Excavating the Insights of a Once Beloved Greek Novelist
Johanna Hanink on Andreas Karkavitsas and His Novel, The Archaelogist
Over the course of two days in September 1904, Sigmund Freud paid a memorable visit to the Acropolis of Athens. Looking back on the experience more than three decades later, he would recall a thought that had suddenly entered his mind as he gazed out from the heights: “So, all this really does exist, just as we learnt at school!” Freud had a lifelong fascination with classical antiquity, and by the time of his trip to Athens he had already developed his notion of psychoanalysis as archeology of the soul.
In their 1895 Studies on Hysteria, Freud and his collaborator Josef Breuer explained that their approach to psychotherapy “was one of clearing away the pathogenic psychical material layer by layer,” and even likened their method to “the technique of excavating a buried city.”
It is, then, a suggestive coincidence that, in the same year that Freud ascended the city’s famed Acropolis, a book called The Archeologist was published in Athens. This was the third novel of Andreas Karkavitsas, at the time one of Greece’s most prominent living authors. Though it is unlikely that either Freud or Karkavitsas knew the other’s work, in many ways the plot of The Archeologist would seem to literalize Freud’s metaphor of psychotherapy as excavation: the novel chronicles the downfall of a man who is obsessively driven to dig up his family’s property in an attempt to recover, understand, and restore his people’s buried past.
Today Andreas Karkavitsas (1865−1922) is not well known outside Greece, even though he is considered one of the most significant authors in the history of Modern Greek literature. During his lifetime he published three novels (The Fair Maid in 1890, The Beggar in 1896, and The Archeologist in 1904), some eighty short stories, poems, accounts of travels at sea and within rural Greece, readers for use in primary schools, and essays about history, culture, language, and politics. (He is often described as having worked in every literary genre except playwriting.)
His life and literary career spanned formative and turbulent decades in the history of the Greek state, which had declared independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821 and whose autonomy had been formally recognized by the European Great Powers with the Treaty of Constantinople in 1832. He was born in 1865 in Lechaina, a town on the northwestern coast of the Peloponnese in the region of Elis in western Greece.
He would die in Maroussi, a suburb of Athens, on October 10, 1922, just a day before the decisive Greek defeat in the Greco–Turkish War was made official with the Armistice of Mudanya. That conflict, remembered in Greece as the “Asia Minor Catastrophe,” began when, shortly after the conclusion of World War I, Greece invaded Ottoman territory in a bid to annex Ionia, a region on the western coast of the Anatolian Peninsula of modern-day Turkey. Karkavitsas did not live to witness the two greatest consequences of the “catastrophe”—namely, the abolishment of the Ottoman Sultanate and creation of the Republic of Turkey on November 1, 1922, and the “Exchange of Populations” initiated by the Treaty of Lausanne (the Greco–Turkish Exchange Convention) on January 30, 1923. That fateful “exchange,” really a forceful displacement of 1.6 million people, saw the deportation of Muslims living in Greece to Turkey and Christians living in Turkey to Greece.
In retrospect, then, Karkavitsas would seem to have died right as an eventful chapter in his country’s history came to a close and a new one was just beginning.
As a youth, Karkavitsas had attended gymnasium in the nearby city of Patras, where he studied mythology, literature, and history. He enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Athens in 1883 and graduated with honors at the end of 1888, by which time he had already begun to pursue a side career as a writer. By training and trade he was a doctor, and he spent much of his life employed as a physician in the military. But he was also a restless traveler, seafarer, and literary ethnographer who was deeply committed to—even zealous about—nation building, and who believed that literature and storytelling were vital to that enterprise.
His large and varied body of work attests to an endless enthrallment with and genuine affection for all manners of Greek folk customs and tales, language, and landscapes. He was an unabashed nationalist and active supporter of the Megali Idea (“Great Idea”), an ill-fated national aspiration of expanding Greek borders to encompass the former lands of Byzantium—that is, of the Eastern Roman Empire of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. (That unrealized “idea” would be put to rest in 1922, after the Asia Minor Catastrophe.) At a time of intense linguistic controversy in Greece, he became one of the most high-proﬁle and committed advocates for the national adoption of Demotic Greek, the language spoken by the people. (Others favored Katharevousa, an artiﬁcial form of the language that had been “puriﬁed” of foreign inﬂuences and which aspired to similarity with Ancient Greek.)
