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Discuss the use of the so-called ‘narrated monologue’ or ‘free indirect speech’ as employed for the first time ever in Greek fiction by Vizuinos.

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Poetics and Histories: To What Extent Did C. P. Cavafy Alter Historical Narratives, and for What Artistic Purposes?

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This is a heartfelt yet rigorous and intelligent essay submitted by Sophie Prewett for the course I teach to 3rd year undergraduate Classics students at the University of Reading where I have been teaching for the last thirteen years. My course bears the title 'My Mother's sin and other stories' aiming at introducing some major authors and works as well as trends in Modern Greek Poetry and Fiction from the late 19th century to the late 20th century in connection with both the history, sociocultural context and wider literary developments of their period and illustrating attitudes to the ancient past in the work of some selected poets and novelists. All texts are taught from English translations. My students take this course as optional and for the majority a whole new world of hidden Modern Greek treasures is unveiled. Many have called the experience of my course as 'a breath of fresh air' which i consider an ultimate credit...

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In memory of Steven Hawley

tzanidaki writes, "

Δήμητρα - Ειρήνη Τζανιδάκη - Kreps

Introduction to Modern Greek Literature

Lecturer: Dr Dimitra Tzanidaki-Kreps

University of Reading, Department of Classics



Steven Hawley was a 3rd year Classics student of mine who enjoyed immensely my Modern Greek literature course and produced a beautiful essay on Vizyenos which he wrote sensitively and insightfully using minimal bibliography. I gave it a clear first before the news of his tragic death last Spring reached me. Losing a young bright student was deeply upsetting for me but rereading his essay was consoling; in Steven’s own words: “The Only Journey of His Life is a story very much concerned with death, but it is also a story concerned with life and new beginnings. Every time something ‘dies’ in the story – be it a way of life, a point of view, or a person – something else begins.” Steven clearly had found some comfort in writing this essay. It has been a pleasure teaching him and I am proud of his work.


"

22 Σεπτεμβρίου 2008

Vizyenos’ ‘The Only Journey of His Life’ has been characterised

as a ‘death study’ and an ‘elegy’ to the unfulfilled life. Discuss.




When Vizyenos published his short stories in the late nineteenth century he was already an established poet, but unfortunately the stories were generally dismissed or outright ignored by his contemporaries, due to the genre not being as widely respected as poetry. Roderick Beaton sums up Vizyenos’ stories as being first person narratives which become resolved “not so much by the solution of the mystery, as by the reversal of the character-narrator’s expectations, in which the trusting reader, too, is often implicated.” ‘The Only Journey of His Life’ presents the protagonist as a young tailor working in Constantinople, who must return home to see his dying grandfather, and the revelations are made when the grandfather reveals that he is not everything the narrator has always thought him to be. Part of these revelations hint at the grandfather’s remorse about his ‘unfulfilled’ life, a theme that seems to run throughout the story. Another theme is that of death, leading the story to be labelled (perhaps unfairly) as a ‘death study.’ However, the story also contains themes of life and rebirth, and so along with the repetition of death ‘The Only Journey of His Life’ can be seen as a story that represents not just death, but also new beginnings.

As with most of Vizyenos’ stories the title contains a sense of mystery, in this case the questions that arise are ‘whose life?’ and ‘what journey?’ The title also holds an undertone of death, with ‘journey’ being associated with crossing boundaries and transcending the known world, and ‘life’ bringing everything into a context of life and death, two concepts which inexplicably must coexist to create harmony. However, it is the use of the adjective ‘only’ that hints at a darker side to the story, since it holds connotations of the unfulfilled and unsatisfied. From an early point in the story there are allusions to death, with Vizyenos’ imagined conversation between a princess and her father (“Daddy dear, either the tailor-boy who sings so beautifully, or I’ll die!” ) occurring only a few lines into the narrative, leading on to the king threatening to cut off the tailor-boys head. This short tale ends happily, with the typical naivety of a fairytale, and the king allows the tailor-boy to marry his daughter. After this the narrators grandfather gets his first mention, and is immediately portrayed as being wise and worldly, with a great knowledge of far off lands and people: “Grandfather was for me the most widely travelled and worldly person I knew, I believed his words completely.” These words, along with the narrator’s previous confession of having a “childish imagination,” hint towards later revelations that reveal the old man as not being all he seemed, and the young narrator’s views and opinions of his grandfather ‘die’.

