Contemporary literature

Best Contemporary Literature

If you're hankering for the Greek isles but can't manage an Aegean vacation this summer, why not go there through fiction instead? Greece may not feature as prominently in contemporary literature as, say, France or Italy, but there are a number of novels set there - from the streets of Athens to the western reaches of the mountainous north-that will leave you with a strong sense of the country's landscape, its history, and its people. Here is a list of my favorites.

1. Glenway Wescott: Apartment in Athens (1945)
I first encountered this novel as a paperback on a bookshelf in my grandmother's house in Athens. It was my father's copy, purchased soon after its publication in 1945, and it formed a part of his small collection of English-language paperbacks. Though the book was a best-seller when it first came out, Wescott never gained the literary fame of many of his contemporaries. But Apartment in Athens is a fine novel, a chilling study of identity and power, focusing on a Greek couple who must billet a German officer during the brutal Nazi occupation of Athens.

2. Stratis Haviaras: When The Tree Sings (1981)
Haviaras' novel is a powerful story about the Second World War and the subsequent Greek civil war, seen through the eyes of a young boy in a remote village. The narrative is lyrical, almost folkloric in its tone, despite the brutality and turmoil of the events it describes. Having grown up listening to my great-uncle's stories of his civil-war experiences, I snatched up When the Tree Sings when it was published in 1981 and have admired it since.

3. Barry Unsworth: Pascali's Island (1980)
Unsworth wrote a few books set in Greece, ancient and modern. Pascali's Island immerses the reader in the world of Greece under Ottoman rule, as it follows the machinations of Basil Pascali, a quasi-spy reporting back to the Ottoman authorities on the actions of his countrymen. Unsworth is skilled at describing Greek attitudes and culture, as well as the perspective of the outsider, often the expatriate, who wants to belong. His early novel The Greeks Have A Word For It (1980) also belongs on my list.

4. Louis de Berniéres: Corelli's Mandolin (1995)
Another novel about the war, this one centering on the Italian occupation of the island of Cephallonia. Theirs was a reluctant occupation, and de Berniéres tells a moving tale of shifting allegiance and developing community among the occupiers and the occupied. Throw in a love story, vividly-drawn characters, and de Bernieres' evocative descriptions of the Ionian landscape, and you have a satisfying and moving narrative.

5. Nicholas Gage: Eleni (1983)
No list of books set in Greece would be complete without Nicholas' Gage's Eleni. No, it's not a novel, but if you're consulting this list to get a sense of literature about Greece, you need to know this book that has become de facto required reading for Greeks and Greek-Americans alike. Gage writes here about his mother, Eleni, who was murdered by communist partisans during the Greek civil war. The book is both a history of a significant conflict, and a moving account of a son's love for his mother and for a way of life that is destroyed by war. Gage's is a story of emigration and loss-themes essential to Greek culture-and also a study of how we cope with the tragedies of the past. Soon after I read an excerpt from Eleni in the New York Times magazine in the spring of 1983, I learned that the man who murdered Gage's mother was the same man who had taken my great-uncle prisoner. My great-uncle was able to escape Eleni Gatzoyiannis' fate.

Bonus Book:
Eleni Gage: North of Ithaka (2006)
Daughter of Nicholas, Eleni Gage has written with insight and humor about her experience rebuilding and reclaiming her family's home in northern Greece - the very home in which her namesake grandmother was murdered. Gage's knowledge of folklore enriches the story, as she narrates the occasional conflicts between the traditional and the new during the reconstruction of the house.

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