A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 25, 2016, Section TR, Page 8 of the New York edition with the headline: “Sharing Henry Miller’s Zeal for Crete.” The article has been republished with permission in its entirety on The Pappas Post.
Featured image: The old Venetian harbor of Iraklion is surrounded by a wall. (Credit / Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times)
By David Shaftel
Traveling from Athens to Crete in 1939, Henry Miller, the author of bawdy novels, many of them banned in America, flew in an airplane for the first time — an experience he described in “The Colossus of Maroussi,” his exuberant travelogue of a nine-month journey through Greece.
Once aloft, the American expatriate then living in Paris regretted not booking passage on a ship. Ever able to make literary lemonade out of loathsome experiences, Miller wrote: “Man is made to walk the earth and sail the seas; the conquest of the air is reserved for a later stage of his evolution, when he will have sprouted real wings and assumed the form of the angel which he is in essence.”
I, too, wished I had sailed when I flew to Crete from Athens on a roasting September afternoon last year, our plane’s air-conditioning on the fritz as temperatures crested 100 degrees and the cobalt sea amplified a dazzling Aegean sun, which seemed to hover at precisely our cruising altitude. My shirt and brow soaked and my 2-year-old daughter wailing, I tried to channel Miller, who relished the rough aspects of travel in Greece — and particularly on Crete, its largest island — as much as he did the smooth, never losing a giddy enthusiasm for the country and a near irrational belief in the infallibility of its people.
Miller is most associated with “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn,” the formless, sex-soaked autobiographical novels he wrote in Paris in the 1930s, but the taut, inspired “Colossus,” published in 1941, has always been a connoisseur’s favorite. In it, Miller’s lyrical but often unruly prose is tamed by the structure of a straightforward, linear travelogue: He went to Greece as the Nazis bore down on Paris, taking his first real vacation, alone, at 48, to visit the English novelist Lawrence Durrell on the Greek island of Corfu.
Through Durrell, Miller, who was as broke as ever but finally enjoying critical acclaim, befriended the luminaries of Greece’s “30s Generation” of artists and writers whose work was influenced by traumas of World War I and the Greek conflict with Turkey that followed it, including the painter Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika and the poets Giorgos Seferis and George Katsimbalis, the latter being the “colossus” of the book’s title. I can imagine Miller, a renowned raconteur, carrying on with these bright lights of Greece, drinking retsina, a local variety of cheap white wine, as he was shown ancient sites in Corfu, Athens and Delphi.
After years of anonymous toil, perhaps Miller was just ready to enjoy himself, and the result is a total zeal for Greece, unfettered by his ignorance of the classical world, the prism through which modern Greece was, and still is, often viewed. He’s never read Homer; gives the Acropolis a pass. “I don’t like jails, churches, fortresses, palaces, libraries, museums, nor public statues to the dead,” he wrote. Instead, he relied on an instinctive, emotional response to his surroundings and preferred interacting with locals over rigid itineraries. He is my kind of guide.
The lush Greek landscape, with its intense greens and blues, according to Miller, “is what you expect the earth to look like given a fair chance.” The Crete of Miller’s journey was not yet a full-fledged tourist destination, especially on the cusp of war, and was a relative backwater, putting him in the mind of “the back pages of Dickens’ novels, of a quaint one-legged world illuminated by a jaded moon: a land that had survived every catastrophe and was now palpitating with a blood beat, a land of owls and herons and crazy relics such as sailors bring back from foreign shores.”
Today, crowded beaches and droves of tourists on package deals characterize much of Crete, at least in high season. But with minimal effort, beaches and tavernas away from crowds could be found. On the eve of World War II, though, it must have seemed as if Miller had the place to himself. Looking for some of the tranquillity he experienced, my wife, daughter and I put up at Metohi Kindelis, a bed-and-breakfast a few miles inland from the walled city of Chania, with vestiges of Venetian rule in its lighthouse and bulwarked harbor. The city was a robust trading hub and remains a quaint, if oversubscribed, tourist destination.
Crete was governed by Venice for more than 400 years until being captured in 1669 by the Ottomans, who ruled for two centuries. (The island wasn’t officially made part of Greece until 1913.) The main rose-colored limestone structure of Metohi Kindelis, which means something like “the Kindeli farmhouse,” was built toward the end of the Venetian period, in the 17th century, said Danai Kindeli, the property’s manager. The farm produced olive oil in Ottoman times, Ms. Kindeli said, and our large, ground-floor quarters with their high, arched ceilings once housed the olive presses.
On my visit, I decided to follow Miller’s Cretan itinerary, which comprises about a third of the book and includes Crete’s capital, Iraklion, and the ancient settlements of Knossos and Phaistos. But Miller omits his time in Chania, which he describes in the essay “First Impressions of Greece,” published much later, as “a real labyrinth. An image of Venice in tatters.” (Ms. Kindeli suggested visiting Chania after Sept. 15, when the tourists are gone and the city once again reclaims its lazy charm.) My father-in-law, who is English but lives in Greece half the year, was my traveling companion on Miller’s route.
Ms. Kindeli’s mother, Vanna Niyiou Kindeli, it turned out, was also a big “Colossus” fan. “Among my generation, in the ’60s and ’70s, Henry Miller was read very much. He introduced my generation to the 30s Generation,” said Ms. Kindeli, who is an archaeologist. “He didn’t present Greece in the usual way, in a romantic way, and say ‘I admire Greece just because of its past and its antiquities.’ That is a dead past,” she said.
Miller wasn’t impressed with Iraklion, which is a two-hour drive from Chania, along an often-dramatic two-lane road that winds along bluffs above the glimmering Aegean on the island’s north coast. He described it as “a carbuncle on the face of time” and “a confused, nightmarish town, thoroughly anomalous, thoroughly heterogeneous, a place-dream suspended in a void between Europe and Africa, smelling strongly of raw hides, caraway seeds, tar and subtropical fruits.”
