Humbly and with indifferent brow
I'll greet the afternoons, the dawns.
A tree, I'll stand and gaze the same
at both the tempest and the azure sky.
Life is, I'll say, the coffin
in which man's joy and sorrow end.
Kostas (Constantine) Karyotakis; Greek poet, b. Tripoli, Greece 1896-10-30 (O.S.), d. Preveza, Greece 1928-07-21.
The fact that Greek is not an easy language to translate has left some of the country's greatest writers in international obscurity. Karyotakis is one of those who defined Greek literature for generations. Satirical, witty and acerbic on one hand, lyrical and whimsically neo-romantic on the other, his poetry and essays run the whole gamut of human emotion. From his existentialism came pessimism and a deep disappointment in life that culminated in his suicide at the age of 31. A contemporary of Franz Kafka, many of Kafka's themes of alienation and bureaucracy figure in Karyotakis' work too. This, my children, is Angst. Needless to say, no self-respecting goth (oxymoron? perhaps. the poet would have found it hilarious) in the grecophone world is without a volume of Karyotakis anymore than an American one lacks the works of Sylvia Plath.
A nomadic childhood, because of his father's job as a civil engineer and public servant who went from transfer to transfer, made the young Karyotakis grow up with no sense of permanence but with a broad experience of provincial Greece and its urban centres. After graduating from law school, which he did not particularly care about, and finding no clientele for his trade he was appointed to the civil service in Thessaloniki. A note about the civil service here: at the time it was next to impossible to fire a civil servant so, once you were in, you were in and appointments were a life security and muchly sought after. A common form of discipline was similar to that used in the army—you got transferred to Podunk or some department in the basement. Karyotakis got himself transferred with unfailing regularity, just like his dad, who even managed to get himself dismissed.
The life of a public servant, especially in that time and place, was subject to strict circumscription and discipline. Square pegs were not welcome and Karyotakis' pen often got him into trouble when he applied it to the ills of bureaucratic life. He ended up being hounded by his superiors, though his qualifications were enough to place him in high administrative positions that nobody else was fit to occupy. In 1919 his first collection was published and met with indifference by the public and bad reviews. The same year he and a friend, under obviously assumed names, published a satirical newsletter called The Calf (as in leg), which became popular in its run of six issues before it was shut down by the intolerant powers-that-were.
In 1921 his second collection, Nepenthe, was published while he was working at the Athens prefecture. That same year he met Maria Polydouri, another poet and employee of the same bureaucratic colossus (the same paper-pushing machine that kept sucking the coffers dry until the 21st century). Rumours that their relationship was "more than just friends" were never confirmed but they were close until his death. Regardless of what they did or did not do together, Polydouri was quite taken by him and did propose to him. His excuse that he had syphilis was probably (but not certainly) untrue and sounds like a cop-out typical of his sense of humour. More likely he cared only for his teenage love in Crete, who had married since, not that it stopped them seeing each other. He frequently took leave from the service and, between 1924 and 1928, spent time in Germany, Italy, Romania and France.
His professional life was, despite his low opinion of it and his disciplinary issues, still on the way up, an indication that he was a conscientious worker wherever they sent him. He occupied various senior positions in the Department of Health and the Interior Ministry, and supervised the resettlement of refugees from Asia Minor. In 1927 he was first called to account for a transgression whose nature was never specified and, after publishing Elegies and Satires, was fined half a month's wages and laterally demoted to the department responsible for contagious disease. In January 1928 he was elected to lead the Athens public servants' trade union and was promptly transferred to Patras, getting fined again for showing up there late. His run-ins with authority ended in him being transferred to Preveza in the far north-west of the country. This is about as close to BFE as you can get and still have a job in the Bureaucracy.
Nothing got better for him in Préveza. Stuck again in the depressing reality of provincial small-town life, and not managing to be transferred back to civilisation, as he expected to be, by the end of June, his letters home became increasingly desperate and he slipped into his final tragic role of inspirational suicide. His last known poem, about that hated place, is titled Preveza and concludes:
...If but one of those people
would die out of disgust
Silent, sad, and modestly,
we should all have a blast at the funeral
The final act of his life was played out on July 21st, 1928. After spending the night trying to kill himself by drowning, he didn't give up but drank his morning glass of milk, went out to buy a revolver, and planted a bullet in his heart inside a coffee shop. In his pocket he had a suicide note, the postscript of which is a wry gem of famous last words.
It is time for me to reveal my tragedy. My greatest faults were unbridled curiosity, a diseased imagination, and my attempts to become acquainted with every emotion without being able to feel most of them. However, I despise the base act that is attributed to me. I experienced but the ideation of its atmosphere, the ultimate bitterness. Nor am I the suitable person for that profession. My entire past will show that much. Every reality to me was repulsive.
I felt the rush brought on by danger. And with glad heart I shall accept the coming danger. I am paying for those who, like me, saw no ideal in their lives, were always hostage to hesitation, or viewed their existence as a pointless game. I see more of them arriving with the times. Those are the ones that I am addressing. After experiencing all the pleasures!! I am ready for a dishonourable death. [...]
P.S. And, to change the tone: I advise those who can swim never to try to commit suicide in the sea. All night and for ten hours I was battered by the waves. I drank much water but, by and again and without me knowing how, my mouth would surface. Perhaps some time, given the opportunity, I shall write down the impressions of a drowning man.
We're not sure what the "base (or vulgar) act" was but clearly some accusation factored into his choice of death. Some scholars believe that he did indeed suffer from syphilis and was very serious about avoiding being sent to the loony bin, which is where syphilitics in the final stages ended up in that age and place. His death was in itself, like that of other famous suicides, viewed as a poetic act and created a myth that he himself would probably have scoffed at.
It was left to later writers to truly appreciate him. Even some of those who originally denounced his unconventional work changed their mind and he's become one of the half-dozen most widely read modern Greek poets. His life and death, subject of many books and a 2009 television series, would inspire, among others, composer Mikis Theodorakis and nobel laureate George Seferis. But for his short life, Karyotakis may have joined the latter in poetic fame and fortune. Or maybe not. He cares even less now than he did then. Honest.
The Pain of Men and Things (1919)
Elegies and Satires (1927)
Starting at the age of 16 Karyotakis also made numerous contributions to newspapers and poetic anthologies, and wrote a number of short essays, some of which are his best work; I might take the time to translate a few of them later. Some of the documents he compiled for the public service have also been preserved, and he translated a number of foreign authors, including Voltaire, Heine and Baudelaire. His entire body of work is in the public domain.