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George Seferis: Έξι νύχτες στην Ακρόπολη (Six Nights on the Acropolis)

George Seferis was best-known as a poet and, indeed, received the Nobel Prize for his poetry. However, he worked on five novel projects, producing one novel – this one. He had started writing the novel in the late 1920s, very much influenced by French writers, including, in particular, André Gide and the poet, Paul Valéry. He had then abandoned it, to focus on his poetry and his career as a diplomat. He rediscovered the text in 1954 and set to work to finish the novel. Part of his reason was because he had been transferred from London, where he had contacts with many of the poets of the day, to Beirut, and partially because he had temporarily abandoned writing poetry. Indeed, he must have felt like Straits in this book who, when he said that he wanted to write poetry, was told But who’s bothering with poetry these days? The novel is all the rage.

Seferis did, indeed, finish the novel and even started another one almost immediately after finishing this one, though he never did complete the second one. However, the book was not published till after his death. Though it was fairly well received by the Greek critics and reading public, it did not have a huge success. This may be because it was not a novel in the Greek tradition but more in the French tradition and was often considered merely a diary-based novel, something which was not common in the Greek novel. Though it was published in 1974, it was not published in English till well over thirty years later and has had minimal success in English, partially because it was published by a small publisher but, perhaps, also for the same reason it did not fare well in Greece.

The novel is a roman à clef. Stratis, the diary-writing, would-be poet, is clearly based on Seferis himself, while Salome is based on Loukia Fotopoulou, a woman with whom Seferis had an on-again-off-again affair in the later 1920s/early 1930s.

Stratis has just returned from abroad. Like Seferis, he is a victim of what the Greeks call the Asia Minor Catastrophe, i.e. the Greco-
Turkish War
, when thousands of Greeks were driven out of Western Asia Minor, from such places as Smyrna (Seferis’ birthplace). He has been studying in France, where he had a brief affair but has now returned to Athens. He associates with a group of young intellectuals, through whom he meets Salome. He also struggles with his writing, feeling that he wants to be a poet but should be a novelist, while feeling he has no talent for novel-writing. The group itself struggles with its role and, under the leadership of one of them, Nicholas, decides that the group needs a certain philosophical cohesion. By chance, Nicholas has found, on a bus, a ticket to see the Acropolis during a full moon. Nicholas sees this as a sign and suggests that the group meets for the next six full moons on the Acropolis. Others suggest that they may just as well meet at the cinema.

Meanwhile, Stratis has been getting to know Salome and her beautiful friend, Lala. Stratis only has eyes for Salome and has not even realised that Lala is beautiful. Salome, however, has noticed. Indeed, one of the themes of this novel is the love triangle between Stratis, Salome and Lala. In both cases, i.e. the Stratis-Salome and Lala-Salome pairing, it is Salome that takes the lead. She is the one that is decidedly less conventional. For example, when she is first alone with Stratis, she casually removes all of her clothes, something which might seem quite ordinary now but was quite daring then. Stratis is unsure how to react. Similarly, with Lala, Lala is treated almost as the child with Salome both a lover and mother-figure. Inevitably, this triangle causes conflicts.

The novel is also, of course, something of a Bildungsroman or, more accurately, a Künstlerroman, as Stratis struggles to find his role as a poet. As Salome tells him, If what you want to accomplish has any value a all, I’m afraid you’ll have to pass through a whole lot of hell. Indeed, at least one of the roles of the six visits to the Acropolis by moonlight is to try and find his role as an artist by reciting for the group. This does not always go down too well. However, like many artists, he realises I’ll wake up tomorrow and face the uphill battle of daily life.

This book did not have a huge success in Greece and it is not difficult to see why. It reads something like a French novel – think Gide or Sartre but without the talent of either. It also reads like a novel written by a poet. Some of the descriptions, e.g. of the Acropolis by moonlight, are poetic but you get the feeling that Seferis had not really come to grips with the novel format and was not sure which way he was going. There is a lot of discussion of art but it does not really get anywhere, as the main characters are very much into navel-gazing and seem to turn as much to the past – Stratis reads The Odyssey during the course of this book – as to the future. Admittedly they do have the shadow of the Asia Minor Catastrophe hanging over them but Stratis’ Bildung, both sexual and artistic, does not seem as nearly as engaging as the Bildung of Sartre’s Mathieu Delarue or of the three main characters of Gide’s Les faux-monnayeurs (US: The Counterfeiters; UK: The Coiners). Seferis did try another novel but he did not complete it and this one was not published in his lifetime. He clearly was a much better poet than a novelist.

Publishing history

First published 1974 by Hermes
First English translation in 2007 by Cosmos