Thursday, 5 September 2013

Nanos Valaoritis: Poet and Friend of George Seferis and Lawrence Durrell

Nanos Valaoritis depicted on the cover of Pan Daimonium, published in 2005.
In an earlier post this year about Sterling Morrison, among other things, I mentioned Nanos Valaoritis whom I got to know some years ago in connection with my research into Lawrence Durrell.  Nanos knew Durrell in Greece in 1939; he also knew Henry Miller then; and in Miller's Colossus of Maroussi, which ends with a terrific letter by Durrell describing George Katsimbalis crowing from the Acropolis at dawn and waking every cock in Attica, Nanos was there and has told me all about it. Nanos is a monument, Nanos is memory, and Nanos is a beautiful man, always fascinating, always a pleasure.

So I was delighted to come across this video of Nanos being interviewed about poetry and language in his Athens flat, seeing him in that room where I have often sat, a room almost impossible to navigate for the piles of books and papers, with Nanos gently holding forth in the middle of it all.

Nanos Valaoritis interviewed in his Athens apartment about language and poetry.
Part of the magic of that room is that while Nanos is sitting there he is capable of reaching out his hand into the seeming chaos around him and plucking from towering and tumbling stacks of books and papers, from the scattered debris all over the floor, exactly the item he is looking for.  This video, though I have no idea what it is meant to be about, nevertheless gives a survey of Nanos in his kingdom.

After first meeting Nanos I wrote an article about him in the autumn 2006 number of The Anglo-Hellenic Review, which I also used to initiate the entry for Nanos Valaoritis in Wikipedia. The article follows and takes up the rest of this post.


Nanos Valaoritis is one of the most distinguished writers in Greece today. He has been widely published as a poet, novelist and playwright since 1939, and his correspondence with George Seferis (Allilographia 1945-1968, Ypsilon, Athens 2004) has been a bestseller. Raised within a cosmopolitan family with roots in the Greek War of Independence but twice driven into exile by events, Valaoritis has lived in Greece, England, France and the United States, and as a writer and academic he has played a significant role in introducing the literary idioms of each country to the rest. The quality, the international appeal, and the influence of his work has led Valaoritis to be described as the most important poet of the Hellenic diaspora since Constantine Cavafy.

Valaoritis was born to Greek parents at Lausanne in Switzerland in 1921 but grew up in Greece where he studied classics and law at Athens University. He was also writing poetry, and in 1939 when he was barely eighteen, he saw himself published in the pages of George Katsimbalis’ review Nea Grammata alongside contributions from Odysseus Elytis and George Seferis, and was immediately taken into their literary circle. It was an ominous yet heady time, those early months of the war, during which Valaoritis was witness to the seminal encounter of Seferis and Katsimbalis with Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell, which was to resonate within both Greek and Anglo-Saxon literature for years to come.

In 1944 Valaoritis escaped from German-occupied Greece across the Aegean to Turkey and from there through the Middle East to Egypt, where he made contact with Seferis who was serving the Greek government in exile as First Secretary of the Greek Legation in Cairo. In 1944, at the instigation of Seferis, Valaoritis went to London to develop literary links between Greece and Britain. He met T S Eliot, W H Auden, Dylan Thomas and Stephen Spender, and he worked for Louis MacNeice at the BBC. As well as studying English literature at the University of London, he translated modernist Greek poets, among them Elytis and Embirikos, and contributed to Cyril Connolly’s Horizon and to John Lehman’s New Writing. His own first volume of collected poems, E Timoria ton Magon (Punishment of Wizards), with decorations by John Craxton, was published in London in 1947. He paved the way for Seferis’ success in the English-speaking world by editing and translating, along with Durrell and Bernard Spencer, Seferis’ King of Asine which was published in 1948 to enthusiastic reviews.

The King of Asine by George Seferis was translated from the Greek into English by Lawrence Durrell, Bernard Spencer and Nanos Valaoritis.
Then in 1954 he moved to Paris where, as well as studying Mycenaean grammar at the Sorbonne, he was prominent among surrealist poets under André Breton, and where also he met his wife Marie Wilson, the American surrealist painter.

In 1960 Valaoritis returned to Greece, and between 1963 and 1967 he was publisher and chief editor of the Greek avant-garde literary review Pali. But when the junta came to power in 1967, he felt he had no choice but to go into voluntary exile, and in 1968 he went to America where he became professor of comparative literature and creative writing at San Francisco State University, a position he held for twenty-five years.

A self-described surrealist, Valaoritis sometimes creates a sense of carnival in his work through parody, pastiche and absurdity. But the bracket can be misleading, for surrealism alone fails to convey the depths of his mind and the richness of his work. As in his photographs so in his poetry you see at once the mage and the pirate, or the detached Olympian with an outsider’s bemusement yet a man who can also be intensely lyrical and sensual, as in these lines from Instead of Birds of Clouds:

I filled you once and the sea was born
Then I emptied you and the sky was born
The starry sky and the blue-black sky
The sky of dreams instead of birds of cloud.

Once again Nanos Valaoritis lives in Greece, where he has co-edited the literary review Synteleia (End of the World) and now, optimistically, its successor Nea Synteleia (New End of the World) and has published a remarkable body of work, including essays, translations, anthologies and books of poetry, short stories, a novella and four novels variously in Greek, English and French. His most recent novel, the bestselling Broken Arms of the Venus de Milo (Agra, Athens 2002, and soon to be published in France), is a literary and historical romp which has a basis in a true family story, for the arms of the famous Venus were lost at sea when a French naval vessel stole the statue from an ancestor of Valaoritis, a Greek who was the chief dragoman of the Ottoman navy. Valaoritis’ Anthology of Modern Greek Poetry, co-edited with Thanasis Maskaleris (Talisman, New Jersey 2003) is encompassing and commanding, an invaluable contribution to the dissemination of Greek poetry throughout the English-speaking world, while Pan Daimonium, his latest volume of poetry (Philos Press, Lacey, Washington State 2005) shows him as playful, wise and enigmatic as ever.

Nanos at home in Athens.
In 2004 the Athens Academy of Letters and Science awarded Nanos Valaoritis the prestigious prize for poetry in recognition of his life’s work, and the President of Greece presented him with the Gold Cross of Honour, given for his services to Greek Letters. And still he writes, explaining why he does so in this poem taken from Pan Daimonium and called Every Night I Dream.

Every night I dream of great poetry
Quite different from mine
Or what I will ever write
And yet – every night I dream
Of this very different poetry
Composed of lines so solid
So dense and grainy
They could have been made of granite I ask myself – what is their subject
What do they say these marvellous lines
Which to behold – will leave you aghast
They’ll take your breath away
But – however – in any case – I’m sorry to say
Impossible to guess what it’s all about
And I have tried and tried, believe me,
And puzzled over these lines
Day after day – and in the night
They keep on coming back
With new earthshaking and tremendous
Messages – of great import
That everyone should hear
But not a single word remains
When I open my eyes – they’re gone
They vanish in pure daylight
These huge edifices – those titanic
Workings of each night.