More photos from Crete

We went for a drive up to the foothills of Psiloritis yesterday, as far as the Nida Plateau.

(Check out the rest at Flickr.)

Easter in Crete

I’ve been down in Crete the past week, and will be staying for another one. I’ve been taking lots of photographs. There are days when the light is so pure that it seems impossible not to take a good picture.

What I’ve Been Doing

Last summer I gave up on my fountain pens. It was getting too difficult to find paper that didn’t let the ink bleed through. I kept fussing over my pens. I bought a 1947 Parker 51, which wasn’t working as well I’d been expecting, and my Duofold had stopped working entirely. I decided to stop wasting time and just use ball points. Lately I had even started using roller balls pens. But every once in a while, I’d read about some fountain pen I was interested in, and the itch to get another one would come back. But I kept resisting.

One of the pens I’ve wanted for quite some time is the Namiki Vanishing Point fountain pen, also known as the Pilot Capless. It’s an unusual fountain pen, the only one of its kind. It has no cap, and its nib is retractable, as these two pictures show:

Last week I was walking up Benaki Street and I saw one in a shop window. I went in and asked to look at it. I ran the nib across some paper and across the back of my hand — the latter is something I do with all uninked pens I pick up. I can feel how smooth the end of the nib is that way. This one was very smooth, probably smoother than any other I’d ever felt. The next day I went and bought it.

What impresses me is how it’s both smooth and sturdy. The nib is 18 karat white gold and has just a little flex.

The main reason that I bought it is that I’d been reading that they could be used in Moleskines without feathering or bleeding through. I like using Moleskines. I find the cult surrounding them ridiculous, but at the same time, I can understand it. In an age when people do most of their writing on computers, or some other kind of machine, more and more people are enjoying a return to something simpler and more basic, and something which can carry their own personal character in it: their handwriting, their sketches, doodles, whatever. The marketing of the notebook even satisfies some people’s desire to be participating in some kind of tradition: they’re using the notebooks that Picasso, Hemingway, Van Gogh, and Chatwin used. (As several people have pointed out, they’re not. No one has commented on the irony that the makers of the notebook themselves point out that le vrai moleskine n’est plus.)

I like the notebook because it’s handy. I like the elastic band that keeps it closed. I like the binding that keeps it completely open. I like the sturdy hard cover. I like the acid-free paper, but wish it was more fountain pen friendly. I’ve been lucky with mine. I’ve managed to do a lot of writing in them.

When I’m writing, I have to enjoy the physical act. It may seem silly, but it’s no sillier than writing made-up stories about people who have never existed. If I’m using a ball point pen that makes my handwriting look horrible and has blotchy ink, I’m distracted from what I’m writing. If the pen skips or scratches the paper a little bit and makes even a little bit of noise, it distracts me. No matter how absorbed I am in what I’m writing, I can’t forget that I’m actually holding a pen and gliding it across some paper. (If things are going well, and it’s a good pen, it glides. Other times it just drags and scrapes.)

A few nights ago I noticed that in the month since I started this notebook, in which I’m only writing my novel, I had written over fifty pages. For me this very productive. And there’s a lot more in the previous notebook. I wanted to mention that here, because I often complain about my writing not going well, about not having enough discipline, there being too many distractions. And because that’s why I haven’t been posting much. I’m interested enough in the plot, subject matter and characters that the pen has been gliding a lot, even when I was using a cheap ball point or roller ball.

Ποιότητα ΠΑΝΤΟΥ!


On the bus last week I stole glances at a woman sitting next to me. She was probably in her late fifties or early sixties and had a somewhat tough, masculine face, care-worn and tired looking. Her eyes were a light grey, the kind that always remind me of spent flashcubes. (When was the last time I even saw flashcubes, the disposable kind?) They made her look cold and mean at first. Her profile was hard, chiselled, manly. She was the kind of woman they used to call “handsome”.

When she got off the bus, I had the chance to get a better look at her face. She went down to the corner of Panepistimiou and Ippokratous (she’d got off in front of the National Library) and waited for the light to change, and I saw her straight on. I imagined her thirty years ago. She must have been a beautiful woman. And by that I mean I imagined her a beautiful young woman. But then I realised she still was beautiful — more dignified than attractive, though. How had I failed to notice it right away?

When I was about 16 I had a conversation with a friend at school, in which we both admitted that we’d first met, we’d each found the other funny-looking. We discovered that we had both realised — independently, and at different times — that one’s first visual impressions of people were almost invariably wrong, even distorted. Almost everyone we’d ever met had been funny-looking, kind of ugly, at first, and then their faces changed as we got to know them.

I’ve also noticed this in films. Some actors and actresses seem to get more attractive as the film goes on, if they’re someone you haven’t seen before. The first time I saw The Double Life of Veronique, my first impression of Irene Jacob was that she was very plain. Before the film was over, I was practically in love with her. (I have seen the film over fifteen times, and I’m always amazed at how different she looks as Weronika, and much more attractive as Veronique.)

Somewhere I once read Ezra Pound’s explanation of this celebrated short poem:


The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

He described how a face he saw on the Metro was suddenly, immediately beautiful, and then another and another, until it seemed everyone was beautiful.

What is it that prevents us from seeing this truer face of people? It’s not that we need to get to know the person better, because it can happen with people we don’t know at all, once our eyes get used to them, so to speak. Is it the imagination at work? If Pound was affected by a sense of ecstasy, what afflicts the rest of us? What’s the opposite of ecstasy? If ecstasy is standing outside yourself, then the opposite would be a sort of slumber where you are locked inside yourself, locked in your ignorance, not even seeing what is outside, utterly self-absorbed.

Today I asked myself what it is that liberates the imagination so that we can see, even for a moment, behind the mask we have hung on people’s faces.

Insight Ramble

A few nights ago during my lesson I had to explain the word "ratings" to my students, and then one of them mentioned that she used to work for a teleresearch company that also did the ratings for television channels here in Greece. Standing there in front of them, hearing her talk about it, I pictured what the workplace must be like, and remembered my years working for a company I'll call Polls R Us. (The only reason I won't reveal who they are is that, after having worked here in Greece for the past decade, they seem to have been pretty decent employers after all.)

I started working there in late 1989, and worked there on and off for about five or six years. I became a supervisor in the phone bank, but even then found time to work on the phones. The phone bank had 30 computers which dialled the numbers distributed by a central computer. We used the cati system, if anybody knows of it. We wore headsets so that we could type in the open-ended answers. Some interviewers were horrible one-finger typests. Once when I was supervising from the central computer I monitored a survey where the interviewer mumbled, "Jesus, where's that 'r'?" The respondent said, "You're a slow typist, aren't you?" and he said, "It's been a while since I was in high school."

Pollsters prefer to stick to closed, multiple-choice questions. One of the reasons is that open-ended responses need to be coded afterward, a tiresome job when what the respondent said or interviewer typed up doesn't make much sense. They prefer the answers to fit into the pre-existing codes, even to the point of telling interviewers not to volunteer the information that there is an "Other: specify" option. I was never sure if the purpose of the survey was to provide the client (usually a politician) with what they wanted to be told or to publish the results and use them to help shape the public's perception of an issue. At any rate, it didn't seem they were very interested in what the people actually thought.

And really, I can't say I blamed them. If you want to get an idea of how stupid the average person is, all you need to do is call them up at home and ask them their opinions about political issues.

Here's a typical exchange:

Thomas: On a scale of one to ten, where one is not at all impressed and ten is very impressed, how impressed are you with the Politician A?

Respondent: Impressed.

Thomas: From one to ten?

Respondent: Yeah, one to ten.

Thomas: Sorry, sir, could you pick one number from on to ten, where one is not at all impressed and ten is very impressed?

Respondent: Yeah, uh, six.

Thomas: All right, and on a scale of one to ten, where one is not at all impressed and ten is very impressed, how impressed are you with the Politician B?

Respondent: Pretty impressed, I'd say.

Thomas: From one to ten?

Respondent: Yeah, one to ten.

Another common type of question used to limit the possible responses to four.

Thomas: Would you say that over the past 12 months the state of the economy has improved significantly, improved somewhat, worsened somewhat, or worsened significantly?

Respondent: Sen – senificant.

Thomas: Significantly improved or significantly worsened?

Respondent: Worsened.

Thomas: All right, and would you say that over the past 12 months health care has improved significantly, improved somewhat, worsened somewhat, or worsened significantly?

Respondent: Senificant.

After a while the respondent got tired of trying to pronounce "significantly" and realised life would be a great deal easier for him if he chose "somewhat" instead, all the while answe ing with a seriousness that suggested that every response had been arrived at with scientific precision.

(I often wondered how many terrible politicians in Canada breathed a sigh of relief to discover that people only somewhat disapproved of their record, and all because the majority of them could not pronounce the word "significantly".)

Having to repeat each question two or three times meant that the survey I'd assured them would not take more than ten minutes was now going on for half an hour. Invariable the respondent would rouse himself from his question-answering stupor and ask, "How much longer?

It's all very fine, he was saying, to be able to take part in a democratic process — especially considering that so many governments throughout the world spend more time suppressing what people have to say — and to help shape government policy, but I'm trying to watch Wheel of Fortune over here.

