[Following the death this month of George Economou, I am posting again this definitive review of his masterwork Ananios of Kleitor, which appeared earlier in the blogger edition of Poems and Poetics, before I was simultaneously posting on Jacket2. The review itself, originally published in The Times Literary Supplement, July 24, 2009, is available in its original format at http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/the_tls/article6723015.ece (J.R.)]
A Nabokov of the ancient world: what a millennium of repressed, cock-happy scholars can do to an obscure Arcadian poet
Ancient literary texts have a habit of turning up at historical junctures. When Alexander the Great captured the Lebanese city of Tyre in 332 BC, one of his soldiers found a tomb outside the city. Alongside the coffins was a cypress chest, which turned out to contain a marvellous novelistic account of adventure, magic and love, much of it set beyond the mysterious north-Atlantic island of Thule (Iceland?). In AD 67 a mighty earthquake shook the island of Crete, exposing an underground cavern near Knossos; in that cavern was a precious text, written in “Phoenician letters”. The manuscript eventually ended up in the hands of the emperor Nero, who summoned his experts to decode it. Amazingly, it turned out to be the journal of one Dictys, a participant in the Trojan War. What are the odds on that?
In fact, the chances are pretty high, at least in a certain tradition of fictional writing. The first example comes courtesy of Antonius Diogenes, author of the extravagant fantasy The Wonders Beyond Thule, the second from an equally fictitious text of the Roman imperial era, the anonymous Journal of Dictys of Crete. Classicists, particularly after Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, are practised readers of such “pseudo-documentarism”. So when a book of poems by a previously unknown writer turns up on your desk, the antennae immediately begin to twitch – especially when the story of their rediscovery is as thrilling and captivating as any fiction.
According to this ingenious pastiche of a scholarly edition, Ananios was born in 399 BC (the year of Socrates’ execution), in the obscure Arcadian town of Kleitor. He composed his vibrant, life-loving poems of sex, drink, local topography and cabbage in an era of huge social upheaval, not to mention literary sophistication (he turns out to be our earliest witness to the impact of Thucydides). Of the poems themselves, we have forty papyrus fragments: apart from poems 15 and 17, most of them are mere scraps. Poem 41, for example, reads simply:
]awe[ ]none[ ]oh yes[
What lends this book its power and panache, however, is not so much the morsels it claims to preserve from antiquity’s table, but the extraordinary story of Ananios’ razor’s edge “survival” and “rediscovery”. The important question is not what you and I make of these meagre fragments, but what – according to George Economou – more than a millennium of inventive, zealous, insane, repressed, evangelical, cock-happy, racist, murderous scholars can do to them, given an inch or more. The narrative that he weaves in Ananios of Kleitor is dominated by alpha males exalted and humbled (and worse) by the effects wrought by their egos and intellects. This is the story of how words lose their meanings and gain new ones through the ages.
Read and savour this book from beginning to end. Certainly, it mimics the rebarbative conventions of scholarship: “Introduction”, “Note on Spelling”, “Notes on the Introduction”, translations of the fragments, “Reception”, “Endnotes”, “Index nominum”. Economou maintains, poker-faced, the fiction that we will “consult” the notes to support our readings in the text, or even “honor the well-worn practice of skipping them altogether”. But the real pleasure emerges from a page-by-page reading, which gradually discloses the identity of the ancient, medieval and twentieth-century actors who have engaged with this text, the web of imagery that binds them together and the interconnectedness of their stories.
From the ancient world, the cast list includes Ananios himself (barely visible through the veils of time); the “anonymous Alexandrian”, a Hellenistic commentator who survives on papyrus only; and Theonaeus, the third-century ad polymathic author of the Deipnopaideiai, or Games for Dinnertime (a slight mistranslation). All of these are figures who might conceivably exist, in a classical parallel universe (Theonaeus, for example, is a near-anagram of Athenaeus, the real author of the Deipnosophists). Next, chronologically speaking, comes my own favourite character in the book, the sixth-century Christian cook and rhetorician Kosmas Logothetes, whose grapplings with Ananios’ eroticism convey brilliantly, and hilariously, early Christians’ schizophrenic battle between morality and logoerotic pleasure:
If you seek an example of homoiosis, you may find it, at peril of your immortal soul, in the first of two lines, which Ananios meant to insert into the middle of a poem, worse even than his, by Rufinos, famous for his supposed judging in beauty contests over the private parts of loose women:
Melite’s can be played like Hermes’ lyre
What Ananios says may be done with what lies between Melite’s thighs in the next verse, it is my sacred obligation to keep to myself.
Theophanes, the eleventh-century “mad monk of the Morea”, is also hilarious, inveighing against the Byzantine dynasty of his day, using Ananios as a cipher for sexual and culinary immorality (he is particularly upset by the misuse of fish).
