Fiction and Poetry
The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso, 1988
A hypnotic, kaleidoscopic work of mythology and retelling. Calasso’s book takes the well-trod stories of the ancient world; and then, from their original form, spills forth a cacophony of enigmatic variants. Gore Vidal called this beautiful, disquieting book “a perfect work like no other”, while the Boston Globe has called Calasso’s writing “so brilliant you can’t look at it anymore.”
The Colossus of Maroussi, Henry Miller, 1941
A year after George Orwell called the controversial author of the erotically explicit Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn an extraordinary, modern voice—by turns a “passive acceptor of evil” and a “Whitman among the corpses”—Miller visited Greece and wrote this enchanting ode to its exotic wonders. The book glimmers with traces of French surrealism, provides unsettling meditations on war, and revels in the traveler’s love for mystery abroad.
The Magus, John Fowles, 1966
A bestseller in its time, Fowles’ first novel is a study in a singular psychology and the patterns of disillusionment. A young Oxford graduate in Greece attempts to escape the constraints of established reality but ultimately meets a mysterious paternal figure whose darker, Freudian forces threaten further psychic imprisonment. A failed attempt at cinema adaptation resulted in a movie starring a young(er) Michael Caine and the stunning Candice Bergen. Though the book endures as a classic, Woody Allen delightfully skewered the film by saying, “If I had to live my life again, I’d do everything the same, except that I wouldn’t see The Magus.”
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres, 1993
This romance, set on the German and Italian-occupied Greek isle of Cephalonia during WWII, lushly explores the many nuanced shades of love. Corelli, an Italian captain, falls in love with Pelagia, the smart, strong daughter of the island doctor. Meanwhile, a younger Italian soldier explores homosexual feelings that begin to flourish but repeatedly find heartbreaking failure. War ravages both land and body; circumstantial destruction razes the potential of tender connections.
Dinner With Persephone, Patricia Storace, 1997
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year, this travelogue by American poet Storace has been called the “best book of its kind since Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi.” An engaging read, it combines provocative dream-like visions with clear-eyed insights and modern wit. Perfect mood and portable size for intelligent vacation reading.
Collected Poems, C. P. Cavafy, Translated by Daniel Mendelsohn, 2009
This modern Alexandrian Greek poet, born in 1863, has been a longstanding love of English-language poets such as W.H. Auden and James Merrill. However, in recent years the poet’s exquisite work has resurged into the popular sphere—thanks in large part to recent translations by New Yorker contributor, acclaimed author, and nuanced translator Mendelsohn. Cavafy is an absolute must—whether you bring his elegiac beauties with you as you travel or if you pick up a book when you get home, be sure to sample his oeuvre.
The Unfinished Poems, C. P. Cavafy, Translated by Daniel Mendelsohn, 2009
The slim companion to the larger Collected Poems features 30 additional poems left unfinished by Cavafy’s death in 1933. Critics remark that Unfinished’s factual notes alone are a precious, seldom-honored glance into a Greek history Cavafy so clearly treasures.
The Oedipus Plays, Sophocles
A series of three plays, now regarded as archetypal masterpieces of Athenian tragedy, first performed in the 4th century BCE. Oedipus is the stranger-turned-King, who arrives at Thebes, solves the Sphinx’s riddle, and marries the queen. When he unearths the horror of his own past—he is actually the rightful heir to the Theban throne, his father’s murderer, and therefore his mother’s husband—he becomes arguably the greatest tragic figure of all time, caught between free will and oracular fate.
The Frogs, Aristophanes
An unrivalled comedy of the ancient world filled with the self-referential wit and burlesque humor that is the prescient stamp of playwright Aristophanes. Dionysus (also known was Bacchus, god of wine) is a weary theatergoer fed up with a dearth of contemporary talent. To solve this dilemma, he travels to the underworld to return with Euripides, the ancients’ esteemed master of tragedy. Bawdy madness ensues, hinging largely on Dionysus’ disguise inside a lion skin.
Another father of dramatic tragedy, Aeschylus’ crowning work is the Oresteia tetralogy, of which Agamemnon is the most popular play. Clytemnestra, queen of Argos, plots the death of her husband, the King Agamemnon. Clytemnestra is a force of maternal rage, as Agamemnon has sacrificed their daughter for the sake of war and has also kept a mistress, Cassandra, at court. Aeschylus’ version has Clytemnestra killing her husband at her own hands; in Homer’s Odyssey, that fact is contested.
The Odyssey and the Iliad
In the past, controversy has swirled around the authorship of these two celebrated masterpieces. But most contemporary scholars attribute these epic poems to the blind poet Homer, who probably wrote them during the late 8th century B.C. The Odyssey begins with the fall of Troy and follows the wanderings of its warrior hero Odysseus on his nostos, or journey home. The stunning poem has become a touchstone for many of Western literature’s greatest themes: the struggle against temptation, the power of mind over strength, and the essential import of storytelling to the endurance of civilization. The Iliad, more ensconced in themes of warfare, recounts Helen’s captivity in Troy and the Greeks’ epic battle to release her.
A Concise History of Greece, Richard Clogg, 2002
Clogg’s scholarly distillation is carefully researched and excellently written, making it an essential view of Greek history from 1770 forward. A re-release from Cambridge University Press even brings Clogg’s scope right up to 2000. The Times Literary Supplement says readers need “go no further than this concise history” to have a basic knowledge of what makes Greece the country it is today.
Modern Greece: A Cultural Poetics, Vangelis Calotychos, 2003
A refreshing take on a country with a history whose breadth and depth sometimes overwhelms. A literary historian and critic with keen anthropological methods, Calotychos breeds a unique, contemporary theory that Harvard historians call “eclectic but unpretentious, [with] a range deep and wide.”
What Kind of Europe?, Loukas Tsoukalis, 2003
The Economist calls Tsoulakis an “EU insider par excellence” whose deft treatment of established economic arguments combined with introductions to vigorous new ideas makes for lively, informative reading at an unparalleled level of comprehension.
Zorba the Greek, Michael Cacoyannis, 1964
Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzankis, this British-Greek film follows an uptight English writer as a he travels to Crete on business. On the way he teams up with a happy-go-lucky musician who changes his perspective on life.
Summer Holiday, Peter Yate, 1963
This classic British musical is a rollicking good time. A young mechanic and his friends convert a bus into a holiday caravan and drive across continental Europe, eventually ending up in Athens.
For the Love of Benji, Joe Camp, 1977
The second installment of the Benji series follows the much-loved pooch loose on the streets of Athens. After an international spy puts a secret formula in the folds of his paw, Benji finds himself being pursued through the ancient city by a cast of criminals. Filmed on-site, there are some fantastic locations shots, including a scene where Benji hides out in the ruins of the Acropolis.
Shirley Valentine, Lewis Gilbert, 1989
Bored with her life as a British housewife, Shirley jumps at the chance for adventure when her best friend wins a trip for two to Greece. While there she has a wild vacation fling and reclaims a part of herself she thought she had lost.
Mamma Mia, Phyllida Lloyd, 2008
The film version of the smash-hit musical stars Meryl Streep as Donna, a bohemian single mother living on an unnamed Greek island. Featuring hit songs by Swedish group ABBA, the movie portrays the hilarity that ensues the night before daughter Sophie’s wedding.
The Two Faces of January, Hossein Amini, 2014
A glamorous American couple arrive in Athens in 1962 and encounter a young tour guide while sightseeing. As the pair (played by Kirsten Dunst and Viggo Mortensen) continue their travels, the guide develops an infatuation with the wife and the trio soon finds themselves in the midst of a twisted power struggle.