Trine Stauning Willert’s project – University of Copenhagen

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Trine Stauning Willert’s project

Greek Literature between Ottoman Heritage and European Orientation, in its broadest scope, falls within all three chronological units of the project. By virtue of its history, Greece has been made into a representative of the essence of European civilization but also of the invasion of “the European spirit”. With the major changes and modernization processes of the nineteenth century, oppositions arose which have since dominated discussions about the Greek self-understanding. A great deal of Greek identity history has concerned defining Greek identity in relation to European modernity and the Ottoman heritage, and the ideal has not always been European.

Literature has been a crucial medium for coming to terms with the traumatic history of Greece, with wars, population exchange, occupation, civil war and dictatorship, and literary interpretations of the Ottoman heritage in different periods have been used as a commentary on contemporary problems or as visions of a different future. This study will investigate identity narratives about the clash between imperial and national, Ottoman and European, provincial and urban culture, as expressed in three periods of modern Greek literary history. The selected periods reflect historical events that made their mark on literature, first (1879–1900) nation building, modernization and the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, then (1929–1940) the population exchange (1923) and the national identity crisis, and finally (1989–2009) the fall of the Berlin Wall, the relativization of national identities and Greece’s change from a monocultural to a multicultural society. The first time these culture clashes are treated in the literature is in the 1880s, when Greek authors, under the influence of naturalism and the modern breakthrough, inscribed themselves in a larger European context, but simultaneously, in the genre of descriptions of manners, ithografia, “discovered” local and folk subjects which, in contrast to the romantic era with its focus on classical antiquity and the grand national ideals, were still influenced by the Ottoman past.

The works of Georgios Vizyinos (1849–1896) are outstanding for their presentation of identity crises in people from different strata of society and of different ethnic and religious affiliation during the great cultural upheavals that followed the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the formation of new nation states. The second time the breach between Ottoman heritage and modern European context becomes a theme of Greek literature is in the 1930s after the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), when authors with a background in Constantinople and Asia Minor described the loss of the cosmopolitan culture of the former Ottoman Empire, replaced by a narrow national outlook in Greece. Two of the most influential authors in the period, Georgios Theotokas (1905–1966) and Georgios Seferis (1900–1971), represent the introduction of modernism, and the conflict between tradition and modernity is a central topic in their work. The last period examined in this study is from 1989 to the present day, when a wave of historical novels set in the Ottoman period once again put on the agenda the question of Greek cultural identity between the Ottoman multicultural heritage, the united national culture, and European integration. Here we have well-established authors like Rea Galanaki (born 1947), but also bestseller writers like Nikos Themelis (1947–2011) and totally new authors such as Jannis Kalpouzos (born 1960).

The aim of the study is to analyse this new literature in relation to the literary tradition of the preceding periods, and to illuminate contemporary Greek authors’ interpretations of the Ottoman past and the development of Greek national identity, to gain a better idea of the complex cultural, social and political conditions that affect Greece today. The ambition of the study is to use the literature to give a nuanced understanding of Greek modernity in the tension between the European and the non-European, the local and the global.

The results of the project will be presented to at least two international conferences and issued as a monograph and as chapters in the project’s joint publications.