Essays

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Extremes of Eroticism in Modern Greek Literature

  Extremes of Eroticism in Modern Greek Literature
By Elias Maglinis


Looking at the subject from this angle, no better example can be found than the short fictions of Yorgos Ioannou (1927-1980). In his free narratives, which start from a tiny detail and then develop along a train of thought, Ioannou walks a tightrope between personal experience and the purely fc imagined, placing emphasis on a (basically) concealed homosexual desire. Effectively, there are no erotic scenes in Ioannou's fiction, in the same sense that the faces (or the bodies) of the lovers in Cavafy's poetry remain in the half-light. Yet in many of his narratives and short stories a lurking but expansive eroticism provides the basic note.

In his collection of stories Mourning at the Epitaphios (1980), the story of the same name shows us a group of the male inhabitants of an Athens hotel (all of them from the provinces) who from its balcony are watching the Good Friday Epitaphios procession when they realise that a couple in the next room are trying to make love. Everything takes place in an atmosphere of conspiratorial innuendo, with the sense of sin hovering invisible in the air. And while for all the others the whole business has an element of crude farce, for the first person narrator the whole thing takes place in an atmosphere of religious devotion. It is not only the interpolation of passages from the Gospels but the narrator's transforming way of seeing things, and mainly the way he sees one of his fellow-residents, a handsome non-commissioned officer, together with whom he notes the moment of the couple's climax (all the others have by now gone to sleep), and also the holy, highly erotic as it would seem, moment of prayer at the Epitaphios: "And only the non-commissioned officer and I rejoiced utterly, like the myrrh-bearing women we were the first to see the Resurrection, as indeed we deserved to, for we had stayed awake in the midst of all the fever, pure and unsullied, and afterwards we went to the church to pray, we too, at the Epitaphios kissing the places where the lines of power are scored, from the breast to below the belly".

This indirect yet perfectly clear homosexual viewpoint exists in almost all the texts in this particular collection, except that the viewpoint of the narrator
changes from time to time: in some stories the sacred gives way to an irony behind which a human tragedy lies hidden. For example, in the story "Mrs Minotaur" we witness the humiliations of a trans-vestite celebrating the New Year in 1960. Fat and ugly, he calls himself Ava Gardner and flirts with football players and soldiers who will only sleep with him if he pays them. Nevertheless, his morale does not falter; he lives entirely in his fantasies, in the invented flesh of a real woman, ready to accept his cruel fate.

If Yorgos Ioannou speaks of homosexual desire by means of hints, Kostas Tachtsis (1927-1988) throws away all masks and calls things by their proper names. In any case, he lived a life of extremes: he did not hide the fact that he prostituted himself as a transvestite, and his death in August 1988 shocked the whole of Greece (he was savagely murdered one night by an unknown person for reasons which are still unclear). The author of one of the most important postwar Greek novels, The Third Wedding, Kostas Tachtsis also left a few collections of short stories and autobiographical texts, while a part of his autobiography (as much as he managed to complete) was published posthumously under the title The Terrible Step (1989). As one reads this highly personal, confessional statement, one feels that one is faced with an insatiable erotic animal, who in the course of life meets with an infinite number of sexual adventures, at any time and in any place. The author, in other words, gives us the impression that he inhabits a universe where everyone is sexually available or willing - and we are speaking here of purely homosexual sex, with no beating about the bush. For Tachtsis, the personal, on an existential level, we might say, search for pleasure meant adventure, this for him was the motive force as well as the source of inspiration.

The case of Aristotelis Nikolaidis (1922-1996) differs perceptibly from that of the two authors discussed above. To begin with, heterosexual sex is at the
epicentre of Nikolaidis' work. In the second place, an important part in his fiction, and particularly in his eroticism, is certainly played by his profession of psychiatrist, as well as by his interest in surrealism (an element he introduces into his poetry). Seen from this angle, his novel The Holy Breast (1987) constitutes a fascinating exploration of the anarchic nature of human sexuality. Through the story of a Greek former revolutionary who, after many adventures and wanderings, ends up in Brazil in the arms of a nun whom indeed he has rescued from a perverted Catholic Mother Superior, and who is finally accepted into a strange, secret club of those holding privileges in the regime, Nikolaidis has written a study of the many (and murky) faces of eros, in which various types of perversion, such as necrophilia, dominate. With his psychoanalytic basis openly displayed, the writer sets a stage on which orgiastic eroticism is combined with religious mysticism. In a manner resembling that of Yorgos Ioannou, yet quite different, sex in Nikolaidis' work seems to be in direct conjunction with religion, with the sense of the sacred, of ecstasy: both in sex and in prayer we may go beyond the self, be literally in ecstasy, in other words outside the position we adopt in our everyday life.