A grimmer story, however, clusters around Ananios’ twentieth-century rediscoverers: Anastas Krebs, a crazed but insightful German historian of ancient warfare, whose Romantic Hellenism inspires his quest for Ananios; Sir Michael Sewtor-Lowden, a friend and sometime fellow traveller of Krebs in Greece, who holds a distinguished chair in Cambridge; Jonathan Barker, a graduate student of Sewtor-Lowden, who visited Krebs in 1951 and was entrusted with the latter’s studies on Ananios; and Hugh Sydle, another of Sewtor-Lowden’s graduate students.
The plot unfurls amid hints and misdirection, most of all in the twentieth-century correspondence, which is lovingly “reproduced” here. The arrangement of these letters is riotously non-linear. They start as they were acquired (he claims) from Barker’s widow in reverse chronological order; but even the reversed order is after a while discombobulated and reverts without warning to forward chronology. This plays to the book’s central theme, the interconnectedness of fragments of existence, particularly across time. Jumbled letters, papyrus fragments, excerpts from larger books, the academic edition designed for “consultation” – these should in principle butcher the narrative, but Ananios’ text turns out to be possessed of a strange ability to transcend time. History repeats itself, comically, tragically, unpredictably. At the end of one inconspicuously dull biographical endnote, the narrator spasmodically switches into philosophical mode and comes up with what looks like a vade mecum for the whole book:
We have been spilled into an enormous chamber wherein life continuously echoes art and art life, resounding through volumes of ironies bound in a plenitude of tongues. Some hear nothing. Others strive to link their strains to fulfilling termini in the cosmic din, transforming and modulating them into a manner of music, or the illusion thereof.
Is this the key to reading Ananios of Kleitor? Yet it looks so much like another brilliant parody of academic pretension.
The setting for Ananios’ rediscovery is not the siege of a Lebanese city or a Cretan earthquake, but the occupation of Greece during the Second World War. The narrative centres on Krebs’s complicity in Nazi war crimes in Greece, on Sewtor-Lowden’s appropriation of Krebs’s work from Barker, and on Barker’s gradual sidelining. Economou’s narrator, playing the unworldly, rationalist classicist to perfection, sides with Krebs against the shameless plagiarist Sewtor-Lowden. But Sewtor-Lowden’s last letter to Krebs reveals a different figure, denouncing his friend for his “powerful desire to rewrite history”, which encompasses both his account of Nazi executions in Greece and his famous work on a battle outside Corinth in 393 BC. This final letter also contains a shocking and unforeseeable plot twist which, like Kosmas Logothetes, I shall treat it as my sacred duty to conceal.
Sewtor-Lowden and Krebs are divided by history and ethics, but they share more than they initially knew. As young men, both travelled to Greece in search of the world of lyric poetry, a land of beauty, exquisite poetry and sex without consequence. Both in due course betray themselves in the most loathsome ways, and find themselves enmeshed in a “tragic chain of events”. Sewtor-Lowden’s last sentence is “Through all of this, have we not . . . been terribly Greek?”. The adverb “terribly” is, of course, vigorously ironic.
The fragmentary Ananios of Kleitor is an almost blank screen on to which others project their own fantasies, with the same rapacity that their compatriot soldiers and tourists approach the people of modern Greece. Krebs (as plagiarized by Sewtor-Lowden) reconstructs the fragmentary poems, so that they become more his poems than Ananios’, and reflect particularly his own repressed sexual urges for “a pro from Corinth”. Ananios of Kleitor thus practically is Anastas Krebs. This kind of play with names and naming is a running theme throughout. First, there is the constantly invoked risk of confusion with the other Ananios, one who actually exists (four of his fragments are preserved by Athenaeus). It gets worse. The mad monk Theophanes is so excitedly shocked by Ananios that he insists on distinguishing him from the pious, biblical Ananias, and proposes instead to transform “alpha into omicron”. There is nothing to help the reader here, but we have to conclude that this makes him “Onanias” – or “wanker”. “Ananios” of course also suggests “anon” (as in the “Anonymous Alexandrian”, his earliest extant commentator). Both his name and his toponym also invite all sorts of obscene cerebrations (never Google “Clitor”, the Latinized form of the town’s name).
So, Ananios turns out to be an imaginary object of desire, endlessly recreated by his later readers. But Ananios of Kleitor is not just a spoof. The scholarly ventriloquism and the command of details are impressive, certainly, but the fictitiousness (for example “Kythe College, Cambridge”) is too visible for any reader to be fooled into mistaking this world for ours. What it actually is, however, is harder to define: perhaps equal parts academic parody, postmodern romance and prose poem, a kind of ancient-world equivalent of Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Some sequences are uproariously funny, but others are provocative, moving or horrifying. It draws to the surface the absurdity, myopia and arrogance of academic prose and the awful conjunctures of history and scholarship; but it is also an affectionate and humane tribute to the power of poetry to lend new meanings to new readers’ lives across the ages. A wonderful book.
Ananios of Kleitor
144pp. Shearsman Books. Paperback, £9.95 (US $17).
978 1 84861 033 5
Tim Whitmash is E. P. Warren praelector in Classics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. His books include Greek Literature and the Roman Empire, 2001, and Ancient Greek Literature, 2004.