|Review of C. P. Cavafy ||Walter Kaiser
| C. P. Cavafy is the great isolated figure of modern letters. Almost unknown during his lifetime, he lived in a remote land and wrote in a highly personal, complex idiom of a neglected language. His idiosyncratic style is without significant literary debts, just as it has had comparatively little discernible influence on others. His subject matter is often recondite or alien. Yet he remains an enormously commanding presence with whom we must somehow come to terms; for although he is probably a less profound thinker than some of his European contemporaries, in other respects he may well be the most original poet of the 20th century. I imagine that for most readers in English he is known, if at all, for one or two somewhat overrated poems in inadequate translation. Although there have been several previous attempts to render him into English, the results have been far less successful than those in French and Italian, demonstrating more than anything else the overwhelming difficulties that hamstring any would-be translator. Now at last, however, we have an important English biography and a competent translation of almost all of Cavafy’s poems, based on the definitive text established by his brilliant editor, George Savidis. Finally it is possible for English readers to take some measure of this major poet.
Mr. Liddell’s biography of Cavafy, excellent though it is, only confirms what one had suspected all along: that the facts of the poet’s life are without much interest. As George Seferis observed some years ago, “outside his poems Cavafy does not exist.” The full portrait that emerges from Mr. Liddell’s painstaking labors tells us much more about the man but scarcely more about the poet than E. M. Forster’s early sketch – simply because there is so little to tell. Cavafy’s youth was dominated by his mother and an aunt, because his father had died when he was only seven. The little formal education he had seems to have occurred mostly in England, where the family lived in his early years. When he was 14, his family lost their money, and he was to spend the rest of his life in comparative poverty, living in Alexandria, employed in the “Third Circle of Irrigation,” a tedious post in the municipal bureaucracy which sounds as though it has been contrived by the combined efforts of Dante and Kafka. In the afternoons he moonlighted as a stockbroker, and nights found him prowling seamy taverns and homosexual brothels. For the last 25 years of his life, he lived alone in a fusty flat over-filled with furniture, worn velours, family photographs, third-rate bric-à-brac, and a few books, located over a whorehouse in a grubby quarter. He died of cancer in 1933 on the morning of his 70th birthday.
Out of this shabby, banal life and an obsession with history came the great poems of (in his phrase) “passions and ancient days.” Cavafy was that rare phenomenon, a poet of old age. Most of the youthful poetry he allowed to survive is fairly commonplace and often emits an embarrassing fin-de-siècle odor of eau-de-roses. It was not until he was almost 50 that he found his true voice, and then, for 20 years, his growth as a poet is continuously, astonishingly impressive. During his lifetime he published little, however, preferring merely to circulate copies among friends in an Elizabethan fashion. Yet he seems never to have doubted his ultimate reputation.
For many years Cavafy was secretive about his scandalous amatory poetry and chose to describe himself as an “historical poet.” Although it may seem convenient to separate his historical from his erotic poems, it is misleading to do so; for as Seferis remarked, after about 1910 Cavafy’s work “should be read and judged not as a series of separate poems, but as one and the same poem.” To most readers, much of his history will seem obscurely peripheral. But then, both his Alexandrianism and his homosexuality inevitably placed Cavafy on peripheries, causing him to be, as Forster famously put it, a man standing at a slight angle to the universe. The glories of the age of Homer or of Pericles are almost wholly neglected in his poetry, and Athens itself is mentioned only once. His is not so much Hellenic as Hellenistic history: an acerb chronicle of waning Hellenism, the inevitable triumph of oriental barbarism, and the vagaries of destiny enacted on the fringes of the Greek world, in Egypt, Syria, Italy, and Byzantium. Cavafy’s historical poems seize upon moments of loss, surrender, and the deliquescence of a greater into a lesser world. The deaths of Achilles and Sarpedon, Caesar and Nero, Mithridates and Aristoboulos, are glossed as exempla of fate’s mockery; whole civilizations, whether that of Troy or the Achaian League or the little kingdom of Commagene, are ignominiously snuffed out; and the triumph of the pale Galilean merely hastens the etiolation of time. Down the labyrinthine passageways of history, disasters and Pyrrhic victories – Marathon, Thermopylae, Magnesia, Pydna, Pharsalus, Actium – provide the only signposts, until we arrive at a terrain vague where pristine nobility has degenerated into the obstinacy and opportunism of Julian the Apostate, the internecine squabbles of the late Byzantine empire. For an Alexandrian Greek, history can perhaps only be ironic; but it should come as no surprise to learn that Cavafy was also an assiduous reader and annotator of Gibbon.
Cavafy is able to redeem but little from this inexorable process of decline and fall: a few instances of personal nobility, the glory of having been a Hellene, the knowledge that neither Ithaca nor Actium is really important – that it is the journey that mattered, and the sensuous music of Alexandria. Even though the oracles are dead, not so much in a Plutarchan sense as because of grim Realpolitik, the ancient gods still walk across the hills and down darkened city streets. There are also, to be sure, valuable lessons to be learned if one is wise enough to perceive them; for of course, history repeats itself. Yet in the end, it is not for their didacticism that these poems are great, but rather for their astute historical perceptivity, their mordant realism, their Browningesque evocation of character, and their amber entrapment of evanescent moments.