Thanassis Valtinos (1932-) is a writer of fiction who has accustomed us to subjects that draw their material from modern Greek history, and particularly military history. In his most recent novel, Diary, 1836-2011 (2001), a fragmented text composed of disparate, brief extracts from the diary jottings of his characters, apparently unconnected, the scene shifts from blood-stained history to the wars fought on "the couch of love", with graphic descriptions of unorthodox sexual encounters in which the most interesting element is the author's cool, almost clinical way of looking at them. Avoiding any trace of lyricism, Valtinos writes of sex, of sexual positions and of the human body's private parts with a dry poetry full of intensity and genuine erotic passion.
Margarita Karapanou (1946-) is a writer who likes to shock the reader, to such a degree that we are reminded of the basic tenets of Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty: the awakening of the reader's dormant conscience and moral resistance through the violent shock that comes from the depiction of scenes of extreme brutality - often on the psychological rather than the physical level. Of course, in Margarita Karapanou's work mental and bodily pain, like deviations both mental and purely physical, are communicating vessels. Thus in Yes, her most recent novel, which is built of a series of image-fragments and brief, disjointed episodes, Karapanou's theme is, first of all, a woman's manic depression and her terrible experiences in a psychiatric clinic; essentially, however, the book's world consists of the inner images into which the heroine sinks. The reader finds himself or herself trapped in a universe of perversions and self-destruction, of sadomasochistic entanglements with hints of lesbian love and bestiality.

Ersi Sotiropoulos (1953-) has perhaps given recent Greek fiction the most interesting expression of the feminist and post-feminist problems of the age, always through experimental writing (with plentiful touches of black sarcasm) which has called in question the very limits of language and of narration. However, the question of limits and of their transgression is raised in a different way in her brief but powerful novella entitled A Three-Day Holiday at Yannina (1982): through the transformation and disfigurement of the human body, through covert bestiality, amputation and cannibalism, and mainly through transgression of the limits that separate the male from the female gender - indeed, on a purely physical level. Through a deluge of images of dismembered (or mutant?) flesh and erotic entanglements with extremely sadomasochistic and bestial overtones, recalling the paintings of Francis Bacon and the cinematographic images of David Kronenberg, to such an extent that the whole work resembles a true nightmare, the body is revealed as the absolute protagonist of the novella.

Is there anything more taken for granted and more real than our own bodies? And yet the body is not a closed world: it gives us infinite possibilities of pleasure, but also of pain. And in both cases, any sense of reality is altered, becoming sometimes intoxicatingly transient (pleasure) and sometimes unbearably specific (pain).
Nikos Nikolaidis (1957-) is familiar to the Greek public as a cinema director. His films, made in the late '70s and early '80s, left their mark on Greek cinema since, through an entirely personal style (which combines the film noir with anarchic satire), they registered the mood of a whole epoch: the sexual liberation of the 1960s, which came late to Greece, in 1974, following the fall of the dictatorship, the flowering of the left-wing movements and a radical questioning of the established order of things and of so-called traditional values. The background of his novel The Angry Balkan (1976) is similar. It is a book which, like his films, met with a big response from the reading public and continues to be read today, mainly by the young. Nikolaidis' central character lives and breathes according to the American dictum of the fifties (with reference to the tragic death of James Dean, the author's beloved idol and hero): "Live fast/ Die young / And have a good-looking corpse". In other words, he is an angry young man who rides his motorcycle and squanders all his time on the road. He is a "Balkan" in the sense that he loathes order and uniformity. He clashes with everyone and everything, his heroes are the great revolutionaries. Thus in his erotic life too this element of the extreme is more than a little marked and is crystallised through anger, the violence that he feels is stifling him. For Nikolaidis1 protagonist, sex and love are filtered through violence. Yet this violence does not preclude tenderness, as in the world of the American director David Lynch (especially in his film "Wild at Heart").

