Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Book Review - The Hill of Kronos by Peter Levi

The Hill of Kronos by Peter Levi

London : Arena, 1987                                                              ISBN 0099331500

Peter Levi, poet, archaeologist, scholar, Jesuit Priest, was one of those people who were on what I call the "literary periphery". Someone you've vaguely heard of, usually in relation to someone else. Levi was good friends with the Greek poet George Seferis, and of Patrick Leigh-Fermor, and in more recent years was possibly even better known as the travelling companion of Bruce Chatwin during his journeys in Afghanistan, retracing Robert Byron's route in the Road to Oxiana (in fact Levi wrote a book about that trip The light garden of the Angel King : Journeys in Afghanistan, which has been reprinted several times - each reprint seemingly with more emphasis on Chatwin's photographs).

The Hill of Kronos is an autobiographical work - written later in life, Levi looks back on his various journeys to Greece, a land that meant a lot to him. His first visit took place when he was still studying to be a priest, as both the Seminary and Levi thought it would be good for him to take a break from his studies. Levi had gone through school with a love of Ancient Greek, and his first trip to Greece was as a budding archaeologist, travelling by foot over legendary landscapes in search of places mentioned by Pausanias' Guide to Greece.

As an archaeologist, it soon becomes clear in the narrative that Levi is a dilettante in the original meaning of the word - he is too interested in everything to be focussed enough on the task, but broad enough in his interests to see much that might have been overlooked until that stage. Reading in 2014 about his trip in 1963 it's amazing to realise just how much of the ancient world had yet to be studied and recorded at that time - Levi made trips to several places that had been untouched until then.

During this first trip Levi also sought out Greek poets - Seferis in particular, but also Odyseus Elytis and Nikos Gatsos. The generosity of these poets to Levi had an important effect on him and in some ways his writing about them is a eulogy for their nobility, and for a time in Greek letters that was coming to an end.

The highlight though, for Levi and the reader are his travels through the Greek countryside, and his interactions with local Greeks. His earliest trip occurred before tourism became a major influence in many of the places he visited, so he was something of a novelty to many of the locals, who were unfailingly generous in their hospitality. In 1963, many of the locals remembered the British from the War, and Levi met many who fought against the Germans for their freedom.

That makes the second part of the book - Levi's time in Greece under the Colonels - all the more heart-rending. He is witness to (and a minor player in) the slow constriction of Greek society under dictatorship, and of the increasing attempts to break the hold of the Colonels on political life. Levi's small part in the drama of the resistance earns him attention from the Police, which is in parts hilarious and in parts terrifying. He is eventually banned from the country for a time.

The final section of the book is his re-visitation, many years later. Levi is definitely a changed man - no longer a priest, he is married, and his wife and step-son accompany him on a trip that finds old friends dead, the landscape changed and scarred by modernity and tourism, but some of the old truths surviving.

This short book is elegaic in tone in almost every way - Levi has written a paen for an older way of life in Greece, and he himself was one of the last of a certain type of writer, writing the type of book that we will see less and less of in the future. Educated but not overbearing, democratic but not prescriptive, informative but not preaching, inspired but not demagogic, stylish but not overwrought, this book contains a type of writing that flourished in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but is no more, I fear (I hope wrongly).

As someone who can in no way approach the style and intelligence of this kind of work (as evidenced by this review!), I recommend this book.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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