Norris is a jaunty companion, splendidly bookish, full of excellent little facts about, say, the history of the alphabet that you feel pleased to acquire. Greek gives her, she is happy to admit, “an erotic thrill”. She represents a hearty riposte to the very British notion that a love of dead languages automatically renders one a chilly, Olympian elitist. Despite the New Yorker sheen, Norris’s roots are firmly working class and Irish; she couldn’t be further from a show-offy, Homer-spouting Boris Johnson. Some of the most pleasing passages concern her own travels around Greece and its islands – salt-caked adventures with a backpack, sometimes involving clinches with able seamen or other enthusiastic Hellenic suitors. But there’s also something more profound at play. Norris delicately reveals how Greece and Greek have accompanied her through life, in subtle ways helping her to better understand herself, her family and her relationships.
Norris was inspired to explore the classics when she saw Terry Gilliam’s film Time Bandits at the cinema in 1981. It was the sight of a manly, middle-aged Sean Connery, who appears in a cameo as Agamemnon, that did the trick. So it was an erotic impulse, at least in part, that first sent the young bluestocking on a mission to Greece.
She resolved to learn the language — first the modern version, and later the ancient, so that she could read Homer and Plato in the original. The New Yorker magazine, where she worked as a subeditor, paid for the lessons, on the odd grounds that knowledge of Ancient Greek might improve her spelling. Her ‘adventures’ gave her confidence for an accompanying emotional liberation. Norris had been a shy woman, uneasy with her own physicality (she describes herself as gap-toothed and red-nosed). Under the influence of the classics, she had some interesting encounters with Greek sailors and developed a penchant for skinny-dipping.
Norris’s extensive travels somehow become, in her telling of them, a voyage into her own psyche. “My relationship with beauty (and love and sex and desire),” she writes, “has always been fraught.” In addition to her Greek lessons, The New Yorker stumped up for years of Freudian analysis, 50 minutes a day, five days a week, which seems to have helped. “The shrink had brought me round to seeing that I had somehow cultivated a fantasy that I’d been born male and castrated at birth, a fantasy intended to shore up my worth in my own eyes.” Fifty minutes a day, five days a week.
Eventually she experiences an epiphany on the Columbia campus, while eating a hard-boiled egg, realising that “I was not a mutilated male but an intact female.” Like all odysseys, hers is erratic and strange, and finally liberating.