The New Yorker’s acclaimed “Comma Queen” explores her captivation with all things Greek.
Norris (Between You & Me, 2015), whose first book recounted her career in the New Yorker’s copy department, offers an exuberant memoir of her transformation from a sheltered schoolgirl in Ohio to a passionate Hellenophile. Thwarted by her father from learning Latin—“Was Dad against education for women? Yes”—the author revived her fascination for dead languages after seeing Time Bandits, part of which was set in ancient Greece. Since the New Yorker generously paid tuition for classes that had some bearing on an employee’s work—as a copy editor, knowing Greek could be helpful—Norris enrolled in modern Greek and ancient Greek courses at NYU, Barnard, and Columbia. The Greek alphabet enthralled her. It was adapted radically, she discovered, from the Phoenician alphabet into “a tool for the preservation of memory, for recording history and making art.” Delving into etymology, Norris makes a case for the enduring vitality of Greek by revealing its widespread roots in English. Ancient Greek, she asserts, “is far from dead.” As she painstakingly immersed herself in learning the language, the author took her first trip to Greece, where she “shot around the Aegean like a pinball,” making brief stops in Crete, Rhodes, Cyprus, Samos, Chios, and Lesbos. As a solo traveler, she found herself the object of much male attention. “Dining alone in restaurants,” she reports, “I was a tourist attraction unto myself.” That trip incited her desire to return—she recounts subsequent journeys in lyrical detail—as well as to tackle Greek classics: “I wished there were some way I could be Greek or at least pass as Greek, just by saturating myself in Greekness.” She devoured books by Lawrence Durrell and, especially, Patrick Leigh Fermor, two renowned philhellenes, and she steeped herself in heroes, myths, and, gleefully, goddesses. Mythology, she writes, gave her myriad models for women’s roles beyond “virgin, bride, and mother,” choices that seemed so constricting to her as she grew up.
A delightful celebration of a consuming passion.