September 2011

What the Swedes Read

A Reader Makes His Way Through One Book By Each Nobel Laureate

by Daniel Handler
  • LAUREATE: George Seferis (1963, Greece)
  • BOOK READ: Collected Poems, trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

Dear God, look kindly on our weaknesses. Here in the Middle East, as it’s called, we’re sinking all the time. We’re not people any more, we’re exiles. But we don’t all share the same exile; there are as many conditions of exile as there are of us. We’re the crew of a ship that’s gone down, each one fighting for his life, each one separately, astride his own piece of flotsam.”

This is the sort of thing I like. I found it some years ago, in A Levant Journal, kept by the Greek poet George Seferis over the course of his day job—a diplomatic career that sent him all over the Mediterranean region. What I like about this passage is how utterly undiplomatic it is—expressing a quiet pessimism against a backdrop of a vast lack of common ground is just about the opposite of diplomacy, come to think of it. I can hear Seferis’s gig in that gentle “as it’s called,” reminding us that the Middle East is a term of political convenience for a region of fierce disunity, but it’s the poet who found exile as an opposite for person. I think of this passage often, each of us on our little pieces of flotsam, and I bought Seferis’s Collected Poems so I could hear more. And then it just sat on my shelf for a few years. You know how it is. Law & Order is almost always on.

It felt a bit like detective work when I finally dove in. The translators provide a thorough introduction that highlights Seferis’s place in his own national tradition and my own sorry ignorance about Greek history. I seized hungrily upon a mention of Seferis’s interest in the idea of the exile only to find myself trudging off to learn about the Asia Minor disaster. (It’s not a heavy-metal band. It’s the end of the Greco-Turkish War, which I’m sure everyone knew but me.)

When I turned to the poetry, there were some of the same difficulties. From the opening group of poems—titled “Mythistorema,” and look it up yourself—Seferis’s work has a cultural specificity that was opaque to me. I read through honor and ancestors, cypresses and cedars, but I had to stop when I reached these lines:

The light was fading from the clouded day, no one decided
     anything.
The following dawn nothing would be left to us,
     everything surrendered, even our hands,
and our women slaves at the springheads and our children in
     the quarries.

I liked the lines—particularly that first one, with “no one decided anything” feeling equal parts Kafka and slacker—but the word springhead struck me as unusual, and I turned to the translator’s notes for assistance.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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