Shortly after moving to Greece, I went to my first dinner party. The days had been spent in a haze of sunlight, jasmine and hopefulness. The dinner party was in an illustrious suburb north of Athens, near the hill from which the marble for the Parthenon was mined 2,500 years ago. We drank martinis and talked about poliàtics; the guests were writers, poets, journalists and scholars. Someone told me that, as a newcomer to Greece, I must read Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi. I dived in. It was like jumping into icy water, knife-like and scorching.
Orwell famously called Miller “a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive accepter of evil”. This doesn’t go nearly far enough. Miller is actively reprehensible. His lechery is to be expected; after all, three of his five wives were 30 years his junior. Still, it is a little surprising to hear him say, of a ten-year-old girl, “If Fate were to put her in my path again I know not what folly I might commit. She was child, virgin, angel, seductress, priestess, harlot . . .”
He was also appallingly rude. He shouts at a French shop-owner in Crete, deriding her country’s walled orchards and dainty gardens. “Je m’en fous de la civilisation européenne!” he rages to the poor woman. Greeks don’t get off lightly, either: they are reckless, feckless, blind to the beauty around them while also sentimental about it. As for the English: fools and philistines through and through.
One can’t help but notice that the only people Miller expresses any fondness for are the (justly) famous — Seferiades, Durrell, Katsimbalis. It is a sort of pre-social media star-worship, an obsession with greatness that reaches its apotheosis in a scene of such staggering self-aggrandisement that it is a struggle to read without grimacing. Miller visits a savant who informs him that he is destined for greatness, and, better yet, immortality. Miller calmly accepts this as his due: “Nothing he had predicted for my future astounded me.”
I spent two days reading furiously — and I choose the word wisely, for most of the time I was scowling. I kept slamming the book down, exasperated. How dare he?
Then I emerged into the mellow indigo of a summer evening, and I felt changed. I loved Greece more passionately. Henry Miller may be wrong about a lot of things. But, when it comes to his Philhellenism, he has a point.