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From the moment I read the first line of this book, In those days, everyone knew everyone on the island, I was hooked and found it un-put-down-able. Ostensibly a recounting of a young painter’s discovery of a Greek island and his life in a house overlooking the Cycladic Sea, the book is far more. It’s a mythic tale of finding; of an artist’s development; of sexual and romantic unfolding and, ultimately, of strange, mysterious tides which shape us all, currents formed as much by fate, as by choice.
The writing is marvelous. Images leap off the page. They include sights and sounds; smells of village cooking; flowers on rugged mountainsides; old men riding sidesaddle on donkeys; the blast of the sun and showers of stars over the sea. Interspersed throughout, there are wonderful portraits (such as rival restaurant owners, both women, whose little tavernas face one another across a one-street town, keeping a sharp watch on who dines where, and when), etched with a lightness and airy quality. The pace and freshness might be classified as “travel writing,” yet there’s an intrinsically Hellenic quality as true to the spirit of place as the unique Greek ability to capture the movement of wind in stone and the quick beat of ancient verse.
Brechneff details his childhood as the son of a Russian father, a doctor uprooted by the 1917 revolution, and a psychologist Swiss mother, influenced by Carl Jung. Growing up in the Belgian Congo (as so-called then), and educated in Switzerland, he first came to the island of Sifnos as if summoned or drawn. Here, in 1972, he found himself transformed when still uncertain of his sexuality. Partly as a result of his experience as an ex-patriot, but thanks, also, to his willingness to explore with an innocence which tumbles through these pages, he embarked on a journey which is deeply personal yet possessed of a universal quality with special resonance for LGBT people, for it is the tale of a wanderer, a seeker, a searcher and a spirit.
Brechneff’s openness is endearing. Candor shines through his letters to family as a youth. And it glimmers in episodes shared with a pantheist’s delight in self-discovery, such as his first night on the island, when he and a young male (straight) friend, went swimming. Plunging naked into a sea lit with phosphorescence, they peed together, watching the jets of their urine explode like submerged fireworks while overhead the sky was crusted with stars. At that moment, the six-foot-five-inch blond twenty-one-year-old knew he was home. The island—its light, its sea and its people—became his muse. It wrought a transformation and provided psychic refuge from more complex worlds in Western Europe and in New York. As one who chose simply to embrace the direct, his art and psyche were infused with that eternal, spellbinding mystery which is Greece, and which resonates in our collective psyche.
Another quality I love—repeat love—is that, for all his sophistication, Brechneff writes as if sharing with a friend. There’s no trace of inflated intellectualism or vanity. Reading this book, I felt as if I’d stumbled across someone familiar, who took me by the arm and said, “Let me tell you a story,” and, as if leading me on a magical walk, unfolded his tale.
At a time when the world bursts with narcissistic celebutantes, this book offers generous hospitality as unpretentious as a stucco house on a Greek island. Co-written with his lifelong partner, Tim Lovejoy, Brechneff has given us something precious. It’s more than his narrative, though; it’s a touchstone to what we all can find if we follow our inner lights. But these are always unique and personal. In Brechneff’s case, finally, the journey of discovery led him forward, away from his island. But not before he’d found his axis and his Way and shared it, as he has, with grace, sweetness and nimble innocence which carry us along as he weaves his multi-leveled tale of a life very well lived. And very, very well told.
The Greek House : The Story of a Painter’s Love Affair with the Island of Sifnos
by Christian Brechneff with Tim Lovejoy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780374166717, 285 pp.