If for Cavafy there are no authentic triumphs in history, neither are there in love. His so-called love poems tell a similar story of loss and defeat, stressing the relentless advance of old age and the impermanence of beauty and affection. His most characteristic lovers die young, are separated by the necessity of taking a job elsewhere, or, worse, go off to a higher bidder. Cavafy insists on the illicit, unhealthy, barren nature of homosexuality – all his adjectives for it are uncomplimentary – but he does so with neither apology nor boasting. It is simply a fact of his poetry, as it was of his life. Moreover, he claimed that the first characteristic of the artist was “calm of spirit and complete pardon in the face of things which arouse the indignation and rebukes of the vulgar.” Except perhaps in two early poems, he does not indulge himself, as so many of his contemporaries elsewhere did, in extravagant and compensatory claims for the love that dare not speak its name. Nor, on the other hand, does he express regret, which he calls “needless, futile.” Despite early half-hearted attempts, nightly betrayed, to give up his way of life, in his mature poetry the one thing he is sure of is that one should accede to the demands of desire, however illicit or forbidden.
Yet these may be the strangest, saddest love poems in all literature. For the one emotion most conspicuously absent from them is precisely that of love. They are poems about sex, not love. In one or possibly two late instances Cavafy almost achieves what one would call genuine love poems, expressing something beyond oestric torment, but in the rest his subject is pure sexual longing and fulfillment in a world of louches cafés and sordid beds, grimy working boys and furtive erections. The warmth of naked flesh and the lawlessness of pleasure are evoked again and again with a heady immediacy poetry has rarely achieved; and passion is recollected in no tranquility whatsoever. It is hard to think of another poet since Sappho, even in 19th-century France, who has more sharply depicted the agonies and joys of raw physical lust.
The poignancy, of course, is that sex, unlike love, is transitory. Cavafy’s painful acceptance of this fact is reflected in his ruthless insistence on precise dates and ages, all of them gone by. But he also recognized that the fleeting moment could be captured forever in poetry through memory. Memory – that great theme of modern literature – is in fact the ultimate subject of these poems, and Cavafy is in every sense the most Proustian of poets. As with Proust, it is time remembered and memory anticipated, the predatory threat of l’oubli and the redemptive timelessness of art, that obsess him. Desire is for what was once known, and fulfillment, however sordid, is meaningful as something that will one day be evoked by memory in poetry (“Their Beginning”). Where else but in Proust do we find such precise, analytic depictions of the way memory works? Where else is the erotic force of memory more subtly conveyed?
I’d like to speak of this memory,
But it’s so faded now – as though nothing’s left –
Because it was so long ago, in my adolescent years.
A skin as though of jasmine . . .
That August evening – was it August? –
I can still just recall the eyes: blue, I think they were . . .
Ah yes, blue: a sapphire blue.
The tone of voice in this little poem (“Long Ago”), so admirably brought over by Messrs. Keeley and Sherrard, is pure Cavafy. Surely no poet has even spoken with such a recognizably unique voice. Flat, dry, detached, usually astringent, ineffably resonant, it is immediately identifiable. His unornamented style is not simply the result of the fact that Cavafy detested adjectives, or that, as he explains in “Morning Sea,” he was distracted from appreciating landscape, or that he pushes poetry as far as it can go towards prose. It is, much more, the precise reflection of an innate cast of mind.
None of Cavafy’s extraordinary linguistic subtleties can be rendered into another language, but, as Auden recognized, in the hands of a gifted translator his remarkable tone can. I have several strictures about this new English version of Cavafy. The translators often seem to me more sensitive to the nuances of Modern Greek than to those of English: they confuse, for example, traitor with betrayer, old with from long ago, and fooling around with fooling, and they even unwittingly (I hope) introduce an obscenity where none exists in the original. I find their ungrammatical usages (“Who could I talk to?”), however colloquially intended, jarring. For my taste they are too often given to contractions, and at times they render the Greek into abrupter rhythms than seems necessary. Once or twice they stumble into translatorese (“reaching for a shelf to bring down/ some photographs”). And although they announce a sensible policy for the vexing problems of transliteration, they no only fail to follow it (“Mebis”) but permit themselves downright absurdities (“Selefkids”). A very few of the greatest poems, such as “Following the Recipe of the Ancient Greco-Syrian Magicians,” escape their skillful snares almost entirely. Yet all these are niggling cavils in view of what they have achieved. For they have managed the miracle of capturing this elusive, inimitable, unforgettable voice. It is the most haunting voice I know in modern poetry.
|Walter Kaiser, Review of C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (tr. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, Princeton, 1975) and Robert Liddell, Cavafy, a Critical Biography (London, 1974), The New Republic, August 30, 1975 |