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Literature

Edmund Keeley’s Inventing Paradise: The Greek Journey, 1937-47

September 23, 2019

In the course of writing about literature, especially Greek literature in translation, the name Edmund Keely will undoubtedly show up, perhaps in the very first results of a quick search. The Philhellene writer, scholar, and translator, now 91 years old, was recently featured in an article in Ta Nea which highlighted the Greek edition of his 1999 book Inventing Paradise: The Greek Journey, 1937-47.

According to the book’s description: In the looming shadow of an oppressive dictatorship and imminent world war, George Seferis, George Katsimbalis, and other poets and writers from Greece’s fabled Generation of the Thirties welcomed Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell to their homeland. Together they explored the Peloponnesus, swam off island beaches, and considered the meaning of Greek life and freedom. They seemed to be inventing paradise. In this evocative synthesis of personal memoir, literary criticism, and interpretative narrative, Keeley explores the poetry, friendships, and politics that made those extraordinary encounters so vital.
For Miller and Durrell, the journey into Greece transformed their art and their lives, and in response they wrote some of their most important work. For the Greek poets, it reconfirmed their sense of the vitality of their own country and helped to sustain them during the harsh years to come. As Keeley shows, their eloquence, courage, and dedication kept the greatness of Greece alive when the German occupation, a violent civil war, and the depredations of mass tourism threatened to destroy it. Other writers later drew on the invented paradise of these good friends and reimagined it for the future. This remarkable work of cultural history and imaginative criticism is a crowning achievement from one of the finest literary interpreters.

Born February 5, 1928 in Damascus, (his father was American diplomat James Hugh Keeley, Jr.) Keeley is an award-winning novelist, translator, and essayist, a poet, and the Charles Barnwell Straut Professor Emeritus of English at Princeton University. A noted expert on Greek poets C. P. Cavafy, George Seferis, Odysseus Elytis, and Yannis Ritsos, and on post-World War II Greek history, he spends time in Greece every year and has set many of his works, fiction and non-fiction, in Greece.

According to his biography on the Princeton website, “The road from Edmund Keeley’s birthplace in Damascus to a distinguished academic career at Princeton has been a wandering one; it has taken him to schools in Montreal, Thessaloniki, and Washington, DC before bringing him to Princeton as an undergraduate in 1945. Then he wandered again – into the Navy – before coming back to receive his BA in 1949. He departed once more in 1952 for a D.Phil. at Oxford, followed by a year of teaching at Brown University and a Fulbright Lectureship at Thessaloniki University before finally settling at Princeton.”

Professor Keeley taught in the English department at Princeton, directed the Creative Writing Program, and virtually created the Hellenic Studies Program, while creating a reputation for himself as a novelist and translator of modern Greek poetry. Among his awards, his fiction won the Rome prize of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the NEA/PEN Fiction Award, and his translations of Seferis, Cavafy, and Ritsos have earned him deserved praise and honors, including the Columbia Translation Center Award, the Landon Award of the Academy of American Poets, and the Premier Prix Europeen de traduction de la Poesie.

An important member of many organizations in the world of American letters, Keeley was the first president of the Modern Greek Studies Association. He has served on the editorial boards of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Translation Review, and The Journal of Modern Greek Studies. For fifteen years he was active in the PEN American Center and served as its president from 1991 to 1993. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science. He retired as the first holder of the Charles Barnwell Straut Class of 1923 Professorship in English.

In 2001, he was honored as a Commander of the Order of the Phoenix by the President of the Hellenic Republic for his contribution to the study and dissemination of Greek culture and in 2008 received the Dido Sotiriou Award from the Hellenic Authors’ Society.

In Inventing Paradise, Keeley does not shy away from a realistic view of the turbulent years he recounts in the book. His work provides insights into modern Greece and its idiosyncrasies without romanticizing the country as other foreign writers have done in the past and some continue to do today.

Inventing Paradise: The Greek Journey, 1937-47 by Edmund Keeley is available online and in bookstores.

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