Moments of Reading:
Piece on Patrick White


Professor Vrasidas Karalis is the translator of Patrick White’s Voss and The Vivisector into Greek.


I am here, in Athens, where everything began. Happy and unhappy at the same time. A meeting with Mr. Lascaris’ sister. Kolonaki. I cannot stand Kolonaki. The lair of vulgar bourgeoisie. Pure sloth.

December 1992. Christmas, jingle bells, a festive atmosphere, that kind of thing. Around Kolonaki square, the usual mob congregates.

Kolonaki sucks. It really sucks.

“My brother has forgotten us,” she says. “And has thrown his few living relatives into oblivion.” She talks slowly with elegance and imperial certainty. “Never read any books by Mr. White,” she adds. “Never. I have them all here, of course. Certain paragraphs perhaps… Too much of my brother in there.”

“You have met him,” I dared say.

“O, yes, yes,” she says, moving her right hand over her face. “A fine and respectable colonial gentleman. And quite wealthy, I was told. He received the Nobel Prize. He must be terribly good in the eyes of the world.”

An awkward meeting.

Dressed impeccably with two big broaches, a heavy neckless of amber beads, greenish opal earrings, mauve jacket, white shirt embroidered with Persian designs. Her plaited hair style is ornate and elaborate, without ostentation. All kept together by the ritualistic, hieratic movement of her hands.

After one hour of forced questions and counter-questions, sipping an undrinkable coffee, biting on some stale biscuits, she stretches her divine hand towards me: “You may go now. I am so lonely in this apartment. Full of memories and absence. I can see the Parthenon from the veranda. Its magnificence especially gives me strength during the sunset. I think of our mother sometimes, but Manoly is so far away and nobody else cares to know anything about us. How lovely to have you come and see me. We belong to the old families of departing sun.”

She kicks me out imperiously.

Out and about now, wintery day in Athens. I drink real coffee, read passages from The Vivisector, wondering why I cannot write like that. It is a cold winter day. Gentle rain, sad, ashen clouds. I light the cigarette which I keep in my briefcase for the danger days.

Hurtle, I whisper. Hurtle, you mean so much to me. O rose, Rose. You are untranslatable. So… Cimmerian. Providential. And then, turning inwards: I must be getting mad. I am talking to a literary character. And he responds to me – it’s mad and sad. But he keeps talking and his words wake me up to the real world: What are you doing? Why are you reading this?

Coffee, please, I say to the tall blond waiter.

’M’ sorry sir, he replies. Whuat did ya seay? Am from Caenada. Did yae say caefee?

Yes, yes, cofffeee, I respond in my tellurian accent.

But I am off and out. I am spellbound, furious and exhausted. Emboldened by the irony in his eyes, I fake an interest. What’s your name, I ask.

Peatrick, he replies. Peatrick Whuuite.

Whuat? My uncelestial accent strikes back.

Peatrick Whuuite, he repeats.

That’s it. I crack up. I’ve lost it. Me, gone. I rush out of the establishment in panic.

I can hear him calling out: Caem baeck, he says, caem baeck. I sayed nothun.

But there is no way back. I am truly spooked.

So Far Away

Finland, 1990. December. Freezing cold, snow and reindeers. Thousands of them. Thousands of thousands. We look at their horns from a remote villager’s hut. Surrounded by snow, curiosity and the aurora borealis.

White on white on white. Green lights, sparkling little diamonds with the deep dark universe all around.

And silence. Absolute silence. Snow all over. Endless snow. Us too. White snow. Reindeers galloping like galloping waves. We absorb the night, the moment, the presence. People come and go but they also remain. The indelible sky all over.

We are at Juha’s family sauna. Stark naked. The whole family. Juha’s grandpa and grandma, his young sister and her two babies, husband and all. Two neighbours have come to see the exotic Mediterranean. The Lutheran priest is there, naked and agitated: Where is predestination in your thinking, he asks. We are dangerously close. Talking about hell, eternal punishment and the oranges of Crete. Hot steam in the small hut with burning stones, and birch leaves to whip you for firm skin and good blood circulation. No breathing. Suffocation. There is no place for predestination in my thinking, someone replies imprudently.

On the other side, the grandpa is a retired teacher. Around eighty, tall, slender, with a bottle of beer in his hand. He has an enormous library.

All talk and laugh together and shout and scream, in Finnish. Total chaos. They rush out and fall on the snow and rush back. Steam blurs the contours of their bodies. It makes them into impressionistic paintings. All naked. Their skin, oh their skin, like porcelain.

The grandpa turns to him and says in an oracular manière:

“It goes like that,” he says. “‘The mother, also, had worn rings, amethysts for preference. She favoured the twilight colours. Her clothes were in no way memorable, except perhaps her collection of woolly wraps, of such lightness they could not possibly have weighed upon her.’” (Riders in the Chariot, 11)

“Do you speak English?” I ask in surprise.

