Kosmas Politis: known and unknown information on his work

 

his relation to the theatre

 

Stavroula G. Tsouprou

 

Kosmas Politis, nom de plume of Paris or Paraskevas Taveloudis (1888-1974), was born in Athens but lived in Smyrna from his early childhood until 1922. He worked in several, mainly European, banks in that city, where he married Clara Crespi, of Austro-Hungarian origin, in 1918 and their daughter Phoebe (Knouli) was born in 1919. After the Greek Catastrophe in Asia Minor (1922), Politis went first to France and then to England. He came back to Athens in 1924, as an employee of the Ionian Bank, and built a house of his own design in the suburb of Palaio Psychiko. In 1934 he moved to Patras, as manager of the branch of the Ionian Bank, and was thus estranged from his family. However, when his daughter and her newborn child died during the German Occupation (1942), the repentant Politis relinquished his position and returned to Athens and his wife. So impecunious were his circumstances at the end of the Occupation that his house was forfeited to the State and he was obliged to pay rent until the end of his life. It was in this period that Politis began working as a translator from English and French, and to contribute articles to newspapers, mainly of the Left. In 1951 he stood for parliament with the United Democratic Left party (EDA) in Patras, but was not elected. Handsome and athletic (a winter swimmer), Politis belonged to the so-called “1930s Generation” (Genia tou Trianta), but was always a little distant from it. Over the years, the author became increasingly withdrawn. The morning of the coupdétat of 21 April 1967, he found his wife dead. On the same day he was arrested as a leftist and taken to the Security Police headquarters. Thanks to the intervention of fellow author Tatiana Gritsi-Milliex, he was released in order to bury his wife. Encroaching deafness exacerbated his isolation. Kosmas Politis died of heart failure on 23 February 1974.

 

Kosmas Politis’s novels, which are also the best known of his works, are the following: Lemon Grove (Λεμονοδάσος, 1930), Hecate (Εκάτη, 1933), Eroïca (1937-38, 1st State Prize for a Novel)) [all three novels were adapted as television serials, while Eroïca was made into a film directed by Michalis Cacoyannis], Gyri (Το Γυρί, 1944-1945), At Hadjifrangou (Στου Χατζηφράγκου, 1962-1963, 1st State Prize for a Novel) and the unfinished Endpoint (Τέρμα, 1975). His novellas and short stories were included in the collective volume The Plum Tree. Andother short stories (Η Κορομηλιά. Και άλλα διηγήματα) (for “The Plum Tree” he had been awarded 1st State Prize for a Short Story in 1960), excepting the short story “Kaiaphas” (Καϊάφας), written in 1939 and published in the periodical Kritika Phylla  (5) in 1976. The excerpt entitled “Santa–Barbara”, from a lost (?) and unfinished (?) novel, was republished in the hommage issue 116 (10.4.1985) of the periodical Diavazo, while Marco Polo. Original study on his travels (Μάρκο Πόλο. Πρωτότυπη εργασία πάνω στα ταξίδια του) was published posthumously as a single volume as late as 2001. Until recently Kosmas Politis’s relationship as an author with the theatre was limited, for those familiar with the sphere, to the five-act play Gaius Flavius Valerius Aurelianus Claudius Constantinus (Γάιος Φλάβιος Βαλέριος Αυρηλιανός Κλαύδιος Κωνσταντίνος) or Constantine the Great (Κωνσταντίνος ο Μέγας), as was the title on the cover of the first edition, which was published once in 1957 and reprinted in 1999. This historical drama seems to have been Politis’s favourite of his works, which is perhaps also true because it was the most neglected (due most probably to the subversive aim of its subject matter).

The neglected Constantine the Great, which has never been performed on stage, is the sole published play by Kosmas Politis but it is not the only play he wrote. Those a little more interested in perhaps the most significant prose-writer of the “1930s Generation” are probably aware also of the excerpt from his unpublished and unperformed play Corinthian Women; this excerpt was published without further comment in the hommage to Kosmas Politis of the periodical I Lexi, in September 1989.

