Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Boundless Garden: Now Available

A month ago I wrote about the publication of The Boundless Garden: Selected Short Stories, Volume I, by Alexandros Papadiamandis, the first of a projected three volume series. At the time it was only available for wholesale purchase. I'm pleased to announce that the distributer, Uncut Mountain Supply, now has the book in stock. Both wholesale and retail orders can be placed by phone, email, or mail. I assure you it's worth purchasing – I was generously sent an advance copy – but those who need convincing can read online both an excerpt from the introduction and the story "A Village Easter: Memories of Childhood."

Fr Lambros Kamperidis, in his introduction, places Papadiamandis within the context of contemporary European literature:

The short stories of Alexandros Papadiamandis are graced with an almost indefinable quality common to all great writers. This quality would seem to derive from an enthralment combined with a certain perplexity, an irresistible pull exerted by the author's descriptions of a world of beauty and marvels which at the same time is filled with predicaments, human tragedies and humble triumphs. Like his contemporaries in the great European tradition of story-telling, Papadiamandis explores the souls of men and women as they succumb to or struggle against the power of evil — the Raskolnikovs, the Uriah Heeps and the Kareninas — people living on the edge of man's capacity to deal with evil and who are tragically driven, by an irrational process, to the extremes of human vulnerability.

Papadiamandis knew this European tradition intimately, learning his craft while translating many of the major authors of his time — Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, de Maupassant and Alphonse Daudet — as well as some of the minor literary figures, including Bram Stoker, Hall Caine, Bret Harte, Georges Ohnet, and although he himself objected to it, he was even compared by some of his contemporaries to Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens, most likely because of the tragic tenor of his work and his habit of marking Christmas and Easter by turning out a seasonal story. His literary field of reference, however, extended far beyond the nineteenth century and along with Homer, Plato and Hesiod he also drew on Dante and Shakespeare, easily integrating scenes and passages from their works into his writing.

What distinguishes Papadiamandis from many of these figures, however, is his deeply liturgical vision:

Papadiamandis believed that the only unifying principle capable of counteracting the erosion taking place in the natural world was the Church. He saw the Church from the traditional Greek Orthodox point of view as a microcosm of the Kingdom of God, recreated on earth in the festal cycle of the Church's liturgical year. As a living reality providing a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth, the Church is not solely a manifestation of metaphysical ideas; it is the living Body of Christ. The priests who appear so frequently in the stories are fully integrated into the life of the community; they are married and must look after their large families; they lead ordinary, if not mundane lives within that society; they carry out the given ecclesiastical rites and together with their flock form a cohesive, homogeneous body. Like shepherds, they lead their parishioners through valleys, over mountains, on perilous voyages in stormy seas, in order to reach a deserted country chapel and revive it by celebrating a liturgy, in the company of goatherds and illiterate chanters who recite the sacred texts as well as their flawed memory permits. These priests are not hermits, meditating alone in their cells; rather, their mission in life is to merge with that of the people, to give life to the community, to keep alive the memory of places threatened by extinction, to be witnesses to that unified reality which animates everything with the living breath of the Holy Spirit. The liturgy, the consummation of the eucharistic unity of the Church's flock — the work of the people — is never, as it often seems to be in western religious practice, a private matter between the priest and God: it must involve all the participants, as they clean and prepare the holy altar and the church, light the fires that will keep all warm during the long night vigils, lay out the liturgical vessels, chant the necessary hymns and responses, and, finally, partake of a common meal, an indispensable component of the liturgy, drinking and eating with hearty rejoicing.
Christos Yannaras, in his Orthodoxy and the West: Hellenic Self-Identity in the Modern Age, introduces his remarks on Papadiamandis with these words:

Papadiamantis [sic] (1851-1911) is the most important figure in modern Greek literature. He was not involved in the bitter conflicts over the language question, but distilled a three-thousand-year linguistic history in a narrative style of unique clarity. Under different cultural conditions Papadiamantis's language could have provided modern Greeks with an educational primer, as Homer did for the Byzantines.

Given the de-Hellenized consciousness of modern Greeks, Papadiamantis's work is generally considered an evocation of local customs. He has been regarded as a romantic chronicler of the last remnants of a traditional way of life, of a people poised between two worlds: the picturesque but dying rural life, and the urbanization that had not yet been consolidated. But this is like reading Dostoevsky simply as a commentator on nineteenth-century Russian society.

Papadiamantis was a humble man: "As for me, so long as I live and breathe and am in my right mind, I shall never cease praising and worshiping Christ, describing nature with love, representing the true Greek way of life with affection."
Yannaras views Papadiamandis as an authentic theologian:
Papadiamantis is the most important and most authentic modern Greek theologian precisely because he alone rediscovered the basic presupposition of the Church's Gospel: that we know God by cultivating a relationship, not by understanding a concept... Papadiamantis's language in enriched by frequent allusion to the psalms and the lives of the saints and the Church's rich hymnology. At the center of almost every story there is a priest, a country chapel and a liturgical service. Every aspect of life follows the rhythm of the Church's calendar, the ecclesiastical experience of time: "an ever-moving stasis" revolving round the axis of things hoped for made present... A landscape filled with small churches, shrines, monastic cells, places of pilgrimage – sensible "signs" of a space where relationship becomes an immediacy of communion. Papadiamantis can only be compared to Dostoevsky for the power of his writing and the authenticity of his Orthodox witness. In the theological ignorance prevailing in the Orthodox Churches during the last few centuries, these two "secular" authors are perhaps the only examples of writers who set down the criteria for distinguishing between Church and religion, heresy and Orthodoxy.
Another book coming out soon is Greece’s Dostoevsky: The Theological Vision of Alexandros Papadiamantis by Professor Anestis Keselopoulos, forthcoming from Protecting Veil Press.


Anonymous said...

Sorry if this is not a very intelligent question but are these stories fictional or real?

Felix Culpa said...

No worries. It's fiction; short stories.

Maximus Daniel said...

thanks for the update! I am calling them right now!

Felix Culpa said...

Fantastic! Let me us know what you think.