Mary Norris
Greek to Me

A televised spelling bee will divide the room, especially if there is an expectation to participate: some will slide deep into their seats as others perkily top up glasses. Mary Norris is strictly for the word nerds. Her attraction to Greek is altogether erotic; for her, “Greek is sexy”.

Norris’s father was against education for women, so of course she ends up in The New Yorker’s copy department, collating proofs, a job she describes as “the liver of The New Yorker’s editorial process”. It’s the early ’80s, and the day after seeing Sean Connery in Time Bandits, Norris realises she wants to learn Greek and travel around Greece. Serendipitously, the magazine agrees to fund her studies of Greek – modern then classical.

As illustrated in her earlier memoir, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Norris is the person you’d be lucky to sit next to at a dinner party. In Greek to Me, she draws beguiling links that illuminate the history of the people and stories she encounters on her travels. Far from being an uppity pedant, she is endlessly keen to decode her surroundings, stopping for ouzo with the locals and meandering wherever the evening takes her. It is telling that she loves “the way the Greeks have squeezed so much out of everything” – turning olives to oil, grapes to wine, sheep’s milk to feta – as this echoes her own approach.

We discover that Norris was in Freudian analysis five days a week for years, and sometimes these personal asides are too fascinatingly scant. Richard Ford’s novels changed her mind about discretionary commas, and Desperate Passage convinced her never to waste a scrap of food. Like peak erudite conversation, the narrative is tangential. Norris’s thoughts are organised somewhat haphazardly, but she holds her audience’s attention because she is so witty and opinionated. When Norris riffs on why Athena is her role model, it brings out the philhellene in anyone.

Knowing some etymology isn’t just handy in a spelling bee – it can be useful when working out the meaning of words, and you are likely to add some Greek to your lexicon here. Norris writes with a twinkle in her eye and is gorgeously playful with language, but the principal joy is the way she hits upon what good books can do, how they open and transform us, and make our small lives suddenly vast.

Louise Swinn

Text, 240pp, $27.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 11, 2019 as "Mary Norris, Greek to Me".

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Reviewer: Louise Swinn