“I speak literature,” he replies. And continues: “‘the child learned, as far as her natural clumsiness would allow, to move softly, like a leaf, and certain words she avoided, because they were breakable. The word LOVE, for instance, brittle as glass, and far more precious…’”

“Who wrote this? It sounds familiar.”

“This is how I feel sometimes,” he adds. “Unable to articulate the specifics of my existence and reverting to horrible generalities.”

“But who wrote this?” I ask again.

“You will find out. ‘Knowledge was never a matter of geography. Quite the reverse, it overflows all maps that exist.’ The book is waiting for you, that book is waiting for us all,” he says laughing and starts whipping his wife affectionately with birch leaves. And adds: “‘… illumination is synonymous with blinding.’” Soon he is lost in the steam. Soft sighs of contentment all over. This is tense and dangerous.

O my god. What am I doing here? I cannot breathe anyway. Out, Vras, get out, run away.

This must have happened around Christmas, in the last years of innocence before we entered the era of the unthinkable.

Down in Piraeus

George lived with his mother in a working-class suburb of the city. He was adopted when he was three years old from the public orphanage. Four decades later, the mystery remained. Who were his parents? Where was he from? He struggled hard to find answers. No answers, no answers. And he remained restless, agitated, furious.

Having unidentifiable beginnings, George became literary critic and book reviewer. It was his own way of growing roots, of finding origins or destroying all possibilities for this. In countless journals and newspapers, he wrote reviews about Greek, Russian, Japanese, Egyptian, Italian, Nigerian, and American literature. Lacking context and perspective, he saw literature as the universal projection of himself; everything good was like him, everything that confronted his emotions was bad. He waged a nasty crusade against the classics. Unable to read them in the original, he loved to demolish them. We don’t need classics. Whose classics? What for? In what way is Homer better than Madonna? Great unanswerable questions since the Russian futurists: a pair of boots is better than Hamlet.

He reads the translation of The Aunt’s Story. He understands that something strange is happening in that book. But what?

You must not read this novel, he insists. It is terrible.

Who wrote it?

A certain someone from Australia.

What is it about?

About an old woman, the mind and the games it plays with us. That kind of book. Quite bad, I am telling you. Silly, neurotic and unimaginative.

He wrote an extensive review which roughly read like this:

“A strange novel with stranger characters and the strangest plot. The structure is fragmented, the characters, save one, non-existent, although a peculiar je ne sais quoi makes the reader curious about the novel’s end which evidently is totally insufficient. “The sun was still a manageable ball!” But who writes such stuff? And the translation? O, dear Zeus, the translation! It could have been better, of course; but the text itself needed editing, heavy editing. The translator perpetuates the original crime of the novel. No salvation or redemption for us readers. Finally, the paper on which it is printed is harsh and yellowish. Overall, a careless publication which will probably and deservedly obscure the name of the 1973 Nobel Prize winner in our country for ever. There is nothing I could praise in this novel. Not even its style. And it’s not all the translator’s fault. How do they manage to write such prose in the British colonies? They commit despicable atrocities against language and aesthetics.”

And so on and on. He pointed out everything that was wrong with the book. Almost three thousand words of negative commentary, with some personal references and many guesses at pseudo-psychology. Truly bad, total trash, absolute garbage. Highly unreadable. Why are such novels written?

For some reason, however, the book became a minor bestseller. Twenty thousand copies is no mean thing for a small market.

George was puzzled but attributed its success to his negative review.

“They buy it because they want to verify my assessment,” he declared. “There is no other explanation.”

Then Came Toronto

Before Tony migrated to Canada, he donated most of his books to the local school library in Piraeus and very few to his friends. They were mostly in Latin; Virgil, Catullus, Tacitus, Seneca, Ovid, his beloved Pervigilium Veneris and his heavily annotated copy of Carmina Burana. But mainly Virgil, the Aeneid, in six different editions and translations. The classics, only the classics, can avert the coming apocalypse, he used to say. Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue: magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo. Yes, yes, the new order of death.

Yet, there were also some modern novels: Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, Bouvard and Pécuchet, Sentimental Education, À rebours, The Possessed, The Great Gatsby, Nightwood, the most modern he could go. How is it possible to read Hemingway, he kept asking. So trivial and pretentious at the same time. A vacuous exhibitionist. Full of style while pretending that there is no style. Inverted aestheticism. Total absence of inner life.