On Iraklion, the fourth-largest city in Greece, mostly built up after World War II, our opinions diverged. We loved it. While it lacked the Old World charm of Chania, it had a calm, seaside appeal to it. Compared with Chania, whose pursuit of tourist euros seemed mercenary, Iraklion felt like a real place, a workaday city with a robust cafe society and palm-tree-lined public squares surrounding Turkish and Venetian fountains.
The Armenian language mingled with Greek, and many walls held anti-European Union and pro-soccer graffiti. (There was no overt evidence of the Greek financial crisis on Crete during tourist season, but it was a leitmotif — if not an actual topic — of many conversations I had during my visit.)
Like many Greek towns, Iraklion has impossibly narrow, winding back streets. No sooner had I got my rented Prius (a big car by European standards) hemmed in between parked cars and alley walls than a crowd of convivial Cretans emerged to offer the most stressful kind of help: shouting at me in Greek, gesticulating wildly and even reaching through my open window to turn the wheel for me.
The car safely parked, we found the town’s main square and Venetian Loggia, a huge arcaded structure completed in 1628 that is one of the city’s administrative centers. We were looking for a mosque that Miller wrote had been converted into a movie theater, where he saw a Laurel and Hardy film. We thought this mosque might have been what is now the hulking Church of St. Titus, the patron saint of Crete, which dominated the main square.
The building, once a mosque, was converted to a Greek Orthodox Church in the 1920s, and its minaret dismantled. The church’s administrator seemed slightly offended by the suggestion that the church was ever used as a movie theater, but suggested that maybe at the time of Miller’s visit it had screened the odd wartime propaganda film. I didn’t want to lower the church’s august tone by asking if it was possible that Miller watched slapstick comedies there.
When Miller visited, Iraklion was a small, provincial town and the ruins of the Minoan palace of Knossos were in the surrounding countryside. Today, the five-acre mazelike hilltop ruins of Knossos, the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete and believed to be Europe’s oldest city, dating to around 1900 B.C., are on the outskirts of Iraklion, which has grown exponentially since Miller’s visit.
Beginning in 1900, Knossos was subjected to a controversial reconstruction by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who not only excavated Knossos, but rather questionably rebuilt some structures according to what he thought they might have looked like. Evans repainted murals and rebuilt some structures, adding ceilings, floors and columns made of wood and concrete. Acknowledging these historical inaccuracies, a sign at Knossos somewhat sheepishly states, “It has been observed that the archaeological evidence is sometimes insufficient to support reconstruction.”
Miller saw everything through a writer’s lens, and wrote about everything he saw — and used similar techniques in his next book, which was a travelogue of America, “The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.” Like the archaeologist Evans, he was not afraid to embellish the facts so he wasn’t bothered by this weird, now incomprehensible restoration. “However Knossus [sic] may have looked in the past, however it may look in the future, this one which Evans has created is the only one I shall ever know. I am grateful to him for what he did,” Miller wrote.
What we actually liked about Knossos was the color, despite Evans’s speculative touch-ups. The murals and red-painted walls and columns of some rooms remind visitors that ancient people did not, in fact, live in a monochromatic, stone-colored world. To Miller it suggested “the splendor and sanity and opulence of a powerful and peaceful people.”
While Knossos was crowded with busloads of tourists, the ruins of the Bronze Age city of Phaistos on a ridge above Crete’s south coast, overlooking the Mediterranean, were nearly deserted, with only about a dozen visitors. The two-hour drive from Chania took us over parched mountains on windy roads — Crete, locals like to point out, has more mountains than beaches.
As we entered Phaistos, I overheard a French-accented tourist say to her companion: “I don’t like this place. It is not so interesting.” Indeed, it didn’t look like more than a pile of rubble, and the maps we were given were, to be generous, esoteric.
After a half-hour of wandering amid the footprints of the complex, which are just about all that remains, Phaistos began to grow on us. Unlike at Knossos, Phaistos required the imagination to do most of the work, and we slowly began to piece together what went where based on the layout of various stone foundations. Because the map was so opaque, we felt as if we were solving a puzzle. Benches under pine trees on the site’s perimeter suggested it was a place to linger over. This was the Crete, Miller wrote, that can “hush the mind, still the bubble of thought, ” though the blistering heat had a sedating effect, too.
Miller traveled alone to Phaistos, which is, according to Greek mythology, the seat of King Radamanthis, brother of King Minos, the first king of Crete and the son of Zeus and Europa, the latter being the God for which Europe was named. The ruins overlook farms and, beyond that, the sea and the sky. Nature was Miller’s God and he wrote that at Phaistos, he wanted to strip naked and “take a running leap and vault into the blue.”
Miller wrote that, despite what historians think, he was given a “strong intuition” that “Phaistos was the female stronghold of the Minos family.” The footprint of the Minoan queen’s apartment, or megaron, is quite a bit smaller than the king’s, a fact that scuttles Miller’s theory, but the knowledge probably wouldn’t have changed his impressions of the place. It is no wonder Miller felt such an affinity for Arthur Evans: Neither man let what they didn’t know interfere with their enjoyment of Crete.
What to read
There are many biographies of Henry Miller, but Mary Dearborn’s “The Happiest Man Alive” is the best place to start.
Miller published a lot; too much, even. The Paris books, “Tropic of Cancer,” “Black Spring” and “Tropic of Capricorn,” are considered his best. A good companion to “The Colossus of Maroussi” is Miller’s essay “First Impressions of Greece, ” published in the collection “Sextet.”
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