Another thing I found particularly frustrating was that we were not allowed to explain anything to the respondent. The official response as, "I'm sorry, but I'm not allowed to interpret the question for you." Theoretically, this makes sense. I may interpret incorrectly, either through ignorance or through bias, and that particular question will no longer be the same one everyone else is answering. Plus, I don't know how many people answered it without understanding it. I only know which ones asked for clarification. But the alternative is pseudoscience. I tell them, "Answer the question according to what it means to you," and then we interpret your answer in whatever way is convenient for us.

We did a survey once about biogenetic engineering and I don't know how many people told me they were against it because they didn't want anyone putting chemicals in their food. And these people's responses carried as much weight as a biologist's.

In the early 90s, Canada was going through a tough time with its sense of national identity. The premiers of the provinces met at a resort on Meech Lake and tried to come up with a constitutional agreement that would satisfy Quebec's demands for "equal but separate" status. The debate divided the country and created a lot of bad feeling about Quebec, which most people in the rest of the country viewed as a spoiled brat. Meech Lake was in the news so much that people were absolutely sick of hearing about it. Eventually, the Meech Lake Accord, as it was called, collapsed, largely through the efforts of Elijah Harper, who came to be seen as a national hero by opponents of the Accord. One evening I asked a young gentleman, most of whose attention as on a hockey game, about the Meech Lake Accord, and he asked me:

"Where's that?"

I doubt if I knew then where exactly Meech Lake was. I don't remember now. That evening, however, I decided to break the rules and do a bit of interpreting, first pressing the key for "Don't know/No answer".

"Oh, you mean like something on paper," he said. ""I don't know anything about that. I live near Lake Huron, eh?"

One of the funniest memories I have of my years at Polls R Us is of one of the very young high school students who worked on the phones. We were doing a survey for some organisation involved in raising awareness about psoriasis. Knowing that interviewers would have problems pronouncing it, the company wrote it out phonetically for them. One kid, about 15 or 16 years old, didn't find it helpful. I heard him ask:

"Do you or does anyone else in your family have sorry asses?"

One of my favourite TV shows when I was a young child was Mr Dressup. Ernie Coombs, who played Mr Dressup, had two puppets on the show, a boy named Casey, and a dog named Finnegan. A child once wrote a letter to Coombs and asked him, "Does Casey know he's only a puppet?"

If you try to get your head around the logic of that question, you'll get an idea of the sort of confusion I felt one evening when a respondent interrupted my introduction to ask, "Are you a computer?"

In fact, I was stunned. It took me a moment to answer.


"Oh, good! I hate talking to those things!"

Years later, the same thing happened again, but this time I was prepared. The respondent asked me:

"Is this one of those recordings?"

"Would you ask a recording a question, sir?"

"Yes I would!" he said, angry and embarrassed, and hung up.


I want to remember these details months or years from now: It is night in Europe. Cold winds descend from Siberia. Snow falls obliquely through the streetlights of Europe. Tomorrow morning cities will be white.

The snow is deep on the ground.
Always the light falls
Softly down on the hair of my beloved.

This is a good world.
The war has failed.
God shall not forget us.
Who made the snow waits where love is.

Only a few go mad.
The sky moves in its whiteness
Like the withered hand of an old king.
God shall not forget us.
Who made the sky knows of our love.

The snow is beautiful on the ground.
And always the lights of heaven glow
Softly down on the hair of my beloved.

Snow at night in the city always makes me think of Kenneth Patchen. Does anyone still read him? I open the book of his poems that I have once or twice a year, maybe. I seem to have found it once by accident, when I was much younger, and I don't know how it's managed to stay with me. I only open it late at night, on nights like this, when it feels like everyone around me, apartment after apartment, block after block, is sleeping, and all is as silent as falling snow.

In Memory of Kathleen

How pitiful is her sleep.
Now her clear breath is still.
There is nothing falling tonight,
Bird or man,
As dear as she;
Nowhere that she should go
Without me. None but my calling.
Nothing but the cold cry of the snow.

How lonely does she seem.
I, who have no heaven,
Defenseless, without lands,
Must try a dream
Of the seven
Lost stars and how they put their hands
Upon her eyes that she might ever know
Nothing worse than the cold cry of snow.


On Saturday night N. and I invited Jamie over for a couple of drinks. I had bought a small bottle of Absinth, of the Czech variety. We had been planning for some time to try it. (He studied French literature in university, and I was a big Rimbaud fan when I was a teenager, so that should explain it.)

I opened the bottle and took a sniff. It looked and smelled like Aqua Velva aftershave. The taste did not change this impression.

A colleague of mine had told me that she had tried some and had found it very bitter. I thought this was why people poured it through sugar. The ingredients on the bottle said there was sugar, and so we assumed we wouldn’t need to add any. We were wrong, but I only found this out today.

We poured a small amount into a glass and tried it, straight. This is the 60% type, not the 70%. I remember years ago seeing a drunk on the subway guzzling down some Aqua Velva. On Saturday I got an idea of what that must have been like. As soon as I swallowed it, the heat ran through my body. We wondered how on earth people could drink so much of it, and thought it would be better with water. Then we went on to safer ouzo or beer.

Today I’ve read up on how it should be drunk. I knew about the sugar, having seen it in a couple of films. I don’t have the special spoon that is used, or even sugar cubes, so I used a regular spoon and put some of the drink into some cane sugar. I lit it and let it burn for about twenty seconds and then dropped it into the absinthe, stirred it, and then added cold water. The result is at least drinkable.

However, Czech absinth is supposed to be a cheap imitation, a fake, according to the Wormood Society. I’d have to try the French kind that the compare it to to understand the difference. With the amount of water I’ve put in, it’s not at all bad, although nothing special either.

Of course, I only paid eight euros for it. If I don’t drink any more of it, I can always slap some on my face after I shave.

The Wormwood Society’s FAQ page.

The Wormwood Society’s reviews and recommendations.

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.

Ένα απόσπασμα από το έκτο κεφάλαιο της Πριγκηπέσσας Ιζαμπώς:

Άναψαν το λυχνάρι, σφάλισαν την πόρτα, κ’εκεί, μέσα στο στάβλο, έγιναν οι τελευταίες ετοιμασίες.Ο Ιλαρίωνος είταν αγουροξυπνημένος και χασμουριόταν. Έτσι που κάθησε στη γωνιά, ως που να συγυριστούνε, τον πήρε ο ύπνος γερμένον πάνω στο φάρσωμα. Το ροχαλητό του τράνταξε την παράγκα ίσαμε την ώρα που είχε πια φωτίσει καλά έξω, κι ο Σγουρός ντυμένος με το ράσο του, το κεφάλι μπουμπουλωμένο, φόρτωνε πάνω στη μούλα τα πράματά του τυλιγμένα σε σκουτιά. Ένα κοντό ρωμέϊκο σπαθί, το λωρίκι, τα τσαγγία του και το σωκάρδι με το ταμπάρο.

Καβακίλεψε τη μούλα και ξεκίνησαν κ’ οι τρείς.

Πίσω από το θεόρατο μαύρο βράχο, ο ουρανός ερρόδιζε. Σύννεφα μελανά κι άλλα σταχτοκίτρινα τρέχανε στον ουρανό — η θάλασσα κάτω, μαβιά μ’ασημωτά λέπια αικίνητα, ανάβραζα, έτρεχε καταπάνω στη στεριά και την κοπανούσε άγρια, μανιασμένη. Κάτι είπε ο Ιλαρίωνος, όμως ο άνεμος πήρε τα λόγια του, τα σκόρπισε πέρα. Η βάγια πορευότανε με σκυμμένο κεφάλι, πένθιμη και βουβή.

Όταν το πρωτοδιάβασα, σταμάτησα σ’αυτή τη λεπτομέρεια, εκεί πού ο Ιλαρίωνας κάτι λεει που μήτε ο Σγουρός μήτε ο συγγραφέας δεν άκουσε. Με εντυπωσίασε η λεπτότητα του Άγγελου Τερζάκη, η παρατηρητικότητά του κι αυτό που ο Calvino αποκάλεσε ελαφρότητα. Μια μικρή λεπτομέρεια, καθόλου απαραίτητη, αλλά για μένα αξέχαστη. Στα γραπτά μου θάθελα να βρίσκονται τέτοιες λεπτομέρεις. Μ’αρέσει πως ακρίβως σ’αυτήν την εύστοχη παρατήρηση ο συγγραφέας δε προλαβαίνει να ακούσει τι είπε ο Ιλαρίωνας. Η εικόνα όμως είναι ζωντανή.

Είναι στιγμές που διαβάζω και θαυμάζω τις επιλογές ενός συγγραφέα — όπως την επιλογή του Τολστόι, παραδείγματος χάριν, να μας παρουσιάσει το πώς ερωτεύονται η Άννα Καρένινα και ο Βρόνσκι όπως το βλέπει η Κάτια κι όχι ο παντογνώστης αφηγητής — και νιώθω πως μαθαίνω ο ίδιος πώς να γράφω. Η λογοτέχνια είναι σχολή των συγγραφέων. Μπορεί αυτό να φαίνεται αυτονόητο, αλλά συχνά απορώ αν υπάρχει σχολή πεζού λόγου στην Ελλάδα. Καλοί συγγραφείς σίγουρα υπάρχουν, αλλά στους περισσότερους κυριαρχεί — πώς να το πω; — μια χαλαρότητα, μια νωθρότητα, και μια αυταρέσκει που δεν τους επιτρέπει να κοπιάζουν και να πετύχουν τέτοιες λεπτομέρειες όπως ο Τερζάκης. Μου φαίνεται πως δεν υπάρχουν επιμελητές που ξέρουν ή τολμούν να πουν ότι ένα βιβλίο ακόμα θέλει δουλειά πριν το εκδώσουν.