The first point in the story when the thought of death starts to become a reality occurs when the servant Thimios turns up unexpectedly, announcing that “Grandfather is wrestling with the angel!” – A traditional Greek view of death as a wrestling match. The main superstition concerning death that arises from this is that the boy had been personally summon by his grandfather, and if he does not make it back to see him on time the old man will die with his eyes open, and not be at peace. This is a superstition that proves to be powerful enough to convince the strict master to allow his worker to leave, for he could not deny a dying man his last wish. This whole episode is scattered with words like ‘fear,’ ‘frightful,’ and ‘afraid,’ which links the idea of death with dread and terror, especially the idea of departing the world with any requests unfulfilled.

A long, imagined description of a death ritual takes place on page 165, described as “incredibly moving, sometimes heart-rending.” The religious and superstitious implications of death are here shown to be massive, with the entire family coming together, even reuniting with estranged relatives, just to make sure the departing soul can comfortably leave this world. Although there is no mention of life after death, the parallels between death and life start become more apparent throughout this part of the story, with the constant references towards ‘departing soul’ and ‘leaving this world’ hinting at death leading to new life. Earlier on in the story, on page 161, the narrator blames God for ‘creating’ the tailor trade by giving clothes to Eve to cover her nakedness. He remarks how God allowed Eve to be naked when she lived in Paradise, “but when He decided to load her for all time on Adam’s neck, to send her out into the world, the He dowered her with finery.” This marks a transition from one way of life – that of Adam and Eve living in Paradise – to another, with one life ‘dying’ and another being created. The narrator’s work as a tailor boy links him in with this story, as he does a job established when life as we know it was created. In this sense the story can be seen as much as a commentary on life than as a death study, since life and death are intertwined to the point that there cannot be one without the other.

The mood shifts when the young narrator finally arrives at his grandfather’s house to find it eerily quiet, and humour begins to creep in with the light-hearted misunderstandings between the boy and his grandmother (the old woman complaining about the grandfather “sunning his belly,” and the boy wondering whether she means “in the warmth of paradise or in the furnace of Hell”). When he finally understands what his grandmother is telling him, that his grandfather is alive and well and sat up his favourite hill, he runs off to find him and become reunited. This leads into a scene of revelations, where the boy finds out the truth about his grandfather and the grandfather is allowed a chance at redemption by recounting his life which, like the rest of the story, is littered with the new beginnings associated with the death of an old way of life. It is revealed that from a young age his grandfather had been associated with death, since the Turks had a habit of taking young boys away from his neighbouring villages and making them into Turks as well, only to have them come back in later years and pillage their own towns. To counter this he was raised as a girl for the first 10 years of his life, and even believed it himself. That life ended for him the day his father changed his name from ‘Yoryia’ to ‘Yoryis,’ and told him he was a boy. Furthermore, he was to be married the next day, transforming him from a boy into a man. This transitional phase shows how death must happen for life to continue; young Yoryia could not have remained a girl forever, so Yoryia had to ‘die’ to allow Yoryis to be ‘born.’ On page 181 the grandfather describes his feeling about this incident as if he had “come into the world for the first time.” Despite all of the religious and superstitious fear surrounding death in this story, there is also a strong sense of death and nature; it was unnatural for Yoryia to be a girl, which is why Yoryia had to become Yoryis.

