Growing up as a “foreign service brat,” Edmund Keeley did not have a single spot he called home. But in 1954 he and his wife settled in Princeton for the long haul, with Keeley an instructor in English at the university. When he got tenure, they decided to get a university loan and buy a house. “We found a lovely house at the end of Tyson Road; it had a lovely back lawn with huge trees all around,” says Keeley, adding that the property also sported a perfectly round putting green.
Keeley and his wife extended the small ranch at 140 Littlebrook Road, first by converting a bedroom into a dining room, and then more substantially by adding a study and making the garage into a master bedroom. Originally Michael Graves was going to be the architect, but when he got through with the design, eventually published under the title “Keeley Guesthouse,” the $15,000 extension they had envisioned came in with a much more costly estimate.
“I was a little instructor at Princeton, not Rockefeller,” says Keeley, noting that in the end a contractor supervised the construction and William La Riche added the architectural flourishes, which included a distinctive and very thick whitewashed wall around the patio.
The couple stayed in their home for some 40 years, because Keeley’s wife, a native of Greece, did not want to move even though she was sick the last few years of her life. “She had a different set of values about landscape, houses, and a home, and what it is to belong to a particular community that protects your privacy rights and your love of tradition and what you live in,” her husband says. “It is devastating in Greece if you lose your house.”
Once Keeley’s wife died, he decided to move to Windrows. “I felt lonely in that big house, off by myself in that big lot,” he says. “I wanted more companionship.”
Keeley’s musings about the meaning of home and how that can be challenged by developers are captured in his eighth novel, “The Megabuilders of Queenston Park.” Although fictional, the book grew in part of his own experience when, about five years ago, a developer razed the house next door and put up a modular mega-mansion, constructed in one day except for the garage, very close to his own lot. That house, he notes, has been on the market three times since it was built.
When he wrote the book, he did not realize that his own home would suffer the same fate. He thought, when he sold his house in June, 2013, that he had managed to sell it to a family that would treasure the nest he and his wife had lovingly built. But, alas, it was too small and too old. A McMansion is now under construction on the site.
Keeley’s novel, set in 21st-century Princeton, is about a couple who are the target of an ambitious developer that specializes in teardowns replaced by mega-mansions. Cassie and Nick Mandeville decide to fight the construction company that plans to build next door. The novel, published by the Central New Jersey-based Wild River Books, also examines the potential environmental problems of construction pollution and sewage run-off. The launch party will be Earth Day, Tuesday, April 22, at 6 p.m. at Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street.
“The hero and heroine are fighting to keep their place, but they get the sense there is doom down the road, that they can’t control things,” says Keeley. “At the end of the book, they hold hands and walk out of Eden.” Then he quickly adds, “The ending in that sense is ambiguous.”
The book, set at the end of “young Bush’s” second term, reflects to some degree the town politics of that period, before Princeton Borough and Township were united. At that point, the voters elected the Township Committee, which chose the mayor from its ranks, and the mayor appointed committees, and Keeley’s book also raises questions about the democracy of this setup.
In the book Cassie and Nick Mandeville enter the world of town politics, to their ongoing frustration. First, they go to a meeting of the Township Committee to voice their complaints about the monstrosity next door, built on a mound of trucked-in dirt.
A neighbor addresses another McMansion down the street from the Mandevilles, and how it has diminished his quality of life. His declaration reflects Keeley’s satirical edge in the novel.
Referring to “this overbearing intrusion into our once unpretentious neighborhood,” the neighbor explains to the Committee: “As the new mansion rose to its full height, I found myself spending more and more time in my ground-floor living room, even sleeping there sometimes when insomnia from a mild form of agoraphobia became increasingly intense — that is, a fear of being swallowed by huge people suddenly appearing in the world outside my window.”
Then, Cassie expresses her feelings about the house next door: “It’s as though we will become the servant quarters to some god-like giants, maybe gentle giants, but grand enough to frighten us out of our home so the builder can raise another huge construction on our land in place of our simple house.” Noting that the builder assured her and her husband that he had met the Township’s requirements, she laments, “What is the point of requirements that allow this sort of greedy invasion of our neighborhood? Houses made up of what are described as modules nailed on top of each other and beside each other in a style that — let me try to be courteous — that ends up no more than common, uninspired, or worse.”
The meeting ends with the mayor informing Cassie that the homeowners who have sold out and the builders have equal rights to their views. “That is also an aspect of democratic freedom,” he tells her.
