George Fragopoulos on Margarita Karapanou

Violence & Evasion: the Novels of Margarita Karapanou

an essay by George Fragopoulos

In an interview I once conducted with the Greek writer Amanda Michalopoulou, author of the short story collection I’d Like (Dalkey, 2008), the question of literary precursors came about, and in particular of Margarita Karapanou. Michalopoulou said of the elder author:

She’s a major influence although I know I can’t write like her. And this is the best influence because I knew I could never imitate her. Her work was so original. And it was such an original voice and reading her diaries, which just came out, and reading her entries from thirteen years old, you could already see her voice. . . What I admire in her is her originality. But of course, it was a very sad life story, and when I say to myself that you are not as original as some other writers you admire it all goes along with a whole other private history. But I feel that nobody has talked about childhood the way she did, really, in Kassandra. If she wasn’t Greek, but was American or German, I feel everybody would know her. Everybody could recognize themselves in her writings about childhood. And she was not at all your typical Greek author; she read widely in American and French literature and was always an outsider in a sense.

 Karapanou’s “sad life story” has, at times, overshadowed the importance and power of her writing; therefore, it is not within the scope of this essay to examine the novels as projections of a mind at war with itself — approaching them in this manner would be a distraction from the work, and a rather reductive approach. Instead, I would like in this essay to provide a broad consideration of Karapanou’s novels, particularly for an audience that, as Michalopoulou said, is not familiar with her work.

It is not unfair to argue that if Karapanou had written in a language less “minor” than Greek, her name would be a far more familiar one in the canon of world literature. Karapanou was one of Greece’s foremost Postmodernist writers. As Karen Van Dyck wrote in her essay, “Reading Between Worlds: Contemporary Greek Women’s Writing and Censorship,” “Since the period of the dictatorship (1967–1974), women writers have set literary trends in Greece.” She goes on to list Karapanou side-by-side with writers such as Katernia Anghelaki-Rooke, Maro Douka, and Rhea Galanaki as some of the most important writers of her generation, that generation of post-war authors who straddle the boundary between the Modernism of the early twentieth century and the Postmodernism of the late century.

Karapanou was born in 1946, after the Second World War but before the official onset of the Greek Civil War. She spent most of her childhood living between Greece and Paris, a cosmopolitan upbringing that makes its presence felt in a variety of ways throughout her work. Karapanou was a “worldly writer” by all accounts, but also one remarkably withdrawn, perhaps in part because of such a cosmopolitan existence — maybe it is true that one cannot have a home if one is nowhere at home. Her brilliant first novel, Kassandra and the Wolf, was written during the Greek dictatorship, between 1967 and 1974. (The most recent Clockroot Books edition of the novel is actually a reprint of N.C. Germanacos’s 1974 translation, and a necessary one at that.) She passed away only recently, on December 2, 2008, in Athens.

In his anthropological study, Modern Greek Lessons, James Faubion writes that he sensed a certain “psychic delicacy” in his meetings with Karapanou, which had manifested itself in a stutter and which had left her “somewhat withdrawn.” It is an interesting note since withdrawl is one of several key themes that appear in her work. Withdrawl, retreat, escape, evasion: they are not simply reflections of Karapanou’s autobiography (although that is indeed the case), they're also aesthetic techniques, a manner of representing the world, the human being, ethical situations, and facts. It implies avoiding the plainly-spoken and simply-put, the common word or description; retreating into the imagination; evading orthodox moral implications by dissecting one’s own language. Karapanou’s works echo the sentiments of philosopher Gilles Deleuze in his essay “On the Superiority of Anglo-American Literature”: “to flee is not to renounce action: nothing is more active than a flight.”

In her work, Karapanou flees from bourgeois values, the limits of the novel as a genre, and conventional binaries such as man / woman, gay / straight, citizen / foreigner, and reader / author. Hardly a controversial series of stances to take in the context of other avant garde authors of her era — Samuel Beckett, Maurice Blanchot, and the French tradition of the Nouvea Roman come to mind, as do other European Modernists such as Kafka and Artaud. But where Karapanou stands apart from other like-minded authors is in the ferocity with which her work attacks such pieties. In this sense, her work closely resembles that of French author Georges Bataille, particularly his novel The Story of the Eye.

