My trip to Athens was a time for discovering new things. And my tour around Literary Athens was no exception. This was an exploration of the literary heritage of 20th century Athens, and it was full of discoveries, large and small, things I would never have found for myself.
A Hidden Literary Heritage
I thought I knew something about Greek Literature. Homer, Aristophanes, Euripides… all the greats of the classical era. I was familiar with the names and I’d read quite a few of them. But 20th century literature?
That was the first discovery. Our guide, Kostis, explained that Athens (and Greece) had a particularly vibrant literary scene during the last century, including two Nobel prize winners. But much of the greatest writing was poetry, a medium that does not always translate well into other languages, meaning that writers were often not “visible” to non-Greek speakers.
Twentieth Century Café Culture
As we walked around it became apparent that the literary history of 20th century Athens was inextricably linked with the cultural history of Europe. We walked past a building that was the site of the first literary salon in Athens (in modern times at least). Another discovery: who would have thought that this seemingly derelict building had once hosted lively debates between intellectuals from across Europe?
But it seemed that Athens had been full of literary cafés at one time, places that attracted major writers from many countries, including Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell and Evelyn Waugh. And not just writers: the famous Zonar’s Café was also the haunt of artists, actors and theatre directors, as well as other influential figures. Apparently it was not unknown for army generals and resistance fighters to be in the café at the same time!
Poetry And Politics
The mention of resistance fighters was a reminder that so much of Greek literature of the time was bound up with politics. We heard how the poet and diplomat George Seferis was denounced by the nationalist government late in his life, and about the struggles of Kostis Palamas to be able to write in the demotic (common) language rather than “pure” Greek. Then there was the Black Cat Café, which was closed because it was suspected of harbouring socialist thinkers.
Of course, Athens was the birthplace of politics so it is perhaps appropriate that its citizens should have a keen political awareness. It seems that this is still the case: we had started the walk outside the university, where some students were staging a peaceful protest. “I don’t know what they’re protesting about now,” said Kostis. “But there are protests every other day.”
The Ghika Gallery
We ended with a visit to the Ghika Gallery, a voyage of discovery in itself. This remarkable building was the home of Nikos Ghika, an influential artist, and it has now been turned into a museum of the 20th century, showcasing all aspects of intellectual life, including cinema, design and planning. We looked around the museum, with its exploration of literary and cultural history, and Ghika’s own workspace preserved on the top floor. Once again we were reminded of the recent flourishing of the arts, in all their forms, in Athens.