The King Lear of Thessaloniki: Julietta Harvey, ‘One Third of Paradise’

Earlier this month I posted about Julietta Harvey’s first novel, Familiar Wars, first published in 1987, now reissued with its sequel, One Third of Paradise; both are published by Polar Books on June 25th.

It resumes the story of Eleni, youngest of Gregoris Gregoriou’s three daughters. At the end of Familiar Wars she was about to leave Greece to go to university abroad; her escape was likened to the betrayal of her father by Medea. This novel opens years later with her flying back from England, where she had married an Englishman and had a child, to attend her mother Anastasia’s funeral:

In mid-air…she hovered naked and exposed, lingering over the threshold of home: pulled and pushed by currents of longing and loss.

The author’s style has become richer, more textured than it was 28 years ago: on first reading, those images seem mixed, but on closer inspection they entwine successfully. As the aircraft which transports her home to Greece is buffeted by atmospheric currents, Eleni is herself emotionally turbulent, torn between the conflicting pulls of duty and repulsion; the alliterative plosives in the adjectives tumble in the sinuous syntax, verbally enacting her inner turmoil concisely and with precision.

The central themes reappear: like her father, Eleni has fled her homeland to seek refuge, but she isn’t at home in her life of exile. Back in Greece she rekindles an adulterous, doomed affair.

As she flies back to Greece, she anticipates what awaits her in the family home in Thessaloniki:

The gathered beneficiaries. Her sisters and their husbands appropriating, blaming. She wanted to turn back, before she became entangled yet again in old, disfigured resentments.

That closing metaphor vividly conveys Eleni’s dilemma – she’s being drawn back into the family tragedy that she’d tried to escape; the noun phrase at the end of the quotation turns the abstract concept of her sisters’ resentful greed into a living, corrosive nightmare. And this is partly because Eleni herself acknowledges an impulse to appropriate, while feeling repelled by her family’s dysfunctional selfishness.

Once again the narrative is filtered through the protagonist’s consciousness – this time it’s Eleni’s which dominates, as her father fades away. As in the earlier novel, the sisters I likened to ‘harpies’ last time have become more venomous in their eagerness to acquire what remains of their father’s estate: this section continues with Eleni, a modern Cordelia, her father’s favourite, contemplating the ‘family map’ –

The sisters blindly occupied their allotted territory. Sophia, the eldest, was in control; Kaliopi, in the middle, coaxed, bullied; Eleni herself, late and last, was the expatriate, the pariah. And those responsible for this angry geography were no longer responsible.

 

These metaphors recur through the narrative. In chapter 21, when Eleni has been trying to persuade her declining father to take the pension he’s entitled to but has so far refused, she endures a bureaucratic scene in the pensions office that is straight out of ‘the world of Kafka, but without the nightmare, of Dickens, without the exuberance’ –

But in her travels within that melancholy geography, through the city of dead ends, the meaning of family became indistinct. She tried to re-draw its clear lines, its natural geometry. Words like father and mother and sisters must have a meaning. They must belong to a natural order and must follow laws of love, loyalty, and obedience; they must dictate duties. But that syntax of feeling, which had once been unquestioned, with her mother’s death lost coherence. What are the duties to the dead, what to the living?

 

Another time, pulled back into the jealous internecine scheming of her terrifying, overbearing sisters, with their ‘infernal, futile anger’, as they convene to plan their father’s commitment to a ‘home’, Eleni perceives with horror ‘the sight of her sister [Sophia] coiling like a snake, preparing – to suddenly dart her poison’ at their father; but Eleni, along with Kaliopi, is brought together here because of their ‘shared avarice, for money, property, things’ – she’s furtively stashed away for herself their mother’s jewels that her sisters sought:

Eleni stayed apart, but knew she was with them, one of them. She could not compete, but shared this passion of acquisition. It could unite them in love, but only brought war. Perhaps the cause was a common loss. Perhaps their greed was for a more remote, mystical unnamed prey.

 

That ‘melancholy geography’ has morphed into another kind of awful symmetrical geometry and syntactical, semantic frigidity:

All three of them were caught in a triangle, that stretched its lines and angles to them at whatever distance. But now the remnant of home and family kept them pinned in one place locked in a vicious geometry. Until, when home and family finally went, the three sides might drift apart in peace and forgetfulness.

 

IMG_2798It’s not necessary to have read Familiar Wars to appreciate this novel. We’re given from the start a clear sense of what happened in the past, and how it precipitated the events that take place here in a new domestic war.

