A very English Athenian
It’s in a quintessentially English setting, far-removed from her home in Athens that I’ve arranged to meet Sofka Zinovieff.
In the UK to promote her first novel The House on Paradise Street, the author, who has lived in Greece for more than a decade, is the VIP guest at a literary event hosted by the five-star Calcot Manor Hotel – a luxurious country house dating back to the 14th century, set amongst the rolling Cotswold hills of Gloucestershire. Not that Zinovieff is any stranger to England’s green and pleasant land.
Born and brought up in London, she is the daughter of an English mother and Russian emigré father. As a student, Zinovieff studied at Cambridge University where she graduated with a first-class degree in social anthropology – the study of how contemporary human beings behave in social groups.
It’s that analysis that has underpinned much of her work as a writer. Her first book Eurydice Street, a Place in Athens was the story of her own acclimatisation to living in an adopted culture – Greece. The Red Princess – the biography of her paternal grandmother- the remarkable story of a White Russian aristocrat who became an ardent communist in the Soviet Union.
With the American publishing house Simon and Schuster recently announcing that they are to publish The House on Paradise Street in the United States, Zinovieff’s move into fiction has taken her to her widest readership yet.
Taking the reader from the war-torn streets of 1940s Athens, to the partisans’ mountain caves of the civil war and on to the present, it’s a must-read for anyone with an interest in Greece’s past, present or future.
The story is told through the voice of Maud Perifanis, a young English anthropologist who loses her Greek husband in a mysterious car accident, and then hears the heart-breaking tale of her mother-in-law’s early life – caught in the brutal political tides of the Greek Civil War.
Is Maud the author in disguise? “People assume I am, she’s an anthropology student who went to Greece as I did, and married a Greek, but in character we’re very different.
“She becomes much more disillusioned with Greece than I could ever be, she’s more uptight, more classically English than I am.”
It’s a tale that could only have been told by someone with an intimate knowledge of the country and a passion for its idiosyncrasies.
“It’s difficult to sum up a deep and long-lasting love in a few words,” says Zinovieff, when I ask what she loves about the country that has been her physical home for eleven years, but spiritual home for half her life.
“What attracted me in the beginning may have been the stereotypical things – the beauty, the light, the history, but when you start a life in another country you go through a kind of rebirth.
“You start as a baby and grow up, you become somebody else, and you see your past and your life before very differently, especially if you’re young as I was, in my early 20s.”
Zinovieff confides that one of the most liberating aspects of reflecting on her English upbringing was deliverance from the British class system.
“In England, by the way someone has finished their second sentence you’re able to determine where they’re from, where they went to school, all that sort of thing. I find that very off-putting,” she says, in her very English and disarmingly precise way.
While the book invites readers to reconsider their views on Greece past and present, it particularly addresses Britain’s involvement in Greek affairs seventy years ago. Did she set out to change hearts and minds on the subject? “I don’t like the idea of fiction trying to be didactic, but I did feel like opening up that area,” she says.
Depending on one’s position, as the Second World War ended, Britain either saved Greece from the evils of communism, or behaved like a brutal imperialist. Zinovieff says she doesn’t take sides but in the novel there is a deliberate inclination to explain and reveal injustices, particularly those perpetrated on the Left.
“I was surprised when I found out more about the Dekemvriana – the events in Athens in December 1944, which I found shocking.
“It seems to me extraordinary that within weeks of the Nazis leaving suddenly there was the British army killing the very people they had been comrades with before.”
The affect of the civil war and the schism in society that followed it, is the underlying narrative in The House on Paradise Street and one partly inspired by her husband’s family history, “but only in the way that a spark can lead to a fire,” says Zinovieff.
“I’d been interested in the war for a long time and then coincidentally cousins of my husband received the remains of their deceased aunt back from Romania. She had been a partisan on the Left during the war, operating near Lamia. Quite a bit of the story is set there.”
To Zinovieff, the recent infamous actions of a Greek Neo Nazi MP, is a shocking contemporary manifestation of the political dysfunction conceived during the civil war.
“To have facists slapping communists on television is a sign of something deeply unhappy in the society. “In Greece, politics is a deep-seated emotional activity played out within families. Often it’s almost irrational. We’ve seen a lot of that in recent times.”
As a widely published author Zinovieff has been one of Greece’s great defenders during a period of sustained international media criticism.
“Greeks have felt like pawns a lot in history and that was something I wanted to explore in the book,” she says. “They felt used. If you look at the crisis in recent years, yet again they feel they’ve been done down by outside powers.”
Her next book will revert to her original calling – non-fiction, once more to mine the rich seam that is her own family history.
This time she is setting out to explore story of her maternal grandfather Robert Heber-Percy, Mad Boy as he was known, who in his twenties had a remarkable and intimate relationship with the english aristocrat, diplomat and composer Lord Berners, twenty-seven years his senior.
“When he met Lord Berners in the mid-1930s, my grandfather was a mad young man of 21, very good looking,” says Zinovieff. “They met at a house party. Berners took Mad Boy back to his beautiful country – a wonderful Georgian villa in Oxfordshire.
“They were an unlikely couple. Berners had been a diplomat in Constantinople and Rome during the First World War. Highly cultivated and creative, he wrote music for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and had friends as varied as Igor Stravinsky, Salvador Dali, and Gertrude Stein.”
Through their remarkable lives Zinovieff will recreate the exotic bohemian world they inhabited and reflect on the paradoxes of pre-war English cosmopolitan high-society.
“In a way the book will be about how I feel towards Berners, because to me, he’s a sort of great-grandfatherly figure, even though I never met him.”
Zinovieff’s new book is the telling of an extraordinary family history. But then the tales told by this English Athenian author are far from ordinary fare.