Efstratios Stamatopoulos, better known by the pseudonym Stratis Myrivilis, was born in the village of Sykamnia on the north coast of the island of Lesbos in 1890. There he spent his childhood years until, in 1905, he was sent to the town of Mytilene to study at the Gymnasium. In 1910 he completed his secondary education and took a post as a village schoolmaster, but gave that up after one year and enrolled at Athens University to study law. However, his university education was cut short when he volunteered to fight in the 1st Balkan War in 1912. He was wounded twice, in the leg, at the battle of Kilkis in 1913 and was taken to a hospital in Thessaloniki where one bullet was removed. He played host to the other (as he used to put it) for sixteen years—it was not removed until 1929.
After the Balkan Wars, he returned home to a Lesbos free from Turkish rule and united with the motherland Greece. There he worked as a journalist, making a name for himself as a columnist and as a writer of poetry and fiction, and acquiring a large and enthusiastic personal following in the town of Mytilene—so much so that one young lady reader named her pet lamb after him! He published his first book early in 1915: a set of six short stories collected together under the general title of Red Stories. The volume received some critical acclaim on the island but did not become well known elsewhere. Nevertheless it was a fine and promising collection—the work of a mature, if youthful, intelligence—which shows Myrivilis to be already a careful craftsman of the written word and a keen observer of human motivation and behaviour.
Peace did not last long. Events in Europe had been moving steadily towards war, and Myrivilis saw active service in the army of Venizelos’ breakaway government on the Macedonian Front and also in the Asia Minor Campaign which followed the end of World War I. He returned to Lesbos in 1922, after the Campaign’s catastrophic end, disillusioned, and physically and mentally exhausted. The Asia Minor Disaster, as the defeat of the Greek army by the Turkish nationalists came to be known, marked the end of an era: the Great Idea, the dream of a greater Greece which had sustained Greek nationalism for over a century, had collapsed irrevocably and it was time to review the past and to create a new vision for the future.
Myrivilis set about making his contribution to the task with the founding of the weekly newspaper Kambana, which described itself as serving the interests of the returned reservists and the people of Lesbos. Its slogan, a line from a poem by Kostis Palamas, was: “We too want a place in the sun”. It was in Kambana that Myrivilis published, in serialised form, the first version of his remarkable novel Life in the Tomb (April 1923 - January 1924) and this was immediately followed by the serialisation of another, equally remarkable work, Ilias Venezis’ The Number 31328—a work which might never have been written had it not been for Myrivilis’ insistence that Venezis must write an account of his horrific experiences as a hostage in Turkey.
Although the first version of Life in the Tomb was highly praised, it was not until a longer, revised version was published in Athens in 1930 that the novel acquired the wide readership it deserved. Almost overnight, Myrivilis became famous throughout Greece. Life in the Tomb established him as the master craftsman of Greek prose and the work itself was seen as a turning point in the development of Greek prose fiction, marking its coming of age. It was, many felt, the first Greek prose work comparable “to any foreign work”.
Life in the Tomb is an extremely powerful novel. In its exact portrayal of the sheer horror of modern warfare it is unequalled; but it is not so much an anti-war novel as a novel about the failure of belief and the intensity of the desire simply to live, and to live free, which wells up when all ideals are gone. In the novel, the background to the actions of men and machines is always nature—vast, infinite, and all-powerful, man’s element and man’s loss. It is within that nature that man’s place in the sun is to be found: “I want to live”, says one of the novel’s main characters, “I want to live under the sky like a blade of grass, yes, like a small insect. I have that right, don’t I?” The statement sums up a theme which Myrivilis was to return to again and again and which is especially prominent in Vasilis Arvanitis.
After the success of Life in the Tomb, Myrivilis settled in Athens where he worked as editor of the newspaper Demokratia. The newspaper ceased publication after one year however and he had to make a living writing columns and short stories for various newspapers and periodicals. It must have been a period of hardship for Myrivilis; it is notoriously difficult for writers in Greece to earn their living solely through their writing, and he had by that time a family to support. His financial situation was eased somewhat when, in 1936, he was made General Programme Director for the Greek National Broadcasting Institute—a post which he held until 1951, excluding the period of German occupation when he resigned after a final broadcast in which he reminded the Greek people of their noble resistance to the Italian invasion and called on them to resist with dignity and unity the German armed forces sent by Hitler to accomplish what Mussolini’s troops had failed to accomplish. After the occupation, he was given a post in the Library of Parliament and, in 1946, he founded the National Society of Greek Writers and was elected its first president. In 1958, after having been nominated unsuccessfully six times, he was finally made a member of the Academy of Athens—a belated official recognition of his important contribution to Greek literature. He died, after a long illness, in an Athens hospital on the 19th of July, 1969.
Apart from Life in the Tomb, Myrivilis wrote two other full-length novels, The Schoolmistress with the Golden Eyes (1933) and The Mermaid Madonna (1949), which with Life in the Tomb form a loose trilogy covering the crucial period from the 1st World War to the Asia Minor Disaster and the period of readjustment which followed. He also wrote three novellas, of which Vasilis Arvanitis is one, and numerous short stories.
This brief biography is from Vasilis Arvanitis by Stratis Myrivilis, trans. P. Andronikos (Armidale: University of New England Publishing Unit, 1983.) Unfortunately this book is out of print at present, and seems likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. If you need a copy, please contact me, and I may be able to help.
It used to be thought that Myrivilis was born in 1892, but George Valetas argues convincingly for an 1890 birthdate. See G. Valetas, “Investigation into the Year of Myrivilis’ Birth”, Aiolika Grammata, 2(1972), 306-7.
See G. Valetas, “Myrivilis of Mytilene: His Early Years and His First Great Creative Period”, Nea Estia 88(1970), 949-50. Much of the information for this brief biography of Myrivilis is drawn from Valetas’ article.
Andreas Karandonis, “The Prose of Stratis Myrivilis”, trans. J. A. Case-Kessissoglou, The Charioteer, 1(1960), 92.
Life in the Tomb (Athens: Estias, 1959), p.153.
See Stratis Myrivilis, The Literary Quarter of an Hour (Athens: Estias, n.d.), pp. 17-25.
All three of Myrivilis’ novels have been translated into English: Life in the Tomb by Peter Bien (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1977), The Schoolmistress with the Golden Eyes by Philip Sherrard (London: Hutchinson, 1964), and The Mermaid Madonna by Abbot Rick (London: Hutchinson, 1959).