In his later years, he would focus his efforts on developing anthologies of texts for school-children, in the conviction that it was the duty of state education to impart a sense of national identity and patriotism to the young.
Karkavitsas came of age during what is now remembered as a golden period of Modern Greek literature. He was one of the foremost, and youngest, representatives of the celebrated “Generation of the ’80s” (i.e., the 1880s). That era of writers, critics, and intellectuals included the prose authors Georgios Vizyinos and Alexandros Papadiamantis, the poet and critic Kostis Palamas, and Nikolaos Politis, professor of mythology and archeology at the University of Athens and the founder of laograﬁa (“laography”), the study of the Greek folk tradition.
Along with Vizyinos and Papadiamantis, Karkavitsas is regarded as one of the most significant practitioners of what is often known as ithograﬁa (“ethography”), a late 19th-century tendency among Greek writers of fiction to set their stories against realistic depictions of life in small, traditional, and especially rural communities. (“Folkloric realism” has been somewhat controversially proposed as an English interpretation of the Greek term.) Across the full and varied range of his writings, Karkavitsas also explicitly and extensively engaged with some of the era’s most pressing political issues in both Greece and the wider Balkans—the region that came to be known as the “powder keg of Europe”—in the years leading up to World War I.
Works by Karkavitsas were translated into other languages (primarily German, French, and English) during his own lifetime, but it took 60 years after his death for one of his three published novels to become available in English. In 1960, William F. Wyatt Jr.’s translation of Karkavitsas’s second novel, The Beggar, was published under the aegis of UNESCO’s Collection of Representative Works, a multidecade initiative to support translations of world literary master pieces.
The Beggar was inspired by Karkavitsas’s own travels in rural Greece and takes place in the region of Thessaly on the eve of the region’s cession to Greece by the Ottoman Empire. It tells the story of the existential havoc that is wreaked when a professional beggar called Tziritokostas arrives in a village at the foot of Mount Olympus and begins preying upon the impoverished peasants, largely by exploiting their superstitiousness and petty shortcomings. The work is widely regarded as a classic of Modern Greek literature—it remains a standard text of Greek school curricula—and was also the first novel to be published entirely in Demotic Greek. On that last count alone, it is of considerable literary-historical importance.
Karkavitsas nevertheless is still largely unknown to Anglophone audiences. His reputation remains overshadowed, in Greece as well as abroad, by that of Papadiamantis (1851−1911), who was 15 years his senior. Papadiamantis was a prolific author of novels and short stories, and there was no other author among his contemporaries whom Karkavitsas admired so greatly. Papadiamantis’s most famous novel, The Murderess, appeared in serialized form in the literary magazine Panathinaia over the first six months of 1903, the same year in which Karkavitsas was at work on The Archeologist. Like other works by Papadiamantis and of the era, The Murderess takes a dark and disturbing view of the world and of human nature. Set on the author’s native island of Skiathos, it tells the chilling story of an old woman who embarks on a spree of murders—mercy killings, in her eyes—of young girls who have been born to poor families and so are destined for grim futures.
Papadiamantis is today often hailed as the “father of Modern Greek literature.” For Anglophone audiences, however, by far the best-known Greek author of Karkavitsas’s generation is the poet Constantine Cavafy (1863−1933). Cavafy lived in Alexandria, Egypt, and only first visited Athens in 1901, though his private papers do contain a few notes as to Karkavitsas’s particular usage of certain words and phrases in his published works. Karkavitsas must also have been aware of Cavafy, for in 1903—the year in which he wrote The Archeologist—his close associate Grigorios Xenopoulos wrote a profile of Cavafy in Panathinaia that served to bring the Alexandrian’s poetry into the ken of the Athenian literati.
