I always buy a book when I pass through the Athens airport, whose bookshop is stocked with translations of modern Greek literature that are hard to find elsewhere. This time I picked up something I never even knew existed: the only completed novel by George Seferis, the poet who in 1963 won the Nobel Prize. It has an unusual history: Seferis wrote a first version in the late 1920s — the period in which the tale is set — then rewrote it in 1954, noting in his diary, however, that it was not for publication. Why not? I’d guess because the book’s frank eroticism would in those days have been considered an embarrassment to the nation, given the poet’s day job as a diplomat, and so it saw the light of day only in 1974, three years after its author’s death. (Claudel, St.-John Perse, Paz, Neruda, Seferis… Has anyone written a good essay on the diplomatic strain in modernist poetry?) It would be interesting to know how much the finished book owes to the manuscript of the 1920s, rather than the revisions of 1954. As a novel of the ‘20s, one could call it proto-Existentialist in exploring the alienation of a protagonist who feels himself always “vaguely uneasy, like when you’re searching for something you’ve mislaid.” But this estrangement also feels like a lingering hangover from fin-de-siècle Symbolism. After all, the main female character calls herself Salome. And what could be more typical of Symbolist aesthetics than the poetry of moonlight? — almost a character in its own right here, as well as the atmosphere in which all the others appear: “The moonlight plunged over them all like a fishnet woven of violet steel.” In any case, Six Nights on the Acropolis is very much a poet’s novel (not a diplomat’s!). This means, in the first place, that narrative momentum is less essential to it than the ruminative atmosphere that envelopes people and events, and secondly, that the book’s mercurial tone can turn on a dime from lyricism to humor and back again, just as the characters shuttle between sensual abandon and neurotic self-flagellation. The discursive form moves easily, indeed at times almost unnoticeably, from third person narrative to first-person diary. Dream and reality mingle too. Naturally, the protagonist, Stratis, is a would-be poet, and of course some know-it-all tells him right at the start to forget about poetry — “The novel is all the rage.” He’s also, you might say, a would-be Greek, that is, someone who, after years abroad, cannot see how to “find my path in my own country” and compares himself to the reproduction on the Acropolis of a caryatid that was spirited away to the British Museum a century before, “the clay copy of a living being who has remained abroad.” He’s not the only one. The Athens in which the novel is set — like today’s — is a city of refugees: the aftermath of what was euphemistically referred to as a “population exchange” after the terrible Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22 had suddenly increased the city’s population by more than a million. No wonder the book seems surprisingly timely. In a dream, Stratis finds himself flipping desperately through a book whose pages are all blank, only to be told by an onlooker, “You’re mistaken, sir. This is not a book; it’s an hourglass.”

George Seferis’s Six Nights on the Acropolis (2007), translated by Susan Matthias, is published by Cosmos Publishing and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso,...