Book Review: Inventing Paradise: The Greek Journey 1937-47 by Edmund Keeley

Just before World War 2 a number of writers and poets came together in friendship in Greece and formed a group which included Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, George Seferis, George Katsimbalis, and other Greek literary figures.  Henry Miller writes about this “little band of friends” in his book on his Greek experience, “The Colossus of Maroussi”, and the others also wrote about it in various memoirs, journals, poems, and so on.  It was a grand, robust literary environment, and all of them reveled in it – but it was not to last.

The first part of this book describes how the various members of the group came to be involved and what their literary reactions were to the Greek pre-war experience.  It quotes extensively from prose and poetry in which each of them creates an idyllic Greece according to their own personalities, experiences, and backgrounds, a picture of Greece which has had a great influence on how many people see the country today.

But then, in the second part, the book takes on a very dark aspect, as the group is shattered by the onslaught of World War 2 and the Nazi invasion of Greece.  It follows each individual in their struggle not only for survival but for artistic expression of the devastation all around them.  This, in fact, is where the book really came alive for me and became more than just interesting.  For it is one thing to revel in a pseudo-paradise, part real and part a making of the imagination, but it is another to have that image shattered and confront the ugly brutal reality that remains.  It describes one poet trying to survive and save lives as a doctor in the Greek army, another performing acts of rebellion in the face of the German conquerors, another’s broken-hearted trauma as he sees his country being torn apart by its conquerors but is compelled to follow the Greek government into exile, Lawrence Durrell in exile in Egypt attached to the British government, and Henry Miller deported to the States and unable to maintain regular communication with the friends he had to leave behind.

Finally, in the third part, it describes what happened to each of them afterwards, at the end of World War 2 and during the Greek civil war which immediately followed.

What makes this book unique is its approach to the subject from a literary point of view.  As I said, throughout each of the chapters there are snippets of prose and poetry which the writers composed about what they were going through.  It’s a look not only into the events themselves but the souls of those who went through the events.  It’s tragic and triumphant at the same time as we see the hell of the war experience afterwards transformed into art.  Not that the book at all postulates that such human tragedy is worth it for the sake of the art that follows; not at all.  But rather it shows how art can help to overcome trauma and tragedy, both for the artists themselves and for their readers.

I recommend this book on several levels.  Firstly, from a historical point of view, it offers a unique perspective on Greece before, during, and after the Second World War.  In addition, it delves into the lives and struggles of major literary figures – George Seferis, for example, was later awarded the Nobel prize for literature.  And finally, it exemplifies how works of art in poetry and prose can transcend tragedy both for those who go through it and for future generations.

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