Επαναλαμβάνω πως υπάρχουν καλοί συγγραφείς. Πέρσι, για παράδειγμα, διάβασα της Σώτης Τριανταφύλλου τη Φυγη και το θαύμασα. Ειδικά το πρώτο κεφάλαιο, όπου γίνεται σκηνογραφία με πολλή λιτότητα. Ο Θανάσης Βαλτινός επίσης δείχνει μια σπάνια οικονομία του λόγου. Και τονίζω πως οι αδεξιότητές μου στην ελληνική γλώσσα δεν με εμποδίζουν να ασκήσω κριτική.

Είχα σκεφτεί να γράψω γι’αυτό το θέμα όταν άρχισα να διαβάσω Τις Τελευταίες Ημέρες του Κωνσταντίνου Καβάφη από τον Φίλιππο Φιλίππου. Δεν κατάφερα ποτέ να το τελειώσω όμως. Ο Φιλίππου μ’εκνευρίζει κάθε φορά που το ανοίγω το βιβλίο.

Στο μυθιστόρημα ο Ιταλός φουτουριστής ποιητής Φίλιππο Τομμάζο Μαρινέττι επισκέπτεται τον Καβάφη στο σπίτι του. Είναι το 1933, μετά την τραχειοτομία του Έλληνα.

Φορούσε κάτι καφετιά δερμάτινα γάντια πολύ λεπτά και αρκετά ζαρωμένα από την πολυκαιρία (φοβόταν πάντα τα μικρόβια που έχονταν απ’έξω με φορέα το σώμα των επισκεπτών του). Η απώλεια της φωνής του τον υποχρέωσε να μη με προσφωνήσει με το κλασικό “Χαίρε, φίλε!”, όπως συνήθιζε να κάνει παλιά. Με καλωσόρισε μ’ένα νόημα των ματιών του, εκείνων των υπέροχων μαύρων ματιών, των πονηρών και διεισδυτικών ταυτόχρονα. Η γλυκύτητα που ήταν περιχυμένη στο κάτω μέρος του προσώπου του, γύρω από το στόμα και το πιγούνι, έδειχνε πως ο χρόνος που είχει περάσει από τότε που είχα να τον δω δεν είχε αμβλύνει την καλή του διάθεση επέναντί μου.Δεν περίμενα, βεβαίως, να μου μιλήσει, αφού η κυρία Σεγκοπούλου με είχε προετοιμάσει για το τι επρόκειτο να δω. Εξακολουθούσε να είναι ένας λεπτός ηλικιωμένος κύριος, αστός οπωσδήποτε, με στόφα ξεπεσμένου αριστοκράτη. Φορούσε ένα σκούρο κασκόλ για να κρύβει την πληγή στο λαιμό και τα ίδια γυαλιά με τον ασημένιο σκελετό. Τα πυκνά του μαλλιά, που τώρα είχαν αραιώσει ελαφρώς, τα είχε, όπως πάντα, χωρίστρα — καμιά τρίχα δεν ξέφευγε ούτε προς τ’αριστερά ούτε προς τα δεξιά και, κυρίως, καμιά δεν καβαλίκευε τ’αυτιά του. Αναρωτιόμουν αν φρόντιζε ο ίδιος για την κόμμωσή του, με χτένες, τσατσάρες και βούρτσες, ή αν ήταν η ερίτιμος κυρία που εκτελούσε χρέη γραμματέως εκείνη που έκανε τις επεμβάσεις στην εμφάνισή του. Δε ρώτησα, φυσικά, κανέναν γι’αυτό το ζήτημα, είχαμε άλλα θέματα να θίξουμε.

Ο Φιλίππου είναι συγγραφέας του επίθετου. Σ’αυτό το απόσπασμα μόνο, υπάρχουν 18 επίθετα και 12 επιρρήματα. (Κι ο Τερζάκης τα χρησιμοποιεί, αλλά μ’εντελώς διαφορετικό τρόπο, και για διαφορετικό σκοπό. Ο Τερζάκης δε μας λεει ότι ο Ιλαρίωνας είναι τεμπέλης. Μας δείχνει πως κοιμάται την ώρα που φορτώνει ο Σγουρός τη μούλα.) Ο Φιλίππου δηλαδή δείχνει εμπιστοσύνη στα επίθετα και ζητάει από αυτά να κάνουν τη περισσότερη δουλειά. Αρκει να μας πει ότι η κυρία Σεγκοπούλου είναι “ευγενική” (σε άλλη σελίδα) και “ερίτιμος”. Δε νιώθει την ανάγκη να μας δείξει πώς συμπεριφέρεται μια ευγενική και ερίτιμος κυρία. Αυτή είναι η αυταρέσκεια, άρνηση του συγγραφέα να κοπιάσει να στήσει σκήνη όπως κατάφερε ο Τερζάκης.

Το άλλο μεγάλο ελάττωμα του Φιλίππου και πολλών άλλων συγγραφέων είναι η περιττολογία. Τη στιγμή που μας έχει πει για τη τραχειοτομία του Καβάφη, δε χρειάζεται να μας πει ότι “η απώλεια της φωνής του τον υποχρέωσε να μη με προσφωνήσει με το κλασικό ‘Χαίρε, φίλε!’, όπως συνήθιζε να κάνει παλιά.” Μάλιστα, αργότερα γράφει “Τον είδα να προσπαθεί να μ’ευχαριστήσει με λέξεις, αλλά δεν τα κατάφερε πάλι, το στόμα του ανοιγόκλεινε χωρίς να βγάζει ήχους.” Ο συγγραφέας δε χρειάζεται να μας υπενθυμίσει ότι ο Καβάφης δε μπορεί πια να μιλήσει. Οι δυο ποιητές επικοινωνούν συνεχώς με σημειώματα.

Κάποια στιγμή εμφανίστηκε μια μαύρη γάτα που ακολουθούσε έναν πλανόδιο ψαρά με λερωμένο κόκκινο φέσι νιαουρίζοντας θρηνητικά: νιάου νιάου νιάου. (σελ. 40)

Δε μας φτάνει το “νιαουρίζοντας”; Κατάλαβα πως του Μαρινέττι του άρεσε η ηχομιμητική, αλλά μετά από λίγο είναι πολύ κουραστικό.

Κάποια στιγμή από μακριά έφτασε ένα βουητό, μια βροντή, μπρουουουμ, και ύστερα μια δεύτερη, παρατεταμένη, μπρουουουμ, μπρουουουμ. (σελ. 72)Ταυτόχρονα η γάτα έβγαλε ένα παραπονεμένο ννννιάαααουου, λες και έδινε ένα σήμα κινδύνου για το αφεντικό της. (σελ. 73)

Ακριβώς την ώρα εκείνη ακούστηκαν οι πρώτες σταγόνες της βροχής που έπεφταν πλαγίως στα ξύλινα παραθυρόφυλλα, σιγανά στην αρχή, δυνατότερα στη συνέχεια, τζιτζι, τζιτζιτζι, τζιτζιτζιτζι, τζιτζιτζιτζιτζιτζιτζιτζι. (σελ. 74)

Φανερά ευτυχής για τη χαρμόσυνη είδηση που του κόμισα, ο Καβάφης μισόκλεισε τα μάτια και θώπευσε λίγο σκληρά την γκρίζα γάτα, που άνοιξε το στόμα της και παραπονέθηκε, νιάου νιάου νιάου νιάου. (σελ. 85)

Οι μαύρες χάντρες στα δάχτυλα του Καβάφη δεν έκαναν κλακ κλακ κλακ, αλλά κρικ κρικ κρικ, ήταν ΄χιοι που με συνεπήραν, καθόλου μελωδικοί, βεβαίως, αλλά εντελώς πρωτότυποι, βάλσαμοι για την ακοή μου. (σελ. 86)

Πεινούσα όμως φοβερά λόγω της καθυστέρησης του σερβιρίσματος (η κοιλιά μου διαμαρτυρόταν απρεπώς, γουρ γουρ γουρ!) και περίμενα ν’αρχίσει πρώτος να τσιμπολογάει. (σελ. 94)

Οι μόνοι ήχοι που ακούγονταν σ’εκείνο το δωμάτιο ήταν οι θόρυβοι των κουταλιών και των πιρουνιών στα πιάτα, ντιν ντιν ντιν, ο ήχος των χειλιών μας όταν εκείνα τα μεταλλικά αντικείμενα απόθεταν τις τροφές στο στόμα μας, φς φς φς, και το γουργουρητό της κοιλιάς της γάτας, γουρ γουρ γουρ. Μερικές φορές — λίγες όμως — ακουγόταν και ο θόρυβος της μύτης του ποιητή, χρ χρ χρ, καθώς προσπαθούσε να καταπιεί. (σελ. 96)

Δεν άντεξα άλλο. Δε μ’ενδιαφέρει αν έγραφει έτσι ο Μαρινέττι. Το ότι έγραφε έτσι δεν το κάνει λιγότερο εκνευριστικό.

Φέτος αγόρασα το μυθιστόρημα του Τάσου Ρούσσου Αυτός στο πέτρινο σπίτι, το οποίο, αν θυμάμαι καλά, πήρε και το κρατικό βραβείο. Το βιογραφικό του Ρούσσου με εντυπωσίασε: περίπου 20 βιβλία, ποίηση και πεζογραφία, και πολλές μετφράσεις. Αν όμως ο Φιλίππου μου προκάλεσε εκνευρισμό, το τι βρήκα στου Ρούσσου το βιβλίο μου προκάλεσε οργή.