After attending an open meeting of the Flood and Stormwater Management Committee, to talk about issues of the flooding of Harry’s Brook and how the reduction of permeable ground and increased runoff from homes with a large footprint might be worsening the problem, the Mandevilles are lectured about the vagaries of nature and meandering streams, and Cassie responds in frustration: “It seems nobody wants to blame anybody for anything. So let’s not blame anybody, especially not developers who build huge houses for the comfort of those who need great comfort and three garages for their cars. When the floods come, let’s just line up on our lawns and pour libations to the gods. That may not be democracy, but at least it means this Committee doesn’t have to take any action and it means nobody has to be blamed.”
Keeley was born in Syria, where his father was vice consul of the U.S. Embassy, but his memories of childhood begin in Montreal, his father’s next posting. Nicknamed Mike in honor of an uncle, he attended the Argyle School and was avid about winter sports like skiing, skating, and tobaggoning.
Five years later, in 1935, the family left for Salonika, Greece, “which was the other end of the world,” says Keeley, who described his entry into Greece in his memoir, “Borderlands.”
Until 1939, the family lived at “an oasis, called the American Farm School,” which it indeed was to a kid, surrounded by the children of staff members. “Those three years were idyllic years for a kid growing up with so many companions,” says Keeley, who recalls the Farm School as “this wonderful possibility for fun — mostly soccer.” Six kilometers outside the city, the school was founded by a missionary with six students in a single building, but had grown considerably by Keeley’s time there; the missionary’s son had raised money and built a series of houses, one of which was called Princeton Hall. “When I came to Princeton [University, where he later matriculated], I didn’t know there was another university in the world,” says Keeley.
But he also remembers challenges, one being the difficulty of managing three languages — English, Greek, and German — and the other the German school he attended, thought to be the best in Salonika for foreigners and where all the Americans went. “The school was awful; it was a Nazi propaganda machine,” he recalls, citing in particular the viciousness of the guy who ran gymnastics, a count with a slash across his face. The school also held Hitler Jugend marches, training, and drills for the students. “I wasn’t allowed because I was American,” says Keeley, who complained initially, not understanding why he was excluded, along with Turks, Jews, and Norwegians. But the “outsiders” adapted. “Four of us formed our own little club and were off playing marbles, looking at the town, and having fun,” he says.
When the family left for home leave in 1939, they intended to return and took nothing with them except their suitcases. “We were not allowed to go back; and all our belongings were kept and returned in 1945,” he says. The family settled in Georgetown, where Keeley attended Western High School in Washington, DC.
For college, he was considering two schools to prepare for the foreign service: Georgetown University, his neighborhood college, and the School of International Affairs at Princeton University. He chose Princeton, matriculating in 1945. “What I didn’t know was that it was all male,” he says. Coming from a coed high school, he was devastated to learn that Princeton was all male.
At first he thought about majoring in American history. “I was trying to get my American side boosted,” he says. “During my three years at Gordon Junior High, I was known as the little Nazi. The teacher asked a question that showed I knew German, and I was a marked man.” In response he spent the rest of junior high and high school “becoming political in the American mode.” He became vice president of the student government and of his class. He also played basketball and some football in his effort to establish his American credentials, but he thinks his actual game, soccer, may have been basis of getting into Princeton. At Princeton only one other person on the team had played soccer previous to college.
At Princeton, required to take an English course “whether you were going to be an English major or not,” he discovered that the courses he liked were not the social sciences that would prepare him for diplomacy, but literature.
Keeley’s father returned to Greece in 1946 as deputy chief of the U.S. Embassy in Greece, and Keeley himself returned in 1947, at age 19, for a summer job inventorying what was left at the American Farm School. Joining him was Bruce Lansdale, who grew up with Keeley there. “We were fluent when we came back that summer because we learned Greek at the right age, 8 to 11,” recalls Keeley. “You don’t quite forget and when you go back, you speak like a native.”
Although the Germans generally blew up places when they retreated, due to the German wife of a deputy director of the Farm School, the buildings remained intact, although most everything else was gone. “Of what was left, there was pretty devastatingly little that was of value,” he recalls.
For Keeley, that trip was very nostalgic, raising feelings that he captured in his first novel, written 10 years later. “Going back to Greece and learning Greek over the summer changed my life,” he says.
Keeley and his friend Lansdale returned to the Farm School in 1949, as the first American Fulbrighters to go back to Greece, Lansdale as an engineer and Keeley as an English teacher. They worked to reconstitute and Americanize the curriculum and the educational program, including setting up a school government. Also that summer Keeley started writing poetry. “By that time I was in love with Greece, and Bruce stayed there the rest of his life, becoming a ‘freelance diplomat,’” says Keeley, who started going back to Greece every summer.
Keeley graduated from Princeton in 1949, and from 1950 through 1952 he earned his D. Phil degree in comparative literature at Oxford University, where he explored the English influences on modern Greek poets. “It combined my interest in English literature and my newly discovered interest in Greek poets, who were wonderful poets but not yet known,” he says. He made a deal with the other graduate student in his program, Philip Sherrard, to combine the poetry translations they had done for their theses, which became “Six Poets of Modern Greece,” published by Knopf. “That was my start as a translator,” says Keeley.
