What better way to have your works introduced in an award winning film than by someone who actually knew you? This special film screening at the Montreal Greek Film Festival was introduced by distinguished Royal Society of Canada member Professor Jacques Bouchard, Director of Neo-Hellenic Studies at the Université de Montreal. Bouchard had personally met the Nobel laureate.
The documentary Log Books – George Seferis is a film about the journey of the first Greek poet who was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1963. Seferis studied law at France’s Sorbonne where he became interested in literature after telling his mother he no longer desired to be a lawyer nor a bohemian. He began his long career as a diplomat with the Royal Greek Ministry of Affairs in 1925 and later became ambassador to the UK. Seferis later received many honorary degrees including from Cambridge (1960), Oxford (1964), Salonika (1964) and Princeton (1965). His influences included Ezra Pound, Kavafis, Homer’s epic poems of Odysseus and T.S. Elliot, just to name a few.
Seferis published his first collection of poems in Strophe (Turning Point) in 1931. There were many works that followed including Log Book 1 (1940), Log Book II (1945) and Log Book III (1955) which is the focus of this film. The travels of his diplomatic career provided the backdrop and color for his writing which was filled with themes of alienation and wandering. As a young boy of 14 years old, Smyrna was claimed by the Turkish army and like many Greeks, his family fled in exile. The sense of being in exile from his childhood is a common theme in his works which never left him.
Throughout this film we are introduced to the method, inspiration, process and reason for wanting to write. Through writing he believed that the scream of opposition was extreme perfection. To flesh out words through dialogue rather than a clenched fist was the solution. As he self professed, “I was a man of grammata (words) and techne. I am not one of those students who spends life with a monocle.” Seferis chose not to see life through a corrective lens but to look straight at it. He wanted to research the mechanisms of catastrophe because memory as he put it hurts wherever you touch it.
Perhaps his poetic words were a method to redeem the human condition. In his Nobel acceptance speech he wrote, “poetry is necessary in the modern world where we are afflicted by fear and disquiet – poetry is an act of confidence.” No doubt, the poet was a strong observer of life. As narrated in the film, if I do not understand the vices and virtues of my people, then I cannot understand my world. Everywhere he sojourned Seferis soaked up the environment through observation. For example, he loved Paris so immensely that he said there is not a corner where I have not left a verse. He also loved the music halls of London from Bach to Beaudelaire and understood the dark humor in some of Chaplin’s work.
Despite his worldly travels and adventures, we see the admiration he had for a poor man in one of the countryside villages he travelled who played the violin. We get a glimpse of what he recognized in this fellow human being in his Nobel address: Poetry is so universal that it recognizes no small or large parts in the world but only finds refuge in places in the hearts of men the world over. In our gradually shrinking world everyone is in need of others. Perhaps this is also why he never lost hope in Greece and its history. As narrated in the film, one hears the voice that says when I enter Greece it’s like climbing stairs to a threshold…..like a second coming especially Cypress… a world that speaks Greek which is Greek. To Seferis what defines Greek history is the journeys and expressions of those experiences and that is what in turn defines Hellenism as well.
A narrated portion of the film claims that Seferis was a young Greek man born from humans that did not understand who they were. To some this might appear as a contradiction, but it is not. Seferis became a poet of artistic sensitivity and had a love of values and moral tradition who believed words could retain man’s imprint. As he so poignantly said in his Nobel speech, “I belong to a small country, a rocky promontory in the Mediterranean, it has nothing to distinguish it but the efforts of the people, the sea, and the light of the sun.” As one of many Seferis fans commenting through this film says “the wisdom of his words touches me”.