Τα αμαρτήματα ξεκινάν μόλις στην τρίτη σελίδα (σελ. 14):

“Να δεις που θα βρέξει”, είπε ο δάσκαλος πίνοντας λίγο απ’τον καφέ του.

Πώς γίνεται να μιλάει και να πίνει κάποιος ταυτόχρονα;

“Όχι ακόμη. Σε λίγες μέρες, όταν θ’αρχίσουν οι νοτιάδες. Αλλά, ό,τι και να γίνει, θα ζεστάνει κι ο καιρός. Μπαίνουμε στην άνοιξη πια”, τον διόρθωσε ο θεολόγος.

Είναι προφανές ότι τον διόρθωσε ο θεολόγος. Δε χρειάζεται να μας το πει.

Ύστερα η συζήτηση πήγε σε πολλά και διάφορα, για να καταλήξει στο μοναδικό θέμα που από το περασμένο φθινόπωρο κέντριζε την σκέψη και την φαντασία όλων: στον ένοικο του πέτρινου σπιτιού.”Είναι σαν πραγματικός ερημίτης”, είπε ο θεολόγος, “κι οι περισσότεροι ερημίτες βρισκονται κοντά στην αγιότητα ή καταλήγουν αργά ή γρήγορα σ’αυτήν”.

Ο δικηγόρος χαμογέλασε:

“Σε παρακαλώ, μην περιορίζεις το θέμα”.

“Γιατί το περιορίζω;”

“Γιατί το πας αμέσως σε θρησκευτικές περιοχές”.

“Δεν το πηγαίνω εγώ, μόνο του πηγαίνει”.

“Ας μιλήσουμε πρώτα γενικά για το θέμα κι αν η κουβέντα το οδηγήσει στην θρησκευτική του εκδοχή, τότε το αναλύουμε”.

Ο θεολόγος επέμεινε:

“Είπα την άποψή μου. Περιμένω ν’ακούσω τις δικές σας”.

Επέμεινε. Πάλι προφανές. Οι πράξεις και τα λόγια τους αρκούν.

“Η αγιότητα προϋποθέτει αγνότητα, κι αυτός βέβαια δεν έιναι και τόσο αγνός”, σχολίασε ουδέτερα ο συνταξιούχος.

Δε χρειάζεται το “σχολίασε” — πάλι προφανές είναι. Αλλά πώς “ουδέτερα”; Δε μου λεει τίποτα το επίρρημα. Δε δημιουργεί καμία είκονα στο μυαλό.

“Πώς μπορείς να το ξέρεις αυτό;” ρώτησε ο δάσκαλος.

Πάλι, αφού υπάρχει ερωτηματικό, είναι προφανές ότι ρώτησε. Φτάνει το “είπε”.

“Δεν το ξέρω, το συμπεραίνω. Είναι πενηντάρης, κι όπως λεει ο κόσμος, πλούσιος και κοσμογυρισμένος. Έχει ζήσει δηλαδή την ζωή του στα γεμάτα”.”Και πήγε στην άγρια ερημιά για ποιο λόγο;” παρενέβη ο Αργύρης Δομέστιχος.

Δε βλέπω καμία παρέμβαση. Ο Ρούσσος μάλλον δε βλέπει λόγο να μας δείξει παρέμβαση. Είναι συγγραφέας ο κύριος, και ό,τι πει δεν αμφιβάλλεται.

“Υπάρχουν ένα σωρό αιτίες”, απάντησε ο Βαλμάς. “Ας πούμε ότι είναι εκκεντρικός ή ότι θέλει να ξεπεράσει κάποια μεγάλη απογοήτευση ή ότι βαρέθηκε την ζωή που έκανε ως τώρα ή ότι ξαφνικά του αρέσει η μοναξιά και τα λοιπά”.”Ή ότι ξύπνησε ξαφνικά μέσα του ο Θεός”, συμπλήρωσε ο Γιάννης Ιωακείμ.

Προφανές και περιττό το “συμπλήρωσε”.

“Να μην περιπλακούμε τώρα σε εικασίες που δεν οδηγούν πουθενά”, μπήκε στη μέση ο Δημήτρης Αποστόλου. “Δεν έχουμε γεγονότα για να κρίνουμε βάσει αυτών”.”Αλλά τι έχουμε δηλαδή;” έκανε με αφέλεια ο δάσκαλος.

Πώς; Αυτή η αφέλεια δεν αξίζει τη προσοχή μας; Δεν θάπρεπε ο Ρούσσος να μας δώσει μια εικόνα, να μας δείξει την αφέλεια; Γιατί να αρκεί μόνο να μας λεει ότι υπάρχει;

“Αυτά που λεει ο κόσμος όλο τον χειμώνα, τις διαδόσεις για παράξενα κι απίστευτα περιστατικά που τον αφορούν. Μπορούμε όμως να βασιστούμε σε υπερβολές και σε φαντασιώδεις φήμες;””Όπου υπάρχει καπνός, υπάρχει και φωτιά”, απάντησε ο δάσκαλος λίγο αφηρημένος, με το μυαλό του αλλού. Θυμήθηκε ότι δεν τάισε το αγαπημένο του καναρίνι το μεσημέρι.

Αν τυχόν δε καταλάβαμε τι σημαίνει “λίγο αφηρημένος”, μας το εξηγεί με το απόλυτα περιττό “με το μυαλό του αλλού”. Και αφού μας δείχνει πού είναι το μυαλό του (στο καναρίνι του) δε χρειάστηκε να μας πει ούτε μια φορά πως ήταν αλλού.

Ο συνταξιούχος τον κοίταξε:”Ωραία. Ας πάρουμε αυτές τις διαδόσεις ως πιθανές αλήθειες. Τι μας λένε; Ότι αυτός ο άνθρωπος διαθέτει κάποιο είδος δύναμης”.

“Αυτό ήθελα να πω κι εγώ προηγουμένως, αλλά δεν πρόλαβα, δεν μ’αφήσατε να ολοκληρώσω τον συλλογισμό μου”.

“Τι ήθελες να πεις ακριβώς;” τον ρώτησε ο δικηγόρος ειρωνικά.

Ό,τι είπα για το “με αφέλεια” ισχύει κι εδώ. Πώς ειρωνικά; Γιατί ειρωνικά; Θέλω μια εικόνα.

“Θά έλεγα ότι αγιότητα προϋποθέτει αγνότητα κι αυτή με την σειρά της παράγει δύναμη. Φαίνεται απ’όσα λεει ο κόσμος, ότι αυτός στο πέτρινο σπίτι έχει κάποια δύναμη”.”Δεν μπορούμε ωστόσο να τον πούμε ερημίτη ή ό,τι άλλο σχετικό”, διαφώνησε ο Βαλμάς.

Προφανές. Περιττό.

“Με λίγους μήνες στην ερημιά δεν γίνεται κανείς ασκητής, δηλαδή δεν αποκτά ιδιότητες σαν αυτές που του αποδίδουν”.”Όταν είσαι συνεχώς μόνος μέσα στην φύση, αρχίζεις και την προσέχεις, την ακούς, την καταλαβαίνεις, κατανοείς πολύ καλύτερα τον κόσμο”, είπε ο θεολόγος.

“Αυτό δεν σε προικίζει απαραίτητα με δύναμη. Δηλαδή αν πήγαινες κι εσύ εκεί πάνω στην ερημιά και καθόσουν μερικούς μήνες, θα γινόσουν ερημίτης και θ’αποκτούσες δύναμη;”

“Δεν ξέρω, μπορεί”, απάντησε ο Δομέστιχος με ύφος παράξενο.

Πώς; Γιατί; Πιο συγκεκριμένα;

Ο δικηγόρος τον κοίταξε και περιορίστηκε να κουνήσει το κεφάλι του διφορούμενα.

Τα καταραμένα επιρρήματα! Πώς διαφορούμενα; Ναι ή όχι δηλαδή; Και τα δυο; Πρέπει ο συγγραφέας να περιγράψει πώς κουνάει κάποιος το κεφάλι. Αν δεν αξίζει το κόπο, δεν υπάρχει λόγος να εφιστεί την προσοχή μας στο γεγονός.

“Το θέμα της συζήτησής μας δεν είναι αυτό, αλλά τι άνθρωπος είναι αυτός εκεί πάνω”, μπήκε στην μέση ο Αποστόλου.”Μα πρόκειται για άνθρωπο ή …” αναρωτήθηκε ο δάσκαλος χαμογελώντας σαρδόνια. “Εγώ δεν είμαι και πολύ βέβαιος με τόσα που λέγονται γι’αυτόν”.

Όλοι γέλασαν, εκτός από τον συνταξιούχο, που κοίταξε προς το μέρος του σαν ξαφνιασμένος και σχολίασε:

Σαν; Είναι ή δεν είναι ξαφνιασμένος; Γιατί ο αφηγητής, που άλλωστε ξέρει τις σκέψεις του ενός για το καναρίνι του, δε μπορεί να μας πει εδώ κάτι τόσο απλό;

“Έχεις απρόσμενο χιούμορ, Γιάννη, αλλά τώρα μιλάμε σοβαρά”.Επικράτησε για λίγο σιωπή αμηχανίας. Ο δάσκαλος άναψε τσιγάρο. Ο νους του πήγε πάλι στο καναρίνι του. Δεν πιστεύω να πάθει τίποτα νηστικό τόσες ώρες, σκεφτηκε ανήσυχος.

