Well Read: Love of language
The Comma Queen confesses her passion for everything Greek—language, history, landscape and culture—which was born out of her love for words.
Mary Norris, whose memoir of her years as a copy editor at The New Yorker (Between You & Me) was a surprise bestseller, reveals her nearly 40-year devotion to all things Hellenic in her captivating Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen.
Inspired by an unlikely moment—seeing Sean Connery’s cameo as Agamemnon in the movie Time Bandits—and spurred on by her boss and mentor in The New Yorker’s copy department, Norris took advantage of the magazine’s generous tuition reimbursement policy for “work-related courses” and enrolled in modern Greek at New York University. A new (well, in fact, ancient) world was unleashed for her. Before long, she was studying ancient Greek and deciphering classical texts. She found herself performing original-language versions of Elektra and The Trojan Women as a “mature” student with the Barnard Columbia Ancient Drama Group (and soliciting character advice from Katharine Hepburn). She immersed herself in the arcane language as best she could, fascinated by its foundational alphabet and the ways Greek survives in so much of modern English.
Most significantly, she went to Greece when she could, exploring the mainland’s many corners and its islands’ many charms. Daring to travel alone to even the most far-flung locales often proved to be an eyebrow-raising heresy in the patriarchal, tradition-centric country, but Norris persisted. Her adventures took her to places few tourists go, to nationally divided Cyprus (birthplace of Aphrodite) and to remote Kardamyli, where the English travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor—whom she calls her literary father—lived and wrote.
While Norris has a keen eye, zeroing in on the peculiarities and beauties of her beloved Greece, her always witty and self-aware narrative tends less toward the descriptive than to the country’s indelible psychic charms. At every turn, the past inextricably intertwines with the present as Norris seeks the origins of ancient Greek culture, rooted in both perceptible landscape and intangible myths. Nostalgia, from the Greek neomai, to return home, “may mean a yearning for a place,” Norris ponders, “but it is also a yearning for a time when you were in that place and therefore for the you of the past.”
Norris’ inviting book thrives on the writer’s unabashed enthusiasm to learn, to immerse herself in the new and to find clues to her own past in the newly discovered. “I knew a lot of Greek, but I wouldn’t say I spoke Greek or call myself a classicist,” she admits. “I was more in love with the language than it was with me. . . . I had not mastered the language, ancient or modern, but I got glimpses of its genius, its patterns, the way it husbanded the alphabet, stretching those twenty-four letters to record everything anyone could ever want to say.”