On the surface, these two writers might appear to have had little in common: Karkavitsas was based in Athens, the capital of Greece, and best known for his prose fiction, while Cavafy was a poet embedded in a Greek diasporic community across the sea in Egypt. Yet both contributed articles on Greek cultural matters to prominent literary magazines, and both developed a vision of Hellenism that celebrated the diversity of its manifestations and expressions over time and space.
In separate ways, both men also critiqued the obsession with classical antiquity that prevailed in the imaginations of foreign philhellenes—and which was largely guiding the image that the Greek state was attempting to project in this period. In his 1919 essay “The Poetry of C. P. Cavafy,” E. M. Forster would underscore just how greatly Cavafy’s imagination of the ancient Hellenic world differed from “an Englishman’s”: “Athens and Sparta, so drubbed into us at school, are to him two quarrelsome little slave states, ephemeral beside the Hellenistic kingdoms that followed them, just as these are ephemeral beside the secular empire of Constantinople. He reacts against the tyranny of Classicism—Pericles and Aspasia and Themistocles and all those bores.”
Karkavitsas, too, became committed to toppling the “tyranny of Classicism,” if for different reasons and by different means. Dimitrakis, the hero of The Archeologist, is certainly bored by the likes of Pericles and Themistocles; he even goes so far as to make the then-shocking claim that the Parthenon has robbed his people “of all the wellsprings of life.” Karkavitsas differed from Cavafy, however, in that his greatest objection to any ﬁxation on classical antiquity was that it had become an impediment to the progress of his nation-state. He longed to forge a new Greek national identity that celebrated folk culture and traditions, and which was founded on a notion that had arisen and gained a great deal of traction in Greece in the late 19th century—namely, that Greek people of all ages had been “united by the same sensibility and the same outlook on life; by common hopes and common beliefs” (The Archeologist).
From his native Elis in the Peloponnese to Thessaly in central Greece, from the streets of Athens to the slopes of Mount Parnassus, and from the island of Zakynthos to the shipping lanes of the Black Sea, Karkavitsas found inspiration for his writing from a remarkable variety of Greek settings. Unlike both Papadiamantis (who was also a prolific translator from French) and Cavafy, he appears not to have been ﬂuent in any language but Greek. He did read literature in translation, and his work deserves to be situated in transnational histories of realism and naturalism, as well as read, in the case of The Archeologist, against the broader Victorian vogue for novels about archeology and the ancient past. (Bram Stoker’s horror novel The Jewel of the Seven Stars, another tale of an archeologist’s maniacal plotting to revive the past, though in this case the ancient Egyptian past, was published the year that Karkavitsas wrote The Archeologist, in 1903).
Nevertheless, he enjoyed a special reputation as a writer who remained uncompromised by foreign influences. In 1905, an interviewer praised him as an “extraordinarily productive, immensely evocative” author who “draws not from foreign literature, but from the depths of his own soul and all that is Greek.”
Just what are we to understand, though, by that deceptively simple phrase “all that is Greek”? The year 2021 has marked the bicentennial of the start of the Greek War of Independence, the conflict that pitted the Great Powers against the Ottoman Empire and resulted in the birth of the Greek nation-state. This historical milestone has provided the impetus for a new period of intensified reflection on the past, present, and future of the country of Greece and of Hellenism more broadly deﬁned. The resultant conversations have been infused with particular urgency by the financial and humanitarian challenges that the nation of Greece has lately found itself facing: the debt crisis that began in the last days of 2009 and the migration crisis that, five years later, began bringing tens of thousands of refugees into Greece from the Middle East.
These crises had already stirred renewed, animated, and often tense debate about Greek national identity, especially in relation to Europe, and the legacy of classical antiquity still remains central to how that relationship is imagined. Now, the bicentennial has invited an ever deeper historical perspective on questions that are certainly still pressing today: Where does Greece ﬁt into the modern world, and what role, if any, should its celebrated and idealized antiquity play in the country’s identity and “national brand”? Greece is a sovereign nation, but why, nearly two centuries after gaining political independence, does the country remain fettered to a romanticized ancient past?
From The Archaelogist and Selected Sea Stories by Andreas Karkavitsas and translated by Johanna Hanink, published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Introduction copyright © 2021 by Johanna Hanink.