Literature has the power to take us far away from wherever we are at the current moment. And right now? I don’t know about you, but most of us are in a confined and sometimes frightening place thanks to the COVID19 pandemic. Personally, I’m sweating on day 12 of quarantine in a little London flat, dreaming desperately of the day I can get back to Greece.
But no matter how small our worlds feel now, a good book can get you out of your head and into another country right now – no border restriction flouting or deep nasal swab needed.
So if your plans to travel to Greece were canceled? Mine too – for the moment, since Americans are rightfully persona non grata in most of Europe. I’m passing the time reading a few of my favorite books about Greece instead.
Since I began traveling, I’ve been a big proponent of reading the literature of a place before arriving. It helps ground the idea of a place in reality, and gives an outline of a plan in your mind. And when I miss the places I love, because it’s not possible to be in all of them at once, I just pull out a book. I highly recommend going to Greece via these books when you can’t hop on a flight.
The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller
This is the book that took me to Greece for the first time. I dove into a dog-eared library copy sitting by my grandmother’s pool on Long Island just a few weeks before I left for my year of travel. And once I’d finished it, I was completely obsessed with the idea of going to Greece for the first time.
Miller took a year-long vacation to Greece just before the Second World War broke out, and his deep love for the country and the people comes out in every long and winding sentence.
Come for the descriptions of debauched nights with the wild poet George Katsimbalis, stay for the tiny details of Greek life that still exist today. His thirst for life is perfectly matched by the landscape and people of Greece he encounters.
The Mani by Patrick Leigh Fermor
A long and completely transporting read of travels through a remote peninsula of Greece after the Second World War. Ritual funeral poems sung over graves by keening black-garbed women, 9 am carafes of wine shared with a huddle of elderly men in a tiny town square, stone towers jutting out of the hard rock of the landscape as relics of long-nourished feuds – this book has the feel of a lost world. Plus it has a good dose of Greek history to get you up to date on all the key names of Greek independence and the beautiful strange history of the painted ikons of the Orthodox churches.
Leigh Fermor was a decorated and celebrated British war hero who had a life full of wild adventures – walking across Europe to Constantinople as an 18-year-old and falling in love with a Romanian princess along the way, masterminding a plan to kidnap a Nazi general in Crete during WWII, and much more (a BBC journalist once described him as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Graham Greene”).
He fell deeply in love with Greece and made a remote corner of the Mani home for much of his life. His home in Kardamyli is now a museum – and it’s rather a writer’s rite of passage to swim in the cove where he swam daily. Adding it to my list of things to do in Greece next time I make it back.
The Odyssey by Homer
I fell in love with this new translation of the classic travel narrative by Emily Wilson on my first visit to Greece, reading it while lying in the cool air of my tiny hotel under the hot Santorini sun.
One of the few translations of the epic poem by a woman, she brings a new and critical eye to the story and also a fresh approach to the language, getting close to the punchiness of Homer’s original language. He was an oral storyteller, not a high-society bard (well, we think! We know very little).
And her take on Odysseus is fascinating – Wilson brings a compassionate side to his travails and the struggle of adapting from a soldier’s life to a domestic one. It’s an ancient story, but like all the best ancient stories, it’s also just a tale of eternal human troubles, concerns, and joys.
Outline by Rachel Cusk
This book was my introduction to the passive cool and interior beauty of Cusk’s writing, the first part in a trilogy. Set in Athens, it has very little conventional narrative – it’s more stories within stories as the people around the sometimes nearly invisible narrator who is a novelist. It has a few hallmarks of vacation fantasies – a seat on the plane next to a billionaire who takes her sailing on his yacht, for one – but this isn’t a traditional novel at all.
It’s difficult to describe, but the incredible writing and her wonderful, canny sense of humor make it a must-read if you haven’t read her before. Her words in their sharp and surprising beauty often remind me of the peculiar light of Greece – hazy and clarifying all at once. (If you love it, dive into the hilarious Country People before a visit to England too.)
Circe by Madeline Miller
A book by a teacher of Latin and Greek could seem like a pretty dull idea, but Madeline Miller brings her deep knowledge of the Ancient Greek world and a gift for language to her second book set among the Greek myths.
I started it because I love a witch – a woman who doesn’t do what she’s told is always a threat, even today, and an endless source of fascination for my rebel soul. And it’s an eternal tale of that, and what it’s like to be an outsider to your culture too.
What does it mean for your sense of compassion and justice and beauty when you live forever? Miller doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the Ancient Greek gods and goddesses – which is accurate when you truly read the stories. A cruel and beautiful world, not all that different from ours.
Greek to Me by Mary Norris
Last but not least, this book might be where I met my literary and life soulmate. Mary Norris is the famous Comma Queen of the New Yorker, manning the copy desk there for years with precision and humor.
And then after years of a lovely but conventional life, she gets a wild idea – she wants to learn Ancient Greek. Who does that?! (Only the very coolest of people.) This leads her on a visit to Greece, and an obsession with the country and both the ancient and modern language.
The things she loves about Greece – the people, the food, the language, the sky, and the men – are my loves too. Sometimes great books take you outside of yourself, and sometimes they reflect you back to yourself. This book, for me, is the latter. Read it and enjoy it deeply – it’s fun, it’s deeply knowledgable, and it’s kind of perfect.