Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis - Parnassian picture-perfect story of a conjugal idyll becomes the framework of the imperfect and more than bewildering modernist edifice completed by Pentzikis in 1966. The Greek response to an Irishman’s response to the immortal Greek epic.
Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis, The Novel of Mrs Ersi, 1966.
When asked about the great literary events that happened in 1922, you will immediately come up with the most renowned products of the annus mirabilis: T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland , Virgina Woolf’s Jacob’s Room and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Most likely, you ignore that the same year in Greece there was published Georgios Drossinis’ novel Ersi, whose principal value now lies in the fact that it served as the model for the writing of the Greek Ulysses: Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis’ The Novel of Mrs Ersi.
Drossinis’ book is fitting material for a late-modernist parody: it tells the story of an idealised romantic and intellectual relationship of the archeologist Pavlos Rodanos and his beautiful wife Ersi. The main setting of the novel is a small Greek island on which the couple spend six months, from April until October. The main purpose for the sojourn is Rodanos’ archeological research in pursuit of his study of the female leg and hand as represented in ancient Greek sculpture. In the course of the narrative, Drossinis ostentatiosly draws parallels between the perfect beauty teased out of the marble by anonymous artists of yore and the flesh-and-blood perfection of Rodanos’ wife. This Parnassian picture-perfect story of a conjugal idyll becomes the framework of the imperfect and more than bewildering modernist edifice completed by Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis in 1966. It’s been long since Drossinis’ starry-eyed opuscule sunk into oblivion. If somebody mentions it nowadays at all, they do it almost always exclusively when discussing Pentzikis’ strange novel, the Greek response to an Irishman’s response to the immortal Greek epic.
In Pentzikis’ avant-garde reworking of Drossinis’ novel, Ersi‘s protagonists have to deal with the overwhelming presence of a third party: the narrator recounting his mission of an avant-garde reworking of Drossinis’ novel and inducting its characters into the space of literary modernism. This creative quest is narrated through a series of dreams and hallucinations involving grotesque transformations of some of the participants of this bizarre theatre of the mind as well as varied and numerous allusions to literature, hystory and myth. The culmination of the said quest is the encounter of the narrator with Ersi and their highly symbolic union that is meant to represent the act of writing itself. Just like Ulysses, the novel ends with a long interior monologue – that of the male narrator lying in bed next to his wife and recapping the main events of the book we are about to finish reading.
What is common between the Greek folklore hero Sakorafos, the humpbacked character of shadow-puppet theatre Karagiozis, and Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos’s court jester Voilas? What is the significance of all the metamorphoses undergone by the protean Ruit Horas, the embodiment of the passage of time, who accompanies Ersi on her bus trips in Chalcidice? How come that one of the narrator’s children, begotten with his wife, is literally a needle and thread? I’m afraid we might have a chance of seeking out answers to these questions only when this novel gets translated. At the end of this short article about Pentzikis we come across the following striking statement: “If the protagonists of the OuLiPo were able to read his works they would surely have made him a leading member of their movement.” If that is not an invitation to make Pentzikis’ literary legacy available to a broader international audience, I don’t know what is. - theuntranslated.wordpress.com/2018/01/21/the-great-untranslated-to-mythistorima-tis-kyrias-ersis-the-novel-of-mrs-ersi-by-nikos-gabriel-pentzikis/
Few modern Greek writers have met with the critical embarrassment that was reserved for N.G. Pentzikis (1908-1993). His eccentric style developed round a highly personal poetics based on description: listing, cataloguing, classifying,
recording minute details. Architecture of a Dissipated Life (1963) and Archive (1974) center round the logic of discontinuity, a carefully charted wandering among closets, files and cabinets, an ordo neglectus, a systematic anarchy. A continuous yet fragmented text analyses and compounds apparently endless self-commentary and variations. It delves deep into the specific, the apparently trivial and insignificant, exploring the last particle of time and space in its effort to represent all: it is a work in search of its own guiding principles. The Novel of Mrs Ersi (1966) is marked above all by a disjointed, paratactical mode of writing, where the principal theme is constantly marginalised. This novel presents us with a kaleidoscopic text that has done away altogether with a conventional time frame, weaving the threads of the future, the present and past in a single fabric. The overriding style of Mrs Ersi is that of a palimpsest, of the imbrication of narrative, where an old story (by G. Drosinis, 1922) is retold and recast. The tale by Drosinis provides the main characters and general plot, but Pentzikis' reworking, remolding and transformation creates a startlingly phantasmagoric parody of the original the likes of which have not been seen elsewhere in Greek letters.
Pentzikis plays games constantly with his own programme and with the traps that he sets in his own tales. If the protagonists of the OuLiPo were able to read his works they would surely have made him a leading member of their movement. - Elisabeth Tsirimokou, from the volume Greece-Books and Writers, National Book Centre of Greece, 2001).
Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis (1908-1993) was born, lived, and died in Thessalonica. He studied pharmacology in Paris and for many years had his own Pharmacy in Thessalonica, which also became something of a literary centre. "When I was a student in Paris, I was influenced by Norwegian and, more generally, Scandinavian Symbolist literature, and I began to move on a new level. It was then that I read the play of Luigi Pirandello Six Characters in Search of an Author. In Strasbourg, where I continued my studies, I was struck by the French writer Paul Claudel. From 1936 onwards I moved into a quite different sphere with the Byzantine chroniclers and historians. I never took particular inspiration from the classical Greek writers, apart from Pindar and Homer. I suppose I was always concerned to explore the mythical and the fairytale aspect of worldly things. The books which I published tend to set out a series of emotional frustrations. That's what made me become increasingly immersed in the style and tone of the Byzantine writers."
Pentzikis was something of a black sheep in twentieth-century Greek letters. With the passing of time his reputation began to grow and his critical reception gradually developed into unqualified acclaim. His unique work as a writer is reflected also in his work as a painter, which, again, is remarkable for its distinct and highly personal style.
His works include The Dead Man and the Resurrection, Icons (a collection of poems), Pragmatognosia, Architecture of a Dissolute Life, The Novel of Mrs Ersi, Mother Thessalonica, Pros Ekklesiasmon, and Archive.
George Thaniel, Homage to Byzantium: The Life and Work of Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis, Andesite Press, 2017.
The life and work of the Greek writer Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis is
in many ways a refreshing as well as disturbing contrast to what is
normally expected from artists and writers by North American
readers. The Western world in general and North America in par-
ticular are noted for their aggressive progression into the future,
and for faith in the unlimited capacity of human beings to conquer
the environment and chart the inner universe. Pentzikis, on the
other hand, seems to belong in a world oriented toward the past.
His literary work shows a Protean character and bold experimenta-
tion with style. It rests, however, on Christian faith, and more
particularly Greek Orthodox faith. Its premise is that man is not an
independent and self-reliant being but one who cannot act or even
exist without the protection and guidance of God and his Saints
venerated in a multitude of icons. In a modern technological socie-
ty which has placed man on the moon, has photographed Mars, and
taken the temperature of Venus, pious intellectuals like Pentzikis
might seem out of place. Yet the dictum of Leibnitz "All is for the
better in the best world possible" can be questioned now. After
two world wars and continuing social and political unrest, human-
kind has lost some of its self-confidence. Many turn to religion,
exotic as well as traditional religions. Evangelism makes new con-
verts, and among the followers of Indian gurus one finds distin-
guished scholars as well as former Bohemians. Spiritual anxieties
equally disturb the sleep of the humble and the prominent. One
could cite among the latter Dag Hammarskjold, the late Secretary
General of the United Nations, whose personal diary published
posthumously under the title Markings is a case in point. Pentzikis
is a voice from the East, and the West has often throughout its
history turned toward the East for inspiration.
It follows from the above that North American readers con-
cerned with spiritual values will be interested in Pentzikis. But
there are also other factors for which Pentzikis would be meaning-
ful to Americans: his restless experimentation with new modes of
expression and the often jarring form which his work assumes; his
passion for the description and classification of all kinds of data,
from skin diseases to painting techniques; his interest in the func-
tional use of everything and anything. Some readers would be also
attracted by his discussions of Greek folk customs, tales, and tradi-
tions, as well as by his pronouncements on literature and art.
The present study starts with an introductory chapter on Thessa-
loniki, Pentzikis' native city and a recurrent subject in his writings.
The following three chapters discuss Pentzikis' development chro-
nologically, from the time of his first publication to his most recent
work in print. These chapters also discuss his evolution as a painter.
Chapters 5 and 6 deal with various aspects of Pentzikis' work, his
sources, and his relationships with other writers and artists, Greek
and non-Greek. Chapter 7, the last chapter, consists of an epig-
rammatic assessment of Pentzikis, the man and the artist.
The writing of this monograph, an overdue homage to a pioneer-
ing modern Greek writer, would have been very difficult without
the help of, first of all, Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis himself. He allowed
me to translate and quote from his published works, of which he
has all the copyrights, helped me with additional material, and was
always ready to answer questions or correct factual errors in the
earlier drafts of the book. Also helpful were discussions which I
have had with Professor John P. Anton of the University of South
Florida and with several friends in Greece who know the work of
Pentzikis. I would also like to thank Professor Kostas Myrsiades of
West Chester College, Pennsylvania, for lending me his taped in-
terview with Pentzikis, and Gabriel Nikos Pentzikis for translating
an earlier draft of this book for his father and for helping generally
with the project. Special thanks are due to Dr. Kostas Proussis,
Emeritus Professor of Hellenic College, Brookline, Massachusetts,
for reading the entire manuscript and for commenting extensively
on it, and to Professor Edward S. Phinney of the University of
Massachusetts at Amherst, who also read the manuscript and
advised me on numerous points of style.