The novel goes on to show this tragedy develop as history repeats itself and the themes of love, loss, exile and refugees’ yearning for a home are portrayed in all their bruising, heartbreaking inevitability. The Aristotelian concepts of ‘eros’ and ‘amartia’ are invoked in the narrative early on: they drive the central characters towards their fate and I felt the process with a mixture of pity, fear and revulsion. In other writers this device might seem pretentious, but Greek-born Julietta Harvey is able to enrich our experience of this modern drama with a natural, compelling sense of an ancient tragedy that ‘enacted itself’, narrated in language that’s rich and sensuous, as I hope the extracts I provide here illustrate.

There’s the sad spectacle of the father Gregoris, the eternal survivor of the first novel, descending into powerless senility like a ‘remote brother’ of King Lear, that other ‘old king’, still full of hare-brained, deluded speculative schemes, like the one third portion of the ‘paradise’ island plot he’d bought (the other third was his deceased wife’s)  that he wants Eleni/Cordelia to return to him so that he can develop a luxury hotel on it – without the capital such a venture would need. When he appears to sign the deeds back to Eleni for tax reasons, father and daughter are mutually deceptive, as the symmetrical syntax demonstrates:

He consented to give, in order to take, probably scheming escapes and petty deceptions. She consented to give in order to take, knowing this was an unnatural reversal.

 

He is aware that his daughters (‘dogs’ he calls them at one point; ‘I have no children. May your children do to you as you do to me’) are conspiring to rip him apart for his estate:

It was not fate, it was his own daughters who were killing him.

He’s also like an Ionian Willie Loman, a dying salesman to whom the attention he craves is not being paid, the distrusted, despised (even by his own children) outsider in his own land. When Gregoris’ wife dies her family also revert to type; at the pre-funeral gathering, for example –

He surveyed the relatives with superior indifference, native Macedonians all of them, landowners. Now she was dead, he was a foreigner to them, the travelling merchant, the refugee.

 As in all classical tragic figures, he is not a particularly good man, and his misfortune is a consequence of his flawed nature, his frailty of judgement. This is subtly shown in many ways in the narrative, but principally in his cruelty towards his wife and tyrannical treatment of his daughters. In chapter 2 we are reminded how Anastasia was told by her own mother, made spiteful by patriarchal convention:

‘You had better become a good housewife if you want a husband – because you are not beautiful.’

 Now that she is dead her daughters ‘grieved for the harshness of those words’; Eleni, the clever one, shares her ‘longing for learning’. But she also recalls Gregoris’ impatience, unpredictable temper and habitual humiliation of his daughters and wife. She remembers how he’d shouted at the teenage Sophia, in a voice that ‘stopped and muffled’ her, because she’d been discovered to have a secret boyfriend,

‘You think he wants you for your beauty? He wants you for your dowry!’

But what tyranny merited this! Eleni knew, they all knew, the pain he could inflict. Her own mind was bruised by his sudden violence, appearing and vanishing for no reason…

 Despite this chilling echo of her mother’s thwarted ambition, evoked in the carefully recycled language, Eleni never fully shares her sisters’ capacity to exact revenge on him: ‘But no father, even a tyrant, merited this. And from a daughter.’

As in Familiar Wars she finds herself assigned the role of the witch Medea, obliged to betray and desert her own father, exiled from him and her homeland. Her fate is beautifully, painfully, but not humourlessly, revealed to us in this intriguing replay of an ancient family drama. It’s less event-filled than Familiar Wars, more brooding, internal and intense – and probably stronger as a consequence.

My preview copy of the novel was kindly provided by the publisher.

Mother Greece’s scattered, persecuted children: Julietta Harvey, ‘Familiar War’

My first school was a British Army primary in Cyprus. My father, a soldier, was stationed there during the Eoka uprising in the fifties, when Greek nationalists sought union – enosis – with the mother country. This was the Megali – the Great Idea – the irredentist dream of a Greater Greece, the ‘union of Karaman and Ionia, the Black Sea and the Aegean’, as one Turkish character expresses it in this novel. From an early age, then, I was aware of the complex political history of Greece, and its troubled relationship with Turkey – which resulted in the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and subsequent partition of the island – and the deep sense of nostalgia (a Greek word that dominates the novel) for its lost ancient imperial power and warrior heroes and guileful heroines.

It’s helpful to have a sense of the historical background to this novel – which I lacked, so had to do a bit of digging; not essential, though, so ignore the next two paragraphs if you feel like skipping this contextual information.

 

It’s set against the double diaspora of the Greek community of Ionia on the western coast of Turkey; this largely mercantile group (they were particularly famous as manufacturers and dealers in textiles) had settled there originally a century after the Trojan War. The Smyrna merchant cited by TS Eliot was an iconic representative of the culturally diverse but barely tolerated immigrant civilisation of Anatolia; for centuries the Greek Orthodox Christians had lived in uneasy harmony with the Turkish Muslim majority.

