Gifts of the Greeks

Dinner with Persephone

by Patricia Storace
Pantheon, 398 pp., $25.00

What is it that we all know, and yet we don’t know at all? A good candidate for the answer to the riddle might be Greece and the Greeks. On the one hand there is Ancient Greece. Everyone has a repertoire of images which that idea calls up: stone columns, open-air theaters with actors in beards and masks, a vague air of uplift combined rather disconcertingly with nude statues, indecent vase paintings, and a general sense that these people wore no underclothes. On the other hand there is the Greece of today, the place we have visited, perhaps, on a package holiday or a conducted tour: suggestive of wine flavored with turpentine, priests with beards and their hair in a bun, Melina Mercouri, and a general sense of being herded with other foreigners round crowded sites, to meals with goats’ cheese in the salad, followed by a cautious sun bath on the beach of an Aegean island. That leaves a considerable gap in the middle, through which modern Greece as a real place, with inhabitants who are neither extras from a play by Sophocles nor tour guides and bartenders, somehow tends to slip and evade us.

The American poet Patricia Storace decided to spend a year in Greece. She tells us that she grew up without knowing her parents, and that as a result of her thoughts about them, “I knew something about beings who are powerfully present without being visible to others”; she was in quest of origins, and “Greece, too, was preoccupied with questions of origins.” We know so little of modern Greece that the founding fathers of the nation and its culture, leaders such as Kolokotronis and Makriyiannis, are not even known by name to the modern West. And behind modern Greece she senses the thoughts and religion of the ancient world. Storace’s desire to understand Greece is a search to understand herself, too.

She speaks Greek; she continued to take lessons while she was there, and she observes how prominent in Greece are the ubiquitous advertisements for foreign language schools, but it is clear that she spoke and understood it well enough. Her book is full of insights, marvelously entertaining, and in parts piercingly sad. She met a lot of Greeks, men and women, and she traveled quite widely, from Corfu in the west to islands just off the Turkish coast in the east. She went to weddings, celebrated Orthodox Easter, studied the popular books that tell Greeks how to interpret their dreams. She is sometimes bruised by what she sees, but she writes with the love that it is, even amid exasperation, impossible not to feel for this extraordinary people.

She had her clothes frankly appraised by women:

While I am reading the new crop of leaflets, I feel myself being handled from the waist. I look down and to the left and see a charming middle-class lady running the fabric of my knit sweater between her hands. “Marvelous sweater,” she says, turning …

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