Vangelis Raptopoulos (1959-), one of the main representatives of Greek fiction of the 1980s, places sex systematically at the heart of his preoccupations and themes: to a greater extent in his novels and to a lesser extent in his short stories. His originality (and for many the most interesting thing about his writing - he is a writer popular with a wide section of the public) lies in the fact that he attempts to assimilate the lessons he learned in his younger days from the writers of the so-called "Great Classics" with the corresponding lessons of contemporary American commercial writers, into whose work he was initiated at a more mature age: King, Crichton, Clancy, Grisham etc. The influences on Vangelis Raptopoulos are directly related to American cinema, mainly to the pulp fiction school of Quentin Tarantino.

Moving steadily on the contemporary Greek scene, mainly urban, Raptopoulos tells stories which flirt with detective fiction, horror fiction and pure pornography. His novels Loula (1997) and The Bachelor (1993) are characteristic examples of his style. In the first, a beautiful young female student, who however is frigid, wildly seeks sexual fulfillment and finds it, along with death, when she meets a sick killer. In the second, a black comedy with overtones of Kafka's Metamorphosis, the women the book's hero falls in love with all turn (by magic?) into prostitutes working for a mysterious pimp. His novella The Game (1998) is also indicative: moving the action out into the open air, the author shows us how the daring games between two children can end disastrously. With his fanatical insistence on realistic writing which reaches its apogee in the detailed descriptions of the sexual scenes, Vangelis Raptopoulos depicts people in the process of falling apart; the more they seek adventure and pleasure, the more they sink into an existential void which simply confirms the inability of contemporary man to exist essentially and authentically.

One of the writers who attracted the critics' attention in the 1990s is Theodoras Grigoriadis (I960-). In his most recent novel The Ragged Garment (2001), Grigoriadis gets to grips with the subject of dressing young boys as girls. This was something that really occurred in times of war, in order to save the boys from its horrors. Grigoriadis has composed a novel about identity and masks, with emphasis on the question of sexual identity. To what extent, and in what way, does gender shape a person's character? Thus, in his novel, the author presents us with the story of a man who spent his childhood and adolescence as a woman, who decides at a certain point that he really is a woman. In a sense, the other characters in the book follow his example. Grigoriadis does not limit himself to the case of a single man but extends his theme to other areas of life: men who have not been obliged to dress as women, who choose to be women.

Auguste Corteau (1979-) is one of the most interesting young Greek fiction writers. Highly prolific (he already has five books to his credit), an accomplished pianist and fanatical lover of French literature, especially that of the 19th century (hence the fact that his heroes are French or at least French-speaking) , Corteau has written a series of dark books which move in the realm of the weird and strange (a world in which writers such as Nerval, Gautier, Marcel Schwab etc moved), as well as in the realm of sexual perversions (in the manner of Sacher-Masoch, Pierre Louys, even de Sade). The Book of Vices (1999), The Haunted Man (2001), Rabasten (1999) and The Square (2000) are some of Corteau's books in which, through skilful references to music, he traces the demonic coincidence which people call love, weaves dark erotic tales of the passion which is born and which becomes incompatible with life itself, and finally attempts to express all the thoughts and desires which the subconscious was created to conceal from us.

Christos Chryssopoulos (1968-) is one of the major representatives of a new generation of Greek fiction writers. Also particularly prolific, like Auguste Corteau, with four books already published, a collection of short stories and three novels, Chryssopoulos published his novel The Manicurist in 1999. This is the personal martyrology of an enigmatic, secretive, fetishist manicurist who lives a withdrawn life, devoted not to his profession but to his art (this is how he sees it) and especially to his search for the Beautiful, as embodied by the human hand, male or female. Moving in an atmosphere of inner tensions and hidden secrets, fears and desires, Christos Chryssopoulos proves to be a faultless stylist, penetrating deep into the sick mentality of a fetishist who is dangerously deviant since he is completely ignorant of the e-motions and insists on the value of the senses alone.

