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Place in Time

To feel nostalgia does not necessarily mean you want to turn away from the present or the future; it’s enough to feel that you can’t ever go back to a place where you were happy. Sometimes I think even happiness doesn’t matter, that even places where you were unhappy can call out to you, if enough time has passed. And by “place” I mean, of course, “time”.

I had been thinking about the apartment in Pagkrati, where I spent my first ten years here in Greece, how things seem to be changing so rapidly in Athens, and how my Athens seems suspended in time, now that I’m gone from it. Images come to me almost unbidden, most often moments spent in solitude: my first Christmas Eve, walking along an empty Stadiou Street, and going into one of the cinemas to see a film; walking from my apartment to the Panellinion cafe at the bottom of Mavromichali Street, determined to go in and play chess, but then merely standing outside for half an hour, too shy to go in alone with so many good players inside; deciding to watch the sun come up from Lycabettus one Easter morning.

And then, about two months ago, a message comes from J.:

Just walked past your old house. The ensuing wave of nostalgia has obliged me to take a seat in a nearby hostelry and order a large cloudy one in your honour.

I don’t drink so much ouzo any more; it’s connected in my mind with Athens and sitting around with J. Now it’s Cretan wines I prefer.

I get the sense that J. is getting ready to leave Greece and go back to England after 15 or so years. I’m sure he is already beginning to feel nostalgic for the place he is preparing to leave. And by “place” I mean, of course, “time”.

Over a week ago, I was travelling down a road I’ve come down so many times before, every summer, some Easters, even a Christmas, into the Peloponnese, down through Nemea, and the Argolid, and then Kynouria, the part of Arcadia that touches the sea. I thought about how many times I’d made this trip as a bachelor on the Athens-Leonidio bus, and now I was driving down with my wife in our car, taking our daughter along for her first time.

* * * * *

The wind is up, blowing in from the sea, as it does every day. Little E. sits in my lap, turning over a eucalyptus leaf in her hands, quietly babbling to herself. I give her sprigs of rosemary and lavender to play with too. She brings them to her lips, without putting them into her mouth. She doesn’t seem to have learned to smell deliberately yet. I take her tiny hands and sniff them, and find traces of the three scents on them. The wind ruffles her little curls. And I think to myself, I will forget this moment, all the details that give it vividness: the coolness of the sea breeze, the warmth of E.’s little body, her shoulders, the back of her neck as she looks down at the sprig. She is bombarded by sensations and colours and sounds, and she absorbs them all, so that she can one day learn that this is called a tree, that is an ant, and that other thing a chair, but she will not remember this moment in itself, because it is all just a drop in the torrent of impressions she experiences every minute of the day. But I who have become so jaded, and who in all my forty years have never sat here in this place with a warm little daughter in my arms, what excuse have I got?

I set about trying to preserve the moment. I mention it to N., I write it down, I even grab my video camera and start to record moments that I know I will forget: the leaves of the lemon tree, seen through the balcony railing, as they sway in the wind, a bee among the oleander, dried up bougainvillea petals tumbling down the road. A caique in the afternoon as a fisherman casts his net. Our beach towels hanging to dry on the railings. The chaise longue where sleep is sweetest. The sandals left outside the door. The sound of someone chopping vegetables in the kitchen, or of the little gas cooker being lit and a little spoon tapping the inside of the briki of coffee. A lemon and two oranges in a basket hanging from the latticed roof of the pergola, and the wasp that hovers near them. The spider webs in the rosemary bush.

When I return home, maybe I’ll edit the fragments of video and make a DVD that I can watch on television. Years from now I will watch it, or read these words, and be so removed from the sensations that I tried to capture, that I will be reading them, like you, for the first time, like something I never lived at all, and they will remind me not of this place where I sit now, but of some other place like it, a place like no other place I’ve ever actually been — and by ” place” I mean, of course, “time”.

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Mitar’s Childhood

In my early years in Athens, the best thing about my job was that students had lessons twice a week — Mondays and Wednesdays, or Tuesdays and Thursdays — which meant that Fridays were free. All we had to do was go in for a half-hour meeting at 1.00. Raymond, the director of studies, would write the syllabus for the following week on the board and we would copy it down. Then we would all go to a nearby cafe-bar for a few beers.

(The cafe-bar, photo taken at a much later time, after we had stopped being regulars.)

Sometimes I would bring a magnetic chess set and Raymond and I would play a game or two. I always had the advantage in the opening but Raymond almost always managed to turn things around late in the middle game and win. This frustrated me so much that I took to recording the moves as we played so I could analyse them afterwards with the help of my Fritz program and see exactly where and how I had gone wrong.

One Friday the group broke up earlier than usual and I stayed behind to look over the chess game on my own. While I moved the pieces around over and over at the crucial point where I had lost the upper hand, I had the unmistakable feeling that someone was watching me.

A boy of about seven or eight years, whom I’d often seen selling little packs of tissues, was leaning against a nearby table. He often came into this cafe-bar. He had large blue eyes, and a few freckles scattered across his cheeks and his round, slightly wide nose. His short blond hair had cowlicks, and would probably be curly if he grew it long enough.

Once I looked up I thought he would ask if I wanted to buy some, but he was too busy looking at the chessboard. He approached slowly to get a closer look at the board. Did he know the game? Or was he interested simply because he knew it was a game?

In Canada I’d seen a lot of homeless people, and many of them teenagers. They came from all over the country to find work in the big city. They would sit on the sidewalk with their belongings in bags and with dogs curled up next to them. Many were kids who had probably fallen out with their parents. I often had the feeling they chose to live like this, and would some day soon enough find their way back into the world of houses and warm rooms, go back to school, or get a job.

But in Athens, things were different. There were a lot of beggars, but they didn’t seem to be homeless. At night they always went off somewhere and disappeared. The main difference, however, was the kind of person on the street. They almost always came from some other Balkan state. If they were Serbs they would hold up a paper icon to appeal to our Christian sense of charity, and to remind us that, unlike our other neighbours, they were our Orthodox brothers and sisters. They would also hold up a piece of cardboard on which they had written I AM SERBIAN in misspelled Greek. Or they would say how many children they had and needed to feed.

And there were the children, playing the same songs on the accordion or harmonica or looking at you sadly as they held out their packs of tissues, lighters, or key chains. People said they didn’t get to keep the money you gave them, that they worked for somebody who took everything they made. Some people had even told me they’d seen the person, waiting up the street, take the money afterwards.

(This sort of thing seems to have become a big business here in Greece. Organised business. Here in Heraklion, amputees started showing up this summer, waiting at traffic lights to come out on their crutches and ask for change. Sometimes within a kilometre you would see four or five of them, sometimes a couple at one intersection. Then, on another day, they’d all be gone. I’m not suspicious by nature, but I can’t help but feel that someone’s actually shipping them in and picking them up again afterwards.)

“I feel so sorry for the kids,” people would say. “But I don’t give them any money any more. If I could be sure they would keep it or it would go to their family, I would give it to them. What’s 50 or 100 drachmas, after all?”

I had seen this blond boy many times around Pangrati, my old neighbourhood in Athens, often with other kids. A lot of immigrant children would hang around Mesolongi Square, usually playing football. I thought of him as belonging to the area.

He came and stood next to my table and leaned on the wooden armrest. I moved the pint glass away into the centre of the table and pushed the chessboard closer to him.

“Do you know how to play?” I said.

He shrugged. Did he understand the question? The shrug made me think that the question was somehow naive.

“What would you do next?” I said.

He laughed, very quietly. Just a breath of a laugh, little more than a smile and another shrug. Perhaps he laughed at the fact that I had asked him. He picked up the bishop. Almost embarrassed, though, he put it back down, careful to set it on the same square.

“Do you know what it’s called?” I said, but then I thought he might not know it in Greek. “Do you know how it moves?” Again he shrugged. He looked up at the door suddenly, as if remembering something. I had the sense that he was going to walk away.

Sometimes you see a dog or cat that are so hungry that they’re willing, despite their fear, to approach you. That’s what it felt like with this kid.

He pointed to the board and moved his finger back and forth diagonally.

“Right,” I said. “And how about this?” I showed him the knight. He frowned. Was it because he couldn’t remember it or because he couldn’t explain it? (Try explaining how a knight moves. It’s not easy. I know of some concise descriptions, but I’ve picked them up from good chess writers.) At last he pointed again and finally spoke.

“Like this,” he said. “A seven.”

I asked him if he wanted to play, but this time I lost him. He remembered the other tables, and the bar, and slowly went off to sell his tissues. Then he was gone.

The following Friday I took my chessboard with me even though Raymond and I were not going to play. I stayed behind when everyone had left and set up the pieces. I had taken a book with me, Alekhine‘s games, and played out the some of the annotation. But my mind wasn’t really on it. The truth is that I wasn’t good enough at chess to understand his annotations.

Soon enough, the boy came. I thought I saw him look for me when he came in. Or maybe it was the look of recognition when he saw me. I nodded to him. This time he made his round of the cafe. The Argentinean woman who worked there often gave coke or even a sandwich to these kids, which made the place popular with them. He came to the table, unwrapped his sandwich and started eating. He was intrigued by the book, especially by the tiny chess fonts. I set up the pieces to the initial position and turned the board so that the white pieces were in front of him.

“Go ahead,” I said. “Let’s play.”

He frowned. Was he thinking of his first move, or was he trying to decide if he should play or not? He seemed to have reservations. I waited. Finally, he picked up the King’s pawn and moved it forward two squares.

We only played part of a game. About ten to fifteen moves into it, he got restless and left. I don’t remember if he said why he was leaving so suddenly, or if we spoke at all. I wrote down the position so that we could continue the game from where left off the next time I saw him. But he didn’t come back.

I didn’t see him again until about a year later. M. and I went for a walk down to Zappeio and there was a photography exhibit there. We walked around looking at the large black and white photos, and there he was in a group of portraits, with the same serious, guarded expression. I asked M. if she remembered him, since she often came to the cafe-bar with us, but she had no recollection of him. I looked around at all the people strolling about looking at the photos. I wanted someone there to recognise him, to know who he was, so I could tell them that I used to see him often, and had even played a little bit of chess with him.

This was all about ten years ago.

* * * * *

One day I read in the newspaper that hundreds of children had disappeared from the streets of Athens, most likely sold by the child trafficking rings that had brought them down in the first place. Did it happen all at once, or slowly, child by child? Had anyone been paying attention? “Yeah, you’re right!” people said. “I hadn’t noticed it at first, but it’s true: you don’t see them around any more.”

According to Terre des Hommes and other organisations, up to 150,000 children of immigrants have been forced into child labour in Greece, usually selling tissues and trinkets. After years of pressure, the Greek government finally started doing something about the problem, but you still see a lot of children on the street, children even younger than the blond boy whose name I never learned.

Over the years, I tried to write a story about him. I made him Serbian and called him Mitar, a name I picked up from a friend years ago in Canada. I filled pages in notebooks about him, about his story. In all of the notes, he is at an intersection, at a crossroads; a change is coming, and it’s the future. I don’t know what’s going to happen to him next because I’ve never written beyond that point. I don’t know how the story ends. Everything is frozen, like the image of him that I saw at Zappeio long after he had disappeared.

All I have is my own image of him, of his interest in the game of chess and desire to play, but his hesitation, his fear of opening up, or perhaps his sense that, despite his youth, the desire to play was pointless, as if he had already learned that what the rest of us call childhood was nothing more than a delicate myth, which for him had long since shattered into a thousand little pieces.

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Allen: behind the mirror

Lately I’ve been thinking about Allen, my friend for 15 years before we lost touch. I’ve been thinking about much he changed over those 15 years, till he became something I could no longer relate to, and I’ve been thinking about how little I ever really knew him.

I met Allen in 1982, when we were both twelve. He was in my class in grade seven, which for me was the happiest year of all my public schooling. We both belonged to a small circle of friends, but I was better friends with a couple of other guys than I was with Allen. I don’t think he had very much patience for me; I probably struck him as a wide-eyed naive kid. He was more sophisticated than me. You could tell as soon as you saw him that he was different.

He was chubby and had longish hair. He wore a green jacket, much like an army jacket, somewhat in the mod style, and it had a greasy stain in one pocket where he’d put his pack of fish and chips. (They were still wrapped in newspaper in those days.) And he always wore t-shirts with the Beatles or the Sex Pistols or Marilyn Monroe or the cast of Leave It To Beaver on it. He was, as I’ve written elsewhere, precocious. He read adult literature and underground comics and wrote poetry and could speak intelligently about such things. That was the year Glenn Gould died. Gould had grown up just around the corner from our school, and when our teacher told us about him, he asked if any of us knew who he was. Only Allen did. He even had some of his records.

But he was odd, as well. He would wobble his one knee back and forth when he stood so that his whole body seemed to jiggle, and when he spoke, his sentences trailed off into a cross between an indolent mirthless laugh and a nervous mumble, even if there wasn’t anything even remotely funny in what he’d said. His vocabulary was advanced and often formal, especially with scatological humour. When asked about the grease stain on his jacket, he’d say it was a urine stain. He found proper words like “urine” and “excrement” much funnier than “piss” and “shit”, when most 12-year-olds didn’t even know what excrement was. It was as if by using these words he was deflating the dignity of the adult world and exposing the pathetic farcical nature that lay beneath the surface of it. I think he found the word “buttocks” the funniest word of all.

His strangeness could have an edge to it. The year before I met him, while he was still in grade six, he had belonged to the recorder club at school. (I still can’t picture Allen playing the recorder.) The club was supposed to perform for parents one night, and Allen didn’t want to. His teachers and his mother forced him to. So he got his revenge. When they were finished performing, he opened up his shirt and displayed a swastika that he had painted on the t-shirt underneath. His mother, understandably mortified, ran up and pulled him off the stage, trying also to pull the t-shirt off him.

Many of his friends were grown-ups. That doesn’t seem so strange now, but it did at the time, although I admired him for it, and liked the adults he knew. Allen was mature enough to hold interesting conversations with them, although I now suspect they were humouring him a little. The two friends that I’d met owned used bookshops, and one of these men, I later learned, was the son of one of Canada’s most famous poets.

The details escape me now, but gradually we became friends. In those years, I was a Beatles fan to the point of obsession, so when I saw the various Beatles t-shirts he wore I must have looked upon him as a kindred spirit. But as I said, that first year, we weren’t that close. I always felt he was mocking me a little. He was simply older than me in intellectual development.

I wanted to be a comic book artist at the time, and that was our first joint interest. He introduced me to good artists. Although I could draw quite well, it had never occurred to me to think of one artist as better than another. Allen collected artists though, not just superheroes. Through him I discovered the work of artists like Neil Adams, Frank Franzetta, Frank Miller, Robert Crumb, and Chester Brown (an Ontario artist whose self-published comics Allen collected). He read Zippy comics, Cerebus, Raw, The Freak Brothers. He had the Maus series in the original installments.

His record collection was interesting, too. If I try to remember randomly some of them, Miles Davis’s Round About Midnight comes to mind, or a couple of Richard and Mimi Farina records, or a red see-through record of Ginsberg reading “Howl” and other poems on the Fantasy label. He had a couple of Lenny Bruce records from the same label.

The first time I went to visit him at his house, I went to look at his comics, which he kept in mylar envelopes in acid-free boxes. (That was the first time I’d heard of acid-free paper, or even that normal paper had acid in it.) We sat around in his large spacious room and listened to music and talked while I also looked at the books on his shelves. His bed was just a mattress on the floor. He burned incense on a brick. He had a good stereo, too, and put on All Things Must Pass, an album I liked and wanted to get, although I never got round to hearing it again for another 23 years.

Some time towards the end of grade seven, I was riding the Queen Street streetcar with Allen and I — arbitrarily, it seems — decided to start collecting books like him. It seems strange to think that it was the object itself that drew me first, and not its content. (The desire to write came soon afterwards.) I announced the sudden decision to him and asked him to give me some recommendations to get me started. This was later in the day, leaning on a fence across the street from my house. I wrote down a list of authors he came up with on the spot: Kerouac, Burroughs, Orwell, Huxley, Joyce, Camus — a seemingly random selection of 20th century literature. And slowly I started spending my allowance on used books. And what’s strange, now that I think back on it, for a long time I would call him and tell him what I’d bought, reporting how my shelves were slowly filling up. It was as if I were an apprentice reporting to his master. Years later, when I was in university and my collection had long since surpassed his, whenever he’d come to my house, he’d casually look over my books, and if he saw something he hadn’t seen before, he’d take it out and leaf through it, often even asking, “When you did you get this?”

I must stress — and this is no exaggeration — that in those early years, Allen was my mentor, even though he was several months younger than me.

In grade eight (1983-1984), the small group of friends broke up a little in that we were in different classes. Only Allen was in my class, and this is how we became better friends. Grade eight was a very different year, at least for me. It was the beginning of a series of unhappy years at school. Peer pressure is always a problem when you’re a teenager, but I think those years, the Ralph Lauren years, were particularly conformist, not to mention expensive for our parents. (It’s no wonder that the image of Alex P. Keaton or the girls from Heathers come to mind as icons of that time.) For me those years were a tight-rope walk: I didn’t really want to be a part of it, but I didn’t want to draw attention to myself; I wanted to belong and be popular, but I didn’t want to jump through hoops to be so. Allen did even less to belong, and paid for it dearly.

I don’t know why someone who never made any effort to belong should have suffered because his peers were not accepting him. Maybe something else was happening, which I never understood or even caught a glimpse of. At any rate, Allen became stranger and stranger as the year wore on. I don’t want to go into detail, but I’ll say that I was often embarrassed, sometimes even disgusted by his behaviour. One thing I will mention, which is not so strange, is that he refused to cut his hair. In the end I think he waited a year and a half before he got it cut. Although it wasn’t dirty, it just hung down. He could have tied it back or something, as so many men do now, but the way he did nothing with it made it seem like an act of rebellion, a deliberate act of negligence.