There is a tireless peripatetic thrust in Karapanou’s novels. They only refrain from becoming essayistic by her use of fragmentary, non-linear narratives. Protagonists and readers alike are never still in her books, never at ease. When reading Karapanou, one is reminded of Pascal's famous aphorism that evil and suffering arise from the simple reason that man cannot remain peacefully at rest within a room. Indeed, one of the characters in her novel Rien ne va Plus says of an ex-spouse, "You were always leaving. I always picture you with a suitcase in your hand. I can't picture you sitting at a desk. I always see you in motion." Her novels themselves perform this restless anxiety: Kassandra and the Wolf, for example, in its extreme fragmentation — almost none of the vignettes that compose the novel are more than a page or two long, some are only a few sentences—never allows the reader to rest for too long on any particular image, motif, or theme, before being rushed off to the next, often disturbing, moment.

Karapanou’s work then gives the impression of being constantly in motion, an active critique, perhaps, of Nietzsche’s claim that we need to read slower. When reading Karapanou one cannot read quickly enough. There is a velocity to her texts, both in the obvious sense of their structure and pacing as well as a visceral sense akin to vertigo. They seem always to be spinning wildly and recklessly towards unknown destinations (often that destination is death) or, rather, they seem to emphatically evade any firm lodging or easy comfort. Rien ne va Plus is a prime example, a novel that asks us, after a certain point, to return to its beginning and to question everything we have just read. Karapanou knew, as Deleuze did, that flight was by no means a passive activity, but rather the complete antithesis of passivity; that, in the wake of escaping, art could follow.

There is, as was alluded to above, a striking cosmopolitan aspect to Karapanou's writings as well, which contributes to this feeling of vertigo. Her works are littered with foreign landscapes and languages — locations such as Italy and France and America, as well as snippets of dialogue in French, English, and Italian. As Faubion wrote, Karapanou is a writer who, through her very "cosmopolitanism" or her "assimilationism," picks and chooses the literary and historic traditions to which she can and does belong. But this does not mean that Greece’s particular social and historical realities are not of great importance to her work.

In reading the novel Kassandra and the Wolf, for instance, it is impossible to ignore the historical realities to which it alludes: the Greek dictatorship of 1967–1974 and the Greek Civil War. The social unease of that era, the political and social reality, is one important point of access into the difficulties of that novel. Yet, Karapanou does not think of herself as a Greek writer, per se. Rather, she imagines herself to be a writer free of nationalistic fetters. At a time when many Greek authors attempted to represent their nation — the works of Thanassis Valtinos come to mind — in the aftermath of a period that saw a brutal civil war and repressive dictatorship, Karapanou looked beyond the physical borders of Greece, and beyond its provincial political realities. Her oeuvre can be read as example of what Goethe called Weltliteratur, or World Literature, a literature that seeks its own identity in a complicated exchange between different languages and traditions. It is culturally unsettled, shifting traditions within and between works.

This cultural evasion, this restless shifting, also helps to make Karapanou's imagistic, nightmarish language even more powerful. By settling in no cultural context, but crossing through many, a reader feels the sensation of familiarity punctuated by confusion and horror. In her novels one catches glimpses of a country that might be home, a foreign land or country, and the third interior landscape of Karapanou’s vivid, disturbing imagination. The jarring effect of these shifts mirrors the effects of her brutal, often disturbingly violent images.

Reading Karapanou’s novels, as one might assume by now, is never an “easy” experience; in fact, it is often exhausting, even discomforting. This is, somehow, the correct reaction to the novels, although it makes them no more palatable for the fact of it. I remember once trying to teach Kassandra and the Wolf to a group of undergraduates, to no avail; the students simply could not move past their discomfort with its representation of sexuality and violence. If there is one major flaw in all of Karapanou’s novels, it is in the determination with which they drive towards chaos, violence, and oblivion. The same visceral intensity that dazzles when perfectly controlled can alternately undermine and exhaust a reader’s will to continue.

This nihilistic inevitability is something of which Karapanou’s protagonists — many of whom are artists of some kind — are often acutely aware, and it becomes a point of reflection. The narrator "Louisa" says in Rien ne va Plus, "Every time I want to write, I want to write a love story. But as soon as I pick up the pen I'm overcome by horror." The attempt at a generation of meaning generates only horror in the recognition of a deeper meaninglessness. For Karapanou, as for “Louisa,” art doesn’t present easy redemptions. The “point” of art is neither salvation nor pleasure, and the act of writing is often presented in her novels as a source of suffering more than of jouissance. In The Sleepwalker, for example, a novel that takes place primarily on an unnamed Greek island, but which is most likely Hydra, Karapanou writes:

Luka climbed upstairs again and sat down at her desk. “I have to write.”  She’d been on the island since summer, and now it was February and she hadn’t written a word. Every morning she woke up at five, sometimes four, and jumped out of bed longing to write — the book was ready inside of her, each chapter, each sentence, each comma, everything was in its place, utterly fixed, and she knew she could do it, since she’d written her first book on this same island five years before. But as soon as she sat down at her desk the blank paper became a mirror in which she saw only her own face. “I have to write,” she’d say a hundred times, and then another hundred, and sometimes on the hundredth time she would mess up and have to start all over again from the beginning, and the days passed, the months passed, and the white paper got whiter and whiter — “I have to write,” Luka said as autumn turned into winter — “I have to write!” she shouted into the empty house — and now it was February and the sea was closing in on her like a ring. As soon as she sat at her desk the book became a reflection, the color green, a round egg, a face peering at her — but when she grabbed her pen to try and write everything down, the sentences rose up before her like waves hitting the pier and the paper drew back, her hand struggling to reach it like a shipwrecked sailor grasping at the rocks of some shore.

Nearly all of the artists in The Sleepwalker suffer for the sake of their art, and suffer most in the attempt at creation. The painter Mark, another central character in the novel, works for more than two years on a portrait he can never quite finish.

The failure of art as humanistic practice is a central theme in Rien ne va Plus, where, rather than finding solace and personal redemption in art, the victim becomes victimizer through the process of writing. Rien ne va Plus — the title a reference to the moment in roulette when “all bets are off” — is a metafiction in which its readers are lulled into what appears to be the conventional story of a marriage gone sour. The narrator, a woman who may or may not be named “Louisa,” and who shares many biographical details with Karapanou (as so many of her protagonists do), falls in love with a veterinarian by the name of Alkiviadis. The novel's first section recalls the marriage with Louisa playing the role of victim to Alkiviadis's adultery and cruelty:

I never understood Alkiviadis; he was a mystery to the very end. I didn’t understand the end, either. But I worshipped Alkis. I was like a dog being taken to the vet, a dog that both worships and fears its doctor. Now, looking back, I see that in the beginning my love for Alkis was very much like the love of a frightened animal in a veterinarian’s waiting room.

Typical domestic fare: the reader empathizes immediately with “Louisa.”  However, in the final pages of the novel, the perspective shifts again, and the story is retold with Alkiviadis cast as the victim. The narrative, which has been so sympathetic to “Louisa” up to that point, has been nothing but a “fiction.” The dynamic tension of the novel hinges on this distinction between victim and victimizer, and then in its final pages, implicates the reader in the unfolding of anything as provisional and facile as the “truth.” We read the novel thinking that Louisa is the victim, easily assuming truths and sympathies, only to have the story turn on us — as, in a sense, Louisa herself does. We are betrayed by our own humanistic expectation of an ethically-stable experience of art, one that allows us to make concrete and clear connections. Karapanou’s rejection of Realist standards can be read as a critique of tired ethical judgments, the faulty notion that art is a direct reflection of nature and a universal essence.

Karapanou’s muddying of the distinction between victim and victimizer is a remarkable practice in light of Greece's recent political history. As Karen Van Dyck has argued in her magisterial study of women writers under the Greek dictatorship, Kassandra and the Censors:

It is striking that Karapanou was willing to challenge the strict distinction between victor and victim, censor and censored, at a time when the difference was clear in the political sphere. For generations Greek writers responded mainly in two ways to oppressive regimes: either by taking the 'disinterested' position . . . or by writing explicitly 'engaged' prose or poetry . . . But Karapanou, like many young writers of her generation, takes an alternative route. Undecidability and multiple subject positions in [Kassandra and the Wolf] are not . . . postmodern strategies of evasion but culturally specific modes of challenging the relegation of private and public, personal and political, female and male, to separate spheres.

Questioning simple, seemingly obvious binaries at a time when doing as such might have been considered politically suspect can be its own form of rebellion, an evasion of state control. It allows the author to exist within a multiplicity of positions, modes, and modalities; and it allows the author to undermine static categorizations. Karapanou uses her narratives not only to horrify the bourgeois sensibilities of the populace, but also to undermine the state control that is enabled by those sensibilities.