One of the books he gave to his closest friend was a thick volume entitled The Tree of Man. In Greek. Seven hundred and fifty pages long. Although in paperback, the book had a dustjacket, depicting, impressionistically, a dense forest with some blurred human figures in front of it. It smelled of ink and mustiness. It must have remained intact since it came out of the printers. On the title page, there was a handwritten cryptic message. Facing destiny. And his initials, AS.

I know this book, his friend said. I tried to read it years ago and failed. Maybe now I am more prepared.

Send me a letter with your verdict, he said. I would like to remain in contact with the flights of your soul. You are my ideal self, the unmoved mover in my claustrophobic world. You always were, since the first day we met, in Year Seven. Do you remember?

I remember everything from that first day. Everything. Who knows if we will ever meet again?

Tony left his country on May 29th, 1984. For those in the know, this is an ominous and sinister day. It was also a Tuesday, which made the evil omens even more cosmological.

What starts in evil ends accordingly. Goodbye, he said to his friend at the airport. We could have taken the walls of Troy together, but we were devoured by the sugary humanism of the Greek sun. Fare thee well, my fair Horatio, fare thee well, companion of our innocent days, of our disastrous purity.

He flew to Toronto to find love and serenity and found instead illness and death. Some years later he died of AIDS. Alone in a cold hospital, demented, hallucinating, wordless. His partner Floyd had died three or four years earlier. Floyd had infected him deliberately. Floyd wanted to punish the world for what happened to him. He wanted to punish the world for his orgies in Africa, ravishing young boys and being screwed senselessly by alpha males. Until he was deported and ended up in Thessalonika where they met. Demonic bad coincidence. Merciless and unfair.

After Floyd’s death, Tony didn’t want to receive any medication. He simply wanted to follow him. I was born the same day and the same hour of the day as Floyd, twenty years apart, he shouted in exasperation over the phone. Our beginning was determined by cosmic forces. Our end has to be the same. There was no distance between the twelfth of January 1940 and the twelfth of January 1960. At six thirty in the morning, they were twins born twenty years apart who were destined to vanish together, despite all. It was heinous and malevolent and ungodly. The curse of having found your other half.

In his last discussion with his friend, Tony asked: Do you still have the book I gave you before leaving? I read it again in English last time I was in hospital, I believe that it is better than anything written by Margaret Atwood, we are forced to read her books in Canada it is an obligation, a duty, otherwise we remain outsiders, but I don’t hear my voice in her world, she offers no redemption she is a bad writer uncouth vernacular, if we ever meet again which looks quite unlikely just in case I would like to have it back post it to me if you can, you touched it, we will communicate beyond words I must read it carefully this time I will hold it gently close to my heart I want to be close to you when I die it will give me strength it will help me to walk through the dark gates remember me sometimes when you read it my name was written on dust, now I am at a hospital in Toronto thinking of an Australian novel, remember me sometimes I never troubled you with my existence I wanted to be noiseless around you I was so defective you were so self-sufficient remember our only sunset in the island blue blue red green yellow yellow and darkness everywhere stars everywhere silence everywhere remember me I am such a romantic I deserved better but look now, the end.

These were some of his last words before losing consciousness on May the twelfth, nineteen ninety-six. Last day he opened his eyes to the world of the living. He was buried at the Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto. Just a simple wooden cross with his ill-fated name. But even this was destroyed after the wicked winter of 2012 with the snow blizzard, the gales and the storms. Graves not frequently visited were removed some months later. The malicious city obliterated his memory altogether. No tombstone, no candle, no photograph.

Tony’s book was thrown out by his friend’s mother together with almost all his other books. It was a fatal book, a scripture of insanity, remorseless and unrepenting. It became their bible, their bridge over distant continents, poisonous immigrations, exilic scriptures without a receiver. This is how ended our perfidious, superfluous generation, without symbols, formless, un-linguistic.

My poor generation, crushed by nothingness and un-being.
Without horizon or hope or strength.
My poor generation crushed by its own certainties,
sacrificed to its own hubris.
Lost now, ignored, wiped out, as if we were never here,
as if we were never alive, never, never,
no despair no yearning no ambition no desire,
only still faded photographs, found in second-hand shops,
devoured by the dark abyss of wasted talent
and radical possibilities.
What happened, we ask.
No answer. Nothing.
The zero moment, our home.

About the Lost Manuscript of The Vivisector

The translation of The Vivisector was a long and unsettling process. It took the translator three years of frustration and rage. After completing it, he sent the manuscript to the Athenians. The editor didn’t like it. The publisher didn’t like it. Both reviewers didn’t approve. The idealistic translator was at a loss. He did his best to re-work on the translation: he rearranged the text, cut down long sentences, amplified the understatements, simplified the baroque imagery, abridged the context-laden references, clarified the vague conditionals, reduced the convoluted structures into direct speech, and, generally speaking, did his best to maim the text for the sake of readability.