At this point, just as we were becoming better friends, I grew alienated from him, which no doubt must have made things worse.

In September 1984 we entered high school, which turned out to be a bigger, more intense version of the junior high school we’d just attended for two years. Whatever problems we’d had there also became bigger and more intense. I kept up my balancing act for the next couple of years, eventually leaving to go to another high school for the last two years when I could take it no more. Allen did not last even the first term of grade nine. He dropped out and refused to go back. His mother, a teacher, with whom he lived, was understanding and willing to wait till he found his way. His father, with whom he spent most weekends, had less patience and insisted he see a psychologist. He also wouldn’t let Allen watch Rumble Fish, one of his favourite films at the time, because he was convinced that it had encouraged him to be rebellious.

When the second term started Allen found his way. He enrolled in an alternative school with students who hadn’t fit into mainstream schools. It was at this time that we really began to be best friends; now that we weren’t in the same school together, no amount of strangeness on his part could embarrass me socially. The school he went to had a lot of interesting, eccentric and charismatic teachers and students, and I wanted very much to join him. My parents, however, wouldn’t let me because they didn’t trust it academically. In a few short years, a lot of the interesting characters who went to the school graduated or just left and it began to fill up with spoiled rich kids, probably because the school had become fashionable.

Allen cut his hair and started to dress differently, in a way more in tune with the times. (The way he dressed when he was twelve would become fashionable over a decade later.) In many ways, the people who had mocked him and found him odd two or three years earlier had caught up to him and could relate to him now. He became popular, started going to parties and clubs.

I had always kept a certain distance from everyone, seeing most of them only during school. But in 1987, the year I visited Greece, the year I found the Rimbaud pictures and my life changed, I withdrew completely from the circle on whose periphery I’d always been, and changed high schools. I never told Allen that he had to choose between me and the others, and never thought of things in those terms, but somehow he started to get tired of them too.

After 1987, something strange began to happen, although it took me some time to realise it.

I began to discover Greek music and literature and wanted to move to Greece. Allen shared these interests with me and also planned to move to Greece. I think he craved a feeling of rootedness, of tradition. Then he started to dress like me. The reason I didn’t notice this at first was because it was so gradual. For example, I remember looking at some photos of James Dean and thinking that I’d like an overcoat like the one he was wearing. We went down to the vintage clothing stores in Kensington Market and I found one that was a bit too big for me. Allen saw one and bought it too, even though he hadn’t been planning to. When we left, we put them on. My mother saw us coming up the street, dressed in these long black coats. “You look like a couple of pallbearers,” she said.

In the summer of 1988, Allen went to Greece too. Then, in September, when he got back, he transferred to the high school I had changed to, and it was only then, when someone pointed it out to me, that I realised he was becoming me. I didn’t dress unusually, but I did dress somewhat unlike people my age. I dressed like an older person then (nowadays I look younger than I really am), in a tweed jacket. And so did Allen. My mother, amused by all this, would often say, “If you shit purple, so will he.”

I suddenly got embarrassed by him at school again, and kept my distance from him for a while. I remember the day this girl I knew was commenting on all of this as we were walking down the hall. “I’ve created a monster,” I said as we turned the corner. Just then Allen was standing in front of me. I don’t know if he understood what I had been talking about.

He must have realised the transfer had not been a good idea, and soon he changed schools again. After that things were all right again. He slowly started at least to dress less like me.

Allen had been with me during those feverishly formative years between 1987 and 1990, during the Rimbaud fascination, the discovery of Greece and Greek culture, and he shared in all my enthusiasms. He took them on too. I had become the writer, not he. I was now introducing books to him. Slowly, our roles had reversed. I had become the mentor.

I wonder if my passions were too much for him. Something happened to him during those years. He lost something, his brilliance and his originality. A flame went out.

I graduated from high school with mediocre marks, but spent a year upgrading them, and just managed to get into university. Allen, who had always and effortlessly done well in school, also got admitted to university. We both started at the same time.

Whereas I flourished and enjoyed myself, Allen drifted with no sense of purpose and dropped out in the first term, early enough to get a partial refund from his tuition fees. He decided to try again the following year, 1991-1992, but the same thing happened, only more quickly. And that was the beginning of the end for him.

University had a powerful effect on me. It matured me intellectually. Allen and I were still best friends, listening to music together or watching films, but I couldn’t share what I was experiencing in university. He lost interest in books and could barely read any more. He’d start books and abandon them. He wasn’t interested in getting a good job; he worked in a teleresearch firm, and would save up enough money to float through periods of chosen unemployment. If I remember correctly, somewhere around 1992 or 1993 he went to Greece again. Although he never said so, I think he may have been disappointed somehow. His passion may have cooled, but he had nothing to replace it with, nothing to move on to. He still listened to Greek music, read Greek poetry, but somewhat half-heartedly.

He became lazy, without any direction or ambition or motivation. He’d sprawl out on the couch and watch TV all day. He got fatter. And he developed the annoying habit of yawning loudly at least once or twice a minute.

His mother sold their house around this time, and he had to move out. He rented a room from one of the adult friends he’d had back when he was twelve. Eventually, his mother agreed to let him move back in with her in her new house.

At some point in 1996 I found I couldn’t relate to him any more. I saw less and less of him. He depressed me and the yawning got on my nerves. In January 1997, on the night before I left to come to Greece, I called him to say goodbye. It had been weeks, perhaps even months, since we had last spoken.

I wrote to him when I got here, but he would barely respond. His letters were short notes written in block letters. When they stopped coming, I wrote to him and said that if he didn’t write to me as well, I doubted our friendship would be able to survive. (This was still two or three years before I went online, and I don’t think Allen has ever done so.) I decided that as his friend for all these years, I would be honest with him and tell him it was time he’d got his act together. His reply was brief:



And that was it. He did actually try to write once more, a few months later, saying that he would now “BE ABLE” to write more often, though he didn’t explain why he was able to now, or what had prevented him before. The rest of the short letter was nothing more than brief notes about impersonal news and inconsequential information. The only thing I remember is his mentioning that John Fowles had recently visited Canada and was depressed by its lack of wildflowers.

I never heard from him again. I probably only wrote back once myself. In December 2000, when I returned to Canada for the first time since I’d left, I didn’t even call him. I didn’t have his mother’s new number. I ran into his younger brother one day and he told me nothing had changed: Allen just lay around on the couch “collecting static”. He gave me their number, and said, “You’ll probably have to leave a message first. He’s developed a habit of not answering. He just looks at the call display and waits to hear the message.” Hearing that put me off the idea completely. I visited again in 2003 and 2004, and still couldn’t call. By that time, too much time had passed.

Although Allen and I spent a lot of time together, we weren’t really close. We were the kind of friends who could sit around for long periods of time in silence, each doing his own thing, and I really enjoyed that. We were comfortable with that. But we never really confided in each other. As a result, I often wonder now, was something bothering him all those years? Something that had caused problems for him when he had dropped out and wouldn’t get his hair cut? I can only guess now. After all these years, Allen is a mystery to me.

* * * * *

Last year, I began exchanging emails with Paul, another friend from those early years in the eighties. We were reminiscing and I mentioned Allen. Paul started to tell me his view of Allen from the years 1987-1988, and how he had decided to keep his distance from Allen too.

A get-together at my house with A.S. and his girlfriend. Allen was so drunk, walking around my street in the middle of the night spinning his underwear over his head – that terrible naked appearance only a man can have – shirt on, socks on and nothing else.

Another time, it was New Year’s Eve. After this incident I wasn’t hanging around him much anymore. It felt like a dividing line for some reason. That could be because I am looking back at it. I have not thought about these things in years.

Anyway, it was a New Years party at Matt’s house and I invited Allen to it. I had just begun to hang out with a new group of people in the dramatic arts program, and was getting involved in that program more and more. Allen had this huge glass jug of either homemade wine or the very cheap stuff. The glass jug was huge. Like a jug from a hillbilly band…

Anyway, Allen was being his usual anti-social self and was drinking and spewing off things that I’m sure he thought were cryptic and Morrisonesque. They weren’t. I remember trying to get him involved in conversations – trying to get him talking to girls etc. At a certain point he became so loaded that he started pouring this cheap red wine over all of the girls’ heads. Not the boys. I found that strange at the time, but now I tend to think that he wasn’t so loaded that he couldn’t figure out that he would have gotten his ass kicked if he had. There were all different types of people at this party – dramies [i.e. people from the drama department], jocks, M.J. and all of her friends, older, big jocks.

He was stumbling around leaning on girls and trying to pour wine over their heads. They were all dressed up as well, seeing that it was New Years. He was wrecking their clothes. I look back on this and see that some of these kids had summer jobs and weekend jobs and bought their clothes – you know, worked for them. I think Matt kicked him out… but I can’t be sure of that. I am pretty sure that I got him home or he stayed at my place.

That was it, really. But I was trying to make a good impression and he fucked it up. People would ask me about it for months after. What’s wrong with your loser friend etc. I always felt a little sorry for Allen, but that was it for me. Allen had a way of really annoying the hell out of me. You know, pushing things too far. And after that – I may have hung around with him, but I was pretty much through.

Then the next year – we totally lost touch.

Did Allen experience any trauma in his childhood? I don’t want to speculate – maybe not. But if this whole double way of behaving and his ultimate 15-year couch-nap tells me that there is more going on than just a lazy poet.

I do think he had an aura of something different around him – but I really just think he was sick. And he never wrote anything from what I remember and he never really did anything. Never had girlfriends, etc. Just very sad. Very little living experience.

When I expressed amazement at how differently he acted around Paul, Paul wrote back:

It makes more sense in light of what has come to pass – that the real Allen was the drunk, incoherent, attention-seeking guy and maybe the fake Allen was the one you knew. Who the hell knows. See that was the last Allen I knew and then I hear what ends up happening to him and I am not at all surprised.

* * * * *

I met Allen twenty-five years ago. I last saw him ten or eleven years ago. In my mind, though, he lives in a place frozen in time, a place of arrested development. I want to break the silence, find his mother’s latest address and send a letter, or call, but it would be awkward. If I was in Toronto I’d be scared to see him. How has the past decade been to him? How obese will he be? How much will he have aged? If Allen had become nothing more than a reflection of those around him, what would I behold now? Would I recognise him at all?

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A Handful of Rain

I’ve been thinking about the rain a lot lately. I’ve always liked it it. I like listening to it fall, especially when there’s a tree outside the window and you can hear it patter on the leaves. I know of no other sound I would rather go to sleep to. One of the things I miss about Canada is how it could sometimes rain for over 24 hours. You could go to sleep to it and in the middle of the night it would still be there when you woke up. It would still be there in the morning too. It was great if you didn’t have anywhere to go.

But I like walking in it without an umbrella. I bought a pair of good waterproof boots about a month ago. I like when the rain gets into my coat, yet not enough to reach the clothes underneath.

When I was a child the sound of somebody taking a shower would make me feel sleepy. There’s something womb-like about being in a room with all that water outside.

I love all those water scenes in Tarkovsky’s films, especially the one in Nostalghia when Gortchakov lies down on the bed in his hotel room and the rain begins to fall outside. You watch it stream down the decaying wall outside the window, collect on the sill, and spill onto the floor.

I think about how our children and grandchildren will value rain a great deal more than most of us do. N. and I are moving to Crete, which scientists predict will soon become a desert. Scientists have been predicting lately that all or most of the Mediterranean will become desert. It doesn’t surprise me, but it does sadden me. Greece is already a dry place, where vegetation seems to struggle to grow. But this struggle always seemed eternal to me. I wanted to think it would always be that way. I wanted it to stay eternal.

I went out for a short walk in the rain tonight. I wore a hat to keep my head dry. I only needed to go out and get a few things at a shop a couple of blocks away, but I wanted to keep walking for hours. I wanted to get drenched. I wanted to carry some of it home in my hands and put it on the table or on one of the bookshelves. I want to lie down and sleep with the window open and not care if the papers and notebooks on my desk get wet. I want to sleep for a long time to that sound and have my dream enter the room, like Gortchakov’s dog, which came and lay at the foot of his hotel bed. In my dream I am 17 or 18 again, walking along Queen Street again late on a Sunday night, in the rain, as far as the old Fox Theatre to see the poster behind the glass, with all the films that are playing that month. Behind the doors the lobby is empty and dark except for the weak yellowish light behind the snack bar. I am young still, with the illusion that I am old already, instead of old already, with illusion that I am still young. I walk back home, past the closed shops, each as dark as the lobby of the empty Fox Theatre, as dark as only memories and dreams are. I am impatient to be older, to start my real life, far from there, in a place where there is heart-breaking light on mountain and sea, and nothing my young mind could ever imagine as a desert.

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Hearing what we want to hear

In the beginning of The Conversation, a couple are walking around in a large square, and their conversation is being recorded by a surveillance team. The central character, played by Gene Hackman, hears the man say, “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” He, like the viewers, is sure that the emphasis was on the word “kill” (which was probably how you read it), but at the end of the film, through a bit of cheating in the sound editing, we realise that what the man had really said was, “He’d kill us if he got the chance.”

The first time you see the film you aren’t sure if your memory isn’t playing tricks on you. Were you wrong in assuming that he said, “He’d kill us if he got the chance”, or did they re-record the words? (If you watch it on video or DVD, you go back and check, but the film was made in early seventies, before people could do such things.) You wonder if the context actually affects how you hear it. If so, who’s to say that the second time you’re hearing it correctly? The first time I saw it, it seemed like a subversive joke.

Not long after I met C. and fell in love with her, she decided for a number of reasons that we shouldn’t see each other any more. She could see where things were heading, even if I had not openly expressed my feelings for her yet, and the feelings were reciprocated to some extent. But things were complicated, for a number of reasons, some of which wouldn’t be apparent till years later. So she decided the best thing would be for us not to see each other, not even as friends. I was a very determined young man, and very much in love, and I was shattered by her decision. It made no sense. It was illogical. It simply could not be. Later that day, she agreed to see me again, to hear me out.

I poured my heart out to her, more than I’d ever done before. I was still an effusive teenager, and a lot of what I had to tell her wasn’t really relevant. I simply needed to open up and reveal myself and tell her I loved her.

When I had told her, she sat stunned. “But you don’t know me,” she said, and I asked her how that could be. She shrugged, and I could see that I had won. She took me into her arms and told me she could see more of me.

I clung to those words for months, even though I saw her very rarely for almost a year afterwards, while she finished her Master’s. I gave her the time and space she needed, or thought she needed, and I waited, remembering her words as if they had been a promise.

But then doubt began to set in, and one day it occurred to me that she might not actually have meant that she could see me more often, but that now that I had opened up and revealed so much of myself to her, I was more clearly visible to her. I can see more of you. It seemed like such a strange thing to say to somebody, and I began to think she can’t have meant either possibility. Surely a person would have phrased both sentiments differently. There might even have been a third meaning, which I could not determine. Had I ever understood her at all?

The more I thought about them, the more her words changed. I tried to remember the tone of her voice, the expression on her face. I searched for clues, but each time I revisited the scene, it would be a little different. And now, when I recall it, so many years later, the only things that present themselves when I try to remember are the couch she sat on across from my chair, the coffee table between us, the darkness outside the window, the framed print of Monet’s waterlilies on the wall. She and I are not there at all — just two manikins that would probably resemble us if I could see their faces, if their faces didn’t melt away every time I tried to look at them.

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When I go to the centre of Iraklio, I like walking through Lakkos, a poor area just inside the city walls by the Bethlehem Gate, by the Kommeno Bendeni area. The gate is actually seldom referred to by its name; people just call it Kommeno Bendeni. During the Ottoman Occupation it was also known as the Dark Gate (Σκοτεινή Πύλη), or Karanlik Kapi in Turkish. The traditional centre of Iraklio is a large fort or citadel, and the walls are still up.

Lakkos was traditionally a red-light district and a neighbourhood for refugees from Asia Minor, at least in the early twentieth century. N. gave me a book about the area written by someone she knows, and it has some pictures too. I haven’t read it yet. I can only imagine what the area was like even ten years ago, perhaps even five years ago. A lot of the low houses are being torn down and apartment buildings being put up in their place.


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If there is a single reason why I’m living in Greece today, it may be because, about 120 years ago, next to a river in Ethiopia, a shutter opened in a camera for a fraction of a second and allowed the light to reach some film.

I don’t remember how I discovered Arthur Rimbaud. I do remember that I bought the New Directions Season in Hell and later gave it to a friend before I could read it. I ended up buying another one, the well-thumbed copy I still have. That was about twenty years ago, when I was sixteen.

As an adolescent I was ripe for Rimbaud, except that I didn’t take drugs. I agreed with the principle of the derangement of the senses, or at least supported a metaphorical derangement of the imagination. Rimbaud himself renounced it in A Season in Hell, so I saw no reason to experiment with drugs just because he had (seemingly) advocated it.

Of course, when you’re sixteen, it’s hard not to become captivated by someone who had supposedly changed the face of literature at your age. I pored over A Season in Hell and Illuminations and Henry Miller’s Time of the Assassins (the worst example of self-aggrandisement ever published, but I liked it anyway). I wanted Enid Starkie’s biography of Rimbaud, but for copyright reasons the book wasn’t available in Canada. A neighbour of ours had a sister in Ohio, and I sent her the money to order it and mail it to me. I read it so much that the glued binding cracked and entire sections of the book came loose.

Before I got the biography, though, I had one of the strangest experiences in my life, the only one I could really call mystical, although there was nothing religious or spiritual about it.

One of the things I found fascinating about Rimbaud was how, at the age of nineteen, or more likely twenty-one, he turned his back on literature forever and went to Africa to strike it rich. There were letters home to his mother and sister, but no one else in France ever saw him again. He disappeared. He walked into the heart of darkness and didn’t emerge till it had eaten him up inside. I was fascinated by the idea of an unrecorded, unwitnessed life (in this case the nearly unrecorded life, since there were the letters, and the accounts of those who knew him and worked with him in Africa), a life in which one did not care if any evidence of one’s existence was left behind or not. I imagined the lives of people like Verlaine, through whose lives Rimbaud had passed so tumultuously, how he had left such a mark on them before he vanished and became an unreal memory and two collections of poetry.

