Monday, January 25, 2016

My Karkavitsas Year 2016

The rural landscape of Greece was articulated as a literary category by the demotic writers of the 1880s. Before them, the landscape was monopolized by the thick lenses of the western travelers. Obsessed with the classical polis, new Greece spent its early energies in building an enlightened cosmopolitan metropolis. Greek intellectuals made a very delayed discovery of their rural culture. In contrast, European Romanticists had made folk culture a prime subject of research half a century earlier. Paradoxically, French antiquarians recorded Greek folk songs in advance of the native intellectuals. The systematic turn towards the peasantry in the 1880s was more than an aesthetic maneuver, but an ideological historical world-view rooted in a new scientific discipline. The writing of fiction, short stories in particular, was integrated into an ethnographic methodology. The short story emerged as a genre whose mission was to capture the psychology of this newly discovered rural Greece. The journal Estia issued a short story competition in 1883 with the objective of capturing the psychology of the this other undiscovered rural Greece.

The intellectual history of 1880s demoticism and its relationship to genre writing and ethographia has been well written (see Roderick Beaton, Introduction to Modern Greek Literature; Gregory Jusdanis, Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture; Artemis Leontis, Topographies of Hellenism, and others). Beyond the better known Generation of the Thirties, the generation of the 80s is the most noteworthy moment in literary history. 

I've always wondered how this generation of realist writing intersects with the contemporary landscape and architectural reality. If the short-story writer of the 1880s was also a hybrid scientist, then fiction becomes partial recording. But even if those factual recordings are completely fictional, they are worth a second look because they constructed the literary imagination that informed the ethnograhic work carried out by a well-knit group rallying around the cause of a demotic language.

For a long time, now, I've been thinking about reading Modern Greek fiction systematically to extract the particulars of the 1880s idyllic imaginary of the Greek landscape. As I try to reconstruct that late-19th-century landscape archaeologically, the literary excursus would be an interesting comparison. The interplay between fact and fiction, or base and superstructure, might achieve in modest ways what Raymond Williams accomplished in The Country and the City (1973). Williams demonstrated that the British's novel's representation of an idyllic landscape was integrally connected with the exploitation of that landscape, particularly the shift from agrarian to capitalist economies. Literary historians have tended to see the Greek landscape more statically, as a simple binary of traditional/modern and rural/urban. Historians (like Tom Gallant), anthropologists (like Sue Sutton), and survey archaeologists have complicated Greek landscape history. How does this nuanced history of the 19th-century landscape changer our readings of 19th-century literature?

Three writers come to mind as the best choice for systematic reading. First, Kostis Palamas, as the first naturalist, and the earliest Greek author to share John Ruskin's analytical interests on the landscape. Second, Alexandros Papadiamantis, the most prolific of vernacular short stories. And, third, Andreas Karkavitsas. This year, I have decided to focus on Karkavitsas. I am not starting wtih Palamas because his poetics are too grandiose and not specific enough for specific fruits. And between Papadiamantis and Karkavitsas, I've chosen Karkavitsas because I am more familiar with his geography (Peloponnese, Central Greece) than Skiathos Island. Karkavitsas grew up in Lechaina, Eleia, whose villages I have surveyed with the Morea Project. His corpus of short stories is shorter than Papadiamantis, too, which is a good thing. So, in 2016, I hope to read all of his 70-some short stories.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States