Wednesday, November 22, 2017

'We’ll See, We’ll Honor His Tomb'

“That’s all for now. Thank you so much for keeping alive the flame of conversation.”

That’s how George closed an email he sent me in 2012. I met him in Poland earlier that year when I represented North America at the wedding of my wife’s cousin. The former Greek diplomat was born in Alexandria and had lived in Iraq, the United States, Syria, Canada, Australia and, in retirement, Greece. He was my father-in-law’s cousin. George died last week near Athens, age eighty-one. My wife’s uncle, who lives in Germany, wrote on Monday: “He had been in very poor shape over the past few months, so in many ways it was a relief for him.”

I met hundreds of wedding guests from three continents but George and I hit it off and remained companions for the rest of the week. All I had to do was ask him about Alexandria while we walked to a restaurant in Kraków, and he recited Cavafy from memory in Greek. George impressed me as not merely civilized but as a representative of civilization. He spoke softly and thoughtfully. His humor was dry and he never betrayed it by laughing at his own jokes. He was one of life’s natural aristocrats, a role he was too aristocratic to announce. If I mentioned a writer unfamiliar to him, he wrote the name in a pocket notebook. He seemed free of glibness and reminded me of something Zbigniew Herbert said in an interview: “I am a Greek. I believe that the Golden Age was long ago.” In the sense intended by the Pole, all civilized people are Greek. Here is Cavafy’s “Tomb of the Grammarian Lysias” (Collected Poems, trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, 1992):

“In the Beirut library, just to the right as you go in,
we buried wise Lysias, the grammarian.
The spot is beautifully chosen.
We put him near those things of his
that he remembers maybe even there:
comments, texts, grammars, variants,
voluminous studies of Greek idioms.
Also, this way, as we go to the books,
we’ll see, we’ll honor his tomb.”

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