In one of his letters to Axel Kaun, Samuel Beckett writes, "language is best used when most efficiently abused. Since we cannot dismiss it all at once, at least we do not want to leave anything undone that may contribute to its disrepute. To drill one hole after another into it until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping though." In her journal entry for February 12, 1977, Karapanou echoes this sentiment, writing, “Words no longer interest me. Only images do . . . I would like to write a book using only images." Like Beckett, Karapanou sought an escape from signification, escape from the exhaustion of definition and concrete meanings that lead, in part, to simple, clear, concrete ethical judgments. Her novels attempt to escape from a language that means, a language that stifles as much as it could possibly liberate.

Kassandra and the Wolf may well be Karapanou’s masterpiece. It is a work of singular intensity; a bildungsroman and, in a sense, a kunstlerroman as well. Kassandra is written in a series of "loosely connected vignettes," as Karen Van Dyck writes, where "math and spelling lessons intertwine with episodes of playing doctor, masturbation, and molestation." The narrator and protagonist is a little girl by the name of Kassandra, a member of an upper-class family in the years following the Greek Civil War. Kassandra does the things that normal girls her age and class do: she plays games, sings songs, goes to school, learns to spell and count — but all these ordinary activities are funneled through her perverse and phantasmagoric imagination, a reflection of the perversely oppressive society under which she exists.

Karapanou's protagonist is presented alternately as both victim and victimizer in turn: while she is, for example, a member of the privileged upper-middle class, she is also a victim of its strict patriarchal values; while her tone is innocent, her actions and use of logic are maniacal. Karapanou represents this conflict, in part, through the image of the wolf, which takes on a variety of guises. In the chapter entitled “The Wolf,” the image is initially connected to sexual transgressions:

"Come on, let's look at the book with the pictures."
    I'd run to his room with the book under my arm, and give it to him tenderly.
    The first picture was of a wolf opening his mouth to swallow 7 juicy piglets.
    It was the wolf I usually felt sorry for. How could he gulp down so many piglets at one go? I always told him that, asked him that. Then he'd put his hairy hand in my white panties and touch me. I didn't feel anything except a kind of warmth. His finger came and went, and I watched the wolf. He panted and sweated. I didn't mind it too much. Now, when they caress me, I always think of the wolf, and feel sorry for him.

This identification of the sexual predator with the wolf is one of the more disquieting scenes in the novel. Karapanou, however, does not allow the reader to relax into a moral empathy for Kassandra. Matters are complicated by soon transforming the little girl into a victimizer as well:

One afternoon Zakoulis came to play with me and Konstantinos. It was cold and he was wearing a coat with a hood. We'd said we'd play hind-and-seek.
    I lifted Zakoulis up and locked him in the big cupboard, near the ceiling. Then we forgot about him and went to eat lemon creams. Three days later they finally found Zakoulis. He was still wearing his hood, but he'd gotten to be very small, like an olive.

The novel continually juxtaposes vignettes such as these with far more mundane domestic scenes, but they are always recalled through the lens of Kassandra's transgressive imagination. As some critics have pointed out, Kassandra’s language and view of the world never convincingly mimic that of a little girl. Certainly, it is a heightened childishness, full of the essence of dreams; for some this is a failing, but it can also be seen as an element of Karapanou’s deconstruction of character and narrative.

It is this “indeterminacy,” as Van Dyck calls it, which helps Kassandra remain such a powerful work: it continues to challenge readers with an indeterminate presentation of violence and victimization, of the child’s wide-eyed ignorance with horrifying immorality. Many of the novel’s scenes are filled with a dream-like logic that defies literal interpretation, challenges sensibilities, and raises questions about sexuality and violence that have no clear answer.

Yet Karapanou's works are not a daydream’s escape from reality. Rather, they are a flight towards the real world, albeit via an alternate route, and towards reality’s unyielding propensity for horror. A character like Kassandra, in her imaginary “play,” brings us closer to the truth than the bourgeois euphemisms of straightforward explanation ever could. Through her narrative and ethical evasions, Karapanou evokes a vision of the world that is bleak, and, if not hopeless, then far from hopeful; but it is a vision that is all the more necessary for its dark honesty. Karapanou’s novels dim the lights that blind us.


George Fragopoulos lives in New York.  He is currently a PhD candidate in English and American literature at the CUNY Graduate Center, and is writing his dissertation on modern American poetics .

in this article

Kassandra and the Wolf
by Margarita Karapanou
translated by NC Germanacos
Softcover, $15.00
Clockroot Books
October, 2009

Rien ne va Plus
by Margarita Karapanou
translated by Karen Emmerich
Softcover, $15.00
Clockroot Books
October, 2009