Nevertheless, the first publisher passed it to another, and to another, and some two or three in between; finally, the manuscript ended up in the hands of the publisher Christos D, a man of ecstatic ambition and disorderly nature.

The year was 1998. Christos fell in love with the novel. He was walking up and down reciting paragraphs aloud. He had a dream, he said, in which two saints of the Catholic Church, both protectors of printers, the famous Augustine of Hippo and the lesser known Genesius of Rome, explained to him the significance of this specific publication. He was convinced by their oneiric homilies to publish the novel as a monumental book, an event that would verify Stéphane Mallarmé’s idea that printing was indeed a ritual of initiation into the eternity of deep time. He wanted to print it on thick Verona paper, made of pure cotton, with a traditional matte finish designed for long-term fade. The book must survive for at least one thousand years, like Arethas of Caesarea’s Plato’s codex, he kept saying.

The novel is about the complex and unanswerable enigma of the absolute artist. It had to be published artistically. The Greek term callitechnic is probably more appropriate for this process. It had to be like the gigantic volume released after the Council of Florence, Laetentur Caeli, or like the great volumes of the First Vatican. Laetentur caeli et exsultet terra! he exclaimed.

Soon he had ordered the paper from the genuine manufacturers in Verona itself. He paid almost the full amount in advance: four thousand loose sheets of paper which he planned to stitch together in the manner of medieval manuscript binders. He wanted this book to be his greatest contribution to the art of printing, his magnum opus, his legacy. He was happy and elated and jubilant. Art is religion, he kept repeating. Art is the only remaining religion. Artists are fallen angels. Fallen but angels.

Then the stock exchange bubble exploded, and he lost everything. In six months, the tax office confiscated all his assets. His best publications were sold for nothing or were pulped to nothing.

Meanwhile, his computer disappeared. The only printed copy of the translation was destroyed during a flood in his semi-underground workshop. The translator was left without a copy and only remembers the pains and struggles of the translating process. He had squinted his eyes at the small screen of early computers, to the degree that he suffered a detached retina and had to undergo surgery. I can’t see, I can’t see anything, dark everything is so black, he shouted one day. His blindness was temporary and lasted only for a few weeks. In the absence of vision, he constantly contemplated how to bring out into another language the peculiarities of an idiolect composed to be the bible of a clandestine aestheticist cult. “indigo, in-god, in-dog… strange so strange… My luff o God gif gif I haf believed truly always yurss God.”

Christos’ firm went under receivership while still waiting for the Verona paper to arrive. Amidst such pain and suffering, the idea of the book still haunted his mind. The book must emerge, he was saying. It must happen. We owe it to the artistic sensibility of the descendants of Renaissance pioneers, illustrators and scribes.

He also had headaches, muscle pains, many and sharp. He paid no attention to the black spots on his skin, or the night sweats and fevers. When friends convinced him to take medical tests, a malignant brain tumour was diagnosed which didn’t allow much hope for the future. It was already advanced and aggressive and incurable. Six months left, at the most. His hearing was gone, then his sense of smell and finally his sight. Blind, deaf, an invalid, he still talked about the book that celebrated the senses. This will be my last sacrificial offering to art. My apotropaic exorcism of futility, he was heard saying in tears.

“I will be the first human to die because of an Australian novel.” These were Christos’ last words before his departure.

He passed away two days before Christmas in the year of the Lord two thousand and seven. Some friends who attended his funeral said that he had asked for a bound volume with blank pages to be placed on his body inside the coffin. Leather-bound, embossed with the golden letters of his monogram at the centre of the cover. Some called this event the burial of the bookmaker.

In Greek, the words sound more suggestive but herein lies the plight and the failure of all translations.

Vrasidas Karalis holds the Chair of Sir Nicholas Laurantos in Modern Greek and Byzantine Studies at the University of Sydney.
He has translated Patrick White’s Voss and The Vivisector. He is the editor of Modern Greek Studies (Australian and New Zealand.)
His main publications in English include, A History of Greek Cinema (Continuum 2012), Realism in Greek Cinema (I.B. Tauris, 2017), Recollections of Mr Manoly Lascaris (Brandl & Sclesinger, 2007), The Demons of Athens (Brandl & Schlesinger, 2013), Reflections on Presence (re.Press, 2016), The Cinematic Language of Theo Angelopoulos (Berhghan Press, 2021) and Theo Angelopoulos Philosopher and Filmmaker (Palgrave 2023).
He has also edited the collections Cornelios Castoriadis and the Project of Radical Democracy (2013), Martin Heidegger and the Aesthetics of Being (2008), Power, Justice and Judgement in Hannah Arendt (2012). He is currently working on a book on the Australian film-maker George Miller.