Nothing more would be known about the drama Corinthian Women if many further data had not appeared in the Scientific Bulletin Parabasis, of the Department of Theatre Studies of the University of Athens. According to these, Politis submitted (anonymously) Corinthian Women to the Stathateios Drama Competition, in the file of which it is entered under the date 8.10.1930. Indeed, we read that particular attention was paid to Politis’s play and that it was short-listed along with fourteen other candidates for the prizes. The manuscript of Corinthian Women has not been lost, as the said Bulletin implies and as was believed to be the case until a few years ago, but is included in the “Kosmas Politis Archive”, which was donated to the Library of Athens College in 2008. The manuscript is in good condition and handwritten on the title page is “Dedicated to Gerhart Hauptmann”, which indicates Politis’s by no means trivial aspirations.

 

Especially interesting is the impression made by Politis’s debut on the Greek literary stage. We shall look at this first through the mostly clear eye of Giorgos Theotokas:

“The case of Kosmas Politis is one of the most interesting. He lived his whole life outside the so-called ‘intellectual milieu’, without ever writing even a single article. Suddenly, after he turned forty, he felt the imperative need to write a novel and he wrote it spontaneously without thinking very clearly about what he was doing. Thus, the Lemon Grove came into being, a profound but immature book with lovely poetic moments and great defects, internal and external. No one knew its author. He was discovered by his namesake Photos Politis, who imposed him in one fell swoop. In 1930, at a certain moment, he was the talk of Athens.

They say that this literary adventure had serious repercussions on the author’s life. It released within him who knows what concealed and repressed artistic bents. Fortunately, he had kept youthfulness of heart, indeed to such a point that some critics thought that this was a twenty-year-old author. He decided, henceforth, to devote the best part of himself to Letters, so starting a new life with a new individuality, with another mentality and other mores.”

Giorgos Theotokas wrote these words, interalia, in 1934, that is, at a time when any critiques of the writer’s work could only be partial and with reservations. For his part, Andreas Karantonis, official critic, as it were, of the “1930s Generation”, who was of the same age as the authors, lived with them and was familiar not only with their work but with the intellectual clime in which it was created, wrote, among other things, of Kosmas Politis in 1936:

“Kosmas Politis’s prose work to date, even though it represents only the beginning, the start off or the first period of an outstanding author, nonetheless takes a special place in Greek Letters and plays its part, as few works do, in creating the impression that Greek prose sprung, like an agile creature, lively and optimistic, from amidst the ashes of postwar decadence. We think that there should be wider discourse on a literary oeuvre which, in its charming disarray and its surprising flashes, mirrors, with a purely Modern Greek originality, many fascinating aspects, situations and complexes of Greek contemporary social life, tending incessantly towards an ideal reality […] Kosmas Politis’s relations with his work specifically and with the meaning of literature generally, as well as the somewhat unusual case, for Greek Letters, of his appearance, give us an opportunity to comprehend some of the principal characteristics of his unusual personality. Is to disdain and to deride whatever is special about his subject and to present it as an object of general interest supposedly a trait of someone who thirsts to approach his ultimate truth and the uncorrupted form of his life or is it egoism and self-confidence remodelled into elegant self-sarcasm and simple conspicuous pose, without any deeper meaning? For Kosmas Politis, who discreetly makes fun of the literary writer, the professional man of letters, as well as his own works, we should accept both, because Kosmas Politis is a profoundly poetic nature and only an authentic artist is able to match harmoniously the psychological mystery and the intense passion with the most affected and the most audacious sometimes secular pose. When they said to him once that a lady, on reading his “Eleonora”, with all the positiveness of the female mind pronounced him mad, he replied: It is not we who are mad but those who read us and take us seriously! With such unexpected gestures and attitudes, fundamentally free of all kind of social and philolological dogmatisms, and mixed with clever self-mocking as well as hidden aggressiveness, Kosmas Politis hits out against not only the narrow-mindedness of popular opinion but also the whole of life, motivated by the lyrical intuition of a superior reality.”

Andreas Karantonis refers here to Kosmas Politis’s comments and behaviours, such as those known to us from his now famous interview with Costas Thrakiotis in the periodical Neohellenika Grammata of 28.5.1938. There, Politis declared that before the appearance of his novel LemonGrove he had written nothing (we now know, of course, that this is not true), nor had he ever thought of “scribbling on paper”, while he characterizes his turn towards writing as “premature senility”, as a disposition to return to the “fleeting youthfulness”, of which he speaks so beautifully in Eroïca: “So, is it such beloved need for what we have lived to be preserved – even if we lived these as spectators, taking part extraneously in the action? An overriding need, at this twelfth hour, for us to synchronize reason with sensibility. We have wasted time. Someone managed to say that supposedly everything was sent by fate, ephemeral, and he considers it a great stupidity for us to wish it were different.”  