Vassiliki Kappa (1970-), in her remarkable novel The Hyena's Diet (2000), showed us how gourmet eating can turn into a perversion, or, put differently, how it can become yet one more way of violently transcending the limits of one's mental and physical endurance. With faint echoes of Marco Ferreri's film La Grande Bouffe and Patrick Suskind's Perfume, Kappa places food at the heart of her novel, gourmet eating as an obsession, as an art, as a ritual, as an element of civilisation but also of barbarity, as an element of spectacle, love and death. She creates a mad and yet at the same time utterly everyday fictional universe comprising a group of bulimics who are determined to eat until they finally collapse. Perhaps the most fascinating element in Kappa's book are the sexual encounters between overweight and obese people. Kappa overthrows the classical model in which it is beautiful bodies that entwine erotically, yet her scenes have nothing repulsive about them: her obese characters enjoy sex, probably a lot more than the anorexic bodies promoted by fashion magazines and the American mass movies.

In 1997 a collective volume of short stories was published with the title Indecent Stories. Among the writers who contributed to it (Sotiris Dimitriou, Maria Efstathiadi, Amanda Michalopoulou, Dimitris Nollas, Alexis Panselinos, Anto nis Sourounis, Ersi Sotiropoulos, Petros Tatsopoulos, Kay Ciceli and Michel Fais), some have systematically, or at least repeatedly, incorporated the indecent into their work. About Ersi Sotiropoulos we have already spoken. The short story writer Sotiris Dimitriou (1955-), whose writing has a markedly naturalistic style, often presents characters from the popular classes or marginalised people in extreme circumstances, at the mercy of violent erotic passions or sexual deviations, with incest being the one most frequently seen.

Michel Fais (1957-), both in the story contained in this particular volume, "Aunt Klara, Roaring with Laughter", and in some of the texts of his prize-winning collection From the Same Glass and Other Stories (State Short Story Prize, 1999), which includes "Aunt Klara", reveals a deep preoccupation with this type of question. If in "Aunt Klara" Fais with great originality and artistry approaches the Holocaust from a point of view that does not differ much from pornography, in the story "Four Shoulders for Sakis" he records the dire results of an illicit sexual passion, as told by the four friends of the ill-fated man whose coffin they bear on their shoulders. Indeed, one of these friends was in his youth a celebrated star of pornographic films. However, in the collection From the Same Glass sexual passion which easily turns into perversion is more frequently seen in people who, faintly e-choing the equivalent characters in Sotiris Dimitriou's work, are pariahs, the rejects of society, cut off from their family and social web; this is something that is even more pronounced in Michel Fais' next book, the feverish narrative-monologue Aegypius Monachus (2001).

Petros Tatsopoulos (1959-), one of the "infant prodigies" of Greek fiction in the 1980s, contributed to the same volume his story entitled "The Warrior's Repose". Here, with his corrosive, mocking humour, Tatsopoulos gives us the monologue of a "veteran" lover whose sole purpose in life is to get as many women as possible into his bed. He nostalgically remembers Natasha, an older woman who initiated him into sex, and indeed baptised his male member "Jordan". Mainly, however, he draws up a balance sheet of his conquests and concludes that the approximately two hundred and fifty women to his credit are a poor harvest compared with the feats of Casanova or Elvis Presley. Tatsopoulos' humour here conceals melancholy and a sense of the vanity of things.

Like every self-respecting mounter of women, the first-person narrator of Tatsopoulos' story refers to his penis as a separate entity which, although it is part of his identity, nevertheless sometimes appears to enjoy an autonomy that creates nothing but problems for its "owner". Specifically, the "warrior's repose" of the title refers to the voluntary repose of the narrator's penis. No matter how much he may desire to continue his agonised race in the pursuit of pleasure, his genital organ obstinately refuses to respond. The "warrior" is thus not man as Person but man as Penis.

At a deeper level, however, through the exhaustion of his member, the man's psychic exhaustion is revealed, or, to be precise, a sense of emptiness which it seems grew in him the more his feverish, merciless, ceaseless pursuit of pleasure increased. Tatsopoulos1 hedonistic narrator is at the antipodes of Epicurean morals, which are often identified (mistakenly) with the contemporary meaning of hedonism. For Epicurus, pleasure means suffering as little as possible, desiring as little as possible. Nevertheless, for Petros Tatsopoulos' hero (as for Van-gelis Raptopoulos' heroes), the more he seeks pleasure, the more he becomes a prisoner of his own self.

Ithaca - Books from Greece
No 23 - February 2003

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