Friday, December 20, 2019

The Reception of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" in Greece

By John Sanidopoulos

By the time A Christmas Carol was first translated into Greek in 1888, Charles Dickens was already known in Greece. Despite the high rate of illiteracy in the newly-formed Greek state (87.5% of men in 1840; 93.7% of women in 1870), Dickens began to be known in 1851. His works were published through the four main Greek literary journals by the intelligentsia of the time who wished to publish works that portrayed all social classes to diffuse knowledge and bring about social progress.

The journal Efterpi was the first to publish about Dickens in Greece in 1851: a one-page biographical note of Dickens written in katharevousa, an archaic form of modern Greek. This biography made the point that the works of Dickens makes the reader happier and nobler than before. The author (signed P.I.) compares Dickens's heart to that of the Good Samaritan.

In 1854 the journal Pandora, through an anonymous writer, proclaimed Dickens a writer of domestic life who explores all forms of human misery, inspiring love and mercy. His satiric vein makes his fiction both pleasant and instructive, noted the author, adding that through tears and laughter he brings his readers to the verge of supreme delight.

In 1856 the periodical Athina accused Pandora of publishing "immoral" foreign stories, so the editors decided to only publish historical fiction and stories by Charles Dickens. In a period of 22 years, Pandora translated 159 works of fiction, 34 of them English, 7 of which were by Charles Dickens. However, these 7 stories were not written by Dickens, but were merely published by him.

Soon after the death of Dickens in July of 1870, D.N. Botassis, the Greek consul in New York, which Dickens visited in 1867, wrote in Pandora that no translation of Dickens can do him justice compared to the original English. He extols his ability to depict human character and passion, and closes by narrating his thrilling experience of attending his public readings. Usually these readings consisted of a dramatization of A Christmas Carol. Botassis wrote that Dickens's vigorous and dramatic voice mesmerized his audiences.

Though most Greeks did not read Dickens, a small group of literary elites read him in English and became influenced by him. Among them were A.R. Rangavis (1809-92), who covered the same themes as Dickens and even set his stories in England.

In 1878 Oliver Twist was translated for Estia, giving the Greek public the opportunity to finally read an entire novel by Dickens. Then in 1887 Evdomas published Hard Times in weekly installments. However, the translation into katharevousa was absurd, making children talk in an archaic style.

Greek readers needed entertainment. 1888 marked a new phase of the reception of Dickens in Greece with the publication of A Christmas Carol, with the introduction of a festive short story. Many well-known writers (Moraitidis, Hristovasilis, Karkavistsas, Vlahoyianis, Voutiras) became struck with "Carol-mania", and took up the story's idea that Christmas and Christian values redeem misery, and began systematic production of their own Christmas stories.

Above all, Dickens inspired Alexandros Papadiamantis, the most significant writer of short fiction in the late nineteenth century. In 1891 and 1892 writers were comparing the two, which vexed Papadiamantis, who said: "I do not write like Poe, or Dickens, or Shakespeare, or Beranzer. I write like myself." In 1941 Angelos Terzakis wrote that Papadiamantis's Christmas stories show how Dickens influenced not his form but his soul: he draws not on Dickens's technical solutions but on his compassion for humble human beings. It was later commented that whereas Dickens concentrated on industrialized Anglican England, Papadiamantis wrote about agrarian Orthodox Greece.

Whereas Dickens used melodrama and suspense, nature as a setting for plots, his delight in describing the cosiness of warm households, and the changes of his characters through moral instruction and fear, Papadiamantis's short stories aim to worship God and express true Greek mores. He views nature as a place in which to communicate with God. Papadiamantis's characters are from the lower strata of society who find happiness in poverty, carrying hell within themselves and struggling against it rather than against society. Papadiamantis does not believe in collective action and social reform like Dickens, but rather in Providence.

Dickens and Papadiamantis were alike in one significant way: they differed from other Greek writers in their Christmas stories because they made use of a festive setting to express ideas about the world. They both believed that the spirit of Christmas and a true Christian ethos can redeem human beings from their everyday miseries. For both, Christmas was an opportunity for the rebirth of the soul. External plots matter little compared to the inner struggle of a character to retain goodness and morality. Dickens used Christmas stories for social reform indeed, but he did so by transforming the inner character of the individual first. The individual moral character was the primary focus of Papadiamantis. Through Papdiamantis the spirit of Dickens, especially through Christmas stories, infiltrated the Greek people.