Εκείνη την στιγμή άνοιξε τρίζοντας — πάντα έτριζε — η πόρτα του καφενείου και μπήκε ένας άγνωστος με φωτεινά μάτια, λιγνός, γύρω στα πενήντα. Χωρίς να χαιρετήσει κανέναν, πήγε και κάθισε στο τραπεζάκι της γωνιάς και παράγγειλε ένα ζεστό τσάι. Και οι τέσσερις της συντροφιάς τον παρακολούθησαν σιωπηλοί και με κάποια ανεξήγητη ανησυχία. Ο ξένος σού δημιουργούσε μια φευγαλέα αίσθηση μυστηρίου.

Όχι για τους αναγνώστες πάντως. Αλλά, αν τη δημιουργούσε, είναι λογικό να πούμε ότι η ανησυχία είναι ανεξήγητη;

Σώπασε κι έπειτα στράφηκε στον δάσκαλο, που βρισκόταν στην άκρη της συντροφιας.”Μην ανησυχείς, το καναρίνι σου είναι καλά”, του είπε με αδιόρατη ειρωνεία.

Αδιόρατη ειρωνεία;! Μα τι είναι αυτή; Πώς να τη φανταστώ;

Ως εδώ πια! Ο συγγραφέας μας προσβάλλει. Είτε μας λεει αυτά που είναι αυτονόητα, είτε μας βάζει σε θέση να φανταστούμε μόνοι μας αυτά που βαριέται ο ίδιος να μας περιγράψει. Σαν αναγνώστης είμαι έτοιμος να δώσω προσοχή, αλλά πρέπει και ο συγγραφέας να μπει στο κόπο και να γράψει.

No More Culture

In Greece, the word culture often has negative connotations. There are two words for it. The Greek one, politismos, which also means civilisation, and is used quite generally, expressing approval. It’s the latinate form of the word, cultura, that seems to be synonymous with pretentiousness. One gets the sense that certain aspects of culture don’t fit well on the Greek, make him feel uncomfortable. And I’m not talking about peasants or people who actually have no interest in such things. I’m talking about people who seem, at first glance, to be young intellectuals and who cultivate a stance of hip irony. There is a coolness to the stance, a populist distrust of elitism (another dirty word), and a pleasure taken in debunking what is viewed as pretentious. Certainly there’s no shortage of pretentiousness in the world, but this is an easy target, and time weeds it out anyway. The distrust I’m talking about is for culture in general. It’s as if they think no one in his right mind would listen to classical music, for example, unless he wanted to create a certain effect, make a certain impression. You see no evidence that they have understood the notion that culture, like beauty, can be difficult. Why bother? they seem to say. Who do you think you’re fooling?

One of the greatest consolations in my life is the Third Programme of the state radio. I listen to it all the time. I can spend a day or two by myself in here, with it as my only company. It’s better than anything I ever heard on the CBC back in Canada. When she comes over, N. often gives me a ribbing about it, mocking the voices of the announcers. “They sound as if they have no contact with the outside world,” she says. “They’re in a world of their own.” Often she changes it to one of her favourites, or I change it when I know she’s coming. We listen to ROCKFM or RED, and although I enjoy them too, I get no sense that anything I hear — not the music, not the announcers’ voices, not the commercials — reflects anything in the outside world, except perhaps its aspirations. I hear none of the sincerity that comforts me on the Third Programme, the very thing that to other people would seem to be pretentiousness.

A few weeks ago, N. and I went to see The Constant Gardener with a couple of friends. We enjoyed it more than any film we’d seen in a while and wanted to talk about it for quite some time afterwards. We knew the story was fictional, but we also knew that it could very easily be true. These were not just metaphors. We know how much we exploit the Third World, and nothing in the film surprised us. But it was a beautiful film that allowed us to see into the lives of the countless people who suffer so that we can have our drugs or our running shoes or whatever. A scene that has stayed with me more than any other is near the end, when a warring tribe attacks a village. Fiennes and Postlethwaite and some UN workers board a small plane to escape, and Fiennes is trying to bring along a young girl who was an assistant to Postlethwaite. The pilot, an African, tells him they can’t take her. Only UN representatives and employees can board. Fiennes tries to argue against logic: What does it matter? She’s just one girl, her family is dead, if they leave her she might die. The pilot tells him him if she’s lucky she may make it to a refugee camp. But there is nothing they can do. This goes on all the time, and they can’t save everyone. The girl, who’s been listening, knows what’s going on, and bolts from the plane before it takes off. We last see her running along the plane as it takes off, waving and smiling. It all seems to be a game to her. Look at me run! she seems to say. She smiles or even laughs, as all the other Kenyans in the film do, as if to say, If we did not smile, if we did not laugh, we would go mad. You would drive us mad.

One of our friends, C., did not enjoy the film. She had not been in the best of spirits and had had to be cajoled into coming out by our other friend, M. Standing outside the cinema, we were trying to decide where we could go for drinks, but she said she was going home. She didn’t feel like staying out any longer. The film had clearly upset her. M. apologised for dragging her out to see it. C. assured her that, on the contrary, she’d enjoyed the film.

But on Monday, at work, she said she didn’t want to see another film like that. “It was very good,” she said, “but next time, no culture, please.”

Which struck me, of course, as an odd thing to say. What catch-all phrase has culture become, at least for her? Anything that makes you think, presumably. Anything that reflects unpleasant realities about the world outside. Anything that tries to make you look at your part in the collective guilt.

It reminds me of when the garbage begins to pile up in our streets because it isn’t being collected. You smell the stuff and wonder how long the damned garbage men are going to be on strike. Then you learn that they’re not on strike, but that the people who live in the poor suburb of Ano Liosia, where the landfill site is, have blocked the way and are not allowing the garbage trucks to enter because life has become unbearable for them. You try not to breathe as you go past the overflowing bins on your street and try not to imagine what it must be like out in Ano Liosia. You only want someone to clear it all away, to make the problem of where all this garbage is going to go vanish again. You feel sympathy for the residents of Ano Liosia, but, really, enough is enough.

And then you learn that 170,000 tons of sludge will be taken far away where we won’t have to to deal with it again. To Sudan. To be used as fertiliser, even though its use for that purpose is prohibited here.

How’s that for sweetness and light?

Time as a room, or a train, or something

From the notebook, 13.10.05

More often than the feeling that time is passing quickly is for me the sense that time, as a passage, has constricted and become a narrow tube or tunnel. “I have no time” means then that I have no room to do other things than run down this tunnel; I can’t stop, go left or right, relax, do something else.

Today I was lying on the couch listening to some music and watching some afternoon clouds go by, and I wondered what it would be like if I never had to work, if I had no obligations to fulfil. The narrow tunnel would become a round, spacious, vaulted room, and all would be stillness. Time would still pass quickly — perhaps even more quickly now that I wasn’t thinking about it — and death would still come when it would. But now the speeding train would have no windows, and the landscape would never change. If I may mix my metaphors.

Which reminds me of a brilliant essay/convocation address I once read in Harpers by Joseph Brodsky. I’ll dig it up some time soon, when the tunnel widens out a bit.

Angel of Starbucks

Back in 1998, my girlfriend at the time went to Atsitsa in Skyros, and while she was there, somebody gave her a tape of Madeleine Peyroux. When I first heard it, I said, as countless others have and countless more will, “Wow — she sounds like Billie Holiday!”

On her site, it says, “All the initial reviews that greeted Dreamland [her first album] focused on the Billie Holiday resemblance. But perceptive reviewers noted that Peyroux wasn’t imitating Lady Day. As acclaimed pianist Cyrus Chestnut, who played on Dreamland, put it: ‘[Peyroux] has her own story to tell: with her voice, her heart, her spirit.'”

There is no shortage of good singers in the world, but the ones who become successful these days have to offer something more. Either it’s looks, or some gimmick, or the fact that they’re also great performers, or their material (usually original) is very good as well. One would have to be very naive to think that Peyroux would be where she is now if she didn’t sound almost exactly like Billie Holiday. Dreamland struck me as only somewhat catchy. It was cute Billie Holiday, Lady Day for Starbucks.

A couple of things interest me about this. One is the idea that a singer who sounds like someone who’s been dead for half a century can also be a novelty. The Peyroux experience allows you to imagine what it would be like if Billie Holiday were still alive today and singing like a young woman. It allows you to hear what it would be like if Billie Holiday were around to sing Leonard Cohen. It’s kind of like the interest GCIs had when Forrest Gump first came out. We got to find out what it would be like if a retarded Tom Hanks had met JFK.

I remember a band in the late 80s or early 90s — I don’t remember their name — whose singer sounded exactly like Bono. They can’t have done more than one album. He was imitating someone still alive and active, so they weren’t a novelty, unless people just wanted to ask, “What would it sound like if Bono were in a really mediocre rock band?” I also remember the Canadian band Tea Party, which was more successful because their singer was ripping off a dead singer: Jim Morisson. The stuff you can hear at their website suggests that the singer has dropped the act, which also means he had been putting it on all along.

But what really interests me is how Peyroux, in her heart of hearts, feels about all this. I can only imagine how many times she’s had to hear, “You know, you really sound like Billie Holiday!” I’m sure she’s sick of it, but does she realise that’s what’s got her where she is? Does lie awake in the wee hours and tell herself, “What an existential oddity I am!”

