Friday, March 13, 2020

A bath in fish-glue

‘Days of such exhaustion, sometimes I feel as though I’ve taken my bath in fish-glue. Horrified to find no time left over for thinking: I’ve turned into a machine.’ This is from the WW2 diaries of one of Greece’s pre-eminent 20th century poets, George Seferis, born 120 years ago today. Although a career diplomat with Greece’s foreign ministry, he regularly published collections of poetry, sometimes likened to that of W. B Yeats or T. S. Elliot, which eventually earned him a Nobel Prize for Literature. Several volumes of his diaries were published posthumously, and there have been two selections translated in English.

Seferis was born in Izmir/Smyrna then part of the Ottoman Empire on 13 March 1900 (29 February, Old Style dates). In 1914, the family moved to Athens, where his father, a lawyer, worked at the university. After concluding his education, Seferis studied law at the Sorbonne in Paris. On returning to Athens, he joined the Royal Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the start of a long diplomatic career. In the 1930s, he was posted to the UK and to Albania. In 1941, he married Maria Zannou. During the Second World War, Seferis moved with the Free Greek Government in exile to Crete, Egypt, South Africa, and Italy, and returned to liberated Athens in 1944. Thereafter, he continued to serve in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and held diplomatic posts in Ankara, Turkey and London. He was appointed minister to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq (1953-1956), and was Royal Greek Ambassador to the UK from 1957 to 1961, the last post before his retirement in Athens.

Throughout his life, starting in the early 1930s, Seferis published collections of poems. According to Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard translator of his collected poems into English: ‘The distinguishing attribute of Seferis’s genius - one that he shares with Yeats and Eliot was always his ability to make out of a local politics, out of a personal history or mythology, some sort of general statement or metaphor.’ In 1963, his poetry was internationally recognised with the Nobel Prize for Literature ‘for his eminent lyrical writing, inspired by a deep feeling for the Hellenic world of culture’. (Other finalists that year included Pablo Neruda, Samuel Beckett and W. H. Auden.) When, in 1967, the right-wing Regime of the Colonels took power in Greece after a coup d’├ętat, Seferis took a public stand against the regime’s censorship and repression, but he did not live to see the end of the junta. He died in 1971. Further information is available from Wikipedia, The Poetry Foundation or the Nobel Prize website.

Seferis left behind at least nine volumes of a journal that spans most of his life. It was while serving in the Greek embassy in Ankara, in 1948, that he first began to arrange and edit these journals. But not until 1960 did he start to prepare the texts for publication in various volumes - all with the title ‘Days’ (probably in imitation of the poet C. P. Cavafy). However, from 1967, once Greece had entered a period of military rule, he made the decision, like other Greek writers, not to publish under the regime’s harsh censorship rules. Consequently, selections from his diaries were only printed posthumously. A first English translation by Athan Anagnostopoulos appeared in 1975, published as A Poet’s Journal: Days of 1945-1951 (Harvard University Press). It would be more than 30 years before another volume appeared in English - A Levant Journal, as translated, edited and introduced by Roderick Beaton (Ibis Editions, Jerusalem, 2007). This is divided into two sections: Wartime (1941-1944) and The Passing of Empire (1953-1956).

In his introduction, Beaton provides more information about the diaries: ‘In the case of Seferis, it is debatable whether one should speak of a single “journal” or a series of different “journals.” In his notebooks he himself made a clear distinction between the personal journal(s), the Days, and what he called his “Service Journal,” of which two volumes have appeared in Greek under the title Political Diary. These deal essentially with matters pertaining to Seferis’s lifelong career as a civil servant in the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in which he eventually rose to the rank of ambassador. The evidence of Seferis’s personal archive, preserved in the Gennadius Library, Athens, is inconclusive as to how consistently he maintained this distinction in practice. Leaving aside the somewhat special case of the Political Diary, there are many gradations of difference even within the Days. The volume covering the 1920s, for instance, is highly literary and self-conscious in style, almost totally devoid of factual or personal information; the one that covers the early 1930s has been culled from a series of intimate letters. It is only from the mid-1930s onwards that the Days settle down, more or less, to the sharply drawn sketches and more relaxed meditations that many readers of these volumes in Greek have admired. But even here, the density and type of entry vary greatly, as does the extent of later reworking. Finally, the balance of introspection, observation, political and cultural commentary shifts from period to period, sometimes even within a single volume. As a result, even if one were to speak of a single journal, the Days, that would not be to imply a homogeneous, continuous testimony.’

