Excerpt from Greek to Me by Mary Norris, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Greek to Me

Adventures of the Comma Queen

by Mary Norris

Greek to Me by Mary Norris X
Greek to Me by Mary Norris
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2019, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 14, 2020, 240 pages

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My taste for dead languages lay dormant until circa 1982 AD, at which point I had been working at The New Yorker for about four years, doing my best to master the Major Arcana of New Yorker style for a job on the copydesk. I had worked my way up to the collating department, where I basically got to see what everyone else did and study various editorial biases and skills. Collating, which has long since been replaced by the word processor, might be described as the liver of The New Yorker's editorial process. Proofs arrived from a piece's editor, the author, the editor-in-chief (then William Shawn), Eleanor Gould (The New Yorker's famous grammarian), proofreaders, fact checkers, and the libel lawyer, and we collators copied the changes the editor had accepted onto a clean proof for the printer, filtering out the dross, and sent the collated proof via fax (state of the art at the time) to the printer. Overnight, a revision appeared. The big excitement was being able to flag a mistake and save embarrassment. Once, coming back from lunch, I found the editor Gardner Botsford at my desk, taking refuge from a demanding author, who was just then on her way down the hall, calling, "Gardner?"

One weekend, I saw Time Bandits in a theater on the Upper East Side. In the film, directed by Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python's Flying Circus, and starring John Cleese and Michael Palin, a band of time-traveling dwarves plunder treasure from the past. One scene, set in ancient Greece, featured Sean Connery in a cameo as Agamemnon. He was dueling with a warrior who wore the head of a bull and looked like the Minotaur. The landscape was so stark and arid, and so enhanced by the mighty figure of Sean Connery in armor, that I wanted to go there right away. It didn't matter that the Minotaur was from Crete—his labyrinth was at Knossos, near Heraklion—and that Agamemnon was famously from the Peloponnese: he and his brother Menelaus were sons of Atreus, who was the son of Pelops, for whom the peninsula was named. The glory of Sean Connery blinded me to the screenwriters' twist on mythology. I was also unaware that the scenes set in Greece had been shot in Morocco.

The movie brought back to me some research I had done in grade school for a geography project. I was paired up with a boy named Tim, the class clown, and assigned a report on Greece. We (mostly I) made a poster that featured the main products of Greece, and I was impressed that a land so dry and stony—as in the movie, no grass, no green, more goats than cows—yielded olives and grapes, which could be pressed into oil and wine. It amazed me that such an austere land produced such luxuries.

The day after seeing Time Bandits, I told my boss at The New Yorker, Ed Stringham, that I wanted to go to Greece. Ed was the head of the collating department. He was famous at the office for his eccentric schedule and rigorous course of studies, and for his genius in suggesting books to people. He came in at about noon and held court from a tattered armchair by the window (kept firmly closed), smoking cigarettes and drinking takeout coffee. His friend Beata would come in—Beata had known W. H. Auden (she called him Wystan) and Benjamin Britten in Amityville. Alastair Reid, the Scottish poet and translator of Borges, would stop by to talk. Ed typically stayed at the office reading till one or two in the morning. My little brother, who was studying music, had a night job cleaning the floors in the business department and would come up and talk to Ed about Philip Glass and Gregorian chant.

When Ed heard that I wanted to go to Greece, he got all excited. There was a map of Europe on the wall, and he showed me where he had gone on his first trip to Greece. He'd taken a cruise, he said, apologetically, to get an overview: Athens, Piraeus, Crete, Santorini (or Thira, on the inner edge of a caldera that tourists rode up on donkeys), Rhodes, Istanbul. He went back many times: Thessaloniki and Meteora, to the north; Ioannina and Igoumenitsa, to the west, on the way to Corfu; and the Mani, the middle member of the three peninsulas that hang off the Peloponnese, where blood feuds raged between clans for generations. He pointed out Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain, a peninsula reserved for Orthodox monks, where no female, not even a cat, was welcome. Then he plucked a slim paperback off the shelf—A Modern Greek Reader for Beginners, by J. T. Pring—bent over it till his eyes were inches from the page, and started to translate.

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Excerpted from Greek to Me by William Norris. Copyright © 2019 by William Norris. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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