Now that the mechanism of fate has started working, there must be a lot of people who listen to her and don’t know who Billie Holiday is, but most, I’m sure, do.

How long will Peyroux remain successful? Will the novelty wear off, so that she will have to search for other material, in case someone somewhere asks, “I wonder what it would sound like if Billie Holiday had lived to sing Iron Maiden.”

What will happen when Peyroux is dust with the dust of Billie Holiday? Will we have computer generated voices by then, so we can choose which singer will sing what song?

Enrico Caruso does Talking Heads! Tiny Tim sings Megadeath! Elvis does Nirvana!

And what if Madeleine Peyroux did “Don’t Explain” or “Lover Man” or “No Detour Ahead”? It would probably sound pretty cute. But it definitely wouldn’t ache.

A Smyrna Journal

A friend of mine in Toronto has brought to my attention the case of Ragip Zarakolu, a publisher in Turkey who is facing three different trials for publishing books which insult the memory Kemal Ataturk, or criticise Turkey’s record against the Kurds and Armenians. This is nothing new for Zarakolu; he’s been getting into trouble for this sort of thing since 1970. And of course, this sort of thing has been in the news a lot lately, especially with regards to Orhan Pamuk, and Turkey’s efforts to enter the European Union. But what interested me is this:

Dora Sakayan has published — or edited, rather — the journal of her grandfather, Garabed Hatcherian, a doctor from Smyrna who managed to escape during the catastrophe of 1922. He spent some time in Mytilene and then settled in Salonica, but began his account of what happened in August and September of 1922 almost immediately afterwards. All this is well enough documented, but this book seems to be a welcome addition:

The names of places and people in the journal are so accurately documented, and the chronological descriptions of the unfolding political and military events so vividly detailed, that one is tempted to believe that each entry of the journal was made either concurrently with, or immediately following each event. Considering the difficult circumstances, however, this hypothesis is almost certainly excluded. A brief Postscript section supports the idea that the main part (Aug. 28 – Sept. 24) was written within days of the events, evidently upon arrival in Mitilini. There, as a survivor, Dr. Hatcherian probably felt the compelling urge to testify; moreover, he must have felt the need to analyze the events intellectually. As for the Epilogue and the final copy of the journal, it was completed in Salonika. This is confirmed by the date and place inscribed below Dr. Hatcherian’s signature under the manuscript: June 1, 1923, Salonika (p.52). The meticulous care the author provided for the manuscript is strong proof that he was aware of how crucial it was to preserve the story for posterity, and to record the details as soon as possible.

Has anyone heard of this book yet? I haven’t seen it anywhere here, although it has been translated into Greek. (It was published in Montreal though.)

PS (06 December 05)
I’ve been contacted by Lilith Ohannessian, the distributor of the book in English, Greek, Armenian and Spanish. Those wishing to order the book can contact her at lilithohan@hotmail.com


Ένα μελαγχολικό υστερόγραφο.

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.

Chasing Genius

Late this summer I returned to a book I started writing a year or two ago. Every time I looked deeper into my characters, their individual stories emerged and they became fuller. A simple enough beginning of a story swelled till it contained several. Then came the familiar sense of losing control over my material. My characters were getting too real for me. Soon they no longer even seemed to be inhabiting the same place.

When I finished the TOEIC book earlier this summer, I finally had time to do my own work, but when I returned to it, I felt as if I were running around trying to catch chickens that escaped from their coop.

I wanted to write something simple, fable-like, and started outlining a story I’ve toyed with in the the past. I planned to write it in Greek, as well. I spent a couple of weeks drafting that, and liked how it was looking, till even there I started probing a little deeper into even the more minor characters. Just when it seemed this too would get out of hand, I put away the notebook and turned on the laptop. I went back to the first novel. Unaccountably, I felt hopeful about it. I completely reworked the second chapter, and started the seventh.

For me, the greatest part of writing (both in the qualitative and quantitative sense) is the momentum. The first chapters are the most difficult, but after a while there’s enough book behind me that I’m pushed along by it. In the same way, the work I did yesterday pushes me along today. If I miss a day or two, the wind is gone from my sails. I open the notebook, or turn on the computer, look at what I’ve done, but find I can’t relate to it. It’s a world too strange, too different from the one I inhabit on a daily basis. So I close the notebook, or shut off the computer, frustrated. More days pass, and I drift further away from the book and its world. Soon the air is perfectly still, all is stasis, and I’m too crestfallen to start paddling.

I want, when I return to the manuscript, to be immediately engaged in the writing of it. It’s a crucial, delicate moment, where dogged persistence is vital, but it’s always where I suffer my crisis, where my laziness and despondency take over.

* * * * *

Someone I’ve never met wrote me a letter and mentioned my “talent”. It made me examine my circumstances again, and this in turn led to the decision to put things on hold for a while.

Like most people, I imagine, I have no real understanding of where my talent — such as it is — lies. I have no confidence in it. Most of the time I don’t believe it exists. Or I believe it exists, but it simply doesn’t seem enough. Sometimes I think I had the makings of it, but wasted my developing years not developing it. Readers of the blog sometimes tell me that I write well, which both pleases and disturbs me. It disturbs me because I don’t try very hard here. When I try to write my fiction, I get bogged down in complications and ungainly charmless prose.

I began to ask myself what it is in my blog writing that doesn’t seem to find its way into my other writing. Is a talent only for expository writing? Is it when I’m writing in a less self-conscious, intuitive sort of way, when I’m writing quickly, not so concerned if it’s going to be art or not? Perhaps, deep down, I don’t really understand fiction as well as I simply understand prose.

As I responded to the letter, I had occasion to use the word “genius”. And something from Milton’s “Lycidas” came back to me.

Henceforth thou art the Genius of the shore

Milton was using the word here in its original Latin sense, meaning a guardian spirit or deity. I thought about how this word had come to mean “a person of natural intelligence or talent”, and how difficult it is actually to characterise the trait. Not inspiration, I thought, but something similar. Some sort of possession by a spirit.

I have, over the years, picked up a few books about the act of writing, and most of them are worthless. One book, however, stands out, for me: Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. The title sounds naive, but it’s a very practical book, and it’s a very comforting one. And Brande has some interesting things to say about the habit of genius, worth extensively quoting.

The author of genius does keep till his last breath the spontaneity, the ready sensitiveness, of a child, the “innocence of eye” that means so much to the painter, the ability to respond freshly and quickly to new scenes, and to old scenes as though they were new; to see traits and characteristics as though each were new-minted from the hand of God instead of sorting them quickly into dusty categories and pigeonholing them without wonder or surprise; to feel situations so immediately and keenly that the word “trite” has hardly any meaning for him; and always to see “the correspondences between things” of which Aristotle spoke two thousand years ago. This freshness of response is vital to the author’s talent.[T]he dual character of the genius is almost a commonplace. As a matter of fact, it is a commonplace for all of us, to some extent. Everyone has had the experience of acting with a decision and neatness in an emergency which seem later to him to savor of the miraculous; this was the figure which Frederick W. H. Myers used to convey his idea of the activity of genius. Or there is the experience of the “second wind” that comes after long grinding effort, when suddenly fatigue seems to drop away and a new character arise like a phoenix from the exhausted mind or body; and the work that went so haltingly begins to flow under the hand. There is the obscurer, but cognate, experience of having reached a decision, solved a problem, while we slept, and finding the decision good, the solution valid. All these everyday miracles bear a relation to genius. At such moments the conscious and the unconscious conspire together to bring about the maximum effect; they play into each other’s hands, supporting, strengthening, and supplementing each other, so that the resulting action comes from the full, integral personality, bearing the authority of the undivided mind.

The man of genius is one who habitually (or very often, or very successfully) acts as his less gifted brothers only rarely do. He not only acts in an event, but he creates an event, leaving his record of the moment on paper, canvas, or in stone. As it were, he makes his own emergency and acts in it, and his willingness both to instigate and perform marks him off from his more inert, less courageous comrades.

Later, Brande describes the difficulties and the despondency that most writers eventually feel:

He worries to think of his immaturity, and wonders how he ever dared to think he had a word worth saying. He gets as stagestruck at the thought of his unseen readers as any sapling actor. He discovers that when he is able to plan a story step by step, the fluency he needs to write it has flown out the window; or that when he lets himself go on a loose rein, suddenly the story is out of hand. He fears that he has a tendency to make his stories all alike, or paralyzes himself with the notion that he will never, when this story is finished, find another that he likes as well. He will begin to follow current reputations and harry himself because he has not this writer’s humor or that one’s ingenuity. He will find a hundred reasons to doubt himself and not one for self-confidence. He will suspect that those who encouraged him are to lenient, or too far from the market to know the standards of successful fiction. Or he will read the work of a real genius in words, and the discrepancy between that gift and his own will seem a chasm to swallow his hopes. In such a state, lightened now and again by moments when he feels his own gift alive and surging, he may stay for months or years.

It strikes me now that when I wrote the first part of this post, I hadn’t yet got out Brande’s book, and find the similarity of this passage to the first part humbling.

Brande’s point in her book is about developing habits, even a programme, for writing. Many books have prescribed this, but hers was an early one, published as it was in 1934. It seems countless books have parroted her advice without explaining why writers should develop this habit. She pays her reader the compliment of knowing that no really intelligent person is going to get up early in the morning, every morning at the same time, and write, regardless of what’s in his head, just to get used to the physical act, without first having a good understanding of why he’s doing it. Brande explains why.

