At the start of June, Greek author Auguste Corteau will hit bookshelves in the English-speaking world for the first time with The Book of Katerina, his deeply personal, shocking and uproariously funny novel set in Thessaloniki. It’s his first book to be translated into English – and may take readers by surprise.
By Jennifer Barclay
For a start, Auguste Corteau doesn’t even sound Greek. Born Petros Hatzopoulos in Thessaloniki in 1979, he has lived in Athens for over a decade, has written multiple novels, plays and short stories, and has translated many modern literary classics into Greek including Nabokov’s Lolita, McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Why the French name?
“My first book, published in 1999 while I was a medical student, was heavily influenced by the work of the Marquis de Sade – so I wasn’t really ready for my fellow students (and especially my teachers) to find out that the chubby geeky guy was writing about what to them would seem like a whole lot of perversion. Hence the pseudonym, which is a combo homage – to Strindberg (whom I got to know and worship through the films of Ingmar Bergman) and to the French authors (Flaubert, Proust, Sade, Camus) who offered me solace in my achingly lonely teenage years.”
Corteau book sold 50,000 copies in Greece
The Book of Katerina is certainly not “a whole lot of perversion,” but it does open with a jolt: the scene when he found his mother dead, stark naked on her bed, having committed suicide. What’s more, it’s narrated by her, after her death. He was in his early twenties when his mother took her life following years of struggling with bipolar disorder.
The novel has sold over 50,000 copies in Greece. It was also adapted for the stage by Yorgos Nanouris. Greek actress Lena Papaligoura, says Auguste, “took to the project with such wild abandon that by the end of the play half of the audience was sobbing.”
Maria Zygogianni, an Athenian studying at Swansea University, recommended the book to the Welsh publisher Parthian Books, and it was translated into English by Claire Papamichael. Now another Greek actress will bring Katerina to life, as alongside the print edition of the book, Parthian will launch an audiobook narrated by Anna Savva, known as Lugaretzia in four series of The Durrells.
The Greek author isn’t sure what has made The Book of Katerina successful.
“Back when I wrote the book, it seemed to me way too bleak to be enjoyable. But it turns out I was wrong: readers not only identified with my mother and enjoyed her narrative of our fucked-up family, they actually developed a heartfelt affection towards Katerina, whom they felt they knew intimately, even years and years after her death.”
Although it’s an attempt to understand her torments, what’s remarkable is that it isn’t bleak at all but written with earthy, no-holds-barred humour as she tells a family saga of ups and downs over three generations.
“When four siblings out of four end up on medication by the age of forty,” says Katerina, “something very bad must have happened during their childhood.”
Her fictionalized voice is hilariously honest and open. Describing lovemaking with one of her boyfriends, she says it reminded her of “an exquisitely cooked dish to which the chef, despite his talent, forgot to add a single grain of salt.”
And then there’s her description of being pregnant, “eating for ten,” when she’s tossed to the floor by an earthquake. Lying like a beached orca and shrieking, she grabs a whisky bottle. Her husband manages to get her outside and into the car and she swigs from the bottle until they find her parents – “I actually recognize them from my mother’s wig, which in her panic she’s stuck on her head the wrong way around and looks like a Spartan-helmet-meets-Goldilocks.”
It was years after his mother’s death that the Greek author decided he had to write the book as a kind of love letter to his mother, recreating her as a fictional character.
“I had to channel her, I suppose, or turn her into a ventriloquist’s dummy. I had to recall the exact timbre of her humour, the fieriness of her fury, her tenderness and her despair. It was indeed cathartic, but also painful – which is why I wrote the book in white heat, over a couple of frantic weeks.”
For Corteau, growing up as his mother descended further into psychotic despair, as she tried setting fire to the house (with him in it), and to kill herself with booze and pills, the hardest thing “was the stoniness of her depression, her utter unreachability, the feeling that, no matter how madly I loved her, I couldn’t make her smile, much less get her off the bed.”
He admits that he has suffered his own bouts of clinical depression and has to remind himself of the love of those around him.
Greek author is an LGBT activist
Towards the end of the book, Katerina prays that her son get accepted in Medical School and be cured of his homosexuality, although “everyone knows gay men are smarter and more gifted and have tons of girlfriends.” Corteau is now an LGBT activist and in 2016 signed a Cohabitation Pact with his partner, the first same-sex couple to do so after the law was passed in the Greek Parliament.
The Greek author says, “I was born and raised in the old Greece, the same that informed my parents’ worldview. Back then, being gay meant being alone, the target of contempt and hatred. So of course both my parents were homophobic – just as I was. Our education was hard and gradual – and sadly my mom never got to see the happy end life had in store for me. I was exceedingly lucky to meet my husband – he’s kept me loved and happy (he’s kept me alive) for the past seventeen years.”
The Book of Katerina is published by Parthian Books as part of their literature in translation programme, with the support of the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union, the Books Council of Wales and the British Council. Acclaimed British author Glen James Brown has written that the novel is “a gleefully sardonic novel about illness and family, and how we can never quite cure ourselves of either.”
Jennifer Barclay is an editor and the author of several books about Greece, including most recently Wild Abandon: A Journey to the Deserted Places of the Dodecanese.