Familiar Wars begins as a bildungsroman, following the development of Gregoris Gregoriou from his childhood just before the First World War as a merchant’s son in Mouryes, Ionia. But he is also representative of the fate of the doomed Greek Ionian community, from its apparent rise when Greece entered the war on the Allied side as a ploy to regain Constantinople and what it saw as its lost lands in Anatolia, its apparent victory with the Treaty of Sèvres which assigned Smyrna to Greece in 1919, through to the ‘Katastrophe’ or ‘world-large loss’ during and after the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922, which ended with the reconquest of the city by Kemal Atatürk and the slaughter of thousands of its Greek and Armenian inhabitants.

Against this violent backdrop we follow Gregoris as he first loses his entire family then manages to escape into remorseful exile, on ‘the day of exodus’ for his Greek compatriots, on a ship to mainland Greece, where he sets about fulfilling his dream: to become an even more successful merchant than his beloved father had been. There are frequent references to the alluring appeal of America as a refuge for the ‘scattered, persecuted children’ of Ionia.

Julietta Harvey, Familiar WarsPart 1 of the novel relates how Gregoris has to flee Smyrna as a refugee, alone, and finds himself in Macedonia, adrift, penniless. Part 2 shifts focus to his youngest daughter, Eleni, from the age of about five, to the novel’s end when she’s about to embark on a new life of university study. This part is essentially a second bildungsroman as she matures into womanhood and ‘war moved into the home’ – literally and metaphorically. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away; in brief, Gregoris builds a thriving business, becoming so obsessive about his shop and his quest to acquire ever more wealth that his family suffers, and hardship returns. The descriptions of his unctuous, flirtatious manner with his female clientele (he ‘pleased and obliged them all’) is offset by his selfishly emotional detachment from his family. He’s a beguiling, conflicted figure.

In some respects then it’s a classic family saga, with a huge cast of subtly drawn minor characters. The central drama is the Gregoriou family’s experiences of love, loss, exile and yearning for a home -its own, personal enosis. Hence the narrative increasingly equates the family’s turbulent trajectory through history with key figures in Greek legend: Jason and his capture of the Golden Fleece aided by Medea is at times likened to the rapaciously ambitious Gregoris’ cunning greed.

Helen of Troy is another recurring figure: ‘I named you after our ancestor and compatriot!’, her father tells Eleni triumphantly, ancient history and present drama intertwining:

‘Troy was down the valley from us, the Trojan War was fought just outside our village, only for her beautiful face. Just like yours. My land was full of Elenis.’ …Eleni drank his words telling her who she was, where her true home was, to what terrible stories she owed her name and life. She thought of those lost homelands, but as she thought and yearned for them, the pain of their loss brought, almost, the sweet finding of them…she was filled with the bitter-sweet music of nostalgia.

Then there is Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, who is sacrificed by her father to propitiate the gods into supplying a favourable wind to enable his fleet to sail off to the Trojan war.

Eleni, from whose viewpoint most of Part 2 is narrated, comes to identify herself with these two daughters: Medea, ‘the traitor, the witch’, who betrayed her father and country by aiding Jason to escape with the Fleece by ‘cut[ting] her little brother into small pieces and scatter[ing] them in the Aegean Sea. Just like Turks do to the Greeks’, as the Ionian Greeks sometimes interpret the legend.

The parallels illustrate the complexity of parent-child relationships – children’s fierce love for their fathers, first Gregoris for his, then Eleni for Gregoris. When Eleni is a young woman she develops a passion for the theatre, stealing out secretly to watch plays performed:

Iphigenia in Aulis was hers. The father’s sea-voyage, and the sacking of Troy, and thousands of years later the burning of another Troy and another father’s sea-voyage from the fatal shores back to Greece, made up for her one story, beginning and ending with the prayer for good wind and the killing of a young girl. She shivered again at the sharp edge of the knife and of the parental mystery, and felt its flames consume her.

 A little later in the performance ‘the massacred shores of Ionia appeared to her again’,

as she watched with fear Medea, the witch, the foreigner and exile, the beautiful refugee from the Asiatic coast, the woman of nightmares, the daughter who betrayed her father, the sister who cut her brother into pieces, the mother who now holds the knife over her own children, consumed by the flames of jealousy.