But this is not the place to go into that.

* * * * *

So, why did I put away the projects I was working on?

Perhaps Brande would say it was because I hadn’t really listened to her and hadn’t done what she’d prescribed. And I suppose she’d be right.

I started thinking about voice, the voice of authority that some writers have, the voice that says, Trust me, I know what I’m talking about. I felt that, as far as my present habits are concerned, I needed to think about how I will approach my writing. I need to think about what sort of story-telling I want to do. I’ve already written one complete novel, and don’t want to start filling up pages again, just to see where my material takes me. Perhaps, in time, I’ll decide that this is actually the best plan, but for now I want to wait, and think, and read. Perhaps I’ll only need to wait until I feel I can’t wait any more. Or perhaps I’ll find that I’m content to wait, and think, and read.

Summer’s Almost Gone

I finished the textbook some time in July, and tried to concentrate on my own writing for a while. I started a few blog posts in my notebook, some of which might eventually make it up here.

And whenever I could, I went for little day-trips.

I want to get a digital camera. The one I’ve got seems pretty crappy, and the last batch I took came out worse than usual.

But sometimes, on a beautiful day by the beach, you see a magical scene made up entirely of primary colours, and it seems no camera will fail you. (This one looks great when it’s enlarged.)

I’m starting work now. Perhaps s a punishment for all my lack of employment this year, I’ve been given the position of director of studies at a school, in addition to teaching, and I will probably have more work than I can handle. I’m trying to get used to the fact that I probably won’t have time for my usual creative pursuits.

At least I won’t have the financial problems I had last year. And maybe I’ll find the time to write.

Death of a Spammer

While it’s true that the internet allows for a great deal of sharing of information and that it has made it easier to communicate with people all over the world, in many ways the people we communicate with don’t really become human beings.

A couple of weeks ago, a little buzz ran through the internet when it was announced that the famous Russian spammer Vardan Kushnir had been found murdered in his Moscow apartment. It was initially believed that the murder was in retaliation to the millions of spam emails he sent out each day, but the latest news has it that he was murdered by robbers.

Even though the murder was not in retaliation for all the spamming, that’s how it was interpreted for a few days, and most papers in Russia were actually saying Kushnir got what he deserved. My initial reaction too was to cheer, and I hadn’t heard of Kushnir before his murder. I was thinking about an annoying spammer who had, for me and for countless others, failed to become a human being.

I was about to stop and devote a few minutes to thinking of Kushnir as a human being, but then I thought of a couple of usenet scumbag trolls I wouldn’t mind meeting the same end. I won’t mention any names, but I’m tempted to post some addresses and telephone numbers.

I started imagining other possible headlines:





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.


Money doesn’t talk, it swears.

I’ve been busy with the textbook I’m writing, which should be out of the way at last later this week, when I go to Athens to do the CD for the listening sections. As a result, I’ve been neglecting the blog.

I’m a bit late, but I want to draw attention to this post by Dr Zen. I think it’s the most insightful thing I’ve read about what’s been happening in Iraq and other places around the world.

It’s also a reminder of what a great blog the man has. Go through the archives. You’ll see some of the best writing to be found on any blog.


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.

The City

I was out having some drinks with some friends last week and one of them, David, mentioned that over the weekend he had broken up with a woman he had recently been seeing. “She said there wasn’t enough ‘chemistry’,” he said, shrugging resignedly. Chris commented that at least she’d been honest and upfront with him, to which David merely shrugged again.

“She said she just wanted to be friends,” David continued a little while later. “I said, no. Friends I don’t need. I’ve already got so many I could puke a football field full of them. If she wants to be friends, she can get in line with all the other women.”

David is good at joking about his bad luck, but this time there was quite a bit more bitterness, which is understandable.

Later on in the evening, Chris reminded David that he’d come to Greece from the States to meet European women.

“Except that Greek women aren’t European,” David said. I don’t remember what he said Greek women actually were, but clearly his experiences had left him disappointed. (Never mind what he had thought, back in the States, European women actually were like.)

It occurred to me then that David and Chris are in similar situations in at least one respect. They speak very little Greek. One of them has even lived here for at least ten years. On the other hand, Rob, the third friend there that night, has learnt the language quite well.

Rob is often homesick, in ways and at times he says he can’t quite explain. Like most foreigners living here, he often gets sick of it and annoyed with the natives. But he’s also told me he knows he has to adapt. He says when he goes back to England, he sometimes embarrasses old friends with Mediterranean displays of affection. He says he can’t expect people back there to be any other way than how they are, and if someone went to England and complained he’d tell them, “If you don’t like it, you know where the airport is.” This sort of self-knowledge makes it easier for him to get by here.

But the most important thing is, apart from his easy-going nature, he’s done a good job of learning the language. He’s had long-lasting relationships with Greeks, and he has Greek as well as ex-pat friends. He even likes Greek music now, which he didn’t always use to.

Somewhere in The Alexandria Quartet, probably in Justine, Lawrence Durrell talks about about how fascinating and wonderful a city becomes when you’re in love with one of its inhabitants. This is a kind of emotional projection, which can just as easily turn a city into an intolerable hell-hole when you’re alone and isolated and you don’t understand what’s going on around you.

I don’t know about David, but Chris will tell you he’s tried, he’s given the place a shot, he came here with an open mind, and that it was his experiences here that ruined it for him, having to ride crowded buses with smelly peasants who are rude and even hostile to him. There are days, he says, when he can feel the rage like a pressure on his chest.

But can someone really say they’ve given the place a shot and have come with an open mind or heart, if after at least a decade they have barely learnt the language everyone else is speaking? How can you even begin to approach understanding other people?

When David said that Greek women weren’t European, Chris followed his lead and made a joke. I immediately thought of N., so far from Athens that night, and wondered if she would have been insulted by what they’d said. I felt so fortunate to have her and knew that all the hard work we put into the relationship always proves worth it in the end.

And this is what occurred to me as we sat there. David and Chris don’t seem to realise how much hard work they would be for the Greek woman, European or otherwise, who chose to go out with them. She would have to speak English well enough to go through all the usual courting rituals and games, and then to deal with all the problems you have in a relationship and which can only be solved by clear and open communication. Unless she had rejected such things, she would have to find a way to make the culture and way of life here easier for them to understand, should she in fact be able to overcome their bitterness and decade-long resistance to it. In short, she would have to cross more than half of the cultural gap that separates them, in her own country.

I’m sure they’ve never actually thought of it in these terms. Perhaps they’d even deny it. But I see no indication that they expect any less from a woman. After all, it’s what they’ve been expecting from the country all these years.

A New Anatomy of Melancholy

I found a new blog today, A New Anatomy of Melancholy, although it’s not so new. It goes back to 2003, although there aren’t nearly as many entries as I’d like.

Back in April of 2003, David Lettvin, the blogger wrote this as part of what can be seen as a statement of policy:

I am tired and I am sad. I look at politics and I see children playing “king of the castle.” I look at religion and I think of Aesop’s fable of the dog in the manger. I am weary of those who know they are right, and I can find no trace of those who know that they may not be.

I am disturbed at the ease with which people stop thinking in order to follow a leader. I am disgusted by the cant of art critics who praise for fear that condemnation will show that they know nothing of their subject.

Discussion has been abolished in favor of certainty. There is no conversation, there is no thought. The new mantra is, “if you do not think as I do, you are wrong.” I have no problem with those who are passionate about their ideas. I am disheartened by those who think that there should be no opposition.

It is so easy to think that you are the only one who knows the truth. It is even easier to think that the person you idealize is the only one who knows it. Blind faith allows no argument. It is too easy to take refuge in the evangelical argument, “If you do not believe as I have been told to, you are damned.”

I place the blame on the complexities of modern society. There is so much to know, so much to understand. Blind faith removes the complexity. It is too easy to dismiss other world views. It is too hard to think for ones self. It is so easy to discard logic. Logic is messy, faith is easy.

(There is no permalink to this one.)

He’s also written some very funny variations of songs from West Side Story, such as this one, to the tune of “Officer Krupke”:

Dear Private Lynndie England,
You gotta understand,
Our faith will not be shattered
Nor vanish on command.
Our mothers all are wailing,
Our fathers all are dead.
Golly Allah, shot right through the head!
Gee whiz, Private England, we’re very upset;
Your country blocked the food and meds we needed to get.
We ain’t no Al Qaeda,
We’re misunderstood.
But still on our head there is a hood. There’s a hood!

Or this one, to the tune of “Maria”:

Scalia …
I just met a judge named Scalia.
And suddenly I find
The Bill of Rights’ not signed
For me.
Say it loud and it sounds like braying,
Say it soft and you’d better be praying.
He’ll keep me from straying
Scaliaaaaaah …

Go check him out.

Step back, suckah!

My friend Alice in Nova Scotia wrote me to tell me about having watched “Pimp My Ride” once on television. Her description of it was so funny that I asked her if I could post some of it.

I was flicking through the channels and there was this show. Ridiculous! It’s very boring, really, although there are some interesting characters who actually customize people’s cars. Guys with gold teeth and good MexiCali accents. The one I saw had a young woman with a crappy car and a disabled grandma; they lived together, she took care of her grandma, so I bet that’s probably a factor. Schlocky stuff. The funniest scene involved the woman opening the door for her grandma – they’d changed the door from a regular side opener to one that lifted like a wing. And then the two of them riding along with the massive stereo system playing rap music, grandma sitting there with her purse on her lap, looking stunned but still smiling. The alarm system was customized to play Xzibit’s voice saying “Step back, sucker, this is a warning from Xzibit!”