The grandfather’s remorse about the lack of journeys taken in his lifetime distorts this story into what can be seen as an ‘elegy to the unfulfilled life’ since, as he reveals, all of the far off lands he had spoken of to his grandson he had heard about from his own grandmother. So whilst the narrator is out travelling the world and trying to see all of these places he had been told about, his grandfather never had that chance, having been married so young. Instead his grandfather had to make do with just recounting the tales he had heard from his grandmother, having never been able to explore the world for himself. Incidentally this confession leads to the narrator finally seeing his grandfather in a different way – “So all my great idea about Grandfather’s journeys, all my esteem for him and my trust in his knowledge of the world, and his experience, was suddenly limited to the stories … That dispelled even my last illusion!” At first the he feels indignant towards his Grandfather for having misled him for all those years, but this feeling quickly dispels into pity for the old man. The boy is finally seeing his grandfather as a frail human being in the context of life and death, and has finally shed his naïve view of his grandfather as an all-knowing, all-seeing wise-man. Ironically, before the narrator realise this, he starts to believe that his own life experiences pale in comparison to those of his grandfather. After having his grandfather dismiss his tales like they were worthless, the narrator confesses that he “cowered in shame beneath the magnitude of his inexhaustible knowledge of the world and didn’t dare say anything more.” The idea of having an unfulfilled life is shown here to be subjective, as this young boy who has seen many places, and has his whole life ahead of him to see much more, becomes ashamed by what he feels is a lack of worldly knowledge on his part. He feels like this because of the dismissive comments and stories told by an old man that is later revealed to have never fully taken a trip in his entire life.

The grandfather’s ‘only journey’ is revealed to have been a trip he made when he was a boy, in the short period between him thinking he was a girl and getting married to become a man. The aim of the trip was to reach heaven by means of a high and distant mound; a journey which would involve leaving this world and a journey which ultimately he never completed. On page 181 he describes how “the closer I get to heaven, the higher it rises,” reflecting the futility of him trying to make such a journey when it was not his time to do so, especially when at this point in his life he has only just been ‘reborn’ as a boy. This was the ‘only journey’ the grandfather had ever made, a reality that had been a constant weight on his mind, and throughout his entire life this only journey remained unfinished. This scene becomes the grandfather’s declaration of his unfulfilled life, and after making it he passes away peacefully in the night, having fulfilled his earthly desire to confess. In death the old man can make it into heaven, finally completing the journey he had embarked on so long ago.

‘The Only Journey of His Life’ is a story very much concerned with death, but it is also a story concerned with life and new beginnings. Every time something ‘dies’ in the story – be it a way of life, a point of view, or a person – something else begins. For this reason it seems unfair to characterise the story as being a ‘death study,’ since although at first glance death stands out as the major theme, closer reading reveals that just as much emphasis is placed on life. Death cannot exist without life, and life cannot exist without life, which ultimately makes this story into just as much a ‘life study’ as it is a ‘death study.’ The story can also be viewed as an ‘elegy to the unfulfilled life,’ since it has been shown that both the grandfather and the narrator are concerned with this. However, the story does allow room for redemption, as it is implied that the grandfather has overcome his dissatisfaction with his unfulfilled life by dying peacefully, after making a full confession, and being able to complete his only journey. Likewise, the narrator overcomes his fear of living an unfulfilling life by hearing how his grandfather never actually went on any trips, making him realise that in his youth he is already more travelled than the man whom he idolises for his worldly wisdom. In short, this story is both a ‘death study’ that is concerned with life and an ‘elegy to the unfulfilled life’ that also offers peace and redemption.



Bibliography



• Roderick Beaton, An introduction to modern Greek literature, second edition (1999)

• Michalis Chryssanthopoulos, ‘Reality and Imagination, the use of history in the short stories of Yeoryios Viziinos’ (from The Greek Novel: AD1-1985, ed. Roderick Beaton)

• G. M. Vizyenos, My Mother’s Sin and other stories, translation William F. Wyatt (1988)

© 2012 Κέντρο Ελληνικής Γλώσσας - Πύλη για την Ελληνική Γλώσσα