One day I was in Letters, the bookshop owned and operated by Nicky Drumbolis, and I bought the edition of Rimbaud’s complete works translated by Wallace Fowlie. When he saw that I was interested in Rimbaud, Nicky showed me some small French editions he had found in some bargain bins at a book fair. One of them was a biography, and was full of photographs and facsimiles of manuscript pages and drawings Rimbaud had made, and which others had made of him. I was spellbound by the wealth of material. And then, I turned a page and saw that there were two photographs of Rimbaud in his thirties in Africa. Before this, I had only seen pictures of the adolescent.

In one he was standing by a railing, possibly on a balcony, and in the other he was next to a river, his foot upon a rock and his hand resting on his knee. (I have searched online for the latter, but can’t find it. There is, however, another photograph that seems to be from the same time.) In the first photograph there were blotches on it, which I imagined to be spatterings of mud. In the second photograph his facial features were barely visible, but his skin looked as dark as tough leather.

I can barely describe what happened to me as I stood in the bookshop looking at those two photographs, which, by some miracle, had found their way out of Africa so that I, a century later, could see them. The fact that these had been taken at all was miraculous enough, but this was too much.

When I left the shop I walked along Queen Street, and everywhere I looked I saw traces of the nineteenth century: crumbling bricks on a wall by an empty lot; a faded, peeling sign over an abandoned storefront; upstairs, a dingy shade pulled down behind a grimy window. All around me was the romantic squalor of the big city. I felt as if I could walk into one of those rooms somewhere and find, as if hiding all these years, some Rimbaud or Verlaine, dressed in rags and shuffling yellowed papers with poems written in blue-black ink, poems that would be consigned forever to oblivion. It was like seeing ghosts everywhere. I felt partly in the twentieth century and partly in the nineteenth. All around the city, rooms held secret, unwitnessed lives, eternal and timeless. (I remember a line from a poem I had written around that time: “miraculous Mozarts anonymous among us”.)

After all these years, it is difficult for me to recapture and convey what I felt then and what private and personal atmosphere I carried around with me. I had become unstuck from my time, and I experienced a riot of the imagination. It was also a very isolating experience: no one else was privy to it. And it lasted for years.

I became very interested in old photographs, and especially the clothes people wore in them. For some reason, I often found myself focussing on the lapels in them. I started wearing tweed jackets and old overcoats I had bought in the vintage clothing shops in Kensington Market. Old barbershops and the smell of talcum powder, for some reason, were also particularly evocative for me.

Looking back on that time, I realise that those were the years when my iron was the hottest, when I had the greatest potential for becoming. I romanticised hardship, and I believe still that I could have endured a great deal of it. I sometimes think I could have done anything — written an epic, joined the Foreign Legion, got a tattoo.

Then, in the summer of 1987, while I was still deep in this sense of timelessness, I came to Greece for the summer by myself. I had been looking forward to it for months before, and felt I was visiting another time, and not just another place. I had been looking forward to the heat, too, which had figured so much in Rimbaud’s poetry and letters (“Women nurse those fierce invalids, home from hot countries.”).

That summer I came across the Greek version of the Georges Moustaki song “Le Meteque”, and I was convinced that it had been written about Rimbaud.

Σαν σύννεφο απ’ τον καιρό, μονάχο μεσ’ τον ουρανό
πήρα παιδί τους δρόμους.
Περπάτησα όλη τη γη μ’ ένα τραγούδι στην καρδιά
και τη βροχή στους ώμους.
Μ’ αυτά τα χέρια σαν φτερά που δεν εγνώρισαν χαρά
πάλεψα με το κύμα
κι είχα βαθιά μου μια πληγή, αγάπη που δε βρήκε γη,
χαμένη μεσ’ το κρίμα.

Με πρόσωπο τόσο πικρό, από τον ήλιο τον σκληρό,
χάθηκα μεσ’ τη νύχτα,
κι ο έρωτας με πήγε εκεί πού ‘χα στα χείλη το φιλί
μα συντροφιά δεν είχα.
Με την καρδιά μου μια πληγή, περπάτησα σ’ αυτή τη γη
που είχα να τη ζήσω,
μα μου τα πήρανε μαζί, τ’ όνειρο και την αυγή
και φεύγω πριν αρχίσω.

Σαν σύννεφο απ’ τον καιρό, μονάχο μεσ’ τον ουρανό,
θά ‘ρθω ξανά κοντά σου,
μέσα σε κείνη τη βροχή που σ’ άφησα κάποιο πρωί
κι έχασα τη ζωή μου.
Θά ‘ρθω ξανά απ’ τα παλιά, σαν το πουλί απ’ το νοτιά
την πόρτα να χτυπήσω.
Θά ‘ναι μια άνοιξη πικρή, όλα θ’ ανοίγουνε στη γη
κι απ’ την αρχή θ’ αρχίσω.

Δημήτρης Χριστοδούλου

This is a loose translation, which does not pretend to be poetic:

Like a cloud alone in the sky, as a child I took to the roads. I walked the whole earth with a song in my heart and the rain on my shoulders. With these hands like wings that never felt joy I fought against the waves, and deep inside me was a wound, a love which never took root, lost in shame.

With a face made harsh by the fierce sun, I vanished into the night, and love took me to where I had a kiss ready on my lips, but I was all alone. With my heart a wound, I walked that piece of earth that it was my fate to walk, but they took away both my dream and the dawn, and I left again before I could begin.

Like a cloud alone in the sky, I will come to you again, in that same rain where I left you one morning, and my life was over. I will return from the past like a bird from the south to knock on your door. It will be a bitter spring, everything will be opening up on the earth, and from the beginning I will begin again.

Dimitris Christodoulou

The song captured all the melancholy (although perhaps melancholy is not a strong enough word) of Rimbaud’s story. It captured all the disillusionment, the sense of having lost everything that you held dear. Of course, it was the story any emigrant who was living in disappointment and was planning to return, but to me, back then, it was only Rimbaud. He never really returned, of course, but there’s nothing in the song that says the speaker will never return either.

(It is perhaps obvious to point out that in performance art, and in shorter literary works that can be read over again — I’m thinking about declarative lyric poetry — that future tenses repeatedly remain future tenses, but it needs to be pointed out because some writers can take advantage of the fact that if you return to the work twenty years later, the speaker will still be telling you about what he’s going to do any day now.)

This gave the song the same timeless, old-fashioned quality, the timelessness that had coloured everything around me after I saw the photographs in Letters.

When I came to Greece in 1987, it was only a few months after I saw the photographs, and when I arrived, I heard the song. The song was about a return that never occurs, about the unfulfilled desire to return, and I felt as if I was returning to a place where I’d never been before, as I have tried to describe before. Greece has changed a lot since then, so that it no longer resembles the Greece of my febrile imagination of that time, but by the time I moved here in 1997, I had already invested so much of myself into this place that its changes made no difference. A major part of my sense of identity had become inextricably linked with leaving one place and never arriving in another.

PS While searching for photographs to include in this post, I came across one that was recently discovered by Claude Jeancolas. Rimbaud must be the one standing on the far left. It was taken in 1882 at Sheikh-Uthman, near Aden.

PPS Frankie the C. noted in the comments that a copy of A Season in Hell, signed by Rimbaud, was sold for over $600,000. He has sent me the picture of the cover. Strangely, Rimbaud’s name seems to have been scratched out. It must have been Verlaine’s jealous wife.

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I can’t help but cringe when I read that a story or novel should have a “hook”. While I agree that a beginning should be interesting, all the writing manuals in the world have emphasised this point so strenuously that every mediocre, or even less-than-mediocre writer has learned to start his story with one. Well, I’m not fooled. The hooks are transparent. They’re easy, and by no means an indication that the rest of the story is going to be interesting. Here are the kinds of opening sentences that are meant to hook the reader.

By the time we’d got Simon disentangled, the mailman was dead.

For years I’d been looking half-heartedly for my name in the dictionary. Nothing, however, prepared me for the shock of actually finding it.

“You can pray all you want,” Chris said. “God’s not listening. And besides, he’d never take an interest in dominos.”

I admit they’re silly, but that’s all there is to it. You could fill volumes with them. (Calvino, in his lecture on Quickness, mentions a Guatemalan writer, Augusto Monterroso, who wrote a story consisting only of one sentence: “When I woke up, the dinosaur was still there.” ) They’re so easy to come up with, and the writers who insist on them so mediocre, that they are a guarantee that what you read will not live up to the promise (if you can truly say there is any) of that first sentence. They should, like Monterroso, just stop there, because that’s as good as it gets.

How’s this for a first sentence?

Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.

Not particularly promising by today’s standard. I can hear the whining shits in writing workshops complain, “The hook’s not strong enough.” And yet, it’s from one of the greatest stories ever written, “The Dead”. Joyce’s story is the opposite of the hook-approach. The reader is lulled by forty-odd pages of interesting but somewhat uneventful writing into thinking that nothing is going to happen and shocked by the magnitude of what eventually does.

The writing that is taught in manuals, and I imagine in workshops, is so formulaic, and its practitioners so unimaginative that for some time I had been suspecting that its effect was not only to lead writers (and publishers too, I suspect) to think that there is only one way to begin a story, but was also creating a new kind of reader: one who immediately punishes the piece of writing that fails to observe the rules by refusing to read it.

This suspicion was confirmed a few days ago when I was browsing around in Amazon. I’ve been interested in Paul Auster lately. I don’t know, and am not that interested, in how good a writer he is. He has rekindled my interest in story-telling, and I’m reading everything I can find by him and letting his influence on me run its course. I find it liberating. I went to Amazon to check out people’s comments on Leviathan. While I was there, I came across Roger Angle.

Angle is supposedly a writer, and claims to have been nominated for a Pulitzer once for reporting. I rarely go to Amazon. It’s enough to make someone who wants to be a writer give it all up. If I ever entertained populist notions, I’d be cured in about two seconds of browsing there. It’s depressing. I’ll admit they’re cheap shots, and have little to do with the main point of this post, but I can’t help but quote some of Angle’s critical gems.

Of Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, he writes:

The narrative lacks a sense of place. Although it is set in Tokyo, we don’t see it or hear or smell it. We don’t learn anything about the city or way it is laid or out or how it would feel to be there. The focus is on the main guy and his day-to-day life. Although it is set in Tokyo, there is no sense that this is a romantic or exotic place.

You know why, Roger? Because Murakami’s Japanese, and Tokyo isn’t the least bit romantic or exotic to him. It just happens to be the city he lives in.

Most of Angle’s reviews are of pulp, although he sometimes reviews more “serious” fiction. I find the one on Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost quite funny, especially in light of the Auster review.

I loved this book and can’t wait to read it again. The older I get the less I can stand best-sellers, with their rampant exposition and lack of trust in the reader. This is just the opposite. Ondaatje trusts you to figure out the story, to add two and two, which is part of the pleasure of novel reading, I think. His use of language, his keen insight into the characters, the depth to which he plumbs the human heart — all make this a first-rate novel. The only novels I would rank above it are Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” Melville’s “Moby Dick” and James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

This guy who claims his favourite novel is Ulysses actually spends most of his time reviewing crime fiction and reviews books he hasn’t even finished. Now, keep in mind what he writes about “rampant exposition and lack of trust in the reader” and Ondaatje’s belief in the reader “to add two and two”. Although he finds it harder to stand best-sellers, this is his review of Leviathan after reading only ten pages.

The strategy of the story-telling didn’t work for me.
I found the first ten pages so annoying and tedious that I couldn’t read any further.
What I gather from the first 10 pp is that:
1. The dead guy had a “terrible secret.” I need to know up front what this is, to keep reading. I won’t read another page to find out.
2. The narrator knew the dead guy but doesn’t want to tell FBI. I can’t imagine why, and I don’t care. This is supposed to be a hook, I guess, but it doesn’t work that way for me. Just tell me, right off the bat. At least give me a hint.
3. The dead guy blew himself up for a reason. We don’t know what that is. Right now-during the whole 10 pp-I don’t give a tinker’s damn. I guess this is supposed to be another hook. You have to give me at least a hint. Otherwise I just do a dim-out.I took a workshop from the novelist John Rechy one time. He said: If you keep saying, in your book, “I have a mystery that I’m going to tell you,” and you say it over and over again, it becomes maddening. It will make you put the book down. That is what happened to me here.
Thank God I can just put it down and forget about it.
Whew. What a relief.

Angle, you’re in no position to comment on what Auster says “over and over again”. After a mere ten pages, you have nothing but false impressions. You don’t know jack shit about this book’s strategy. Auster never delays explaining the explosion. The explosion isn’t the point. If Auster has made any mistake, it’s trusting fools like you to put two and two together.

What really impressed me about this review was that it confirmed what I’d been suspecting for some time: that now lazy, formulaic writers have become lazy, formulaic readers, unable to go on if someone hasn’t followed the rules and written the proper opening. When I read it, I hadn’t read Angle’s profile and didn’t know that he’s supposed to be a writer (he doesn’t really mention getting published). The reference to the workshop said it all. Roger Angle just had to put the book down: John Rechy had told him to find it maddening.

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Sucking the Blood out of Literature

Note: This post has been referred to in some of the links to it as a review. It’s not a review in the normal sense of the word. I haven’t attempted to give a well-rounded impression of the book. It’s just a blog post about the first few pages of a book I tried to read. (I actually read two or three hundred pages of it.) I don’t know how you see it, but to me there’s a difference.

This entry is made up of notes I made this summer, and had planned to post, but then forgot about. Recently Dr Zen blogged about bad writing, and it reminded me of the notes. This summer I felt like indulging in a pot-boiler, something I’m rarely able to do. I discussed this with Jamie. I rarely have any interest in or patience for film, and often when I see something, I just want the plot to distract me for a couple of hours. My Tarkovsky days are behind me, I’m afraid. Sometimes, I just want to watch a crappy film. I’m a sucker for courtroom dramas. I enjoy thrillers. When they’re over, I forget them. But when I pick up a crappy novel, I invariably abandon it, even though I started in the same mood. Jamie and I came to the conclusion that a film allows you to turn off your mind for a couple of hours, but reading — for me, at any rate — is a more active endeavour, and I can’t both turn off my mind and read at the same time. Eventually I start to get annoyed with the book, even though it’s providing me with the very thing I sought from it. I’ve tried a few times to read Stephen King, for example, but have never been able to finish anything.

So this summer I’d read that The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova had edged The Da Vinci Code out of first place in the New York Times bestseller list. The first reviews were quite enthusiastic. This was the first book, supposedly, to deal with the historical Vlad Tepes, better known as Dracula, and was much more literary than Dan Brown’s book (which isn’t too difficult). So I bought it.

Even the good reviews mentioned some of the book’s weaknesses, such as Kostova’s inability to create different voices for her three different narrators, who tell their stories in different places and at different times. Another one was her reliance on cliches in her plot. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for anyone to travel by train except to create atmosphere. One reviewer pointed out that it’s absurd to imagine that a couple of scholars would go to the library to take out a copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula when a cheap edition could be got in any old bookshop.

But I wasn’t at all prepared for how bad the writing was. I can actually say that it’s more noticeably bad than Dan Brown’s writing. It’s often said that publishers don’t bother editing what they put out any more, and if anyone wants to see how true this is, all they need to do is read the first chapter or two of The Historian. What irks me more than this, however, is that Kostova holds an MFA and won the Hopwood Award for the Novel-in-Progress. I assume that the award was for The Historian. If not, I’d hate to see how bad the unpublished book was.

I’d like to quote excerpts from the first chapter.

In 1972 I was sixteen — young, my father said, to be travelling with him on his diplomatic missions. […] It seems peculiar to me now that I should have been so obedient well into my teens, while the rest of my generation was experimenting with drugs and protesting the imperialist war in Vietnam, but I had been raised in a world so sheltered that it makes my adult life in academia look positively adventurous. To begin with, I was motherless, and the care that my father took of me had been deepened by a double sense of responsibility, so that he protected me more completely than he might have otherwise.

How do you deepen the care you take of someone? What does that mean? Does Kostova know? I know you can care deeply for someone, but can you take deep care of someone? I don’t think so. I haven’t got to the end of the first paragraph, and I already deeply distrust Kostova as a writer.

My mother had died when I was a baby, before my father founded the Centre for Peace and Democracy. My father never spoke of her and turned quietly away if I asked questions; I understood very young that this was a topic too painful for him to discuss.

Several things here. “Turned quietly away” is bad for two reasons. First, the adverb is unnecessary, since it’s obvious enough that he’s not answering. And second, it’s a melodramatic cliche. Do people really do that? Is he so rude as to ignore her questions and turn away without a word? Would you let someone do that without saying, “Hey! I asked you a question!” And there’s a slight contradiction in what the narrator is telling us, which she does elsewhere. If she was perceptive enough to understand that this was a topic too painful for him to talk about, why the hell was she asking him questions?

The latest of [my] housekeepers was Mrs Clay, who took care of our narrow seventeenth-century town house on the Raamgracht, a canal in the heart of the old city. Mrs. Clay let me in after school every day and was a surrogate parent when my father travelled, which was often. She was English, older than my mother would have been, skilled with a feather duster and clumsy with teenagers; sometimes, looking at her too-compasionate, long-toothed face over the dining table, I felt she must be thinking of my mother and I hated her for it. When my father was away, the handsome house echoed.

I’m not going to go looking through dictionaries to see if “latest” can be used this way. I’m sure it means that Mrs Clay is still the housekeeper, which is not the case. Another contradiction: Mrs Clay, who is both a surrogate parent and clumsy with teenagers, is never shown to be either a surrogate parent or clumsy with anyone. She simply isn’t an important character in the novel, at least as far as I read. And “long-toothed” is a very poor choice in a vampire novel.