Pimp My Life!

After reading the comment to my previous post left by Kostas (my first fan!) I checked out the two blogs he mentions, ManifestoGR and Fufurasu. I’ve put both of them on my Bloglines list.

Fufurasu has one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on a blog. Back in December he posted about an MTV programme I’ve never heard about (not surprising, since I don’t have a TV) called Pimp My Ride, hosted by a rapper called Xzibit. I know there are shows which renovate and refurnish people’s houses. They’re basically long advertisements for the furniture companies. I saw one in Canada last Christmas. My mother and sister love the show. I think there’s even been one like it here in Greece. Well, this MTV show is the same sort of thing, except that they fix up your car.

Orestes at Fufurasu describes in a typical blog post watching the show for the first time, and describes the programme. Interesting, but nothing unusual. Sometimes we write about a film we’ve seen, or a book we’ve read. That sort of thing.

Then something weird happened. People started flocking to his blog, thinking it was MTV and begging for him to pimp their ride. As I write this, there are 99 comments. Most of them are people in the States (who sometimes leave their names and addresses!), but there some from the UK, one from South Africa, Algeria, and Russia. Someone even wants their boat pimped.

It’s funny to see Orestes try to tell them it’s not MTV:

Uhm. I should mention that I am not Xzibit, nor am I affiliated in any way with MTV, or involved in the production of the show. I just watch it from time to time. This is just my personal site, kids.Uhm. I should mention that I am not Xzibit, nor am I affiliated in any way with MTV, or involved in the production of the show. I just watch it from time to time. This is just my personal site, kids.

And when they still don’t listen:

Oh dear.

And finally:

Uhm… uh, you know…

Oh, what’s the use. Carry on.

Sometimes other people try to talk some sense and explain that this is not the place they’re looking for, but people keep on leaving messages, sometimes with desperate urgency:

Please pimp my fiancés ride. He is a wonderful guy that has been trying to progress in life and is constantly faced with obstacles. Adrian went of to school and paid $2,000 for a Toyota Celica 91’ which ended up being a piece of crap. He invested about $800 in it and it still broke down. He lost his job because he couldn’t get to work. He decided to just go for a cheap Toyota Camry 88’. Which has turned into another nightmare.I’m deaf. I’m just tired of being struggling with my money. My job don’t pay me well. I owe my girlfriend a lot of money. I have OLD truck. It’s 1989 Chevy S10 2D 4×4. I don’t know how long it will go last. When I saw Pimp My Ride on MTV. I have been keep myself saying that I NEED them to pimp my ride so badly. I want to stop worrying about losing car with no money in one day. I don’t want to ask my girlfriend for borrow her money ever again! PLEASE…DO ME A FAVOR, MY FRIEND. PIMP MY FRIGGING RIDE.THANK YOU. PEACE Y’ALL!

There’s a lot of anguished soul-bearing:

Dear Xzibit I am a 13 year old living in imbarisment. Because I have to ride in my dads old *** car. It is a 1991 lincin towns car. It is the same age as meHe evens spends more money fixing his car then buying me clothes. . If you come see the seats are all worn out and the color is old and plan (the color is sivlir).All of my friends makes fun of me when they see my dads car drive by. Please MTV can you pimp my dads ride.I have a prgnet 16 yr old dauter I have to now rid on the bus to get back and forth to work and alwas seem to be late every time .other than that I have three other children another girl and two other boys the girls love puting on lip gloss in the mirur, the boys love playing video games but I guss I can’t affurd eny of that not even to fix my car. so pleas pimp my rid

Please Please Please help me and Pimp up my ride, I am 14 years old and one of the most embarrassed kids in our area, as my dad is in love with his Ford Mondeo even though it is falling apart. Most of the other kids around here show up in new cars and my dad can’t afford a new one and i don’t think he would change it even if he could afford a new car, but it is in definate need of an Xzibit showdown. So how about taken the Pimp my Ride on tour to the UK, my dad is still quite cool but his ride lets him and me down in a massive way. I plead with you help me be cool by getting my Dad to look cool.

I remember in Wings of Desire how the angels would put their hands on people’s shoulders, and you could hear them worrying about things — their loved ones, their hopes and fears and despair. In one scene, one of the angels goes to the library in Berlin and you can hear hundreds of people thinking, so many voices that it sounds like a huge machine.

Perhaps in time people will go to Fufurasu to confess and be comforted. I imagine people all over the world, lying awake at night, praying, worrying, not knowing who to turn to, where to get help, all of them murmuring, Pimp my ride … pimp my ride … please pimp my ride …

Check it out here.

Pobrecito-Watch (3)

This morning I got up and heard a strange noise in the garden. I went out into the balcony and saw some cats at the other end, two adults and two kittens. On the wall was a black and white male cat trying to hump a black and white kitten, holding it by the scruff of the neck. He wasn’t doing too well, though. On the ground nearby was a grey and white cat with a grey and white kitten. The small black and white one was quietly complaining and desperately trying to get away. Sometimes the grey one — which I realised was the mother — was trying half-heartedly to intervene.

I know this is all part of nature, but I felt too sorry for the little one, and went down to scare them away. This kitten simply struck me as too young to go through this. Plus, the way the grey adult was dealing with the black adult suggested to me that he was the father.

When I approached them, the male cat stopped and let go of the little one. He turned and faced me expectantly.

It was Pobrecito.

Pobrecito, my ass. This guy’s got a family already, and a wife who lets him do whatever he wants.

And I felt sorry for the little bastard.

A friend of mine who does work with Friends of the Cat told me about a blind cat she’d seen once that survived better than most other cats. Its survival instincts seemed sharper. I suppose they would have to be.

[Pobrecito-Watch (1) and (2), plus this.]

A couple of days ago, on the 16th, someone somewhere, probably in the UK, if my sitemeter information is correct, took some magic mushrooms and then asked the Google Oracle, "What is melancholy?"

As you will see, the oracle gave this person my blog as an answer. She looked around at a few pages, and then went to this post and left the following comment:

This may sound bizzare to other men but I am a female. I have been an altered state experience all day having had some magic mushrooms. It was my choice. I wanted to get to know my masculine personality better and I have. My melancholy state started my journey, I am unable to give it peace. My feminine aspect as stepped aside to give me the opportunity to look at my undeveloped masculine aspects – it is a battlefield. I have hated men for so long and realise now that those aspects I hated in them are part of my own inner landscape. I send you all love. From my masculine aspect to yours. Men need to break down the barriers that stop them from having the freedom to love unconditional and let the energy flow once more between men, one man to another, etc…..it is indeed tough times for men. You have been brought up to hide from your more feminine nature, that which you are born with it is inside of you – it is feminine in nature not female there is a different. You may find your melancholy is your inner feminine longing for recognition. We look for the opposite in another but we are already whole, we have engendered a body but we have within both masculine and feminine energy we need both to be in balance.

To the person who wrote this: If you return to take a look, drop me a line. Tell me how you're doing.

Adventures in EFL-Land

I’m working in a school that promises students they can get the First Certificate in English in one year, even if they don’t know a word of the language when they begin. For most people this is impossible, but they want to believe it, so the promise works well. The majority of them will fail, but they’ll be back again next year, paying their hard-earned euros for lessons. In the mean time, we teachers bang our heads against the wall.

Some of the students don’t have a clue what’s going on in class. Even at the best of times. Anyone who has taught, at least here in Greece, will be familiar with the following scene.

You’re looking at the Michigan exam, which is all multiple choice, except for the composition. One of the questions reads:

I’ve had enough of this magazine. I’m going to _______ my subscription.

A quit
B remove
C resign
D cancel

A student raises her hand and says, “D.”

Yes, you say. It’s “D”, and you write the word on the board. You also tell them what “subscription” means, and what the whole collocation means. For good measure, you explain the three distractors and give them collocations for those too.

And just when you think everything is clear and you’ve done a good job covering it all, someone looks around the classroom and says, “So what’s the answer?”

Sometimes they ask you the most stunning questions. You stand before them, swaying from the force of the blow, trying to think of a way to approach it and find an answer.N. was telling me last week that she was doing a passage in a Proficiency class which mentioned malaria. She made sure everyone understood what malaria was. In this passage, it was mentioned that the disease had got as far as Rome. One young student raised his hand and asked, “How did malaria get to Rome?”

N. had done her best to explain that it was a disease. You hope that your students have lived in the world long enough to have acquired some basic facts, such as how diseases get around.

“It took the train,” she told him.

Tonight, the weakest student in my class — who nevertheless seems to be trying her hardest — wanted to ask some questions about the writing part of the exam they’ll be taking this weekend. Writing skills are hard to teach in a classroom, especially when you have the students for two three-hour lessons a week. You need to give them individual attention to do a good job of it. With my private students, I correct the paper in front of them, showing them when they’ve written something redundant or convoluted. After a while, they can recognise it right away. Then they stop doing it.

But in a class, it’s generally hopeless. I knew there was nothing I could tell them this late in the day that would be of any help, but I tried. I told them, if you can’t walk very well, don’t try to dance. Keep it simple and you’ll make fewer mistakes.

She looked at me with a desperately earnest expression and asked, “What tense should we use in our compositions?”

I stood there trying to think of an insightful way to say, “That depends.”

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.