“The charm of his work”, Karantonis continues, “wells up from the coupling of strange contrasts, which all start from the opposition of the secular and the civilized to the primitive and the impetuous. […] His talent as a prose-writer, which Politis discovered as a grown man, combines in its expression and its animal energy, an astonishing maturity with an unbridled youthfulness, the virginal insouciance of the child with the cunning and the contrivances of the devil, and the dry and calculated conjectures of a modern scientist to the mysticism and secretiveness of the Middle Ages and the epigrammatic mania of the Shakespearean fools. […] His spiritual and artistic sources seem to have been ancient tragedy, music, the metaphysical extractions of the positive sciences, popularized astronomy, the philosophy of infinity, and the impressions gained at various times from amateur readings of literary works, both Greek and foreign.” (Here we should add also Politis’s theosophical worldview, to which Nora Anagnostaki refers in her critical presentation.) According to Karantonis (as well as other critics), Kosmas Politis: “perhaps received a special influence from the works of Knut Hamsun, but this influence has nothing in common with the influence that other Greek prose-writers have received and receive from the literature of the northern authors”. “But Kosmas Politis”, Karantonis writes, “did not study as much as he lived and experienced”.

Karantonis’s remarks that follow are less perspicacious, but here we should acknowledge the mitigating factor of the close temporal proximity to the work being judged, and primarily the mitigating factor that Kosmas Politis himself was still in his first creative phase. So, the critic’s view that Politis “knows nothing of techniques” and, furthermore, that he was an impulsive and intuitive artist are not justified; quite the contrary, as philological research has shown, Kosmas Politis was a highly conscientious craftsman of narrative.

Moreover, Karantonis himself, in his review of Eroïca, two years later in 1938, is obliged to acknowledge the “striking perfection of [Politis’s] art”, which thus vindicates the author’s artistic ego, as “he has succeeded in overcoming almost all the formal and organic faults of his previous works”. Karantonis goes on to say, in this same review, that “the renewal of the artistic forces of an author is a rare phenomenon in our recent literature”, since “a large number of our prose-writers and poets have difficulty in releasing their sense of hearing from the resounding echo of the first work.”

Furthermore, not knowing the later works and, mainly what many consider to be Kosmas Politis’s masterpiece, the novel At Hadjifrangou, an excellent and emotive evocation of Smyrna before the Greek Defeat in Asia Minor, Karantonis pronounces that Kosmas Politis “does not model characters and objective types with a life of their own”, a characteristic which perhaps holds in part, but only for Politis’s first texts. In addition, “the class of affluent and sophisticated members of the bourgeoisie”, which was the world of his first works, as Karantonis has rightly observed, did not monopolize Politis’s interest, to judge by the novels Gyri and At Hadjifrangou.

One characteristic of Kosmas Politis’s fiction, which cannot go unnoticed and may be considered a Leitmotif in his oeuvre, is the dominant place he accords to the eternal female, the ideal woman.

As Karantonis states, Politis’s heroines “exist only as exquisite aesthetic ghosts, as lyrical ectoplasms, reflections and refractions of his own soul, which take on female form. We realize that Kosmas Politis […] struggles to give his inner nature a form and to differentiate himself. He carries within himself the type of the woman, which is sometimes shown to us as Virgo [Lemon Grove], sometimes as Erse [Hecate], sometimes as Eleonora [“Eleonora”]. As objective realities these women are no more than a clear vision, an aesthetic daydream, a lyrical reverie, a nostalgia.” “Something very unsatisfied dominates Kosmas Politis’s inspiration”, as Giorgos Theotokas observed too, “some disappointment paid in advance for all the possible realizations of this life”.

