DINNER WITH PERSEPHONE – Patricia Storace
Paperback, Vintage Books, USA
Review by Christopher Holmes
Through a generous 41 ‘chapters’ – some as succinct as four pages, others leisurely masterpieces of over 30 – Storace puts her literacy and learning at the service and pleasure of the reader.
In the ‘Blue Glass Eye’ chapter alone, she covers opening a bank account; the 1996 Olympics; ponders on the widespread cuffing of women in Greek TV soaps; and discusses that key piece of Greek vocabulary, Fthonos, a “word as old as Homer [that] used to mean the particular jealousy and malice the gods displayed toward humans that caused them to promise a hero immortality, then snatch it back”, going on to shrewdly observe that, “This divine malice seems now to belong only to mortals in their relations to other mortals.”
I’m one of those begrudging curmudgeons who finds it hard to read any insightful take on a subject to which I myself affect a hotline without looking to pick holes. Ms Storace disarmed me with the sheer ebullience of her prose and appetite for knowledge of her adopted home.
How to convey the flavor of this fine book? Try some of the alluring titles in the contents page: ‘Immortality; ‘I see Elvis’ (a conversation class made up of “a French girl engaged to a Greek boy, a half-Greek Swede, a half-Greek German, a Spanish classicist, a wealthy Mexican who spends part of every year here on romantic homosexual pilgrimages. This is a phenomenon so familiar that it is frequently satirized on Greek comedy shows … The door opens and everyone fall silent for the teacher, but Elvis Presley walks in, with sideburns, tight jeans, boots, and a white T-shirt. His eyes are red-rimmed as if he’d had a long tavernaki evening the night before, and when he introduces himself his Greek is a fantastic hybrid, its great polysyllabic mouthfuls lapping up and down in the slow currents of a Georgia accent. ‘Con su permiso,’ the Mexican mutters appreciatively under his breath.”
There’s more: ‘Lust for a Saint’; ‘Pregnant Men’; ‘The Rule of Women’; her razor-sharp observations of ‘Wedding’ (a lightly-disguised account, I swear, of the flamboyant knees-up given by our own distinguished George David for his own daughter’s matrimonials); a three-page gem on ‘The Bus to Metamorphosis’; and many others.
Better still – for Storace is one of those stylists best quoted in a sensible chunk - here she is on the simple chore of opening a bank account with an institution affiliated with her bank in the States.
“I explain to the raven-haired representative with the dramatic makeup that I will be here for a year and would like to open an account. I hand her letters of recommendation from the American bank office and she takes them off to her supervisor. When she returns, she says, ‘We open accounts in dollars under the following conditions: You must deposit at least fifty thousand dollars in the account. Or you must be of Greek descent.’ I am puzzled and ask the reason for these unexpected conditions. She says certainly, she will ask her supervisor, and after a conference with him, she returns. ‘There is no reason,’ she says.
‘Okay, thanks, I just wanted to be sure,’ I say and gather up my letters.”
She is then advised to try the National of Bank of Greece, he rep telling her that, ‘I know for a fact that they have the kind of account you want. Many Greeks from America and Australia use them.’
She finds her way to the NBG where she’s told that only the bank she has has just come from offers the service she wants. “Many Greeks from Australia and America use them.”
She tries a third bank and gets to see the bank officer, “in shirtsleeves, as most Greek businessmen are during the hot summers, and turn-of-the-century mutton-chop whiskers. I hand him my letters of recommendation and passport and wait for the verdict.
“Why do you want to open an account here in Greece?” I direct him to the letter from my employer, which verifies that I will not be taking a salary from any Greek source, and tell him that I have business here.
“You? You have business here? What kind of business can you have here?’ He bursts out laughing, theatrically shuddering with stagy hilarity.
“What makes you laugh?” I ask him, and he picks up my passport, opens it, and begins kissing my passport picture, making sure I can see that he is using his tongue.
I do have business here, though, and am engaged in it at this very moment — my business is to remember you, I think.”
Great line. At that moment I knew that, whatever other stylistic or literary delights lay ahead, also among the pleasures would be unwary Greek butt receiving a brisk booting.
In ‘Mirrors as Biographer’, she is commenting on TV news coverage of arson – “one of the ugliest traditions of modern Greece [in its] use of arson to settle property claims, to clear land for farming, and the indifferent, almost contemptuous Greek attitude toward trees” – but then segues into picking up dry cleaning and how she has “had to change cleaners because the man whose shop I had been using asked persistently for a date, although he displayed on his wall not only a picture of General Plastiras, a prominent Greek military figure, but a color shot of his wife and two little girls. I asked him the last time to tell me the names of his wife and children, but his campaign carried on, and although there are certain kinds of men I find irresistible, my temptations don’t include married Greek dry cleaners. But the price of virtue is as always a high price — the white-haired dry cleaner I chose because he looked safely decrepit through his front window is charging me significantly higher rates.”
I have confession, that of bringing a dilettante’s allergy to books that also seek to ‘inform’. I’m strictly in it for light-weight fun and at the first hint of the classroom dispatch the offending volume to the church bazaar. All the more astonishing, then, what huge pleasure and benefit I reaped from the history and miscellaneous facts woven into ‘Persephone’.
In the first chapter alone, I met (and vowed to read up on) those squabbling warriors from the war of independence against the Ottoman Turks, Kolokotronis and Makriyannis; learned that the self-consciously stern, imposing jailor’s facial expression in so many portraits means authority in Greece; smiled at the author’s description of those ubiquitous icon stores, “hung with rows of sullen female saints and dead-eyed male saints, looking as if they are at the last moment of control before an explosion of anger”; discovered Phryne, fourth-century BC courtesan, lover of the sculptor Praxiteles, and “the model for what seems to have been the first monumental statue of a female nude.” Also, the only woman in antiquity to have won a lawsuit with only her own eloquent breasts. When she was about to be condemned by the Athenian court for immoral conduct, she pulled her dress from her shoulders down to her waist in front of the judges, who, transfixed, ruled in her favor.” Now, where else would I have acquired such a crucial gem of history?
In summary, a splendid book that transcends its category of travelogue-memoir, although I sense that Ms Storace might prove somewhat hearty and gung-ho traveling companion in the flesh. Track it down.