George Seferis regarded himself primarily as a poet. Nevertheless, he also distinguished himself as a skilled essay writer and he could not resist the temptation to try his hand at writing novels, though he published none during his lifetime. He completed Six Nights on the Acropolis long before his death and, despite some hesitancy on his part, it seems that he did intend to publish it, whereas Varnavas Kalostephanos, another novel he was working on, remained only in note form.
Seferis started writing Six Nights on the Acropolis when he was twenty six years’ old, though it was not until January 1954 when, inspired by his recent travels in the myth-evoking Middle East, he completed the novel in Lebanon at one go. It should be noted that soon after, he began writing Varnavas Kalostephanos, the subject matter of which is quite different, dealing as it does with the politically charged climate of Cyprus in the 1950s.
As its title suggests, Six nights on the Acropolis covers six visits to the Acropolis planned by a group of friends on the occasion of six consecutive full moons in order to further their friendship and their ability to communicate. A diary at the end of the novel informs us that these six full moons occurred in the period between 7 March and 2 September 1928. Using as a playful pretext the common superstition concerning the moon’s power to influence human affairs, Seferis constructs a novel of initiation against a setting full of ancient cultural allusions, in which ancient myth seems to function subliminally in parallel with the present.
This use of the past, together with the avant-garde narrative technique chosen by Seferis – the alternation of third-person impersonal narrative with first-person diary entries – indicates the novel’s modernist ambitions. Stratis, the protagonist, whose tormented split consciousness this narrative technique underlines, faces a similar apparently chaotic and incoherent world to the world Stephen Dedalus faces in Joyce’s Ulysses and a similarly sterile and incomprehensible world to that peopled by the inhabitants of Eliot’s Waste Land. Following the Asia Minor Disaster of 1922, Athens is no longer the supportive, cohesive and collective society that Seferis had grown up in, but a painfully divided society simply trying to survive. Despite the fact, however, that the six visits to the Acropolis do not achieve their original aim and the group gradually breaks up, with the full moon serving to signpost the difficulties in their communication rather than to aid it, Stratis gets better acquainted with two women friends, Salome and Lala, who become his lovers – Lala following Salome’s death –and who help to extricate him from his existential and poetic impasse.
It would seem that true love, a love that initially subjected him to a hellish period of intense anguish and doubt, has led him to a deeper knowledge of both life and the pain of death, and brings him closer to the world around him. At the same time it illuminates and clarifies his poetic and existential goals. Salome and Lala function as combinations of plain human and archetypal features that guide Stratis and help him to find his true purpose in life. They are lovers as well as Muses, and Muses not only with regard to poetry, but also in psychological and existential matters.
Seferis’ use of the motifs of the sun and the moon to structure his novel allow him to exploit their symbolic antithesis to construct its value system and to enrich it with a beautiful sunlit and moonlit setting, using the glittering marble of the Acropolis. At the same time, it allows him to exploit intertextual allusions to well-known European literary texts in order to furnish his own novel with other complementary dialogic perspectives for his readers. A comparison of the use of the moon in Six Nights on the Acropolis and in Oscar Wilde’s Salome, for example, whose protagonist shares the name as well as certain other features of Stratis’ first lover, shows a willingness to exploit the aesthetic functions of the moon as a structural tool and a will to demythologise it and take a stand against 19th-century symbolism while acknowledging its allure. Similarly, the motif of the sun alludes to another intertextual grid that Seferis interpolates into his novel, namely, Dante’s Divine Comedy, suggesting that there may be more to Stratis’ emotional tribulations than a superficial structural parallel with the trials of Dante’s hero.
To conclude, it is as if Seferis attempted not only to write a novel, but also to provide a literary background against which it should be read, to relate his text to an established literary canon, while at the same time taking a stand against it or deviating from it. This is a Greek novel, not only by virtue of being written in Greek, but also because it deals with Greek concerns – the difficulties his hero faces in adjusting to Greece, particularly Athens, in the inter-war period and his difficulties in defining his goals as a Greek poet – though Seferis succeeded in relating it to the European literary background. Perhaps even more clearly than in his poetry, Seferis writes in his novel as a Greek author who acknowledges his specifically Greek social and literary background, while at the same time paying respect to his European literary lineage. This consciousness of the literary “debt” that helps to form a poet, evidenced in the novel by the numerous implicit and often explicit references to many other poets and writers, characterises Six Nights on the Acropolis not only as a modernist novel, but also as a precursor of what are now regarded as predominantly postmodernist concerns.