 

Kosmas Politis’s prose oeuvre overall, as viewed with hindsight today, would seem to be based on material of an autobiographical nature. It can be distinguished typically into two periods, with watershed the Occupation and the novel Gyri, which was written then. However, neither the inflation of the political element in his books of the postwar years, nor his own declaration that he essentially denounced what had preceded, can prevent us from seeing the deeper convergences and relations in the two periods. For example, we detect a common standpoint in the way in which his basic narrative characters, most of them young, look towards a power that will liberate them and open up new horizons. The withdrawal from the world in Politis’s work has a causative relation to the idiosyncrasy of his heroes, making the concept of escapism fundamental for the plot and the outcome of each of his stories.

Indeed, the poetic, lyrical abstraction that dominates the Lemon Grove, elevating it to one of the first modern prose-works of the 1930s, does not simply support his cosmopolitanism, as some critics have narrowly pointed out. In addition, Politis inducts the reader into a vacillating narrative atmosphere which successfully enhances the split lives of the young people, between reality and dream, between boredom, as sentimental state of the haute bourgeoisie, and sensuousness, which breaks down barriers and social restrictions. (The dreamy atmosphere is repeated in Eroïca too, a novel mythifying youth as a special period in man’s life).

Next comes Hekate, the most idealistic as well as the most obviously constructed (for the critics) of Politis’s works, in which the theosophical-cosmological theories displace, to a degree, the fictional action. This is followed by Eroïca, with the musical cadence of its narrative structure, which combines elements of autobiography and a novel of education (Bildungsroman), but in the sense of the young persons’ education in the author’s ideas. The pleasant fluidity in the development of the story, the fluctuations between pragmatic elements and imaginings, the use of multiple visual angles and different temporal dimensions repeat and augment the virtues of the Lemon Grove. At the same time, through sophisticated interpolations of dream situations into the basically realistic tissue of the novel, a suggestive atmosphere is created, recalling that of Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes (Meaulnes the Great), which was probably a model not only for Kosmas Politis, but also for Angelos Terzakis in Voyage with Hesperos (Taxidi me ton Hespero) and for Giorgos Theotokas in Leoni.

After his personal adversities in the early 1940s and his decisive turn in political affiliation, Kosmas Politis re-orientated his narrative techniques, the typology of his characters as well as his subject matter, although this did not mean his severance from a philosophy of life deep-seated within him and visible in all phases of his work. Thus, the vision of a largely undefined way out and the disposition for escape, as an ontological state, continue to torment his young persons, whatever their social background.

Likewise, the fictionalized revival of his personal memories from Patras and Smyrna, in his works Gyri, At Hadjifrangou, as well as his unfinished novel Endpoint,appears much more balanced than in the analogous cases in his early books, as the realism corresponds to the description of characters with much greater depth and with dramatic weight in the plot. However, if the technical couplings of myth and reality are excepted, both the internal conflicts of the persons (the alternations of impulsiveness and reflectiveness) and their steadfast ties with the natural world and the vision of the sensuous absolute, point continually to the unity of the author’s personal relationship with the successive mythopoeic aspects of his imagination.

 

Last, with regard to Kosmas Politis’s capacity as a translator, the fullest study (although not without some errors) is that by Stephanos Bekatoros, who notes the prolific output of translations by, in his opinion, the “top” prose-writer of the “1930s Generation” (over 113 translated titles). He extols also Politis’s linguistic proficiency (both in his mother tongue and in foreign languages), indeed without hesitating to disagree (with), to correct or to fill in works by other researchers, systematic or no, such as Peter Mackridge and Jenny Mastoraki.

Among the 113 or so titles is, of course, Shakespeare’s King Lear, while another of Politis’s translations of a Shakespeare play, for many years believed to be lost, was published recently. This is the translation of Hamlet, which Kosmas Politis had given to Marietta Rialdi for the “Experimental Theatre”. It was staged in the 1971-1972 season, with Marietta Rialdi as the Prince of Denmark, and the text, together with rich accompanying material, was published by the Nefeli publishing house this spring (2014), edited by Stavroula Tsouprou.

In conclusion, it should be noted that Politis’s references to the leading English playwright are evident already from the (newly discovered) play Corinthian Women and continued until his last novel Endpoint. The possible beginning of the Greek author’s relationship with the Shakespearean universe, beyond personal readings and intellectual inclinations and affinities, should be sought also in the Zeitgeist of the decade 1930-1940, which has been dubbed “golden age of Shakespeare” with regard to the performance of the bard’s works on the Greek stage. 

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  ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 19 (11.2014)