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Posts Tagged ‘Greece’

Talk About Beauties

September 22, 2014 | by

The lost recordings of a phantom musician.


Alexis Zoumbas, illustrated by R. Crumb.

The text printed on the label of the Greek 78-rpm disc translated as “Alexis Zoumbas ~ violin, accompanied by young men of the Epirot village of Politsani.” Its significance, and the meaning behind its very existence, stymied all speculation. No one had heard what was etched into these grooves since they’d been pressed—the Greek title for the song was untranslatable, and the recording itself was undocumented, hushed into being for no perceptible reason other than to come into my possession.

A week before this record arrived at my post office, I’d finally untethered myself from Zoumbas and his recorded legacy. After two years of focused inquiry, I’d finished work on Alexis Zoumbas: A Lament for Epirus, 1926-1928, a collection of his recordings. I’d let go. But any comfort I found in that was lost when this disc came into my life.

The 78 rpm record was the dominant medium of auricular permanence and commerce for more than fifty years. These fragile vessels of sound are coveted by collectors who, like myself, have developed a precise yet vaguely sexual phraseology to describe their physical condition. This Zoumbas disc, for instance, was in excellent condition, but with a tight hairline crack and a slightly enlarged spindle hole.

And what of its artist? Alexis Zoumbas was a phantom musician, a violinist. Born in the hinterlands of Epirus, Greece, in 1883, he immigrated to New York City in 1910 and died practically unknown in Detroit in 1946. The myth surrounding his life maintained that he’d fled Greece after murdering his landlord, and that he himself had been gunned down by a jealous lover. Drawn in by his music and intrigued by these stories, I become obsessed with his life. I traveled to his home village, Grammeno, to interview his two surviving nephews, Michalis and Napoleon Zoumbas, both retired musicians in their eighties. In Ioannina, the capitol of Epirus, I unearthed biographical documents; in the U.S. I found immigration and naturalization papers, as well as a draft card and a death certificate. This trail of evidence, dispersed across continents, corrected the narrative of this powerful musician’s life. He did not kill his landlord, and he wasn’t offed by a jilted lady friend—those were apocryphal stories created to elevate his musical status and cultural legacy. Zoumbas had entered into the elite mythical realm reserved for more well-known American prewar musicians like the Delta bluesman Skip James and the Appalachian banjoist “Dock” Boggs, majestic artists surrounded by imaginary rows of corpses, stacked like cordwood, coolly dispatched in their dreams and in the stories told about them. Read More »


Something Mythical

March 13, 2014 | by

George Seferis was born on this day in 1900.  seferis-g  


Seferis in 1957. Photo: The Educational Foundation of the Greek National Bank


You know, the strange thing about imagery is that a great deal of it is subconscious, and sometimes it appears in a poem, and nobody knows wherefrom this emerged. But it is rooted, I am certain, in the poet’s subconscious life, often of his childhood, and that’s why I think it is decisive for a poet: the childhood that he has lived … When I was a child I discovered somewhere in a corner of a sort of bungalow we had in my grandmother’s garden—at the place where we used to spend our summers—I discovered a compass from a ship which, as I learned afterwards, belonged to my grandfather. And that strange instrument—I think I destroyed it in the end by examining and re-examining it, taking it apart and putting it back together and then taking it apart again—became something mythical for me.

—George Seferis, the Art of Poetry No. 13



The Immortality Chronicles, Part 2

August 26, 2013 | by


What have we not done to live forever? My research into the endless ways we’ve tried to avoid the unavoidable is out now as The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever. Every Monday for the next five weeks, this chronological crash course will examine how humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history.

We all do and make to deal with oblivion. The conceit that art can ward off death is something we’ve been wrestling with since Greco-Roman times. The Theban lyric poet Pindar didn’t crave actual immortality, but still he wanted to reach out to the limits of the possible. Horace put it more bluntly in an ode: “I have finished a monument more lasting than bronze and loftier than the Pyramids’ royal pile, one that no wasting rain, no furious north wind can destroy … I shall not altogether die.” Ovid shared that aim, boasting of how his couplets would outlive his lifetime, “so that in every time and in every place I may be celebrated throughout the world.”

