keeley recreates the paradise that Greece seemed to be, at least to the literary imagination, before WW2, and quotes liberally from the writings of this circle of talented friends. But then he follows the lives of each of the main characters after the Nazi invasion, whether joining the resistance, serving as a medic, working with the government in exile, or, in the case of Miller, being forced to return to his homeland. In this section the book takes on a very dark aspect, as the group is shattered and scattered in many directions. Afterwards, the author finally recounts what happened to each of the friends after the war was over and during the Greek civil war which followed. This book is worthwhile not only for its perspective on history, but for its insight into literature and artistic achievement as well, as it exemplifies how art can transfigure and overcome even the most tragic, brutal experiences.
3. Inside Hitler's Greece: The Experience of Occupation 1941-44 by Mark Mazower
This book, I must admit, is not one to be read lightly for entertainment. It is brutal. It is a horror story. Still it is a worthwhile read; it illuminates what the Greek people suffered through after the Germans and Italians conquered Greece during the Second World War. The German army began shipping anything of value, including food, off to Germany, and a massive famine swept over Athens and the other cities. Corpses littered the streets and there were not enough healthy people left to pick them all up. Many Greeks were interred in concentration camps under appalling conditions for the flimsiest of excuses. In addition, Greece used to be one of the centers of Jewish culture in the Mideast, but the Germans rounded up all the Jews they could find and sent them north for extermination; very few made it back. Resistance movements arose in the hills, but then after the war, when the Germans retreated, they turned on one another and there was a terrible civil war. As I said, this book is not easy reading, but for many it is necessary reading if you want a fuller understanding of Greek character and history.
4. Salonika, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims, and Jews 1430-1950 by Mark Mazower
In 1430 the Ottoman Empire took over the city of Salonica and ruled it until 1912. Situated as it was at the crossroads of cultures, it became home to a thriving community composed of about one third Christian Greeks, one third Jews, most of whom had fled Catholic persecution in Spain and other European countries, and one third Ottoman Muslims. It was a fascinating blend of diverse religious and cultural outlooks which despite the differences somehow managed to build a vibrant commercial center which endured for hundreds of years. Salonica was liberated by the Greeks much later than Athens, in fact well into the twentieth century. Later, more than any other place in Greece, the Jewish population suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis, virtually getting wiped out completely. Today there is almost no trace left of either the Jewish influence or the many mosques of the Muslims, which makes this book of inestimable value in discovering the richness of the area's history.
5. Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis
We must end on a lighthearted note. This is the only work of fiction I have included in the mix, but it is a timeless work and tells us much about Greek character. The narrator, a writer, opens a coal mine on the island of Crete. He hires an itinerant worker named Zorba as his foreman, and Zorba proceeds to teach him both by example and expostulation how to get out of his shell and enjoy life. It's a good book to read in light of what is happening with the Greek economy today. The Greeks are presently undergoing a tragedy of epic proportions, but they will overcome, as they have since long before many of the present countries of the world even existed. This is a great ode to the overcoming exuberance of the Greek character.