Here are several extracts from Beaton’s translation of Seferis’s journals

26 August 1942
‘It must be years since last I tried to write at such an hour. From the open window, behind me, comes a cataract of sounds that I’ve never, since we came to this hotel, been able to get used to. The Arabs, the trams, the traffic, everything leaks noise. We both sleep badly. I think with bitter nostalgia of our house in Zamalek, which we lost in our mad exodus to Palestine. Panel-heaters, klaxons, engines, newspaper-sellers - it’s like the end of the world out there. I’m reminded again of the image of the ant struggling uphill with an enormous weight. It runs away from him, and he starts over, again and again. The same image as I had a year ago.

What business has a “sensitive" (in the technical sense) person in the midst of all this?

Work has been heavy, since we came, with many difficulties, and non-existent resources. Much of the time is wasted. You lie down at night and look back at your day, drained dry like a glass of water. You don’t know what’s happened, what use any of it has been.

Even in this diary I haven’t been able to write more often.

Last Saturday, the 22nd, telephone call from the British Embassy: “This afternoon at 6. To meet a distinguished person.”

Doors and portals with sentries and servitors, until you reach the inner garden. An English lawn bright green and at the end of it a triangular sail, poking up from the invisible river beyond. Various people from the newspaper world were gathered. Suddenly all conversation ceased. The signal had been given to go in. In the ballroom, a great chamber apparently in the process of being painted, in front of an exceedingly small table, hunched up like Rodin’s Thinker, except for his head that was watching and following everything, sat Churchill. He wore mauve dungarees; held in his hand, like a stubby pencil, was a long cigar. With all this crowd around him, he looked somehow smaller, as though at the far end of an enormous lecture-theater. Then he spoke and came closer. At the end, when it was time for questions, some reporter wearing a fez asked him what he thought of Rommel.

“That is the way of generals,” he replied, “sometimes to advance, sometimes to retreat. Why, no one knows . . .” ’

18 September 1942
‘To Mr. and Mrs. Lachovaris’ place. They always have company with them. A spindly Englishwoman, saying nothing, knitting. She’s going to teach Maro the language. An Englishman with fair hair and the look of an intellectual - he looks younger than he is in reality - is fairly quiet too, then bursts into speech. We discuss the life of the Arabs, old houses in Cairo, the tales of the Thousand and One Nights. He says the Egyptians don’t like it if you talk to them about this book. They think it “indecent”: they’re almost ashamed of it. But when it comes down to it, they re ashamed of everything.

Outside, it sounds like the end of the world, with shouting and soldiers singing. By now the nights are very cool, almost cold. Exhaustion every evening. Not real tiredness, more from nerves. Impression of swimming through mud. Perhaps, of course, all this may pass. Above all, there’s a lack of people. And among the few who remain, most are mad.’

14 July 1943
‘In Alexandria I met Henri al-Kayem. This time last year he’d sent me his poems published by GLM (in the manner of Jouve); but it was only now that we managed to meet. His house is bright, full of light; books with familiar spines. They offer me iced tea and black Havana cigarettes. His wife is as tiny as he is himself: she’s a Malgache. Great refinement in the movements of her hands. Both of them very soft-spoken, they almost whisper. In their house I felt crass in my movements, like a steam-roller. There’s no peace to spare, to make the most of company like theirs. This time I was sorry for it.’

23 July 1943
‘Days of such exhaustion, sometimes I feel as though I’ve taken my bath in fish-glue. Horrified to find no time left over for thinking: I’ve turned into a machine.’

7 October 1953
‘These Arab cities. Half permanent, half nomadic. Houses half buildings, half encampments. The horror of civilization chipping away all round you like a chisel, and all you can feel are the splinters. This pitiable dust in your eye: coca-cola-ism, peps i-cola-ism. Cars handled like drunken camels, and the ancient monuments, ancient beyond hope, mixed up in this inhuman muddle - sometimes it seems a pathetic nightmare.

Yesterday at the house of the doctor, the honorary consul. His wife is French, he’s very well off - with a mania for travelling the world by airplane. It could have been the ante-chamber of a modern Inferno. Photographs on the wall: the Bedouin father, face like a bird of prey or Pelecanus onocrotalus, wife at his side wearing a large cross. They’re Orthodox Chrisrians - bare electric bulbs - lacework made of nylon - a colossal frigidaire in the dining-room: Hostile walls, my God! I’m tired.’

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