And how does the house stop echoing when her father is home? Does he fill it up? The notion that the house echoes is cartoonish: I imagine crickets and tumbleweed rolling down the hall.

No one could help me with my algebra, no one admired my new coat or told me to come here and give him a hug, or expressed shock over how tall I had grown. When my father returned from some name on the European map that hung on the wall in our dining room, he smelled like other times and places, spicy and tired.

I don’t know about you, but to me, a European map is not the same as a map of Europe. And not only do “spicy and tired” not go together, I can’t imagine how anyone smells tired.

While he was gone, I went back and forth to school, dropping my books on the polished hall table with a bang. Neither Mrs Clay nor my father let me go out in the evenings, except to the occasional carefully approved movie with carefully approved friends, and — to my retrospective astonishment — I never flouted these rules. I preferred solitude anyway; it was the medium in which I had been raised, in which I swam comfortably. I excelled at my studies but not in my social life. Girls my age terrified me, especially the tough-talking, chain-smoking sophisticates of our diplomatic circle — around them I always felt that my dress was too long, or too short, or that I should been wearing something else entirely. Boys mystified me, although I dreamed vaguely of men. In fact, I was happiest alone in my father’s library, a large, fine room on the first floor of our house.

Kostova is trying to get poetic, but instead she merely becomes nonsensical. Solitude is not a medium, and you don’t swim in a medium. (Christ!) And then, how is tough-talking sophisticated? Does Kostova even know the meaning of the words she’s using? Now, keep in mind this vague dreaming of men. It’s silly enough on its own, but there’s a funny bit of irony here, and more of the inconsistency we find all over the place, especially when she’s drawing a character. We have a naive, sexless girl in an ivory tower, right?

During his absences, I spent hours doing my homework at the mahogany desk or browsing the shelves that lined every wall. I understood later that my father had either half forgotten what was on one of the top shelves or — more likely — assumed I would never be able to reach it; late one night I took down not only a translation of the Kama Sutra but also a much older volume and an envelope of yellowing papers.

Kostova has done so much to lose the basic trust a reader has at the outset of a book, that I have to assume that the irony that this girl, who sometimes vaguely dreams of men and is mystified by boys, is sneaking peaks into her father’s Kama Sutra, is unintentional. Oh, of course, it’s the translation she wants. She’s not interested in the pictures.

I can’t say even now what made me pull them down. But the image I saw at the centre of the book, the smell of age that rose from it, and my discovery that the papers were personal letters all caught my attention forcibly. I knew I shouldn’t examine my father’s private papers, or anyone’s, and I was also afraid that Mrs Clay might suddenly come in to dust the dustless desk — that must have been what made me look over my shoulder at the door. But I couldn’t help reading the first paragraph of the top-most letter, holding it for a couple of minutes as I stood near the shelves.

Forcibly is unnecessary. Caught is enough. And Kostova seems to have lost control of the English language by the time she gets to “that must have been what made me look over my shoulder”. This kind of cleft sentence suggests that she’s already mentioned that she looked over shoulder, but she hasn’t. And the “must have been” suggests that she doesn’t know for sure, and is basing this conclusion on external evidence. Why doesn’t she know for sure then? And the last sentence is full of unnecessary information, even wrong information. I don’t need to be told that she held the letter (I’m surprised she didn’t tell me she held it in her hand) and that she did it for a couple of minutes, or where she was standing. And the letter is too short, and her reading too furtive, for it to have taken a couple of minutes.

She quotes the letter:

My dear and unfortunate successor:
It is with regret that I imagine you, whoever you are, reading the account I must put down here. The regret is partly for myself — because I will surely be at least in trouble, maybe dead, or perhaps worse, if this is in your hands. But my regret is also for you, my yet-unknown friend, because only by someone who needs such vile information will this letter someday be read.

Does Kostova know what “regret” means? She uses it three times, and never correctly. If the author of the letter is imagining someone in the future, he is actually doing so with hope. It would make more sense to say that he hopes no one will ever have to read this letter. He also regrets imagining the future reader, even while he imagines her. Then he regrets what will most likely happen to him. If what he fears comes true, then it is not regret he should feel for the reader, but pity.

At this point, my sense of guilt — and something else too — made me put the letter hastily back in its envelope, but I thought about it all that day and the next.

And something else? Unfortunately, Kostova forgot to tell us what that something else was. If that’s not lazy writing, I don’t know what is.

When my father returned from his latest trip, I looked for an opportunity to ask him about the letters and the strange book. I waited for him to be free, for us to be alone, but he was very busy in those days, and something about what I had found made me hesitate to approach him. Finally I asked him to take me on his next trip. It was the first time I had kept a secret from him and the first time I had ever insisted on anything.

I can’t understand how someone who hastily puts the letter back for fear of getting caught reading it would then start looking for an opportunity to ask her father about it. Talk about sloppy! Kostova can’t stay consistent in a single paragraph, sometimes in a single sentence. And we have more lazy vagueness: something about what I had found made me hesitate. What does this mean? Why doesn’t she know what this something was? If she does know, why isn’t she telling us?

And are we supposed to believe that this girl, who’s been sneaking into the library to look at her father’s Kama Sutra has never kept any secrets from her father before? I wonder if Kostova’s got the memory of a goldfish.

I won’t try your patience for much longer. I’ll only give you the worst howlers.

The father decides to take her with him on his next trip. After some more lazy, sloppy writing, we get to the city.

Because this city is where my story starts, I’ll call it Emona, its Roman name, to shield it a little from the sort of tourist who follows doom around with a guidebook.

Why is she concealing the modern name of the city? For two reasons: to prevent some people from going there, and because that’s where her story starts. Does the second one make any sense whatsoever?

I strained and craned until I caught sight of the castle through sodden tree branches — moth-eaten brown towers on a steep hill at the town’s centre.

This place must have pretty damn big moths. Either that, or their castles are made of wool.

At a table near the window we drank tea with lemon, scalding through the thick cups, and ate our way through sardines on buttered white bread and even a few slices of torta. “We’d better stop there,” my father said.

“We need to rest up. There’s still 150 feet of sardines to eat through till we break out of this place.”

Then she tells him about the book and the letters.

He sat forward, sat very still, then shivered visibly. This strange gesture alerted me at once. If a story came, it wouldn’t be like any story he’d ever told me. He glanced at me, under his eyebrows, and I was surprised to see how drawn and sad he looked.
“Are you angry?” I was looking into my cup now, too.

Visibly is redundant, and shivering is not a gesture. And since he’s looking at her, from under his eyebrows, and since she’s obviously had to look at him in order to be able to describe it for us, neither of them can possibly be looking at their cup of tea!

All this (and more!) from the first six pages of the book. This is what an MFA is good for.

And I worry about the words I set down on paper.

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Last night I held a man’s hand in mine as I guided it and helped him write his will.

I met Harry in 1995 when I came to Greece for three months, a couple of years before I moved here permanently. He had already begun his decline, but was still active and mobile. A few years before that, however, he’d had an accident. He had been sitting on a balcony and he climbed into a fig tree to get some figs for his god-daughter. He was by himself and the branch he was on broke. He fell over 20 feet, hitting several branches on his way down, breaking his neck and shattering one of his shoulders. He lay at the bottom for a few hours till somebody came home and found him.

When I met Harry he was wobbly, due partly to this accident, but due mostly to his diabetes. His circulation was bad in his hands and feet. He could walk around and work in his garden. He was fiercely proud and never accepted help unless he absolutely had to. He’d always say he needed the exercise.

That summer he was 66. I used to sit on his balcony next door and we would talk for hours. He’d tell me stories about his life.

His father had an executive position in the mint in Athens, but when Harry was a young boy — about 12 or 13 — he got him a job working at the Acropol Hotel across the street from the Polytechnic. It was during the Occupation. The Germans and Italian used the Acropol as a resting place for officers who were transferring from North Africa to Russia and vice versa. One day a high ranking Italian officer was outside, getting ready to leave with his wife. She had a dog but couldn’t take it with her, and was upset. Harry was standing nearby, watching. The Italian officer called him over. He asked Harry to keep the dog for him and one day he’d come back for it. Harry told him, with the little Italian he’d picked up, that they didn’t have enough food for themselves, let alone a dog. (Athens suffered a terrible famine during the Occupation. At the hotel, Harry says they would even destroy potato peels so that no one could eat them.) The officer took Harry down to the kitchen and told the Italian chef that he was to give Harry food every day for his dog. And so the next day Harry went down to the kitchen with a small pot and the chef filled it up. Soon Harry started taking bigger and bigger pots and even taking home scraps in a sort of wheelbarrow or wagon. He managed not only to feed his own family, but all of his extended family there in the neighbourhood of Theseio.

“We survived the Occupation because of that dog,” he said.

Harry had two sisters and a brother, and was the wild, unruly one of the family. He never cared about school or books, but some of his siblings’ learning rubbed off on him, and he was surprisingly literate in a cultural sense. He knew a great deal more than he let on, especially about history.

One of our favourite topics of conversation was Athens. He would tell me what it was like when he was young. (“In the spring the whole city was fragrant. Everywhere you went, the gardens were full of flowers.”) On the corner of such-and-such a street was a shop or restaurant he liked, now long gone and hardly a memory. I would tell him what was there now. What we liked best was when he couldn’t remember where something was, couldn’t remember the name of a street, and we’d have to figure out what or where it was.

“All right,” I’d say, “you know where the square is? On the east side there’s a little church. Do you remember the narrow street that begins across from there? Well, you go down that street for two blocks…”

Harry’s legs were too bad for him to walk around Athens any more, and this was the closest thing he had to those walks. We visited lots of old places by reconstructing them like this.

Harry had an apartment not far from where I lived, but he only went once a month, to visit his doctor. The rest of the time he and his wife Kathie stayed out here, in the Peloponnese. I visited them in Athens whenever they came down. Last year they sold it, so I only see them in the summer, or the few times I come down here for a long weekend.

In 1953 Harry left Greece. His father, who had married two or three times in his life, was an old man and was dying. Harry was eager to go and wasn’t going to wait. He went to say goodbye to him in his deathbed.

“Are you going away?” the old man asked.

“No,” Harry said. “I’m just going out to get a paper.”

And that was that. He joined the merchant navy and was gone. He spent a few years in South America, obtained citizenship in at least three countries there, and then went up to the US, where he had an uncle. The uncle had a hotel and Harry went to work in the kitchen with a French chef. A few years later the chef left to open up a resort, and impressed by Harry’s skills and memory, he took him with him. Over the years Harry became a chef himself and later opened a restaurant.

He lived a rich life. He loved playing the horses, and always had a lot of money with which to do so. He liked driving too, and once drove through the Mojave desert. For a spell he was even a loan shark. When he had the restaurant with his first wife, they were approached by a bookie who asked them if they would simply collect payments for him from people who would come to the restaurant, and they agreed. This was in the late 60s or early 70s and Harry was making $500 a week from that alone.

Then one night Harry and his wife were in an accident. Harry was fine, but his wife was left crippled. When she came home from the hospital Harry told her, “Look, you know me. I’ll never be able to look after you.” And he left her their entire insurance policy, enough money for her and her daughter from a previous marriage to live comfortably on for the rest of her life.

Then he got word that his mother back in Greece was dying. He felt guilty for having left his father the way he had, and returned to see her. He had to close the restaurant while he was here, and when he returned, it went out of business.

In the 1980s he started returning to Greece more often. He married Kathie and brought her with him. I don’t know what his first wife was like, but he probably met his match with Kathie. She’s told me that early in their relationship they were arguing about something and he told her, “I’m going to have to hit you now.” Kathie told him plainly that she would give him as good as she got. They both took a swing at the same time and gave each other a black eye.

When I moved to Greece in 1997, Harry was still moving around, but was starting to fall down a lot. He wasn’t eating properly. He’d go through entire an watermelon or a few kilos of grapes in one sitting. He thought that as long as he took his insulin it was all right.

Then, about five or six years ago, he went out after taking his insulin and forgot to eat. He went in his car, and on the way home, he blacked out and crashed. He ran off the road and nearly fell into the sea. He smashed his face against the steering wheel and broke his jaw. Without the metal rod in his neck from the the fall from the fig tree, he might have broken his neck as well.

When he regained consciousness he found neither the horn nor the lights would work. He was only 100 meters from home, and if the lights had been working, Kathie would have been able to see him. At 1.00 am she fell asleep on the couch. At 6.00 some construction workers found him. He had been in the car for nine hours. At the hospital, they had to cut the clothes off him because they had stuck to his body from all the blood that had dried on him.

The doctor told him that his liver was too bad and they couldn’t operate even to reset his jaw. After the accident Harry stopped going for walks. He couldn’t even manage to hold on to the railing and move back and forth on the balcony any more. He was always able to joke about death, though. Once when we were sitting on the balcony, a couple of flies were on his legs, all cut and scraped from his falls. “They smell cemetery,” he said, and smirked. It was macabre, but I knew him well enough to laugh.

He started falling more and more often, not out in the garden now, but just in the house, often on the marble stairs leading upstairs. He refused to sleep in the living room, and would lean on Kathie as they went upstairs to his bedroom.

Then about three years ago he took some insulin that had gone off and nearly died. Since then his deterioration has been rapid. Last summer he had two heart failures and a minor stroke. When Kathie called me late one night to tell me he was in the hospital, I thought, that’s it, this time he’s not going to make it. I went back to bed and told N. Then I lay there quietly as the tears ran down my face.

But as he had so many times before, Harry rallied back. But as with every time before, he came back a bit weaker than he was before. This summer he’s had a couple of bad falls, and can no longer stand up. He has to sleep in the living room because Kathie can’t support him going up the stairs. He is frustrated and angry, and often takes it out on Kathie, who is barely able to help him in and out of chairs any more.

The only force left in Harry now is rage, but it is either bottled up or misdirected when it is let out. Dylan Thomas was still relatively young when he urged old men to rage against the dying of the light, and also died with relative suddenness. The romantic heroism of his poem does not sit well with the reality of things as I see it in Harry. He can rage, but only impotently, because the dying of the light is so slow, and Harry is so broken and defeated by the very life he lived, that he has no choice but to go gentle into that good night.

When I met Harry ten years ago, his hands were so bad, and his grip so weak, that he could no longer do up the buttons on his shirt. I don’t know when the last time he held a pen and signed his name was. But this summer we persuaded him to write a will, and my parents, who are here visiting, went to town and found him a notary. She said it would be best and simplest if he wrote it out himself. Otherwise the procedure was more complicated and took more time. She wrote out what he’d need to write, and I copied it out in block capitals for him. He said he’d try to if I came to help him.

When I went to see him he was sitting at the kitchen table. He had tried it himself, but he could barely grip the pen and it was nothing but illegible scribbles.

“It’s OK,” I told him, “we’ll do it together.” I stood behind his chair, put the pen in his gnarled swollen hand, and put my hand over his. With my other hand I held his elbow and wrote it out for him. It was only one sentence, establishing Kathie as his sole beneficiary, but it took quite a while. Quietly he would thank me from time to time or even give me a little encouragement. When we got to the words “and after my death”, slowly writing it out letter by letter, it was finally there before us, and I wondered if he was looking at it and thinking about it the way I was. I read out each word as we wrote it, and I tried to say this one nonchalantly, as if it meant no more than “beneficiary” or “bequeath” or “property”.

Whatever he was thinking, he said nothing. Most of the time he would let his whole arm go, so that in fact I was writing the will out for him, using his hand to do so, but a couple of times I felt a slight push, as if he were saying, “Look, I remember what this was like, what writing or walking was like, let’s pretend I can still manage it a bit, a couple of words on the paper, a couple of steps out on the balcony.”

And it seemed as if, there before me, we were slowly, letter by letter, spelling out the word so much more important than Dylan Thomas’s “rage” — the word that expressed everything Harry had been fighting for, and losing more and more as the years wore on.


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What is nostalgia? The feeling has haunted me for most of my life, although I can’t say I’ve had a clear understanding of its origin. In ancient Greek, nostos is a return to one’s homeland, like Odysseus’ return to Ithaca after the Trojan War. Along with the war or raid story, the nostos is one of the two classic epic plot structures. Algos is pain, so nostalgia is the longing to return, which afflicts us like a pain, like a sickness.

But return where?

I grew up with a mixed sense of where I belonged. Although I was born in Canada, I actually couldn’t speak English until I started kindergarten. I was surrounded by Greeks — relatives and friends of my parents. I remember in kindergarten using Greek words whenever I didn’t know the English one. I didn’t have a clear idea that at home I spoke a language that my Chinese friend Charlie, for example, couldn’t understand.

Gradually, though, I began to perceive myself as different in an unwelcome way. I was Greek without ever having been to Greece, or really knowing much about it. (I came here for the first time when I was nine.) More than an actual place, Greece was made up of stories my father and grandparents told me. It was the place where, at night, my father had done his homework by the light of a small lamp which consisted of a wick stuck in some cork floating in some oil. Greece was the large photograph of my grandfather’s older brother, who got sick and died during the war in Asia Minor. It was the place where my grandfather had seen some people executed and thrown into a well during the civil war. My father used to tell me the story of Odysseus kept prisoner in Polyphemus’ cave, and of his escape, but I never thought of it as having taken place a long time ago. I thought Greece was a place where Odysseus — and blind Polyphemus — still lived, perhaps with some of my more distant relatives.

What was clearer to me was what other people were like. Canadians. People who didn’t have funny-sounding names, who spoke English at home, and whose parents didn’t embarrass them by playing awful music. I wanted to be like them.

But then, the nostalgia started. The sense that something was missing. The sense that if I knew where to look, I could find what I needed to be happy.

It came to me as an image. It was a room. The walls were bare and white. The open window let in a lot of light and a cool breeze. In the corner, up against the wall, a small bed. In the centre, a large wooden table, and one or two chairs. And outside, the sea.

Where was this place? Could I find it on the map? If it had ever really existed, did it still exist now?

