We met frequently and infrequently during the nineties. Our relationship had its ups and downs. It was full of Greek rhetoric and Australian silence. When he wanted to evade something about himself, he used English. When he wanted to reveal his inner being, as he used to say, he reverted to Greek.
I met him after Patrick’s death. He lived alone although many friends visited him; but as he said, he wanted to remember the language of his ancestors. His Greek was a strange amalgam of ecclesiastical and archaic language mixed with Alexandrian colloquialisms and unusual words from Constantinople, all linked together through his peculiar evocative, and in some occasions, really funny intonation.
“A good friendship should be based on a good dictionary,” he said once didactically.
“Which dictionary?” I dared ask.
“There is only one dictionary,” he replied. “The Souda, composed during the glorious Macedonian Emperors, when Photios, the great patriarch, inaugurated his reforms at the University of Constantinople.”
He kept talking about Byzantium as if it was the place he visited yesterday and came back full of enthusiasm and excitement. “Mr Lascaris,” I dared say exasperated. “Byzantium fell and disappeared six hundred years ago, in 1453. History has moved on.”
“O wretched soul,” he exclaimed, using a word from Paul’s letters, “in the collective memory of a nation, this happened yesterday, last night. How can we forget? Will you also ask me to forget the fall of the City to the Crusaders in 1204? Or maybe the fall of Rome in 410? What a wretched mind you have…”
Only slowly, I became able to distinguish between the escapist and the poetic elements in him. He was a poet, in the original sense of the word, who was unable to express himself through language. He was also trapped in a way of life that he probably never expected, unable to get out or even find the means and the will for escaping. So, Byzantium became his imagined sanctuary and a safe haven for a life suspended in time and space. “Where can I go?” he told me once.
“To Alexandria? Smyrna? Constantinople? They are not our cities anymore. We have been expelled from our ancestral hearths. My house is gone. My relatives, dead. Their graves vanished. And I cannot go to Athens. It is not my city. I am left with Sydney. But Sydney for me was Patrick. And after he is gone, Sydney is gone. And I live alone in a city which is an absent city. It is only thin air and unreality. Do you understand?”
I didn’t and I couldn’t – but that’s another story.
“My motherland,” he said once, “are some moments in the past, episodes I treasure to this day and when I close my eyes appear with all their force and depth on the mirror of my mind.” There was a memory that haunted him and he returned to it time and again, repeating with despair a single phrase: “What happened? What did they do to him?”
He was reliving his brief affair with a German soldier called Helmut in Port Said in 1934. “His porcelain skin, his blond hair, his long fingers, naked against the setting sun over the Red Sea. Several months later he sent a letter begging me for an invitation to get out of Germany. I didn’t respond, I didn’t know what was happening, how serious he was or the situation in his country. No one understood what Hitler and the Nazis could do. I didn’t respond. What happened? What did they do to him?”
Some tears rolled through the wrinkles of his face.
“Us,” he added, “the children of the jubilant twenties, never envisaged or expected the thirties and forties. I escaped to Patrick and Australia because there was so much death around me, so much darkness. I wanted a place without my memories, without my dead, without my crimes. Of course, I found other people’s crimes here, but I was too terrified and needed rest and tranquility.”
He liked talking about the past in an almost Proustian way, piecing back together broken pebbles of an enormous mosaic. He was complex and looked inwards; Patrick White wrote in a letter that the best thing that happened in his life was that he met Manoly. For me, he was always Mr Manoly Lascaris, the legal and natural heir to the throne of Roman Emperors, because, as we all know, that last dynasty of Byzantium, were all ghastly usurpers.
He spoke slowly but endlessly, in an almost surreal associative manner. He talked about his dreams, the nightmares of war, the dreams he had up at Dogwoods, their house in Castle Hill, when he first arrived. “My desire for Patrick was uncontrollable,” he said. I could see tears in his eyes. “It was forceful pothos,” he said, lowering his voice. “We lost ourselves into each other. Do you remember that Greek poem from the Renaissance: my body was born as an offering to yours? This is how we felt.” And he cried silently. He was almost eighty-six then. He was still shaken by the passion, the sensuality and the ecstasy of their eros.
I haven’t forgotten his mannerisms, his clumsiness, his air of superiority. Sometimes he looked like Sir Steven Runciman, whom I met in Mystras, close to Sparta, surrounded by Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin. I was too young to appreciate the moment and the people. I was also too young to appreciate the wisdom and the grace of Mr Manoly Lascaris. Twenty years later, his mystery and enigma still exhaust my mind: who was that strange man?
Vrasidas Karalis is Sir Nicholas Laurantos Professor of Modern Greek and Byzantine Studies at the University of Sydney. Among his many books is the Sydney Trilogy, consisting of Recollections of Mr Manoly Lascaris (2007), The Demons of Athens (2013) and The Glebe Point Road Blues (2020). He translated into Greek Patrick White’s play A Cheery Soul (2004) and the novels Voss (1996) and The Vivisector (2004). He is currently writing a monograph on White to be published by Brandl and Schlesinger. Republished with the permission of King’s College London.