Philip Hensher

Complete Poems, by C.P. Cavafy - review

Complete Poems, by C.P. Cavafy - review
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C.P. Cavafy: Complete Poems

Daniel Mendelsohn (translation, commentary)

Harper Press, pp. 547, £

Constantine Cavafy was a poet who fascinated English novelists, and remained a presence in English fiction long after his death in 1933. When E.M. Forster lived in Alexandria during the first world war, he got to know Cavafy — and essays, a celebrated exchange of letters and a guidebook by Forster resulted. Cavafy haunts Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, which shares with the poet an aesthetic of the transfixed gaze, of remote history running under everything. Robert Liddell wrote a restrained, elegant life of the poet — oddly dismissed by this translator, Daniel Mendelsohn, as ‘workmanlike.’ More hauntingly, Liddell wrote a novel, not apparently known to Mendelsohn at all, in which Cavafy lives on into the second world war, developing a fixation for Canadian airmen. Unreal City is sceptical about Cavafy: it is the ironic English gaze directed towards a rapturous, unmoving, pretentious, lyric presence. Liddell clearly found his subject infuriating, but impossible to ignore.

I rather agree. Cavafy’s hieratic exclamations about the forgotten greatness of Greece, his cryptic little poems about obscure corners of Byzantine history, about kisses and gazes showered in the past upon lost and beautiful men — all this is potentially infuriating. Cavafy could never have written a novel. His sensibility depends on the thing rhapsodised over not moving. It is impossible to imagine any of those beautiful men getting up and saying anything in response. As soon as you think of a real person as the possessor of ‘the beauty of unusual allures/with those flawless lips of his that bring/pleasure to the body that it cherishes/with those flawless limbs of his, made for beds/called shameless by the commonplace morality’ (from one of the weaker poems), you have to admit that it would quickly exhaust the subject to be adored like this.

Cavafy, in my view, had a temperament not far from that of a rapist — he doesn’t seem to care much what his adored ones think of him, and it is beyond their capacity to surprise other than by getting themselves killed. At this distance, it hardly matters. Mendelsohn seems surprised that the details of Cavafy’s anonymous encounters have not emerged by now, as if there were anywhere for them to emerge from — ‘a private life of homosexual encounters kept so discreet that even today its content, inasmuch as there was content, remains largely unknown to us’. The quality of gazing, transfixed, is nicely and amusingly captured by Forster’s famous description of Cavafy as ‘a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe’. In one poem, one is tempted to think he is describing himself as an ‘ancient mirror’ in a hallway who once was thrilled to have a strikingly beautiful boy stand before him; the ‘ancient mirror now became elated,/inflated with pride, because it had received upon itself/perfect beauty, for a few minutes.’

The corpus of work is complex. There are those poems prepared for publication by Cavafy, which appeared in a collection of 1935. All of these have been translated into English surprisingly often. The interest and value of this latest edition, however, is the inclusion of a number of poems of more marginal status. These are labelled, first, as ‘repudiated poems’ — early, largely dispensable published poems, written under the influence of Wilde and the English aesthetes before 1898. There are also the ‘unpublished poems’, written before 1923 but left in a publishable state by Cavafy, which appeared — in Greek — in 1968.

Finally, for the first time in English, there is a group of major ‘unfinished poems’. Cavafy was an inveterate reviser, though not always an effectual one: the notes to this volume sometimes reveal an earlier draft that is clearly superior to the final version — as in ‘It must have been the spirits’. What is generally meant by ‘unfinished’ is ‘not approved for eventual publication’;  but these poems often have a polish and resonance that place them among the best.

Cavafy thought of himself as the last of the Greeks, and in an unbroken line from the ancients; he dwelt on the Byzantine succession as if on a chain of command. His presence in Alexandria was important: on the perimeter of the Greek world of his day, he also felt himself on the remotest outskirts of history. There is a fine and extraordinary poem, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, in which a beleaguered civilisation finds itself distraught at the loss of the barbarians outside the gates. The barbarians are what that civilisation has always defined itself by — ‘they were a solution of sorts’. What is civilisation without them? Has civilisation itself lapsed into barbarity? The solitary poet, working during the day at the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works, writing scraps of perfect Greek verse on the back of cigarette packets, wonders much the same about himself.

It would have been easy for a nostalgist like Cavafy to write in the literary Greek taught in schools, and not in the demotic; his conscious play between the two — so Greek readers tell us — is at the heart of his fascination. It both preserves and moves boldly forward. ‘[Alexandria] speaks our language still/Throughout the Greek world it’s destined to fade away/but here it’s still holding up as best it can,’ says one of the unfinished poems.

It’s a beautiful body of work, given its generalisations and its single mood of rapt gazing. European literature of the period is full of interesting poets on homosexual themes: the German anarchist John Henry Mackay, Verlaine and Rimbaud, or the English poets A.E. Housman (repressed and noble) or E.E. Bradford (carefree and enjoyably tawdry). Cavafy was detached from his literature by time, geography and personal circumstances; that detachment persuaded him into a fascinating frankness of observation. If his poetry can, in the end, be boiled down to the observation on a blacksmith (from ‘Days of 1909, ’10 and ’11’) ‘I ask myself whether in antique times/glorious Alexandria possessed a youth more beauteous/ a lad more perfect than he…’, the lyric power of the vision remains undiminished. Here the ancient and Byzantine worlds wash up in a forgotten and provincial city, in tatters and unnoticed, except by the entranced and aristocratic eye of the isolated and lonely poet.

It is difficult for a non-Greek speaker to comment on the accuracy or sympathy of the translation. Cavafy’s poetry is always said to be extraordinarily elegant and refined, and this version has a present-day conversational manner. Mendelsohn, an American journalist, attempts various renderings of Cavafy’s technique, such as reflecting the change from demotic to classical Greek with changes from American to English spellings,. There are, too, various Housman-ish or archaic words and phrases to reflect particular original effects, such as ‘lad’, ‘goodly’ and ‘innermost depths’. But Cavafy is by far from being the first author to write better than his translator, and it is very good to have the powerful ‘unfinished poems’ in English at all.

Cavafy’s flat in Alexandria — famously ugly, filled with hideous enormous vases — is now a museum, and one of the most evocative of any writer’s place I know.