More than in any other poet, I found in Elytis someone who mapped out my nostalgia. I was born to have so much, he said, and nothing more. And also, I wanted the least, and they punished me with more.

I’m sitting at a table now, out on a terrace. After each sentence I write, I look up from my notebook at the same gulf which, if our Homeric geography is accurate, the ships from Argos sailed down on their way to Troy some 3,200 years ago. The sun is exactly as I want it. The wind ruffles my hair as I always wanted it to. I came a long way to sit here, just so. I wonder if I can say, as Elytis did, So, he whom I sought, I am.

The nostalgia, though, persists. Is it because I miss the Greece I discovered when I was 17, and my life changed forever? It seemed farther away from the rest of the world back then. (“I would be in exile now,” sang Phil Ochs in Ticket Home, “but everywhere’s the same.”) It must be the sense that, as the years go by, the world moves farther away from that room, and takes me with it, the world that refuses to conform with my wishes. All men have been given bad times in which to live, says Borges, and I know if I had been born in another time — those times that the compass in my heart always seems to point back to — the nostalgia would still be there.

With his singular melancholy, Elytis gave us a picture of his own paradise, which he said was made of the same materials as hell, only put together differently. (A little more charity from over there, a little less greed from over here.) I believe I have gathered together some of the materials of that particular paradise to which I journey. It is unfortunate that English does not have a verb form of nostalgia, as Greek does. If it did, it would define this journey. If you could utter its syllables, they would spell out the name of the place where the journey ends.

I am standing on the deck of a ship, leaning against the railing at the bow. The sea stretches out in every direction. The sun and wind are as they are right now. White gulls circle above, following me as I sail out. I am returning to an island where I’ve never been, where someone I’ve never met waits to welcome me home.

Ξένος εσύ, ξένος κι εγώ
δυο ξένοι, δυο αδερφοί.
Θάλασσα, γη, κι ουρανό
αν ψάξουμε μαζί
θα βρούμε, δε μπορεί,
του νόστου το νησί.

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Βράδυ Παρασκευή, πηγαίναμε με τη Ν. να φάμε στη Φωκίωνος Νέγρη, κι όπως περνάγαμε τη Σπετσών, θυμήθηκα ότι το σπίτι του Νίκου Γκάτσου βρισκόταν εκεί, στο 101. Την έπεισα να πάμε λίγο πιο πάνω να το δω. Μικρό προσκύνημα, ας πούμε.

Τα παλιά τα σπίτια τα κλεισμένα
πάντα κρύβουν κάτι και για μένα,
πράγματα γνωστά, πράγματα πιστά,
πράγματα ζεστά κι αγαπημένα,
πράγματα γνώστα, πράγματα πιστά,
πράγματα ζεστά, λησμονημένα.

Μονοκατοικία είναι, μιά απ’ τις λίγες που έχουν απομείνει στην Κυψέλη. Το βρήκα όμως εντελώς εγκαταλειμένο, με graffiti σ’ ένα τοίχο, στη γωνιά ένα κάδο για μπάζα, και τσουβάλια με γύψο στο πεζοδρόμιο. Η πόρτα ήταν κλεισμένη με λουκέτο κι αλυσίδα περασμένη απ’ το σπασμένο παράθυρο. Όπως πλησιάζαμε, η Ν. έκανε πίσω.

“Πήγαινε εσύ,” μου είπε. “Εγώ δε πλησιάζω.”

Έμοιαζε να είχε γίνει κάποτε κατάληψη. Μέσα βρομούσε από σκατά, και η μπόχα έφτανε μέχρι το δρόμο. Όποιος τό ‘χε χρησιμοποιήσει δεν άντεξε πια κι έφυγε. Κοίταξα γρήγορα να δω τουλάχιστον αν υπήρχε ακόμα τ’ όνομά του στο κουδούνι, αλλά ούτε κουδούνι δεν υπήρχε.

Νύχτα των Παθών που βγαίναν τ’ άστρα
σώπαινει του κήπου η κουκουβάγια,
κι άπ’ τις γειτονιές μυροφόρες νιές
ράντιζαν το πέλαγο με βάγια,
κι άπ’ τις γειτονιές μυροφόρες νιές
άναβαν λαμπάδες στα μουράγια.

Ο Γκάτσος πέθανε το 1992, αν θυμάμαι καλά. Δε θα φανταζόμουν ποτέ ότι θα μπορούσε να ρημάξει τόσο γρήγορα ένα σπίτι. Θά ‘λεγες ήταν εγκαταλειμένο εδώ και τριάντα χρόνια.

Χρόνε νυχτοπούλι παγερό
κόβεις με μαχαίρι τον καιρό,
γρήγορα πετάς, πίσω δε κοιτάς
τον απάνω κόσμο το μεγάλο.
Χρόνε παραμύθι λαμπερό,
σμίγεις τη φωτιά με το νερό,
γρήγορα περνάς, πίσω δε γυρνάς,
πίκρα μας κερνάς και τίποτ’ άλλο.

“Δε καταλαβαίνω,” της είπα της Ν. “Η Αγαθή Δημητρούκα [σύντροφος του Γκάτσου] πρέπει να ήταν κληρονόμος του. Γιατί ν’ αφήσει το σπίτι έτσι;”

“Ποιός ξέρει,” μου είπε. “Μπορεί να το άφησε αλλού και δεν έχουν λεφτά να το διατηρήσουν.”

Είδα όνειρο αυτή τη νύχτα ότι βρέθηκα πάλι μπροστά στο σπίτι, και στο πεζοδρόμιο βρήκα τρεις πλάκες χάλκινες, αυτές που λένε ότι ο τάδε έμενε εδώ. Η Δημητρούκα στεκόταν δίπλα, κι εγώ τις πήρα και τις έκρυψα κάτω απ’ το μπουφάν μου.

Προσκύνημα αν θέλω να κάνω τώρα, θα πρέπει να παω στο νεκροταφείο της Ασέας, στην Αρκαδία, ν’ ανάψω κάνα κερί.

Ένα απ’ τα αγαπημένα μου τραγούδια του Γκάτσου, από το τελευταίο του δίσκο, που έκανε με τον Ξαρχάκο, Τα Κατά Μάρκον.

Σκοτεινό το τραγούδι που θα πω
τα συντρίμμια του τόπου μου πατώ.
Χαμένα αδέρφια μου, ίσκιοι λαβωμένοι
χαμένη Ελλάδα, παντού σ’ αναζητώ.

Των Κυκλάδων σταμάτησε ο χορός
πετρωμένο το κύμα κι ο καιρός.
Πάνω απ’ τις μνήμες μάρμαρα σπασμένα
πάνω απ’ τις στέγες ο άνεμος σκληρός.

Παγερέ του αιώνα μου βοριά
πού τα πήγες τ’ αφτέρουγα παιδιά;
Τα πήρε ο ύπνος σε άχραντη πατρίδα
τα πήρε η νύχτα στη μαύρη της καρδιά.

Της ζωής ποιός γνωρίζει το σκοπό.
Το σκουλήκι τσακίζει τον καρπό.
Χαμένα αδέρφια, δείχτε μου ένα δρόμο
χαμένη Ελλάδα, την πόρτα σου χτυπώ.

Ξέρεις τα σπίτια πεισματώνουν εύκολα, σαν τα γυμνώσεις.

Υ.Γ. (12 Οκτ. 05)
Πέρασα τη Κύριακή πάλι απ’ τη Σπετσών, ημέρα αυτή τη φορά, και είπα να περάσω πάλι να το δω το σπίτι, αλλά δε το βρήκα. Δεν υπάρχει πια. Μόνο ένα άδειο οικόπεδο. Ήθελα να γυρίσω ξανά να το φωτογραφίσω, αλλά δε πρόλαβα.

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Μπήκα μες στο παρεκκλήσι, άναψα ένα κερί. Παρόλο που δεν είμαι καθόλου θρήσκος, έκανα όπως είδα να κάνουν όλοι οι άλλοι. Έκανα το σταυρό μου, έσκυψα και φίλησα το φέρετρο και μετά την εικόνα. Από σεβασμό για τους συγγενείς που κάθονταν δίπλα. Ήθελα να μείνω λίγο, αλλά ντράπηκα.

Έξω στη γωνία, από το εστιατόριο “Ιθάκη” ακουγόταν σιγά σιγά το “Δόξα τω Θεώ”.

* * * * *

Από μικρό παιδί είχα στενή προσωπική σχέση με τον Γρηγόρη Μπιθικώτση. Μόλις τριών ετών άκουγα τη μουσική του. Ήρθε ένας ανηψιός της γιαγιάς μου στον Καναδά μετανάστης. Μέχρι να βρει δουλειά και σπίτι, έμενε μαζί με τη γιαγιά και τον παππού. Τα χρόνια εκείνα δούλευε κι η μάνα μου και το πρωί μ’ άφηναν εκεί, να με φυλάει η γιαγιά. Μου σύστησαν τον ανηψιό – λεγόταν Γρηγόρης.

“Μπιθικώτσης;” είπα εγώ.

Γέλασαν και μου είπαν ναι. Και βέβαια δεν υπήρχε λόγος να το αμφιβάλλω. Έτσι για ένα διάστημα στα παιδικά μου χρόνια ζούσα δίπλα στον Γρηγόρη Μπιθικώτση. Τραγουδούσαμε μαζί το “Ρολόι-Κομπολόι”, κι όταν φτάναμε στο

να μετράω τους καημούς
και τους αναστεναγμούς

αναστέναζα κι εγώ.

* * * * *

Το 1987 ανακάλυψα ξανά την ελληνική μουσική, που είχα χρόνια ξεχάσει, και ξαναβρήκα τον Γρηγόρη. Σιγά σιγά, ανακάλυψα ξανά και την Ελλάδα και τη πρώτη μου γλώσσα, αν και δεν ήταν πια η μητρική μου. Έμαθα τον Ελύτη, τον Σεφέρη, τον Γκάτσο, τον Ρίτσο, τον Παπαδόπουλο, και άλλους ποιητές. Αποφάσισα και να γυρίσω στη χώρα που άφησε ο πατέρας μου στα δέκα του χρόνια. (Η μάνα μου, ελληνίδα κι αυτή, γεννήθηκε στον Καναδά.)

Μια μέρα σ’ ένα δισκοπωλείο στην ελληνική συνοικία του Τορόντο βρήκα ένα βίντεο με τη συναυλία που έδωσε το 1983 ο Γρηγόρης σαν αποχαιρετισμό. Διήθυνε ο Σταύρος Ξαρχάκος στο Ολυμπιακό Στάδιο. Η φωνή του είχε πέσει, είχε χάσει τη δύναμή της. Λυπήθηκα.

* * * * *

Το Νοέμβρη του 1991 έμαθα ότι ερχόταν στο Τορόντο να τραγουδήσει για μερικές βραδιές σ’ ένα καινούργιο μαγαζί. Είπα να παω να τον δω. Δε μ’ ένοιαζε πως δεν τραγουδούσε πια όπως παλιά. Ήθελα να πω ότι μια φορά στη ζωή μου τον είδα και τον άκουσα.

Ο πατέρας μου κάπως κατάφερε τη τελευταία στιγμή να μας βρει τραπέζι μπροστά στην πίστα. Τη στιγμή που βγήκε ο Γρηγόρης μετακομίσαμε όλοι μας στο άλλο τραπέζι. Μας φέραν τα πιάτα και τα κρασιά από εκεί που καθόμασταν πριν.

Εκείνη τη βραδιά, όμως, έγινε το απίστευτο. Βγήκε ο Μπιθικώτσης, και ίσως επειδή ήταν ο χώρος κλειστός και αρκετά μικρός, τραγούδησε πολύ ωραία. Εμείς τα χάσαμε. Τρελαθήκαμε. Μετά από κάθε τραγούδι χειροκροτούσαμε όρθιοι. Μας κοίταζε και μας ευχαριστούσε.

Κάποια στιγμή, όταν κάποιος φώναξε μια παραγγελία, σήκωσε τους ώμους του λίγο, έδειξε το λαιμό του σαν να λέει, “Δε μου βγαίνει πια.”

Όταν τελείωσε και κατέβηκε, τραβήξαμε μια φωτογραφία μαζί του εγώ με τους γονείς μου. Μετά ανέβηκα στη πίστα και πήρα το ποτήρι του σαν ενθύμιο. Το έχω ακόμα, και τη φωτογραφία.

* * * * *

Την Πέμπτη άκουγα την εκπομπή “Ποτέ απ’ τη ποταμιά δε λείπει η πρασινάδα” στο τρίτο πρόγραμμα, και παίζανε τη θρυλική συναυλία στο Κεντρικόν που έγινε το 1961. Δε πίστευα στα αυτιά μου. Δεν ήξερα ότι είχε ηχογραφηθεί.

(Κατά σύμπτωση, την Πέμπτη πέθανε, το απόγευμα, ίσως την ώρα της εκπομπής.)

Ο ίδιος διηγείται:

Όλα αυτά έγιναν στις 18 Μάρτη 1961, ημέρα Δευτέρα. Ο Χιώτης με τη Μαίρη Λίντα και ο Καζαντζίδης με τη Μαρινέλλα είχαν μεγαλύτερο θάρρος από μένα. Για τη συναυλία στο Κεντρικόν, κάναμε πρόβες στην πλατεία Κολοκτρώνη, πίσω από το άγαλμα. Όσο κάναμε πρόβες και μέχρι να φθάσει εκείνη η πολυπόθητη Δευτέρα για να δώσουμε τη συναυλία, εμένα δεν μ’ έπιανε ο ύπνος. Δεν μπορούσα να κλείσω μάτι. Πήγαινα στο μαγαζί, τραγουδούσα το βράδυ, πήγαινα την ημέρα κι έκανα πρόβες για τη συναυλία, έγραφαν οι εφημερίδες, έλεγαν τα ραδιόφωνα κι εγώ κόντευα να πεθάνω από την αγωνία μου. Είχα ήδη ένα τρακ, ένα σοκ, όπως θέλετε πάρτε το.Μέσα μου, κάτι μου έλεγε να μην πάω στη συναυλία. Όχι γιατί θα συμμετείχαν μαζί μου ο Χιώτης, η Λίντα, ο Καζαντζίδης και η Μαρινέλλα, αλλά μου είχε κολλήσει έτσι. Έλεγα πώς θα θυμηθώ τα λόγια, πώς θα μου έρθει η μελωδία που θα είμαι ανάμεσα στην κρατική ορχήστρα που θα διευθύνει ο Μίκης, που θα είναι ο Μάνος Χατζιδάκις, αυτός ο μεγάλος Χατζιδάκις, με το τραγούδι “Είμαι αητός χωρίς φτερά”. Ο “Αητός” ήταν καινούργιο τραγούδι. Την πρώτη εκτέλεσή του θα την έκανα με την κρατική ορχήστρα και διεύθυνση Μίκη Θεοδωράκη στο Κεντρικόν.

Τελικά, εκεί που κάναμε πρόβες – πρόβες κάναμε και σ’ ένα καφενείο δίπλα στο Μουσείο – ο Μανόλης Χιώτης με τον Στέλιο Καζαντζίδη αποφάσισαν να στρίψουν ένα νόμισμα. Αν ερχόταν κορόνα, θα έμπαιναν μπροστά στη διαφήμιση ο Μανόλης Χιώτης με τη Μαίρη Λίντα, αν ερχόταν γράμματα θα έμπαιναν τα ονόματα του Στέλιου Καζαντζίδη και της Μαρινέλλας. Εγώ, έτσι κι αλλιώς, ήμουν τρίτος. Αυτό που απασχολούσε, όμως, ήταν το τρακ που είχα. Τελικά, μια εβδομάδα πριν, δημοσιεύτηκε στις εφημερίδες ότι τη Δευτέρα θα πραγματοποιηθεί η μεγάλη συναυλία του Μίκη Θεοδωράκη με τον “Επιτάφιο” στο Κεντρικόν. Στο πιάνο ο Μάνος Χατζιδάκις. Τραγουδούν: Μανόλης Χιώτης-Μαίρη Λίντα, Στέλιος Καζαντζίδης-Μαρινέλλα και ο Γρηγόρης Μπιθικώτσης. Τι θα γίνει τώρα μέχρι να έρθει η Δευτέρα; Μέρες και νύχτες περνούσαν βασανιστικές. Τετάρτη, Πέμπτη, Παρασκευή, Σάββατο, Κυριακή. Από τα ξημερώματα της Δευτέρας, έτρεμα από αϋπνία και αγωνία. Όταν σουρούπωσε, πήγα κι εγώ στο Κεντρικόν. Μπήκα κρυφά από την πίσω πόρτα στα καμαρίνια. Είχα ιδρώσει.

Αρχίζει η συναυλία. Παίζει ένα σόλο ο Χιώτης με την κρατική ορχήστρα που διήθυνε ο Θεοδωράκης. Έπαιξε τη “Μαργαρίτα-Μαργαρώ”. Όταν τέλειωσε αυτό, έπεσε πολύ χειροκρότημα, γιατί ο κόσμος ήταν πάρα πολύς. Ο Χιώτης έχει να πει 5-6 τραγούδια με τη Μαίρη Λίντα. Εγώ ψάχνω να βρω τον Καζαντζίδη και τον ανακαλύπτω να κάθεται κάτω από τη σκηνή. “Γιατί είσαι εδώ, Στέλιο;” τον ρωτάω. “Για ν’ ακούσω καλύτερα” μου απαντάει. Του ξαναλέω: “Φάλτσο δεν έπαιξε λιγάκι ο Μανόλης Χιώτης τη ‘Μαργαρίτα-Μαργαρώ’ με το μπουζούκι;” “Ναι” μου λέει “δεν πειράζει, δεν βαριέσαι… Χιώτης είναι αυτός.” Τον είδα και τον Στέλιο κάπως τρακαρισμένο και του λέω: “Τι έχεις; Τρακ;” Μου λέει: “Όχι. Γιατί, εσύ τι έχεις; Τρακ;” Του λέω: “Ναι, ρε γαμώτο. Δεν θέλω να τραγουδήσω.” “Δεν γίνεται” μου λέει. “Δεν ντρέπεσαι που δεν θέλεις να τραγουδήσεις; Θα τραγουδήσεις και θα τα πεις ωραία. Μήπως πρώτη φορά θα τραγουδήσεις μπροστά σε κοινό, μπροστά σε κόσμο;” Το θέατρο ήταν γεμάτο. Στις πρώτες θέσεις κάθονταν υπουργοί της τότε κυβέρνησης Καραμανλή και ο Γεώργιος Παπανδρέου, αρχηγός της Ένωσης Κέντρου, και βουλευτές της Αριστεράς. Τελειώνει ο Μανόλης Χιώτης. Το χειροκρότημα ήταν ασταμάτατο. Η Μαίρη Λίντα τα ερμήνευσε πολύ ωραία τα τραγούδια της.

