All Greek to him

 

At first glance, the crumbling grey lumps of clay found by Sir Arthur Evans while excavating the Bronze Age palace at Knossos in Crete did not look promising. When a closer examination revealed them to be inscribed with a series of primitive characters, Evans realised he had discovered the earliest writing in Europe, dating from c.1450 BC, 500 years before Homer. Evans devoted the last four decades of his long life to the attempt to decipher the script, which he called "Linear Script of Class B".

Evans was convinced that the language of the Linear B tablets was not Greek, and his conviction was initially shared by Michael Ventris, the young Englishman who eventually deciphered the script in 1952. The discovery by Ventris that the language on the clay tablets found in Crete, and also at Mycenean sites on mainland Greece, was in fact archaic Greek was a landmark in classical scholarship, which has informed our understanding of the chronology of the Mycenean and Minoan civilisations and the relationship between the two.

All stories of code breaking exert a fascination, but Ventris's achievement has a particular mystique, in part because he was outside the academy: he was an architect by profession rather than a classical scholar, and had been fascinated by Linear B since a chance encounter with Evans as a schoolboy. And, only four years after his remarkable breakthrough, he died in a road accident in mysterious circumstances, aged 34.

Andrew Robinson's book is the first to focus on the background and character of Ventris, drawing on private letters and papers. His aim is to interweave the narrative of the decipherment of Linear B with a biographical study of Ventris and he succeeds in keeping both strands under control with an admirably light touch. At times, his admiration for Ventris is almost breathless; he seems dazzled by his subject's linguistic gifts, in particular, and by the fact that he was urbane, athletic and handsome, rather than manifestly bookish. His portrayal of Ventris's family background - his parents' divorce and his mother's suicide - is fascinating, however, and will, no doubt, facilitate further biographical explorations.

Ventris's effortless acquisition of European languages began in childhood: his mother was Polish and his first years of school were in multi-lingual Switzerland. By the time he moved to England and Stowe public school, he spoke six languages. It was his mother's interest in art and contemporary design that propelled him towards architecture in his teens, yet his fascination with ancient philology and cryptography began in early boyhood. He initiated a correspondence with Arthur Evans on the subject of Linear B when he was 15.

There are, of course, numerous scholarly treatments of the decipherment, notably by John Chadwick, the Cambridge classicist who was Ventris's academic collaborator, but Robinson's pacy narrative manages to convey something of the excitement of the detective work of Ventris, and other scholars, to readers unfamiliar with Greek. Specialists are unlikely to be satisfied by Robinson's account of the decipherment process; he emphasises the importance of Ventris's intuition as well as logic, and expects readers to make a number of leaps of faith. In a way, this is hardly surprising: Ventris himself never published a complete, step-by-step account of his progress through the labyrinth. In the years immediately after his discovery, he lost interest in the new academic field of Mycenean studies that his work had spawned and attempted to return to architecture, saying that he saw "no future" in Linear B.

Robinson concludes that it was the intellectual challenge of cracking the code, and the technicalities of language structure that attracted Ventris, rather than the possibilities it afforded for further research into Mycenean culture. It is also very possible that he was disappointed by the content of the clay tablets. Some sense of anti-climax at the discovery that the writing on the Linear B tablets refers to lists of names, domestic goods, trades, and the minutiae of palace administration,is surely understandable.

Had there been something of literary value in Linear B, perhaps Ventris's life story might have been different. Yet, as Robinson illustrates, there had been tensions between Ventris's various talents, interests and impulses all along. Although he obviously had a superb grasp of the classical languages, he disapproved of the dominant position of Classics in Western culture. When he began working on the Linear B script his cherished theory, reluctantly abandoned, was that Linear B was a form of Etruscan, which had the attraction, for him, of being a non Indo-European language. His taste in architecture was, not surprisingly for an architect trained in the late 1940s, purely Modernist. "The enemy has always been the classical the columned building, antiquarian or monumental, insults its surroundings by its timeless irrelevance."

On several occasions he tried to resist the allure of his Linear B research and devote his time to architecture. Robinson sensitively explores the suggestion that the brilliant analytical powers that enabled Ventris to discern the morphology of an ancient script could only take him so far as an architect; at some point he would need to actually design, and that was the one area that eluded him. His strengths as an architect were in solving logistical problems, not in making creative leaps, and, being acutely self-aware, he knew this.

That self awareness, laced with self- criticism and heightened by his emotional isolation, painfully surfaced in a letter he wrote to the Architectural Association in 1956, two weeks before his fatal car crash. Hoping to extricate himself from a research project for which he had been given a generous fellowship, he confessed: "the peculiarities of mind and personality which seemed to make me suited for the fellowship have turned on me and made me deeply doubt the value of both my vaunted intelligence and to a large extent that of life itself."

With its anguished tone and cripplingly harsh self-judgement, the letter makes painful reading, lending weight to the speculation that when he crashed into a parked lorry on a motorway, heading north from London at midnight, it was not an accident. His short life was dedicated to the pursuit of meaning, in the most literal sense; in the patterns of his own life it seems he could find none.

Helen Meany is a writer and editor

The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: the Story of Michael Ventris. By Andrew Robinson. Thames and Hudson, 168pp. £12.95 sterling