The Hill of Kronos
The Hill of Kronos
In The Hill of Kronos, Peter Levi paints a radiant portrait of the Greece he came to know through a lifetime of exploration. As a young scholar he sought out its ancient spirit, the keys to its mythology and civilisation, in its ruined cities and majestic mountains. Later, as a priest working as a diplomat and a friend of the oppressed, he lived in Athens through the dark days of the dictatorship. Then the sinews of political life led back to secret alliances made during the civil war and the earlier occupation of Greece, back to murder, starvation and corpse-filled quarries. Lastly it is seen through the mature eyes of a family man, with the ripened sensibility of an acclaimed poet. This is a precious fusion of experience, a gift of insight from one philhellene to all those who have come to love Greece.
‘I have nothing but gratitude for this devoted, this splendid, this unique book: to read it is to have the experience of Greece itself.’ - Dilys Powell, The Times
‘This book is lit up by the search for a poet’s fitting phrase.’ - Robin Lane Fox
The Hill of Kronos
Format: 334pp demi pb
PETER LEVI was born in Ruislip, Middlesex in 1931. At the age of seventeen, he joined the Society of Jesus as a novitiate, remaining a Jesuit until he resigned the priesthood twenty-nine years later in 1977. After leaving the priesthood, Levi focused his energies on poetry, translation, and archaeology. He also married Deidre, widow of Cyril Connolly. Their honeymoon spent in the Greek isles forms the latter part of The Hill of Kronos, and brings an emotional symmetry to the account of his Hellenic travels. He died in 2000.
Extract from Introduction
I HAVE FOUND this book hard to begin because life has made me very happy and my own past history is becoming as distant as the mountains of the moon. There is too much to write about. Hungrier travel writers than I am often write better books. When I first went to Greece I thought I was discovering everything at once, five things a day. My hunger for the monuments of antiquity, for museums, for people, for light and shade, for mountains, woods, islands and seas, seemed to me insatiable. Indeed it has never been sated, but now I feel that I know Greece almost too well to write about it, and time meanwhile has washed away my footprints from those tracks. Greece has been the air I breathed and the life I lived, yet I can no longer easily recapture that young self to whom it was strange. Nor can I quite shake him off, and I am afraid that he will dog the reader through this book as he dogs me. Today I can answer nearly all of the naive questions he began by asking, but he is still asking questions and I have lost my shame about his naivete.
The best books in English about Greece, as a personal discovery, are by Patrick Leigh-Fermor, Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller, Kevin Andrews, Dilys Powell. They have something in common, which I take to be Greek reality, not just a similar temperament, though most of them have been a close friend of at least one of the others, and a quality of the same generation marks all of them. The Greece they discovered was hardly born until 1930, and in the last ten years it has been transformed. There were earlier discoveries, by Wheler at the end of the seventeenth century, by Chandler in the eighteenth, by Leake and by Edward Lear in the nineteenth. There are Schliemann’s diaries and Byron’s letters. In all of them, the same, continuous Greece, what Durrell calls ‘the distinctive form and signature of things Greek’ can be recognised. Whoever discovers Greece today can hardly rank with Columbus.
Although I could not hope to rival what has already been so sharply and well recorded, and although I suppose this book that I have such a passion to write will be unlike anyone else’s, if only because my life has been different from theirs, yet the continuous attraction of Greece for me has been something quite simple, and I am sure that I share it with many who will never write a book and some of those who have. It was the light, the physical sunlight. It was thyme-scented hillsides and plains of toasted thistles. It was the fragments of the marble architecture. It was spring at Pylos and at Sounion and in the Cretan mountains. It was the charcoal-burners in the pine woods and the donkeys and goats and anemones in the olive groves. It was autumn at Olympia, winter in the Arkadian mountains, the annual snowfall of wild cyclamen on the Hill of Kronos. But above all it was the people. Most of the best friends I ever expect to have are Greek, and we have fifteen years of our lives in common.
But I came late to Greece, at the age of thirty-two, in 1963. I had started to learn ancient Greek as a schoolboy, at a school where Greek was hardly taught. All I knew about Greece then was the Elgin Marbles, of which I treasured some sepia-tinted and forbidding postcards, and the fact that Oscar Wilde, who in the summer of my fourteenth birthday had just become my literary idol, said the Greek text of the Gospels was the most beautiful book in the world. So I demanded to learn Greek, and changed schools in consequence. From that time I have never ceased to study the Greek language. There were some ups and downs, of course. One of the ups was Oxford, where I was lucky enough to be taught some medieval and modern, as well as ancient Greek. There I discovered, like flowers on a slag-heap, the few wonderful Byzantine writers. And there I discovered George Seferis. I venerated him then as an immensely great poet; later I came to love him as a friend, almost as a father, and to respect and admire him more than I can express.