Ήρθε μετά η σειρά του Στέλιου Καζαντζίδη. Ανέβηκε ο Στέλιος στη σκηνή και τραγούδησε το “Βράχο βράχο τον καημό μου”, το “Σαββατόβραδο”, το “‘Εχω μια αγάπη” και άλλα τραγούδια του Θεοδωράκη. Αποθέωση, χειροκροτήματα. Κι ύστερα η δική μου σειρά. Έπρεπε να βγω να τραγουδήσω, αλλά ένιωθα ράκος. Είχα πάθει μεγάλο τρακ. Βγήκα έξω κι άρχισαν να μου ρίχνουν λουλουδάκια, που τα είχαν κάτω από τα καθίσματα του θεάτρου. Τα λουλούδια, εκείνη τη στιγμή, ήταν κάτι εντελώς καινούργιο για τα δεδομένα της λαϊκής μουσικής με τον Μίκη Θεοδωράκη. Σκέφθηκα ότι έπρεπε να πω το “Είμαι αητός χωρίς φτερά” του Χατζιδάκι. Και άρχισαν πάλι να μου πετούν λουλούδια. Με πλημμύρισαν μέχρι το λαιμό. Γέμισαν όλη τη σκηνή και την ορχήστρα με λουλούδια. Είχα μεγάλη χαρά εκείνη την ώρα. Μέχρι να μαζέψουν τα λουλούδια μέσα σε δυο τρία λεπτά, εγώ ετοιμαζόμουν για να ξεκινήσω. Και άρχισα να τραγουδώ. Ο Μίκης σηκώνει τα χέρια ψηλά κι εγώ έβγαλα τα πρώτα λόγια από το “Ροδόσταμο”:

Στον άλλο κόσμο που θα πας,
κοίτα μη γίνεις σύννεφο…

Η ορχήστρα παίζει. Έχει δώσει σήμα ο Μίκης κουνώντας τα χέρια του: πουμ, παμ, πουμ, παμ, πουμ, παμ. Εγώ δε μπαίνω στο τραγούδι. Κάποια φορά, μπαίνω και λέω: “Στον ά…” Σταμάτησα. Έχασα τα λόγια μου και λέω: “Με συγχωρείτε, έχω τρακ, δεν μπορώ να συνεχίσω”. Χειροκροτήματα, κακό. Ιδρωμένος, γύρισα πίσω στο καμαρίνι. Ωστόσο, το πρόγραμμα συνεχίστηκε, αφού ο Μίκης Θεοδωράκης είπε ο ίδιος τα τραγούδια που επρόκειτο να τραγουδήσω εγώ.

Στο μεταξύ, μέσα στα καμαρίνια ήταν αρκετοί ηθοποιοί: Χορν, Βουγιουκλάκη, Αλεξανδράκης, Κοντού και η Ειρήνη Παπά. Μου λέει ο Αλεξανδράκης: “‘Ακου να δεις, κι εγώ έχω πάθει αυτό το τρακ”. Ανοίγει σπιρτόκουτο και είχε μέσα κάτι χάπια. Πήρα ένα, ήπια κι ένα ποτήρι και συνήλθα, μου πέρασε το τρακ.* Όταν ο Μίκης τελείωσε τα τραγούδια, ανέβηκα και πάλι στη σκηνή. Πρώτα πρώτα, είπα τον “Αητό” του Χατζιδάκι. Χειροκροτήματα και λουλούδια. Είπα ολόκληρο το πρόγραμμά μου, τη “Μαργαρίτα-Μαργαρώ” και τον “Επιτάφιο” του Γιάννη Ρίτσου.

Στην πραγματικότητα, κατάφερε να πει τη πρώτη στροφή ολόκληρη. Έτρεμε όμως η φωνή του. Παρολαυτά, ήταν γλυκειά όπως πάντα.

* * * * *

Τρεις φορές τον είδα – στον Καναδά, σε μια πλατεία του Ζωγράφου που τραγούδησε μια βραδιά με το γιο του, και στο αφιέρωμα που έγινε το 2002 στο Στάδιο Ειρήνης και Φιλίας.

Στο τέλος της συναυλίας ανέβηκε στη σκηνή. Του ζητήσανε να πει ένα τραγούδι απ’ το Άξιον Εστί. Ξεκίνησε η ορχήστρα. Πήρε το μικρόφωνο αλλά είπε, “Θέλω να πώ το ‘Βοτανικό’ μου!’ Είπε μια στροφή, η φωνή του ήταν αδύναμη, κι εγώ δάκρυσα. Όχι από λύπη αυτή τη φορά, αλλά από χαρά – τη χαρά που μοιραστήκαμε όλοι μας, και που ένιωθε ο ίδιος, που τιμήθηκε έτσι στα ογδόντα του. Και δάκρυσα ειδικά όταν τον είδα να δίνει το μικρόφωνο στον διπλανό του και να αρχίζει να χορεύει ένα ζεϊμπέκικο, άψογα, με τόση λεβεντιά που θά ‘λεγες ήταν ακόμα πενήντα χρόνια νεότερος.

Αντίο, Γρηγόρη.


*Όπως είπε ο Αλεξανδράκης, αλλά και ο ίδιος ο Μπιθικώτσης στο παρελθόν, το “χάπι” δεν ήταν παρά ένα ψίχουλο ψωμί. Ένα placebo.

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Crad Kilodney Ramble

When I was thirteen or fourteen and my interest in literature was awakening, I used to go to my friend Allen’s house and look at the books on his shelves. Allen was precocious in his tastes and his habits, but I’m sure many of the books he had exceeded his understanding. Can you imagine, for example, a thirteen-year-old reading James Joyce’s Ulysses?

The books were mysterious things. I loved merely holding them, especially the soft, grey or green Penguins. Allen took me down to Toronto’s Soho district on Queen Street between University and Bathurst. The area was filled with used bookshops. I can still remember some of them: About Books, Steven Temple’s, Gail Wilson’s, Abelard’s, Letters. In the mid to late 80s, this strip of Queen Street started to get trendier and trendier, and as the rents went up, the bookshops went away. I don’t know how many of the old ones are still there. When most of them had gone, the city put new street signs calling the area The Fashion District (it was part of the traditional textile district) but most people just called it “Queen West”.

Used bookshops are what I miss most about Toronto, especially all those ones where I made so many discoveries and acquaintances. Shops of that kind are practically non-existent here in Athens. The few I’ve seen are more like junk shops with stacks of mouldy pulp. When I was preparing to leave Canada, I sold all the books I didn’t want to bring with me and bought anything I could find that I thought I’d want Some people we knew were sending a container with furniture to Greece, and we put all my books, at the time at least 1,200 of them, in 26 boxes and shipped them over.

Three books from Allen’s shelves caught my attention and have stayed in my mind. They represented the shocking, subversive quality that books had for me then. They were typed on a typewriter and cheaply printed.




Allen told me they had been published by the author himself, who also sold them on the street. His name was Crad Kilodney.

* * * * *

I don’t remember the first time I saw Kilodney himself. The earliest book I have is The Blue Book (1985).

Kilodney would stand on the busiest streets in Toronto with a small cardboard sign hanging from his neck. They would read

Pleasant Bedtime Reading
Putrid Scum
Slimy Degenerate Literature
Dull Stories for Average Canadians
Literature for the Brain-Dead
Worst Selling Author — Buy My Books
Rotten Canadian Literature
Albanian Chicken Stories

Crad Kilodney was born in 1948 in the borough of Queens, New York. He studied astronomy in Michigan and moved to Canada in the early 70s. In 1978 he set up his own imprint, Charnel House, and began selling his books on the street as his sole occupation.

His face was serious, even forbidding to some people who passed by and happened to make eye contact with him. I don’t remember ever feeling intimidated by him or if I spoke to him much the first time I saw him. Soon enough, however, I knew him well enough to stand around and chat with him whenever I saw him. He would complain about how bad business was and gape stupidly at passers-by who ignored him. I remember him once droning, “Hockey books. Hockey books. Get your hockey books.”

Once, a tough-looking teenager passed by as we were talking and shot him a glance.

“You know,” I said when the kid was about five paces away, “I don’t think he’s going to mention to his friends that he saw you today.”

“Are you kidding?” Crad said. “He’s forgotten me already.”

* * * * *

“If things go bad for me on the street, my mood deteriorates quickly. I’m apt to be simultaneously angry and depressed. My anger goes right to my stomach. I may make fierce eye contact with passers-by, which makes them even less likely to stop. I choose my most provocative or insulting signs to wear when I’m in the most aggressive moods because deep down I want to strangle these people. Most days I make less than $15 on the street. After paying for subway fares, snacks, and groceries, I may return home poorer than when I left the house. I wallow in self-pity. I have very confused ideas about success and failure, which I can’t sort out rationally. I look at the cartons of books at the foot of my bed and wonder how I will ever sell them. I wonder whether it’s worth continuing this way, year after year. Even if I were selling the greatest book ever written my immediate situation wouldn’t change. No book can change the world. No book can change these people. But these people can grind me down by their insensate banality, their stupidity, even their outright hostility. Man looks for hope wherever he can. I have a little hope left, just enough to let me face the street another day. But at this time in my life, hope is fading…”

Crad Kilodney, Excrement, 1988

* * * * *

Standing on the street all day exposed Crad to all kinds of abusive weirdos. At some point he began to wear a tiny microphone under his shirt collar so that he could record his encounters. I have the first two cassettes. (I think there was a third) On one of them he went to the business district and asked people why the earth has seasons. The answers are astounding.

Crad did not hide the fact that he liked to seek revenge when he felt he had been unjustly treated. In 1988 he published a story called “Who Is John Copping?” in which Kilodney claims to have been hearing the name John Copping everywhere he goes. A teenage girl tells her boyfriend that she is pregnant with John Copping’s child; a mother tells her child to do his homework so he won’t grow up stupid like John Copping; the owner of a strip club tells the bouncer never to let John Copping back in. One day he’s walking past City Hall when he hears the following exchange between two of Toronto’s most illustrious lawyers:

“As you know, Clay, I’m categorically opposed to capital punishment… With one exception.

“What’s that?” asked Ruby.

“John Copping!” said Greenspan vehemently. “He should be put to death!”

At a supermarket, he sees a sign in the meat-cutting room that says SAVE TAINTED MEAT FOR JOHN COPPING.

When he can stand it no longer, he asks a friend who this John Copping is, and is given a piece of paper. On it, and fully reproduced in Kilodney’s book, is a bad review someone named John Copping had written of three of Crad’s books.

In 1989, after having one of his stories, “Girl on the Subway”, rejected in the first round of a CBC short story competition, he submitted six stories, under pseudonyms and typed up on different typewriters, by writers such as Kafka, Faulkner and O. Henry. He went public with his hoax when every story was rejected.

Around that time he also typed up a manuscript of poems by Irving Layton, one of Canada’s most respected poets, and submitted them, again under a pseudonym, to publishers all over the country. They were rejected by everyone, including McClelland & Stewart, Layton’s own publisher.

* * * * *

As for Crad’s books, it’s difficult for me to discuss or assess them. I have a sentimental blind spot for some of them.

His style is very simple and draws no attention to itself, a sign that he cared about the writing and worked at it. The humour, for the most part, might strike people as immature. Certainly, it’s uneven, especially the later stuff. But there were times when he was brilliant. One of my favourites was “The Man Who Died Of His Opinions”, in Blood-Sucking Monkeys From North Tonawanda (1989), about two psychologists who are studying whether the human brain actually has a limit to its capacity for storing facts. They have a patient, an incredibly annoying bigot and philistine who cannot distinguish between fact and opinion. He has opinions on every conceivable subject, and rants all day long. Eventually, he overloads his brain, and dies. What makes this story so good is the discussions between the two doctors and the perfectly-captured voice of the patient.

Sometimes the humour was very satirical, as in “No Chekhov at Yorkdale”, in which he relates his findings after searching through one of Toronto’s biggest shopping malls for a book of stories by Chekhov:

You can buy an assortment of fruit-flavoured bubble baths at The Body Shop for only $17.65. You can spend $99.99 for a skateboard or $24.99 for an anti-theft device for your skis at Collegiate Sports. At Club Monaco you can buy authentic Club Monaco jeans for a mere $49. And at Classic China you can get a lovely bone china chipmunk for $95. But nowere in this Mecca of Mass Merchandising can you acquire a book of stories by the great Russian author Anton Chekhov, the greatest writer of stories who ever lived.

“I Chewed Mrs Ewing’s Raw Guts” seems autobiographical (except for its grizzly ending, to be sure). It details his dealings with a landlady so obnoxious you’re glad he’s killed her off in the end. There’s a febrile quality to the story that reminds you of Dostoevsky.

But his best works were his serious ones, which also tended to be autobiographical. Cathy (1985), is perhaps my favourite. It’s the story of a girl who comes to rent the basement of his parents’ house, and his doomed love for her. Excrement is based on his journals and his experiences on the street. It’s a nakedly honest, fascinating document. There was a follow-up, Putrid Scum, but by that time, Kilodney’s books had ceased to be enjoyable. The bitterness had got the best of him.

* * * * *

Although one wouldn’t know it from just looking at his books, but one of Kilodney’s biggest influences, by his own admission, was Henry Miller. He has none of Miller’s messy, vacuous philosophising. But he had Miller’s pessimism, and he had a sense of mission as a writer. Writing was very important to Kilodney, and he seems to have been very idealistic about it in the early days. Despite the underground feel of his work, he genuinely wanted acceptance and recognition and to make a difference in the world. But perhaps he also had fallen for the notion of the writer as a tortured, suffering soul. He was a glutton for punishment.

I remember him telling me once about having gone to Calgary for a few days. He had sold far more books on the streets there than he ever managed to in Toronto. Toronto was the worst place for him, and he chose the worst places to stand and sell his books: Yonge Street, with its hordes of consumers and suburban teenagers, and Bay Street, the city’s equivalent of Wall Street. It was precisely because Toronto was the least hospitable place for him that he stayed there for so many years.

In the late 80s and 90s, his bitter resentment had found its way into the writing and most of his later books made even some of his most loyal fans uncomfortable. (“I Chewed Mrs Ewing’s Raw Guts” was, despite its title, a successful story because he had let his material speak for itself. In the later ones, Kilodney is lashing out, often very offensively. There’s a strong undercurrent of racism in these stories, as well.)

In the end, you can’t help but wonder, if Kilodney had such a strong sense of mission, and took his art and his calling so seriously, why this seriousness wasn’t reflected more in his writing. Most of it was funny, but in an adolscent way, wanting more than anything else, to shock the reader with its outrageousness. No matter how funny it was, it never affected you the way Cathy and Excrement did.

* * * * *

In 1991 Kilodney was charged with “exposing goods for sale without authority” and later that year (ironically during Arts Week in Toronto), he was convicted in by-law court. Of course, there was no license available for what he was doing. He took the city to court, and lost. He appealed several times. In the mean time, he continued to sell on the street. It had been, after all, his sole occupation for thirteen years.

Then in 1995, Crad told me that his father back in New York had died, and that he had come into an inheritance. He gradually became more and more scarce, and then, without any fanfare, when no one was even paying attention, he was gone. He dropped out. He stopped publishing and stopped selling his books.

There were odd rumours. I read this totally inaccurate account on usenet:

I liked Crad Kilodney’s four-year experiment in Toronto of selling his books on the street. Of course he immediately became homeless. It gave his work a certain edge, let’s say. He had great placards: “Canadian Literature, Cheap. $4.” He was often highly rated and has a cult following, but darn it wasn’t enough to keep him out of the shrubbery.

In fact, Crad still writes from time to time, I think. He’s told me that he has a lot of stuff sitting around that he could still publish. Some of it can be found at his blog.

Since he gave up writing for a living, Crad has been playing the stock market. He enjoys it and it has become a passion. He does quite well. He’s given me tips from time to time, which have always been good. He also likes to compose logic puzzles. He remains very disillusioned with writing. When I was trying to get my first novel published, he told me that trying to get published was like buying a raffle ticket for a microwave; even if you win, your life won’t change much.

* * * * *

Postscript (15 April 2014)

Nine years have passed since I wrote the above post. I have cleaned up some of the out-of-date additions from over the years and adding what will most likely be the last bit.

Yesterday, after his third bout with cancer, Crad Kilodney died at the age of 66. I wrote to him last October, and he told me that he was seriously ill. I occasionally checked up on him to see how he was doing, and in my last email to him, I mentioned a very successful dichloroaceteate treatment a friend of mine in Toronto was undertaking. Crad’s response was characteristic of him:

I’m not going to hunt for some miracle like a million other desperate people who want to avoid death.  If my doctors had any useful ideas, they would have told me.  I’m 66 and have finished the important work of my life.  I’m not afraid to die.

Thank you for thinking of me.
My one thought about him now was that, since he had no family in Toronto, there might not be anyone to take care of him. Fortunately, he had a friend by his side throughout the weeks he spent at the hospice, the writer and artist Lorette Luzajic. She has written on the Facebook page she set up for him:
I have been with him every day; he is in and out of consciousness, disoriented, and weak. He is peaceful, in relatively little pain, and wants to go. We thank you for your well wishes and Crad thanks all his readers.

