A novel staring the most important literary figures of the 20th century as young adults
In early August 1932, eight teenagers who will enrich the collective imaginary perception of the 20th century with their literary works later in their lives, arrive in Greece for a week-long holiday with their families. They find themselves at the Hotel Poseidonion on the seafront in Sounio, Attica, 75 kilometres from Athens, each for different reasons.
Nineteen-year-old Virginia Stephen – who would later adopt her husband’s surname, Woolf – is visiting Greece for the second time, along with her father and sister: the two girls had travelled here the year before with their brother, who has died prematurely in the meantime, and since they were so enthusiastic about all the things they had seen, they promised to return every year. Virginia Woolf actually made two trips to Greece, the first in 1906 and the second in the year during which the action of the book is set.
The Parisian Marcel Proust, who is the same age as the young Englishwoman, arrives with a mountain of luggage, his dear mother and his beloved grandmother. The latter has planned the trip in an effort to drag her grandson away from the group of friends she considers to be a bad influence in Balbec, where they had spent their summers until then. In Athens they plan to meet up with some distant relatives who are also supposedly related to some distant descendents of the Bavarian royal family, which provided Greece with its first monarch after liberation in 1834.
Jerome David Salinger is staying in the same hotel with his fictional parents and imaginary older brother Seymour, to whom he will devote a large part of the literary creations he publishes before his death. He has come here to find out for himself whether everything that is said all over the world about the contribution Ancient Greek civilisation had on European culture is true, as well as to give his psychologically-afflicted brother a chance to recuperate, since he had never left New York until now, believing that it was the only place he could breathe.
With the money he won from a short-story competition and the down-payment for a scholarship, the seventeen year old James Joyce has covered the expenses of the trip for himself, his parents and his brother. He would give everything he had and didn’t have – and he didn’t have anything else – to finally be in the country that gave birth to the beloved hero of his childhood dreams, Odysseus, with whom he identifies as he walks around his beloved Dublin; he is considering writing a book on just that topic.
The same age, and from the same country, James Samuel Beckett has asked his father for two weeks holiday in the land that gave birth to theatre as a present for his final summer before going away to university. He, his parents and his brother will spend a week in Sounio, and the week after that Samuel plans to show them the ancient theatres of Greece from up close. He hopes that a play of his own, which will appear to be a comedy while really being a tragedy, will be performed in one of these someday.
Eighteen-year-old Emily, daughter of Senator Dickinson from Massachusetts, is scared of long journeys. However, she agreed to accompany her parents, her brother and her sister on a journey to the Holy Lands, but only on the condition that they could spend ten days in Greece first. Emily dreamed of the sea, and of all the colours and aromas of the Mediterranean on the boat from New York to Marseille, where she had met Jerome. On the journey from Marseille to Piraeus, they had also met up with Virginia, who was travelling on the same boat.
The two Irish boys James and Samuel, who had been inseparable since they had met, discovered a strange, taciturn boy on the long train journey to Athens. His name was Franz Kafka and he was travelling with his authoritarian father, his mother and a sister who he seemed to love a great deal. Scrawny eighteen year-old Franz would do anything to spend a few days away from the heavy atmosphere of Prague and from the strictness of his father. He would even have pretended to be sick to achieve it and, in fact, that’s what he had done.
On that same day in August, at the same hotel and accompanied by a cat wrapped in his raincoat, the almost nineteen year old Constantine Cavafy arrives from Alexandria in Egypt, for two secret reasons, the second of which is to explore the likelihood of him and no-one else becoming the most important poet in the Greek language in the early 20th century.
After breakfast on their second day in Greece, Virginia and Emily, who already know each other, go swimming with the train-buddies James and Samuel. Jerome meets Franz on the beach and Marcel and Constantine find each other in the shady hotel atrium.
In the afternoon the two girls meet with the two Irish boys under the gaze and comments of Franz and Jerome, whilst Marcel and Constantine continue the conversation they had begun in the morning, covering literature and so much more.
On the morning of the third day, they form two four-person groups: the girls meet the two friends from the shady atrium, and James and Samuel are introduced to the boy from Prague and the lanky American.
The two groups become one at the suggestion of the diabolical James, whilst his much taller compatriot suggests that the next afternoon each of them should tell the best story they intend to write when they’re older.
Samuel’s idea is accepted by the aspiring young writers, even if they have doubts about it, which they share the next morning with the person they trust the most out of the group. They meet up and decide on the order of the stories.
Early that same afternoon, Virginia takes the first turn. She tells them the tale of a boy who wants his parents to take him to see a lighthouse. After her story, everyone present makes comments about the parts and images they liked the most – as they do the same thing with the remaining stories. She is followed by Samuel, who tells a story about two badly-dressed men waiting for someone called Godot who never arrives; Emily, who reads them thirty-seven of her poems; the verbose James, who tells them about a day in the life of a Mr Bloom in Dublin; Marcel with an erotic tale of the passions and jealousy of a certain young Swann; Franz with the story of a man accused, probably unjustly, by the authorities in his country and sentenced to trial; Constantine reads them his poems, which mostly talk about old, forgotten times; and, finally, Jerome tells the story of a seventeen year old boy who has been thrown out of school and the adventures he imagines during his two-day wandering in New York.
The next morning, the fifth day of their acquaintance, each of the teenagers spends time alone with the member of the group they feel most closely connected to. In the afternoon, apart from Marcel and Constantine who don’t seem to want to be separated from each other, the pairs change: cowardly Franz talks to Virginia, who is full of plans for the future, while Samuel flirts rather clumsily with Emily and James and Jerome get to know each other better.
On the morning of their final day in Sounio, they arrange to climb up the hill to the Temple of Poseidon, where they will take a photograph of the whole group. Lady Luck has arranged things so that when they climb up to the meeting point they are paired with someone they have not yet had the opportunity to talk to directly: melancholy Franz with Emily, who is unbelievably daring that day; day-dreaming Constantine with Samuel; Marcel with James, who both admit to admiring each other’s work; and, finally, the taciturn Jerome with Virginia, who is anxious that day.
They each spend the afternoon with their families, getting their things ready for their departure the following day: Virginia’s family for Piraeus; the Prousts, Dickensons and Kafkas for central Athens, the Joyces for Ithaca, the Becketts for Epidaurus, and Constantine for his literary meetings in Athens.