All creative efforts, what the ancient Greeks called poiesis, were done with immortality in mind, whether unconsciously or not. Socrates distinguished between three main forms of poiesis. The first is sexual reproduction, which provides immortality in the sense that a genetic lineage will survive the parent’s own bodily existence. The second category of poiesis is the attainment of fame through art or heroic accomplishment, which leaves a posthumous legacy. The third, and highest, expression of poiesis, according to Socrates, is philosophical, and it occurs when our pursuit of wisdom results in an experience of the soul’s indestructibility. Read More »



March 21, 2013 | by


“Sorry, wasn’t there a cabaret here?” a British woman asked the waiter. He was laying a napkin on the table and put a glass of white wine on top of it. For a second, I thought the woman was talking to me.

“Oh yes,” the waiter said, “this part of the bar used to be the Oak Room. They only put that wall up a couple of months ago.” He tapped a panel between her table and mine, then put an identical glass of wine in front of me.

The Algonquin Hotel’s Blue Bar lived up to its name: neon tubes snaked clear around the narrow room, reflecting their blue glare on its oak panels and plastic banquettes. Hirschfeld prints covered the walls and Sinatra crooned from a speaker in the ceiling. I wanted to answer the woman, but found myself far away from her. 

“Ladies and gentlemen,” a baritone voice announced, “The Oak Room is proud to present … Steve Ross!”

The crowd applauded. Candles flickered inside their glass holders. A curtain at one end of the room parted, and Steve appeared in Noël Coward’s emerald smoking jacket. He wove through the tables, making his way to the grand piano. The crowd hushed, and he began to play Porter, Gershwin, and the saloon songs he knew I liked.

“If it isn’t the jeunesse dorée!” he beamed at me after the show, shaking hands with people as they filed out of the Oak Room.

“Did you know,” he told me when most of them were gone, “that the first Algonquin Round Table was right over over there?” He pointed to a corner of the Oak Room, just on the other side of the door from where we were standing. Waiters were clearing the tables; the baritone in the light booth was pulling on his coat. Alexander Woolcott might as well have been lingering over lunch. Read More »


Paul Murray on “That’s My Bike!”

December 21, 2011 | by


Paul Murray. Photograph by Cormac Scully.

Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies and An Evening of Long Goodbyes, wrote “That’s My Bike!,” a short story published in the Winter issue of The Paris Review. The story opens with a group of friends gathered at a none-too-salubrious pub in Dublin’s Northside on Christmas Eve. Murray spoke to me from his office at the Oscar Wilde Center for writing at Trinity College in Dublin, where he is a writing fellow.

The last time I was in Dublin for Christmas was in 2007, right before the crash. The Christmas displays along Grafton Street and in all the shopping areas were absolutely ghastly. Everything had blinking lights and moving parts. Is this still the case?

There’s this shop called Brown Thomas, which is the oldest department store in Dublin and it’s very swanky and expensive. Historically, when it used to be called Switzer’s, they had these famous windows with Santa Claus and mice making ballet shoes and so forth, and it was all mechanized, and the kids would go into Dublin and look at the windows. That was something your parents would bring you to do. Then, when the boom came, they stopped having child-oriented windows and started having these really nasty Helmut Lang soft-cyber-porn-type windows with a bunch of emaciated blue mannequins wearing just a giant watch and staring bleakly out of the windows. Everything was about excess and consumption. The idea that children had any part of Christmas was shunted to one side because the store just wanted to get the adults in there to spend money.

And would the adults make pilgrimages to gaze at the watches?

They wouldn’t even stop at the windows, they would just pile into the store. I remember being in there and hearing a couple next to me saying, “I just don’t know what to get her.” And the woman said, “Pearls, you can’t really go wrong with pearls.” And I remember thinking, “Who are you people?” It was beyond parody. And these were people who worked in normal sorts of jobs. Read More »