Tuesday, February 05, 2019


The Art of Conversation

Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011), Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece (1966; rpt. New York: New York Review Books, 2006), p. 140 (in a lengthy digression on Crete):
Few of the old men could write or read, those in middle age found reading hard and writing a grind; the young were defter penmen, but, owing to their short time at school and the disorder of the war, they were not advanced in the craft, apart from an occasional student on the run from the underground in one of the towns. A by-product of this scholastic void was a universal gift for lively and original talk; the flow and style of their discourse were unhindered by the self-consciousness which hobbles and hamstrings the rest of us. They had astonishing memories. These often reached back to their great-grandfathers' day, and, by hearsay, far beyond. In an island of long lives, this made all the past seem recent: compelling proof of the continuity of history. It reduced the war to just another struggle, the worst and the most recent of many, with which we were perfectly able to deal, and, though the Germans had overrun Greece and driven the British back to El Alamein, win. "Never fear, my child," some greybeard would say, prophetically prodding the smoke with a forefinger like a fossil, "with Christ and the Virgin's help, we'll eat them." All agreed, and the conversation wandered to the First World War and Asia Minor and arguments about the respective merits of Lloyd George and Clemenceau, to Bismarck and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, or the governments, constitutions and electoral systems of different countries. Then the level of this far-ranging chat, much of it far beyond the scope of their literate equivalents in England, might suddenly be reduced by another old man, simpler than his fellows, asking, and evoking general derision and amusement by his question, whether the English were Christians or, like the Moslems, polygamous....Intelligence, humour, curiosity, the rapid assimilation of ideas and their quick deployment, an incomparable narrative knack, arguments resolved by a sudden twist, the inability to leave facts and ideas undeveloped—they are objects to play with like nuggets—all these graces flowered in this stony terrain.
Id., pp. 144-145 (on the Cretan epic poem Erotókritos by Vincentios Cornaros):
In Crete, this tremendous metrical saga plays the part of the Homeric cycle in Dorian times. Everyone knows it, all can quote vast tracts, and, astonishingly, some of the old men in the mountains, though unable to read and write, could, and still can, recite the whole poem by heart; when one remembers that it is nearly a thousand lines longer than the Odyssey, this feat makes one scratch one's head with wonder or disbelief. They intone rather than recite it; the voice rises at the caesura and at the end of the first line of a couplet, and drops at the end of the second; now and then to break the monotony, the key shifts. During our winter vigils, it continued for hours; every so often another old man would take over; listening, I occasionally dropped off for an hour or two, and woke to find Erotókritos in the thick of yet another encounter with the Black Knight of Karamania. (He symbolized, at the time the poem first saw the light, the threat of the Ottomans; Turkey had already conquered the rest of Greece, and was soon to submerge Crete itself.) The rhythmic intoning might sway on till daybreak, with some of the listeners rapt, others nodding off or snoring; or until a runner broke in from the dark like a snowman in a gyre of flakes; the news of arrests in Herakleion, Retimo or Canea or the alarm of a mountain battalion advancing up the valley jerked us all into motion.
Related post: Talk.

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