A few hours before he died, she added:

Crad has been more or less unconscious and I am surprised each day that he is still ticking. His wonderful nurses assure me that he is still comfortable and not conscious of the minimal amount of pain he might be feeling; he is still receiving pain management just in case. Crad continually expressed his gratitude for your well wishes up until he was no longer able to speak at all, and I know he wishes to repeat this now.

* * * * *

Crad told me in a letter once that he had given all his papers and his diaries to some university library, or perhaps to the National Library in Ottawa, I can’t remember which. The archive is not to be opened till after his death. I predict that they will be his greatest legacy. I have no doubt that, aside from their literary value, they will prove to be a fascinating document of what was a very unusual life.

* * * * *

Please go to Crad’s blog and read his final published work. It is beautiful.


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Nor dread nor hope

For the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed a cat, probably no more than six or seven months old, moving slowly about in the garden outside my balcony.

This is the best picture I have of the garden at the moment, taken a few years ago after a sudden snowfall. On the other side of the ledge is a parking lot, about 15 meters down. To the right is a high wall, covered in ivy.

This young cat was moving around more gingerly than other cats usually do. At one point it seemed to misstep and nearly fall off the ledge and into the garden. My cat, Lazy, was sitting on a chair on the balcony, crouching behind a pot of aloe, watching. Somehow, she seemed to know not to run out and attack it. (Cats are always fighting in the garden.)

Later I saw the cat up on the high wall, meowing loudly. I noticed it had no eyes. A woman was down at the end of the high wall, to the right of the ledge, where the people who live in the building around the corner park their cars. She was dangling her keys and calling out to the cat, which couldn’t find its way back to the tree it had climbed up to get to where it was.

I saw it again today, standing on the high wall, “looking” down.

How does a cat survive in a city like Athens with no eyes? I hate seeing animals suffer, and live in fear of seeing a cat or dog get hit by a car. Dogs here in Greece do something I’ve never seen them do in Toronto: they chase cars at intersections and try to bite them. My heart is in my throat every time I see this. They usually do it in packs. They seem to choose cars arbitrarily, but always just after the lights have turned green and the cars have started moving. They invariably try to bite the car somewhere between the front door and the front bumper. It’s a game, apparently, but it drives me crazy. How do they manage to keep their teeth?

Actually, Athens has surprisingly little roadkill. There would probably be more if so many cats and dogs weren’t poisoned. On 31 December 2002, the night before Athens became the capital of EEC, over 40 cats and 18 dogs died after eating food laced with insecticides. These animals lived in and around the park at Zappeio, where the summit was held. Despite a surprisingly large demonstration, and a petition signed by almost 50,000 people demanding an end to the poisoning, which was delivered to the Greek embassy in Brussels, in February of 2003, another 20 cats around Zappeio were killed.

It’s the helplessness of these animals that fills me with dread, the idea that they are victims of a world they can’t understand. When they’re dying slowly and painfully, what do they think? (For, as anyone who’s ever had a dog or cat can tell you, they sometimes growl and whimper in their sleep, a sign that they dream, and if they dream they must have thoughts which are somewhat like ours.) Do they wonder why? Do they know the end has come, or are they waiting for the pain to go away? Something in the way they seem to wait stoically for death makes me want to believe that they don’t feel pain as acutely as we do.

How much worse is it for an animal that can’t even see the threats that surround it?

I’ve always wanted to believe, as Yeats said, that neither dread nor hope attend a dying animal, though not because man has created death. Thinking so simply makes it easier for me.

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Job Interview

I sent them my CV on Sunday, by email, and they called me on Monday morning. We made an appointment for Wednesday at 11.00.

I had vowed never to take an office job again, especially at a publisher’s. I did it for two years, gradually began hating it, and ended up getting sacked. But being barely employed for the past few months has made me a great deal less fussy.

Their office is out in Alimos, a suburb of Athens. I arrive at precisely 11 and they take me up to see the boss. She’s probably in her late 50s, has straight hair parted in the middle. Sort of reminds me of Aggeliki Sotiropoulou, of 17November fame.

She doesn’t ask me to sit down, but I do anyway because that’s simply what’s usually done. She has my CV in front of her.

“So, you heard about us through A. He’s a friend of yours?” she says.

“Not a friend,” I say. “We worked in the same school.”

“Which is…?”

I tell her.

“And how long have you been there?”

“I was there for a year, four years ago.”

“And have you taught anywhere else?”

The situation’s clear now. She hasn’t yet bothered to look at my CV. She doesn’t yet know that in addition to teaching, I worked for a couple of publishers, edited and even co-wrote textbooks.

“I’ve been teaching for over seven years.”

“I see.”

She eventually sees where I’ve listed my work with publishers. She asks me why I left. I’m prepared for this, of course.

“Well, there was no in-house writing done there, and I missed it. I wanted to go back to teaching and devote myself to my writing, which included a novel.”

“A novel?”

“Yes. I finished it up and tried to get it published.”

“An original novel?”

Brief puzzled pause.

“Well, actually, no. I’ve copied it, but I’m hoping no one will notice. I’m thinking of calling it Crime and Punishment.”

No, I’m just kidding. What I really said was:


She tells me the position also involves being an ELT Consultant, travelling around to promote their books to places in South America and Asia, and other parts of Greece. I tell her that sounds good, and I assure her I live alone and that I’m not married. She doesn’t need to know about my cat, though.

Then she asks me again why I left the last publisher I was with.

And I explain it all to her again.

Maybe she didn’t believe me, or maybe she was fishing for some dirt on the competition. Who knows.

She asks me how much I was making there, and in my confusion, I tell her 180 euros less than I actually made. Oops.

Then she says she wants me to show her what kind of work I can do and gives me two little exercises, which I consider an impertinence, but what can you do? I have to write a 70-word paragraph or dialogue presenting the pronouns this and that to nine-year-olds who have learnt be, have, can and the imperative. Then I have to write a 120-word piece presenting fifteen-year-olds with the past tense, simple and continuous.

She takes me into another room, where three people are working. One of them I recognise. She’s looking at me too.

“You look familiar,” I say, sitting down at the desk where I am to write my passages.

“So do you,” she says.

I used to work in a school with her, about five years ago. I never knew her well, but at parties we’d chat. We got along well.

“Is your name Christina?” I say.



She goes back to work.

“Then I’ve mistaken you for someone else.”

Someone comes in and addresses her, and calls her M.

That’s right! M.!

“I do know you,” I say. She gets up to leave the office for something. When she comes back I tell her where I remember her from.

“That’s right,” she says. “I remember now. So how have you been? It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

No, I’m just kidding. What she really says is, “Yes. That was a long time ago.”

And then she goes back to her desk and ignores me completely for the remainder of my time there.

For over half an hour I try to write these stupid, poorly framed exercises. The one for fifteen-year-olds is easy, so I do that one first. But the one for nine-year-olds is a headache. Am I not supposed to use other verbs than the ones they’ve been taught? How do I write a dialogue with only be, have and can? And in the imperative, which is impossible with can, anyway.

I write something stupid, even though I have no context to put it in, and I’m finding the atmosphere in this office a little stifling. Perhaps some of it had to do with past experiences, but most of it had to do with the fact that I’d become totally invisible. The boss is now speaking to two people in her office so I have to wait. And wait. And imagine what it will be like working with M. if I get the job. The three editors are talking about their post-graduate work. Two girls and a guy. The guy is telling them about a strict professor he had in England, whom he really liked. He says she was bossy. “You like bossy women though,” M. says. “That’s why we get along.”

Great. Not only has she become thoroughly unfriendly, but she’s bossy too.

I have a lesson at 4.00, and I need to be back home by 3.00 in order to get my stuff and make it in time. The boss is showing no signs of finishing with her meeting. I’m getting pissed off that she hasn’t asked if there’s some place I need to be some time today. Eventually she comes out and tells me she won’t have time to see me again. She’ll call me back another time.

It’s 1.30 — two and a half hours since I arrived.

In the meantime, I’ll look through the classifieds in the Athens News.

EXPERIENCED sales people required for new energetic Fish Company. Must speak Greek & English.

(How energetic are the fish? Will I be required to catch them?)

LADIES 18-60 y.o. amateurs only, with overdeveloped bodies, for shooting. Good payment.

(I know it says LADIES, but maybe you need some help disposing of those heavy bodies after you’ve shot them.)

TRAINED Filipino under 50 wanted by a young family in Politia.

(I’m not Filipino, but I can bring your slippers between my teeth and I’ve learnt to poo on the newspaper.)

PS – 16 May 2005
By the way…they never called me back, even though I sent them an email reminding them. Goes to show you how desperate I was.

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Last year I read an interesting novel by Carlo Frabetti called Los jardines cifrados. I heard the following excerpt (which opens the book) read on the radio late one night,* and bought the book a few days later.

The book is not available in English. I have translated the excerpt from the Greek. I found it tonight as I was poking around in my computer, and decided to post it here. People often drop by here when they’re searching for something on Google (I’ve had many find me while searching for the Kemal lyrics). Perhaps someone will be running a search on Epimenides and end up here. The internet produces these sorts of ripples, where one thing leads to another in unexpected ways. Perhaps that person will become interested in Frabetti, and I won’t have to feel too bad about any possible copyright infringements.

They say that Gertrude Stein, on her deathbed, asked her companion, “What is the answer?”

And when she received no answer, she said, “In that case, what’s the question?”

She was not the first who asked this question. The Greeks, who wondered about everything, must have arrived at this meta-question, even if by various routes.

Epimenides the Cretan, the mythical poet of the sixth century BC, of whom it was said that he had once slept for fifty-seven years running (even if Plutarch claims that he was only fifty), is chiefly known for the paradox of the liar. Strangely enough, the phrase which is attributed to him (“All Cretans are liars”) – although it shouldn’t be confused with the perverted sense that a liar is someone who lies all the time – establishes an authentic paradox in itself: it will suffice to think that Epimenides is lying and there is some truthful Cretan, in which case it’s simply a false statement. The phrase constitutes a paradox only if it is assumed to be true, as Paul did in his Epistle to Titus: “One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said The Cretians are always liars […] This witness is true.” If Epimenides’ phrase is true, then he is a liar, because at least one Cretan (Epimenides himself) is telling the truth.

In any case, the paradox of the liar, in its various versions (the simplest is the statement, “This statement is a lie”), tormented the Greeks and their descendents in the art of thought for centuries.

Chrysippes the Stoic, a student of Zeno, living in the third century BC, wrote six treatises about the paradox, none of which has survived, and Philetas of Kos, of whom it is said that he was so thin that he wore shoes of lead so that the wind would not carry him away, died prematurely, due to the unbearable anxiety which this paradox had caused him.

Epimenides himself must have been deeply bothered by the infinite regression (of which the paradox is both an emblem and the epitome), since it is said that he went on a long and dangerous journey to the East to meet with the Buddha, to ask him what the answer was. In the end (according to the legend) the poet philosopher found the philosopher poet, and it was as if someone had placed two mirrors in front of each other. “What is greatest question that can be asked, and what is the greatest answer that can be given?” Epimenides asked. And the Buddha answered: “The greatest question that can be asked is the one you have just asked me, and the greatest answer that can be given is the one I am giving you now.”

*Στην υπέροχη εκπομπή του Μενέλαου Καραμαγκιόλη Πού παει η μουσική όταν δε την ακούμε πια;

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Of philology, bisexuals and camels

A lot has been said, at least in these parts, about some dumbass lawyers' threat to sue Warner Bros for implying that Alexander was bisexual, but I want to touch on a broader issue, and in a rather circuitous way.

In my second year at university, at a dinner party held at my Medieval Literature professor's house, a couple of fellow students and I were talking over drinks about the course we had just completed. I said that I had enjoyed it, but that I was planning to concentrate more on Renaissance Literature.

"I don't like the Renaissance," said the one classmate, holding her glass in a refined manner. "It's too self-conscious." (I've learnt that she now teaches at some Ivy League college.)

The other classmate, seizing upon the theatre-crowd jargon, added with a smile: "Yeah. And over-produced."

Despite the pretentiousness, there is some accuracy to the first charge. While the medievals did not think of themselves as living in a Middle Age, the humanists who came after did, however, think of themselves as being part of a Renaissance, and in fact, gave us the term themselves. The term "Renaissance" is actually falling out of favour, for it betrays an oversimplification of both the era in question, and the one that preceded it.

Whenever we refer to the cultural movement that began in Italy in the beginning of the fourteenth century as the Renaissance, we imply that it was a rebirth of classical learning after a long period of cultural and intellectual dormancy. This is to ignore, however, that the medievals themselves studied, albeit to a lesser extent, the classics of Rome and Greece – the latter only in Latin translation, of course – and it is also to ignore the extent to which the humanists in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries reinterpreted the classics themselves. They say that the humanists of the Renaissance attempted to Christianise the classics, but the medievals did this as well: the Aeneid was seen as an allegory in which Aeneas' journey to Latium represented the journey of the soul to the promised land. And with the help of Aquinas, the philosophy of Aristotle was interpreted to conform with Christian theology.

The main difference between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance lies in the way each era looked at the past as history. The medievals felt themselves to be direct descendants of ancient Rome, and to be part of its traditions. A common feature of medieval literature that deals with antiquity, such as Sir Orfeo and Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, to name two English examples, was the tendency to portray ancient Greece and Rome as if they were the recent past, and unknowingly give them medieval characteristics. In the early fourteenth century, however, they began to look upon antiquity as historically distinct from the more recent past, and from the present.

It's this new historical approach that chiefly characterises the Renaissance, when the attempt was first made to understand the achievements of classical Rome, and then to emulate it in the present.

It started with Petrarch, who neglected the usual medieval education of the day and studied the classics of Roman antiquity on his own. He was the first to look back on classical antiquity with a view to resurrecting it. With him we first get the notion of antiquity as the peak in civilisation, which ended with the decline of the Middle Ages, as well as the hope that its glory could be achieved again in a Christianised form. Petrarch concerned himself almost exclusively with classical literature, and spent much time on his travels searching for manuscripts to copy down.

By the middle of the fifteenth century, the first printing presses with movable metal type were in use. This meant that authoritative texts were established, which would arrest the slow corruption of manuscripts through faulty copying. It also meant that all of Europe could refer to a single edition, against which comparisons could be made until a more reliable version of the text could be established. This gave birth to a philology that sought to establish the historical accuracy of a text, which in turn led to a more critical historical approach.

The results were significant and palpable. Lorenzo Valla was instrumental in re-establishing classical Latin, which had long since been replaced by its more vernacular medieval form, and he used his knowledge of the language and its etymologies not only to explain the institutions of antiquity, but also to upset the foundations of the present order. His Profession of the Religious discussed the true meaning of religious terms and demonstrated that the medieval sects were corrupting not only the language, but the terms of religion. Greater repercussions followed his Falsely-Believed and Forged Donation of Constantine, which used philology to prove that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery. A historical knowledge of Latin permitted Valla to argue that the document could not have been written any earlier than the eighth century AD. (For example, it uses a word for serf, which would not have existed in Constantine's time, since neither did serfs.) This undermined the Pope's attempt to increase his temporal power, and encouraged King Alphonso of Naples, to whom Valla was secretary, to attack the papal states.

From the humanists' historical approach to the classics, and from their efforts to invent the Renaissance, there emerged the principles of the modern notion of history as a study in itself. They began to see, as the medievals had not, that in order to understand a historical period, we must first recognise its distinctness from ours.

What am I getting at?

Greece is the only country that does not (generally) accept the pronunciation of Greek and Latin as put forward by Erasmus. A classicist here is aware of the pronunciation, and some probably believe that it's as historically accurate as possible, but it's not taught. Classical Greek is pronounced the same as Modern Greek.

When you consider how much the pronunciation of English as we find it in Chaucer has changed, you have to acknowledge that a similar change could occur over, say, 2,000 years.

But they don't.

Seferis once said that Erasmus' pronunciation was probably the correct one, but that using it implied a lack of continuity, as if it were a different language. I don't see how this can be true. No one thinks of Chaucer as anything but English simply because the words sound different. Nevertheless, Greeks are sensitive to the possibility that their heritage will be appropriated. When I was at the University of Toronto, the Classics Department voted to move the Modern Greek faculty out into another faculty, or to make it a faculty in itself. (I can't remember which.) My Modern Greek professor told me that one of his colleagues, a British professor of Classics, had wanted to vote no, but had been subtly threatened that he wouldn't get tenure, or something like that.

The change was not so significant, but I never understood why the Department thought it necessary.

It has always amazed me how little Greece offers the rest of the world in terms of classical scholarship. One could argue that it's because Greek scholars write in a language that very few people know, but that's not true. The younger ones all know English, and get their articles translated into whatever language is necessary for them to get published.

A few years ago, I was telling a class of mine that the main reason they found English a difficult language to learn is because of its enormous vocabulary. I tell all my students this, and despite the fact that I'm fluent in both languages, while they're just learning English, they argue that I'm wrong. They can't bear to hear that another language is "richer" than Greek. When I tell them that there is no real measure of this wealth, they don't listen. They tell me that there are so many Greek words in English, but this has nothing to do with it. Let's say telephone is a Greek word, and let's ignore for a moment that it may in fact have been coined by a Scotsman in Canada. The word exists in both languages, and so the count is still equal. Most Greek words in English existed in English before entering the Greek language. The apparatus itself was already in use in some countries before the word was first used in Greek.

One student argued that Greek was not an Indoeuropean language. I asked him if he was studying linguistics, and how he had come to know so much that he could disagree with his own professors. Of course, he wasn't studying linguistics, but he had read a book that proved it. He asked me if I wanted to borrow it. "Not really," I said.

