Francis King

This side of greatness

If Kafka had never existed, critics might now be using the word Warneresque, instead of Kafkaesque, to describe the sort of fiction represented by the three remarkable early novels for which Rex Warner is now chiefly remembered. But then, if Kafka had never existed, perhaps The Wild Goose Chase, The Professor and The Aerodrome would never have existed either. In the way of writers who owe a conspicuous debt to a predecessor, Warner always downplayed his debt to Kafka. But his reading of The Castle in Willa and Edwin Muir’s translation of 1930 was clearly one of the decisive events of his life.

Another decisive event was his despatch by the British Council to Athens to open an institute in the immediate aftermath of the war. Tabachnick remarks, ‘Rex’s job was something of a sinecure.’ But that was because Warner made it into one. It was certainly not a sinecure for his hard-working successors. Nonetheless, merely by boozing for hours on end with notabilities such as the critic and conversationalist George Katsimbalis (Henry Miller’s Colossus of Maroussi), the poet Seferis and the painter Ghika, Warner probably did more for Anglo-Greek cultural relations than many a British Council officer toiling away at his desk.

Warner spent only two years in Athens, but as a result of that stay he established an indissoluble bond with not merely modern but also ancient Greece. He also became Seferis’s best-known and – some would maintain – best translator, and so contributed to the eventual award of the Nobel Prize to the future Greek ambassador to London.

The other decisive events in Warner’s life were his relationships with the three women whose conflicting claims, causing him anguish and guilt, may well have precipitated the drinking that, at its worst, made him gulp from a brandy bottle at breakfast.

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