Early in “Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen,” Mary Norris’ spirited memoir, she notes the Greek origins of “autochthonous (autos, self, + chthon, earth), which means something like self-generated from the earth and contains a tricky combination of back-to-back diphthongs. … I loved this stuff!” she declares.
Her enthusiasm is infectious, whether for diphthongs, mythology, ancient ruins or the sea. She’s up for anything Greek, including a swim sans bathing suit in the rejuvenating waters around the Rocks of Aphrodite in Cyprus, or hiking the “Sacred Way,” the ancient pilgrims’ path, now a dangerous highway, to Demeter’s sanctuary.
Norris’ desire in her youth to learn Latin had waned by the time she was working in the copy department of the New Yorker. Greek emerged unexpectedly after she saw a scene in Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits,” in which Sean Connery as Agamemnon duels a warrior/Minotaur. Oh, the glory of Sean Connery in armor! The mythology was all wrong and the movie was filmed in Morocco. It hardly mattered, she was going to Greece.
Norris laments that many people view Greek as impenetrable — all those symbols! In her excellent chapter focusing on Greek letters, she’s somewhat successful in countering that idea by pointing to the commonalities with the English language. The English alphabet, after all, derives from the Greek alphabet that came via the Phoenicians. Thanks to the Greeks, we have vowels. She shows the myriad common English words, such as telephone, ocean and octopus, that were derived from Greek.
On her first trip to Greece, she shoots “around the Aegean like a pinball,” delighting in unfettered solo travel, though the men she meets along the way seem to believe a single woman traveling alone is an invitation for seduction — an impression she dispatches with aplomb.
When she isn’t traveling, she reads Homer, Sophocles and modern writers Lawrence Durrell and Patrick Leigh Fermor, who had lived and written in Greece. She studies modern Greek (demotic) and the classical version (Katharevousa) used to translate ancient works, becoming proficient enough to take the role of Hecuba in Euripides’ “The Trojan Women” — performed in Greek.
Examining the myths inspires Norris to reflect on the strong, independent women who have been her teachers, mentors and role models. Athena, a fierce warrior beholden to no masculine deity, who prefers diplomacy to war, is her “template for a liberated woman.”
Her consideration of Demeter, the grieving mother of Persephone, who was abducted by Hades, gives Norris greater understanding of a family tragedy, her older brother’s accidental death when he was a toddler. The myth helps Norris come to terms with her mother’s emotional withdrawal from her living children in the aftermath.
Norris’ vibrant prose flies off the page, and the breadth of her material set my head spinning at times. Still, she brings it all together with insight and wisdom, giving us an understanding of the “larger world out there” and, as she writes, “different ways of saying things, hearing things, seeing things.”
Elfrieda Abbe is a freelance critic and feature writer who first learned mythology from the movies.
Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen
By: Mary Norris.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 227 pages, $25.95.