He brought me some photocopied pages anyway. I took them home and read them. The ignorance in those pages was sad. The author argued that it was absurd to claim, for example, that the word psephus (ψήφος), which means "vote", could have an Indoeuropean root, because the civilisations it supposedly descended from did not have a democracy. But the word, even in Greek, meant "stone" first, since they were used to cast votes. Now, surely all civilisations could be expected to have a word for that?

I didn't study linguistics, and can't even claim to be a dilettante in the field, but this was astonishing. Wasn't there an editor involved in the publication of this book?

The response to Oliver Stone's portrayal of Alexander as bisexual has been embarrassing. Perhaps we can't expect lawyers and reporters to know much about ancient Greece, but they should do their homework if they're going to criticise someone's work.

Anyone willing to make the effort will find more books than he has time to read that discuss sexuality in ancient Greece. I won't bother going into it. Arrian, Plutarch and Curtius describe Alexander's relationship with Hephaestion in such a way that indicates they expected their readers to understand what the nature of it was.

This response makes the feeble claim that Alexander could not have had such inclinations because the historian Arrian wrote that "Not even to me does it seem possible that he turned out to be unlike any other human being without divine intervention." (Additional proof is that Plutarch said Alexander was a philosopher. Nevertheless, an extant couplet written by Plato describes his bliss while kissing another male.)

Alexander was not bisexual because he was "unlike any other human being"? This of course does not answer the question of what "any other human being" is like.

In "The Argentine Writer and Tradition" Borges wrote

Gibbon observes that in the Arabian book par excellence, in the Koran, there are no camels; I believe if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this absence of camels would be sufficient to prove it is an Arabian work. It was written by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, had no reason to know that camels were especially Arabian; for him they were a part of reality, he had no reason to emphasise them; on the other hand, the first thing a falsifier, a tourist, an Arab nationalist would do is have a surfeit of camels, caravans of camels, on every page; But Mohammed, as an Arab, was unconcerned: he knew he could be an Arab without camels.

When it comes to ancient texts and bisexuality, we can simply take it for granted.

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Sometimes, when we stopped in the doorway of a room, one of us entering, the other leaving, we would step into each other’s arms, as if it were a chance meeting and we didn’t live together in such a small house. Other times, in the twilight of late afternoon, lying next to each other in bed near the window with the half-closed shutters, she would turn and face me, staring expectantly, both of us rendered silent by the unspeakable. At such times I wanted to bend towards her and tenderly press my lips upon her eyelids. I knew she would close them and offer them to me with same trust and wonder that made her stare speechlessly at me for so long. But an old superstition that to kiss the eyes presages farewell would halt me, and afraid that I would lose her, I forbade myself this pleasure.

So I searched for other parts of her to kiss. Perhaps the cupped palm of her hand. The slope where her neck met her shoulder, or further up, below the ear. Her high forehead, untroubled as she slept. Maybe along her side, from her breasts down to her waist. There must have been many such kisses, but in my memory they are all eclipsed by the two I could never allow myself to give her.

Likewise I have forgotten all the things we said to each other, and remember only what was left unsaid. If there are words which hasten us to our last goodbye, I have never learned what they are. I was not so careful with my words as I was with my kisses.

I lost her nonetheless, despite my precautions. The doorways, the half-closed shutters, the dim afternoon light, everything is as it was then, only more so now that she is gone. I search among it all for the words I may have said when silence was more fitting, for the silences I should have broken, and I remember her eyes, the eyes I never kissed.

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Goodnight, Kemal

Perhaps the greatest Greek song lyricist was Nikos Gatsos (1911-1992). In his entire life, he only published one volume of poetry, Amorgos (1943), which nevertheless was extraordinarily influential for its use of surrealism with Greek elements. The rest of his life was devoted to theatrical translations, especially of Lorca, and to writing lyrics for composers like Theodorakis, Hadjidakis, and Xarhakos. An example of his lyrics, in English translation, is “We Who Are Left“.

Thinking about what’s in store for the next four years, I remembered this song he wrote with Hadjidakis. I include the Greek lyrics as well. I have taken the translation from a Savina Yannatou CD and changed it. It is at times a strict and at times a free translation. At no time is it a very good one.

The italicised parts are spoken.

Ακούστε τώρα την ιστορία του Κεμάλ
ενός νεαρού πρίγκιπα της Ανατολής
απόγονου του Σεβάχ του Θαλασσινού
που νόμισε ότι μπορούσε ν’ αλλάξει τον κόσμο.
Αλλά πικρές οι βουλές του Αλλάχ
και σκοτεινές οι ψυχές των ανθρώπων…

Στης Ανατολής τα μέρη μια φορά κι έναν καιρό
ήταν άδειο το κεμέρι, μουχλιασμένο το νερό.
Στη Μοσούλη, στη Βασόρα, στην παλιά τη χουρμαδιά
πικραμένα κλαίνε τώρα της ερήμου τα παιδιά.
Κι ένας νέος από σόι και γενιά βασιλική
αγροικάει το μοιρολόι και τραβάει κατά κει.
Τον κοιτάν οι βεδουίνοι με ματιά λυπητερή
κι όρκο στον Αλλάχ τους δίνει πως θ’ αλλάξουν οι καιροί.

Σαν ακούσαν οι αρχόντοι του παιδιού την αφοβιά
ξεκινάν με λύκου δόντι και με λιονταριού προβιά.
Απ’ τον Τίγρη στον Ευφράτη κι απ’ τη γη στον ουρανό
κυνηγάν τον αποστάτη να τον πιάσουν ζωντανό.
Πέφτουν πάνω του τα στίφη σαν ακράτητα σκυλιά
και τον πάνε στο Χαλίφη να του βάλει τη θηλιά.
Μαύρο μέλι, μαύρο γάλα ήπιε ‘κείνο το πρωί
πριν αφήσει στην κρεμάλα τη στερνή του την πνοή.

Με δυο γέρικες καμήλες, μ’ ένα κόκκινο φαρί
στου παράδεισου τις πύλες ο προφήτης καρτερεί.
Πάνε τώρα χέρι-χέρι κι είναι γύρω συννεφιά
μα της Δαμασκού τ’ αστέρι τους κρατούσε συντροφιά.
Σ’ ένα μήνα, σ’ ένα χρόνο βλέπουν μπρος τους τον Αλλάχ
που απ’ τον ψηλό του θρόνο λέει στον άμυαλο Σεβάχ:
Νικημένο μου ξεφτέρι δεν αλλάζουν οι καιροί
με φωτιά και με μαχαίρι πάντα ο κόσμος προχωρεί.

Καληνύχτα Κεμάλ. Αυτός ο κόσμος δε θ’ αλλάξει ποτέ. Καληνύχτα…

* * * * *

Hear now the story of Kemal
A young prince from the East
A descendant of Sinbad the Sailor,
Who thought he could change the world.
But bitter is the will of Allah,
And dark the souls of men …

Once upon a time in the East,
The coffers are empty, the waters are stagnant.
In Mosul, in Basrah, under an old date-palm,
The children of the desert are bitterly crying.
A young man of ancient and royal race
Overhears their lament and goes to them.
The Bedouins look at him sadly
And he swears by Allah that things will change.

When they learn of the young man’s fearlessness,
The rulers set off with wolf-like teeth and a lion’s mane.
From the Tigris to the Euphrates, in heaven and on earth,
They pursue the renegade to catch him alive.
They pounce on him like uncontrollable hounds,
And take him to the caliph to put the noose around his neck.
Black honey, black milk he drank that morning
Before breathing his last on the gallows.

With two aged camels and a red steed,
At the gates of heaven the prophet awaits.
They walk together among the clouds
With the star of Damascus to keep them company.
After a month, after a year, they find Allah
Who, from his high throne, tells foolish Sinbad:
‘O my vanquished upstart, things never change;
Fire and knives are the only things men know.’*

Goodnight, Kemal. The world will never change. Goodnight…

* * * * *When Manos Hadjidakis was living in New York, during the coup of 67-74, he recorded an English version of this song, which actually predates the Greek one, with the New York Rock & Roll Ensemble. It’s rather silly, and a waste of a beautiful melody, although it’s a good album.

*The original says “Only with fire and with knives does the world proceed.”

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Fat Albert’s Ramble

When I was sixteen I started going to an open stage called Fat Albert’s. It was held every Wednesday night in the basement of the Bloor Street United Church in Toronto. It was started in 1967 and had seen the likes of Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bob Snider and Bob Wiseman. It ran there in the church for 36 years, when their rent was increased so dramatically that they had to relocate. Up to the very end, the stage, backdrop, sound system, tables and chairs never changed. It’s one of the few things I miss about Toronto, and wish I had gone more often in the 90’s.

One of the singers that I particularly enjoyed was Sam Larkin. He’s written beautiful songs and deserves to be heard more widely. His “Sally On” was briefly heard in Highway 61, and a few people have recorded covers of his “Mirabeau Bridge”. Sam’s a very funny guy, and his website gives you an idea of his humour.

For the most part, people sang and played guitar. There was a piano to the side of the stage, and I remember Bob Wiseman when he was still with Blue Rodeo playing with his fists and elbows and even with his hand in a roll of masking tape.

Sometimes people got up and read poetry, which was invariably bad. It was a fashion at the time, I think, to repeat entire lines in a poem for no apparent reason. I remember one woman reading something that could be likened to the experience of going from one radio station to another, and her reciting at one point the following line two or three times:

I’ll give you two kittens if you tape if you tape Lou Reed.

Although it may have been three kittens. I don’t know.

One singer I always thought would be heard more widely was Caitlin Jenkins, but if Google is anything to go by, she no longer sings. She was the younger sister of the singer and actress Rebecca Jenkins, who was a regular before I showed up, and who complimented me on my set the one and only time I saw her there.

I loved listening to Bob Snider. His songs were either hilarious or beautifully touching. One of the best ones I recall was “What An Idiot He Is”:

He hasn’t bothered thinkin’

Since he was ten

He’ll tell you he already knew

What he had to know by then

Anyone who disagrees with him

Should be in prison

All he wants is what is his

Even if it isn’t

You can talk until you’re blue

But you’ll never make him listen

To what an idiot he is.

Bob must have been in his forties. He was tall and thin, with a kind, weathered face. I believe he told me that he had come from Nova Scotia and had worked in construction. He had a beard and was missing a few upper front teeth. This gave him a distinctive way of pronouncing things, which added to his charm. I liked Bob a lot and thought him very talented, but due to his image and his age, I never even considered him becoming successful or famous. About a year or two ago I was stunned to hear a couple of his songs on the radio here in Athens. (In my seven years here so far, I have heard Joni Mitchell and Neil Young on the radio, but not Gordon Lightfoot.)

Pat Harper was, I believe, an actor or a comedian. He would improvise. I only saw him perform two or three times, unfortunately. I have one of his performances on tape. One night he got up and said a few mediocre jokes and then suddenly burst into a rendition of Mark Antony’s funeral speech from Julius Caesar with such wide-eyed earnestness that my gut was sore and tears were streaming down my face. I remember that only Sam Larkin and I were laughing. Most people didn’t know what was going on.

Another time he held a piece of paper and did a television news anchorman reading a report about the Toronto Maple Leafs (then in their 1980s doldrums) making it to the Stanley Cup finals because they’d had a sack of potatoes playing defence. In the last game, the sack tears open, the potatoes spill out, and the Leafs lose. Up until this, it was average, mediocre comedic fare. But then he added:

“General Manager Cliff Fletcher had this to say about the near future.”

Here he put the paper down and looked around the room with the same earnest expression and droned this poem by Baudelaire:

When the low heavy sky weighs like a lid

Upon the groaning spirit, prey to long monotonies,

And embracing all the horizon’s compass

Pours us a black day, sadder than our nights.

When the earth is changed into a dank cell

Where Hope flees bat-like

Beating the walls with timid wings

Striking its head against the rotten roof;

When the rain spreads out its endless trains

Like the bars of a vast prison

And a silent race of loathsome spiders

Come spread their nets deep in our brains.

Suddenly the bells ring out in fury

And hurl against the sky a fearful scream

Like homeless wandering spirits

That stubbornly begin to groan.

And long hearses, without drum or note

Parade slowly through my soul; Hope beaten

Weeps, and dreadful Anguish, despotic

Upon my bowed skull plants its banner black.

I was in even greater hysterics than when he did Mark Antony.

Pat lived with Bob Snider in a house whose previous tenants had been a punk band called Bunchofuckingoofs. Pat invited some of the regulars at Fat Albert’s to a Christmas party at his house one year. Some of us sat in the kitchen while he told us that the Bunchofuckingoofs had had a dog which shit in the house because they’d never take it out. They would hoover up the dogshit with a heavy duty industrial vacuum cleaner. When someone expressed disbelief at this story, Pat went down to the basement and brought the vacuum cleaner up and turned it on for us. Within seconds the whole kitchen stank. He said there was no way to get rid of that smell.

Pat eventually moved to Washington with his girlfriend.

There was another guy who came by every once in a while. He wore a black fisherman’s cap and carried around a black hardcover notebook. He lived in my neighbourhood, and I often saw him at the bus-stop in the morning with the same hat and notebook. I was in university at the time, and he looked younger than me. I figured he was a high school student, filling up his notebook with poetry he’d someday inflict on us at Fat Albert’s. But I never saw him get up on stage. He knew Sam, and would stand around and talk to him whenever I saw him there. He must have performed, but never on a night that I’d happened to come by.

* * * * *

Around 1992 or 1993, I noticed that Sam Larkin had stopped coming to Fat Albert’s. I tried calling him, but his number was out of service. I couldn’t find him in the phone book. I had been losing interest in Fat Albert’s and in the idea of myself as a singer or songwriter. The two guys who had been running the place since 1967, Ray and Ed, retired and passed it on to someone else, but by that time it had already started to decline. I don’t know if Fat Albert’s is still running. Wherever it moved to in 2003, I’m sure it had very little to do with the Fat Albert’s we had known.

For me, when Sam stopped going regularly ten years before that, it had already begun to fade away.

Even the kid with the cap and notebook went away. I no longer saw him on the bus every morning.

* * * * *

I graduated from university in 1995. I knew that soon I’d be moving to Greece, although I didn’t leave till January of 1997. It was a strange time for me. I felt I’d already left Toronto behind, but hadn’t moved on to anywhere. I felt like a ghost haunting the city. I’d look around me at things as though they were all in the past, as if I’d already left and this was nothing more than a memory. I lost touch with people I’d known in high school and university, and I often found myself thinking about Sam, even though I’d never really known him that well.

One day I found a copy of Now Magazine on the subway. On the front cover was the kid with black fisherman’s cap. I picked it up and read the article about him. It turned out he wasn’t a writer, but a singer. His name was Ron Sexsmith. He had moved to Tennessee. In 1994 he had released his first album, but it hadn’t done well at all till Elvis Costello plugged it in an interview and appeared on the cover of a magazine holding the CD. That turned the tide for Sexsmith. In the article, he talked about a friend bringing Paul McCartney to his house for a pancake breakfast one day, and how they got out the guitars and jammed.

I was stunned. I’d thought he was just a high school kid. I used to ride the bus with him every morning, and we’d had a mutual acquaintance. What a wasted opportunity that was! I could have got to know him. Now it was all too late.

I went to a record shop a couple of days later and looked for the album. The CD had sold out. I was in such a hurry to hear it that I bought the cassette. I loved it right away. My favourite song on it is “Wasting Time”:

The day is long, many hours to kill

It’s all right if we let a few minutes spill

Where’s the crime in wasting time with you?

I would listen to the album all the time on my walkman. Many of the songs spoke to the nostalgia I was already feeling for the place I hadn’t left yet.

Some months later, either in the autumn of 1995 or the spring of 1996, I was sitting in a cafe on Queen Street called the Roastery. This was across the street from Kew Gardens, which led down to the beach. I was sitting inside, drinking out of a paper cup, listening to the Sexsmith tape. Whenever I see a famous person in the street, I never talk to them unless I have something interesting to say. There’s no point being the thousandth person to say, “I liked your film” or “I like your music”. As I sat there, I thought that if I ever saw Ron Sexsmith again, I’d definitely speak to him. I started to consider what I’d say to him if he should ever find himself back in Toronto again, in his old neighbourhood, and we should happen to cross paths. I would probably ask him if he knew what had ever happened to Sam Larkin.

And then, just as I was thinking this very thought, Ron Sexsmith passed by the cafe and crossed Queen Street into Kew Gardens.

I froze. I felt both amazed and also as though I had actually summoned him. I put the walkman into the bag I had with me, put the lid on my paper cup, and went after him.

Catching up to him was quite difficult. He walked much faster than I did, and I didn’t want to run up behind him. At one point he bent to pick up a stick, and I thought he looked back and saw me. I followed him for about ten minutes, trying to catch up without running. Later on, in another part of the neighbourhood, he dropped the stick he’d been carrying, and when he picked it up he looked back again. I thought that if he had noticed me both times he’d think I was stalking him, so I put my coffee down and ran up to him.

I called out to him and explained that I’d been listening to his music when he walked past the cafe. He was surprised at the coincidence, even though I had decided not to mention that I’d been thinking about what I’d do if I ever saw him. We walked for a bit.

“You’re a fast walker,” I said. “I’ve been trying to catch up to you since you went into the park.”

“I guess all those years of working as a courier paid off,” he said.

I told him I remembered him from the bus and Fat Albert’s and he said I looked familiar to him too. I asked him about Sam, and he told me he’d lost touch with him too, and all he knew was that Sam had moved to some part of north Ontario. I asked him if he was playing anywhere in town, and I think he said he was opening for Sarah McLachlan. He was going to visit some friends of his that lived in the neighbourhood, and we said goodbye. I turned on my walkman again and watched him walk away.

* * * * *

Last year, Ron Sexsmith became the fourth Fat Albert’s alumnus that I’ve heard on the radio here in Athens. So far, he has released eight albums.

* * * * *

Postscript: I was very sad to learn that on Monday 28 October, 2013, Sam Larkin passed away.

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