This scene transports Eleni to the painful moment when she woke as a child in her parents’ bed and became aware ‘that a terrible event had exiled her.’ But

Medea the beautiful witch took Eleni into the exhilarating rages of womanhood, without shame. Without shame, with secret love, she thought of Olga, the other woman now in exile, accused of betraying sisters and brothers. Sons and daughters and brothers and parents. Medea’s words washed off the shame of love.

 Here we see Dr Harvey’s skill in portraying the interpenetrating themes and narratives of past and present, the shockingly familiar animosities and passions and the sometimes unfamiliar obsessions and profound dark mysteries of this east-Mediterranean people.

Her mother Anastasia watches with growing consternation as Eleni becomes ever more like her restless, obsessive father, ‘her eternal admirer’; he ‘ brings out the worst in her’, she frets; ‘[i]t’s the Orient in her! The Asiatic blood! Her father’s daughter!’ He calls Eleni his ‘bride of Smyrna’, his ‘daughter and bride’, when she dresses up in his stock of fabrics and lace for him. She in turn, as the previous quotation showed, is jealous of her father’s love for her difficult mother, as Gregoris himself was when as a child he saw his father and mother together.

When Eleni’s harpy sisters catch her, as a little girl, watching a group of occupying German soldiers in the building opposite her own, they betray her: middle sister Kaliopi shrieks:

‘Mother, she’s looking at the Germans! I caught her looking at the enemy – smiling and waving at them.’

Eleni’s soul is stirred by the soldiers’ music; she cannot hate them with the blind xenophobia of her family or compatriots – she is a loving spirit, unconstrained by convention or prejudice. She looks at the officer with the recognition of one deracinated, isolated human being of another. The contrast with her selfish, preening, scheming sisters is beautifully drawn.

As these children grow up this filial passion develops, in some of them, into a destructive force. The adjective in the novel’s title has a double meaning: wars with which we are familiar from history’s cyclical repetitions (there were four Greco-Turkish wars after Greece won independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821), and the internecine wars within the Gregoriou family.

As we see Eleni growing into a spirited, intelligent young woman her siblings become openly, viciously greedy; by the end, as their father’s empire crumbles, the two elder ‘cruel, ungrateful daughters’ as he describes them, likening them to ‘snakes…Vipers’, resemble that other mythical, dysfunctional family: King Lear’s. Their venomous spite is doled out equally on each other and on Eleni: ‘They would get her: they would crush her’, she thinks at one point in her later childhood; they become ‘her enemies’.

I’ve lingered too long on the family dynamics and socio-political historical-mythical aspects of this novel; I’d like to finish by commenting on Julietta Harvey’s prose style. She has a way of combining clear, unadorned description with lyrical, transcendent moments conveyed in poetic language that never clogs the narrative. There are numerous memorable set pieces like a community picnic, a marriage broker’s dealings with a suspicious family, or the formal opening of Gregoris’ new shop, that are Dickensian in their vivacity, wit and power.

Here’s just one example of any number I could quote to show what seems to me to be this luminous narrative voice and thematic range. When he’s released from captivity by Communist guerrillas, Gregoris appears reassuringly familiar yet ominously transformed for Eleni, in a passage of extraordinary free indirect thought from her perspective as a child, filtered through the poetic, adult sensibility of its author-narrator:

[Gregoris was] a migrant bird looking for refuge, a bird of bad omen perched, hungry, over her fate. His long blade-like beak and eyes red and tearful concentrated their aim. She lay quiet with fear of this man looking like her father: the woman’s motherly round silent shape gave her no refuge. Unwillingly she recognised her father – witness and reminder of atrocities, and refugee messenger from lands of pain and sorrow. He carried them in his visage, the black stubble on his hollowed cheeks remnant of fires, his worn clothes hanging on him hiding damage!

 The novel traces with rare honesty and insight the ambivalent, passionate intensity that’s to be found in many father-daughter relationships. There’s much more I’d like to say about this richly satisfying novel, but I’ve already gone on too long. It has many illuminating passages, for example, about the casual misogyny and swaggeringly patronising attitude towards their womenfolk that Greek boys and men were brought up to assume, and the submissive role allotted to girls and women; both Anastasia and her daughter Eleni are denied access to the education they yearn for by their dowry-obsessed parents, while Gregoris contemptuously, treacherously ignores his intelligent wife’s attempts to curb his more excessive business speculations or to check his impulsive, tasteless greed.

I recommend this novel to you.

Julietta Harvey’s first novel Familiar Wars, originally published in 1987, is re-released on June 25 in paperback by the independent Cheltenham publisher Polar Books, along with its sequel, One Third of Paradise, which I intend writing about as soon as I’ve finished it. My thanks to the publisher for providing copies of both novels.