In February 1922 Sylvia Beach set out the first copies of an experimental Irish novel in the window of her Paris shop, festooned with blue-and-white Greek flags. A law student called George Seferiadis noticed the flags and the title -- "Ulysses" -- but did not buy the book. A few months later, his cosmopolitan hometown, Smyrna, was razed by Turkish troops after a Greek incursion into Asia Minor; many of its Armenian and Greek inhabitants were slaughtered. The Greek world shrank to fit the measure of the modern nation-state; the refugees who crammed into Athens were often horrified by their new motherland's provincialism.
The poet George Seferis (Seferiadis' nom de plume), who won the Nobel Prize in 1963, was formed in that conjunction. Modernist writers from Joyce to T.S. Eliot were drawing on classical texts to name and salve the sense of dislocation that followed Europe's Great War. Seferis set out to bring that tradition "home" to modern Greece, reweaving it with his country's more recent history while claiming it as the root of a universal, human-centered culture. The sense of a lost plenitude in his poetry -- what he called "the 'Waste Land' feeling" -- is often indistinguishable from the yearning for a lost Hellenic world, urgently visible in the traces that survive. Ancient fragments express modern anomie; Odysseus wanders through the 20th century as an ordinary exile, a man who has lost his way.
Seferis' poetry is often compared to Eliot's -- "We are having trouble translating you so that you don't sound like Eliot," said his friend Lawrence Durrell -- but it is far more personal and intimate. Seferis felt all his life that he remained a refugee, and many of his best poems explore the depths and subtleties of that increasingly common situation. His passion for space and landscape, his dreamlike merging of inner and outer worlds and his ability to drench material things with feeling are sometimes reminiscent of Rilke.
In Greece, Seferis' work and his interpretation of his country's past acquired the weight of literary orthodoxy: No serious poet can write without taking him on board. In Britain and the United States, modern Greek culture first became visible under his sign, through the writings and translations of friends such as Durrell, Henry Miller, Rex Warner and Edmund Keeley. The ironic, elegiac Alexandrian poet C.P. Cavafy -- in E.M. Forster's phrase, "a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe" -- is now perhaps more widely read. But the Greece of blue seas and white islands promising enlightenment through joy that became fashionable in the last century both as a destination and a state of mind owes at least some of its lineaments to Seferis' poems, as read by his foreign admirers.
Seferis was also his country's ambassador in the literal sense. As a career diplomat, he served the Greek government through decades of crisis and upheaval -- the Metaxas dictatorship of the 1930s, the Axis occupation of WWII and the civil war that followed, the Cyprus rising against British rule in the 1950s -- before finally speaking out against the military junta that ruled the country from 1967 until after his death in 1971. It is probably the thorny combination of his literary stature and his political accommodations, criticized by left and right, that has deterred Greek researchers from writing his life. Roderick Beaton, professor of modern Greek language and literature at King's College London, has taken on the enormous task of tracing his double career with great sympathy and scrupulousness. If his exhaustively researched biography has a quiet agenda, it is to rescue Seferis from the simplifications of some of his detractors by clarifying what he actually said and did. Beaton glosses over none of the criticisms leveled at Seferis, especially by the Greek left, but takes pains to give a thorough, accurate picture of his whole political development so that his choices can be understood.
Seferis was by temperament and formation a liberal of the old European school. His father was a lawyer, closely involved with the irredentist aspirations of the early 19th century Greek state; his mother's family owned land around the seaside village of Skala, the lost paradise that haunted Seferis until his death. His commitment to Hellenism was explicitly a matter of language and culture, not of race; he maintained all his life a slightly romantic, patrician faith in "the people"; he abhorred political violence and authoritarianism of all kinds; he placed freedom of thought at the heart of human aspiration.