A Personal Review
of The Lonely Path of Integrity
by Writer Irena Karafylli
April 7, 2009
A couple of years ago, a neighbor lent me a celebrated biography of Yeats and I've been trying to get my hands on a copy in order to share it with you. My neighbor has been away and, I confess, I never read more than a few chapters, but I may as well state my personal prejudice from the outset. As an avid fiction reader, I find most biographies weighed down by the sheer enormity of the author's research. Whereas a novelist would normally choose to include only the most illuminating or interesting details, many biographers offer too much trivia for my own taste. Occasionally, there is what seems to me like a truly inspired biography -for example Carol Brightman's book on Mary McCarthy- but this, in my experience, is the exception to the rule. The apparent assumption is that if the subject is famous, readers want to know everything there is to know about him/her. Certainly, biographies are almost always about individuals who are well known, or have led an exceptionally colorful or interesting life. And this, Justine, is where I think your choice of subject had put you at a disadvantage - at least insofar as reaching a wider audience is concerned.
In "The Lonely Path of Integrity," your writing and research skills are clearly in evidence. I am sure you are an excellent journalist, but I think that the controversial Archbishop's life is quite simply not eventful enough to sustain a book-length biography. What I expect from a biography is a multi-faceted portrait of a man or a woman and his/her times, his/her accomplishments; a rich character beset by internal conflicts and/or external obstacles. We certainly get the latter in your book, but the Archbishop ultimately emerges as a rather one-dimensional character caught in Byzantine intrigues which are not in themselves particularly interesting to the average reader.
I am not sure why you decided to write this book, Justine, but I sense that you set out to redeem your subject's reputation. Because of his eminence and because he was still alive at the time of writing, it would have been difficult for any biographer to include unflattering revelations. Perhaps there were none, but your book left me wishing for a more complex, more nuanced portrait. I, for one, do not feel I really know this man, except perhaps insofar as his single-minded ambition is concerned. I am not sure I even understand his decision to enter theological school. Yes, we know he loved Byzantine music, and we know about his early meeting with the Archbishop, but somehow we get the feeling that he was really impelled by his father's dream. This in itself is easy enough to understand, but Spyridon, after all, had rather lofty ambitions that would require at least one extraordinary sacrifice. The young man we have gotten to know seems like a perfectly ordinary one; nothing about him hints at a spiritual dimension that might make his choice of vocation seem comprehensible to the lay reader. Do you remember the tailor in my novel who decided to become a priest? He had set out to be no more than a humble parish priest, but even he found himself torn between pragmatic considerations and his shaky faith. Your own family had to grapple with their faith following your sister's tragic death. Is it possible that a priest would never find himself trying to come to terms with the eternal problem of human suffering?
Whatever the answer, I would have liked to see some evidence of an inner struggle, if not with his faith in God, then -to name one possibility- with the demands of a celibate life. Wouldn't a normal young man contemplating a career in the Church have to think quite hard about the implications of his choice? Wouldn't that have humanized him for the reader? You do seem to recognize the need to include some flaws (e.g. the cheating on exams, the stealing of chickens), but these minor transgressions only left me wondering whether he was in fact a man of such uncompromising integrity.
Justine, I am impressed by your intelligence and your insights, but I neither trust nor respect religious institutions and can't say that your book has made me change my mind. I can only hope that you will forgive these lengthy musings. They are, of course, purely subjective and are being offered with nothing but good will and best wishes, in the privacy of our burgeoning friendship.