When Keeley was getting ready to write his dissertation, he met his wife, Mary Stathatos-Kyris. It was a bitter cold winter day, and Keeley did not have proper clothes and was hungry, as rationing was still going on. “I was going to write a dissertation on Yeats and Irish theater,” he says, noting that he is one part Irish and was again searching for roots.
But he also wanted to take a course on the modern Greek short story. To do so, he had to find Professor Trypanis and sign up. So began a search, which eventually dropped him, the next day, in the new Bodleian Library, which had central heating and was quite warm, to hear Trypanis’s annual lecture. “Not only was it warm but there was a lovely extended display of modern Greek books — it was the library for the Byzantine and modern Greek chair, Trypanis’s library, and where he conducted class,” Keeley recalls.
The lecture had two other attendees, a huge soldier who had no clue what Trypanis was talking about and Mary, whom he married six months later. At the lecture where they met, the speaker, Trypanis, approached Keeley and said, “So I understand you want to study modern Greek,” at which point Keeley started rattling off the modern Greek he had learned as a child. The professor invited him to tea and eventually became his advisor.
Before he sat down to writing his dissertation, Keeley acted in the theater at Oxford, which he lauds for its wonderful extracurricular activities. He was also in wonderful company, with Brian Tessler, a BBC critic; Kenneth Tynan, an English theater critic and writer; and Tony Richardson, a Hollywood and Broadway director. But realizing that he was getting married and would have to support a wife, he dropped the theater and focused on writing. “I sat for the next 12 to 14 months, 12 hours a day,” he says. “It was huge, and I turned it in. I was sure they would say that I would have to go back and revise it, but I passed.”
One of Keeley’s old teachers from Princeton, Donald Stauffer, was a visiting professor at Oxford and urged him to send his curriculum vita to several places. Princeton was not interested, but Brown offered him an open-ended appointment and Cornell a job as a temporary replacement. Deciding that his wife would prefer Providence to Ithaca, he accepted the job at Brown, but adds, “my heart was still in Princeton.”
Having been accustomed to an all-male environment, he made a bit of a faux pas early on at Brown when young women, from Pembroke, appeared in his class. “I thought the girls were left over from the weekend,” he says, but he was told no, they are your students, and he recalls, “The women were so much better than the men — smarter, more interested in literature, more interested in creative writing.”
Keeley returned to Princeton in 1954. Although his early efforts at translation were secondary to his research, Keeley was clearly interested, from an early stage, in becoming a writer. In 1958 he published his first novel, “The Libation,” which won the Rome Prize of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a prize for new fiction. “That launched me as a novelist,” he says.
Even without a critical monograph, Keeley’s novels and translation, “Six Poets of Modern Greece,” stood him in good stead when he came up for tenure. At the time the university wanted Keeley to help R. P. Blackburn in the creative writing program, and if they didn’t promote him, they knew he would leave.
“All along I felt that what I should be was a full-time writer, writing fiction, publishing novels,” he says. “But I didn’t have enough success initially on the financial side and was enjoying teaching too much.”
Keeley’s appreciation for translation came when he spent a year in Iowa and was asked to teach a translation workshop. The suggested teaching method: have the students translate poems into English, then teach a poetry course based on the translations. Keeley then transferred that workshop to Princeton’s creative writing program.
“It converted me to taking translation very seriously,” he recalls about his Iowa experience. Keeley, who had been dabbling in translation of the poetry of Yiannis Ritsos, says of his new appreciation for translation, “It allowed me to keep going and not play it with my left hand anymore, but take it seriously.” His wife helped. Mary graduated from Oxford with a degree in modern Greek and French, taught at the university for a time, and was later a secretary in two departments. She also worked as a professional translator and helped Keeley with Greek translations.
Keeley’s writing style has evolved with the times, from longhand to typewriter and then to computers. “Now I can only compose on a computer, which I find humiliating,” he says. “Some of my friends still write in long hand, especially poets. There is something about writing longhand that is the primal writers mode.”
Now, at 86, he says he has been thinking, “Keeley, maybe it is time to shut up.” He has written 35-plus books and has another novel well in the works, but says, “I’m slowing down now.”
But Keeley’s observations remain keen. Returning to the theme of home in his new novel, he says, “Every house has been a personal operation. People have changed and modified to make their houses livable and prosperous, and they are going to be torn down so builders can put up mega-mansions. We used to have footprint restrictions that are now all gone. What is the control over these mega-mansions? This is what I hope the book is going to preserve.”