Coming so late in the day to Greece seemed at the time to be an impoverishment, but I take some consolation from hindsight. The terrible sufferings and the heroism and determination of the Greek people in their resistance to Hitler have transformed forever the way we look at Greece. Short of having known Greece before the war and fought through it in the Cretan mountains, as some of the English did, I prefer a Greece who knows herself and whom we know to all the privileges of pre-war Europe, and I am glad not to have lived through the disasters of the two anti-communist civil wars that followed Hitler’s war. I am even more glad not to have lived in Greece or had friends there during the catastrophic mismanagement of the Cyprus crisis by Great Britain. By 1963 that was to some degree forgiven, though it was not forgotten. On the other hand, I did live through the seven nasty years of the Colonels, from 1967 to 1974, and I am glad I was there. I am a witness to what happened, to the dignity and obstinacy of the Greeks, to their gallantry and their decency in a period of nightmare and of darkness.
My work in Greece was that of an archaeologist of some kind. I took part in excavations, but I spent some years translating and annotating Pausanias, who wrote in the second century A.D. a description of all the surviving monuments of ancient architecture and religion; and then many more years working at a full commentary on his writings in the light of modern archaeology. I chose him because of his reality, and because by studying Pausanias I could hope to know Greece as I longed to know it. The commentary is still unfinished, indeed hardly started, but I owe Pausanias a loyalty deeper than that of scholarship. Through him I got to know landscapes and sanctuaries and villages and mountains I would not have seen otherwise. And work is peace after all; I have found it a resource in bad times and a pleasure in good.
The trouble was that my interest constantly spilled over, into the history of these same monuments in the Middle Ages, into the Greece of the first archaeological explorers, into modern and recent history, into the people among whom I was working, and finally into prehistory, which for years of obstinate stupidity I had resisted as an irrelevance. Perhaps the explanation was just that I had too many professions. From 1964 I was a priest, but a priest without local duties. I taught the classics in Oxford but I had to be abroad in winter, originally for reasons of bad health, so I took up classical archaeology. Yet the underlying condition and the force and momentum of my life were to be found in neither of these full-time professions, but in poetry. And there was still my unending love affair with the Greek language. I also had an average educated curiosity about birds, flowers and landscapes. As middle-age approached, the curiosity became a passion.
What I liked about Greece was not just poems and not just books, but the impressive force of the language itself, unconfined by dictionaries, spoken in the streets, in cafés, and in the country. Greek has a longer continuous history than most languages; its written records go back nearly four thousand years, and its alterations in that time have been gradual and seldom ruinous. Under the Roman empire, it was almost a world language. Under the Turkish empire it sank back into its own roots, and recovered what it had lost, the beautiful behaviour, the suppleness and bite of country speech. In the last generation poetry has been written in Greek as powerful, as memorable, and as individual as the best English or Russian poems of this century. The modern Greek language has hardly been charted, it can be learnt only by listening. It has an astonishing range of tones and resources and slowly learning and relearning to speak it has been one of the most satisfying pleasures in my life.
In the end I came to write poems of my own in Greek, not by choice, which would have been freakish and perverse, but when I had begun to dream and to think in Greek, and the pressure to write poetry had become irresistible. Those poems have no part, really, in this book, but I do not think they are worse than what I might write in English. I mention them because they represent the furthest point for me of identification with ‘the distinctive form and signature of things Greek’ without any loss of identity. The loss of one’s national or professional identity in the pursuit of a love affair with a foreign country is always a mistake, I believe. There is something phoney about ‘going native’ anywhere in the world. Equally, of course, it is better not to amaze the inhabitants of another country with Bermuda shorts or a bowler hat, nor was I tempted to do so. I travelled in the wildest places I could find. I was a friendly bachelor. I drank deeply the wine of the country. But if ever anyone took me for a Greek, it was by chance, and only because so few foreigners speak the language.
After many years of study and of a monastic religious life, my first visits to Greece were like a delayed spring, a breaking of the ice. At one moment, I even thought or pretended to myself that I had fallen in love, but it was only a ballet of love. Since then I have known the real thing, which is a very different matter. But in 1965 I had just finished a long and often depressing course of training that had lasted seventeen years. It had included so many illnesses that the training itself seemed like an illness. Now the air glittered and smelt of leaves. I was both sophisticated and innocent, and I was very hungry for life. Greece treated me kindly. It was not a mythical or exactly a romantic place for me; what I was searching for and hungry for was reality. All reality is historical, I suppose; it always descends from history, and the history continues.
If I were to try to thank my Greek friends, and all the others to whom I am indebted and this book is indebted, the list would be terribly long. I once worked on a combined book with two Greek scholars and we thought of a note of thanks to the institutions which had tolerated us. That is rather treacherous ground. But I must express a more personal gratitude at least to Nancy and Betty Sandars, and to Philip Sherrard, who encouraged my first steps in Greece, to Patrick and Joan Leigh-Fermor who have been so good to me for many years, to Nikos Gatsos, Charles Haldeman, Takis Loumiotis, George Pavlopoulos, Takis Sinopoulos, Iannis Tsirkas, to Maro Seferis, to Vanna Hadzimichalis, to Joy Koulentianou, to Athina Kaloyeropoulou, to Amalia Fleming, to Jane Rabnett, to Francis Bartlett, to Niko and Barbara Ghika, to Constantine and Aliki Trypanis. No one has ever been better treated by life than I have been; no one has ever has so much more from life, or from Greece, than they offered it. But most from Deirdre, to whom I dedicate this book.