the impulses of my poetry were shaped,
the boundaries of my art were plotted.
—C.F. Cavafy, from “Understanding” (1915)
Monday was a two-sided anniversary for the Greek poet C.F. Cavafy, born 150 years ago on April 29, 1863, to Greek parents in Alexandria, where he died 70 years later on April 29, 1933. UNESCO is commemorating his 150th birthday with Cavafy festivals around the world this summer, and one of his foremost translators, Princeton Professor Emeritus Edmund Keeley, will be reading from his renderings of Cavafy and other Greek poets at the PEN World Voices Festival May 5 in New York and on May 7 at a dinner for the Princeton University Society of Fellows at Palmer House.
The lines above, from a poem translated by Keeley in his book, Cavafy’s Alexandria (Princeton University Press 1976, rev. 1996), are listed under the heading “The Sensual City” in a handy appendix of chronological tables of composition and publication (other categories are “The Metaphoric City,” Mythical Alexandria,” and “The World of Hellenism”). Daniel Mendelsohn’s introduction to his handsomely designed edition of the Collected Poems (Knopf 2009), with his translations and commentaries, is titled “The Poet-Historian.” In his opening paragraph, Mendelsohn contrasts Cavafy’s “flesh-and-blood existence” as a government bureaucrat and “private life” as a homosexual with the poetry, its “haunted memories of passionate encounters in the present and its astoundingly rich imagination of the Greek past.”
Like numerous other readers, my own first encounter with Cavafy was as “the old poet of the city” in Justine, the volume that begins Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. At roughly the same time Cavafy’s presence in Durrell’s Alexandria was bringing a somewhat ghostly form of him to the attention of a new generation of readers, Rae Dalven’s edition of The Complete Poems appeared (Harcourt, Brace & World 1961) with an introduction by W.H. Auden, in which Auden notes Cavafy’s influence on his own work.
In the fall of 1977, Lawrence Durrell sent Henry Miller a “lucky charm” in the form of a postcard from Alexandria. The card’s occult power was, he said, due to its having been written “on the very desk” where Cavafy wrote two of his best known poems, “Waiting for the Barbarians” and “The City.” The gist of the message is that “Alexandria is still full of luciferian charm and magic.”
Recalling a visit earlier in the same decade in Cavafy’s Alexandria, Keeley observes that it was difficult to move through the streets of the city “without feeling the presence of Cavafy’s ghost.” Durrell says that when he first arrived in Alexandria in 1941, eight years after Cavafy’s death, the poet “was so very present” and “extremely alive in a sense” that he had no difficulty in “transporting him into the city which really belonged to him.” In the same 1975 interview, Durrell admits, “I used him, you know, like you use a character in a novel.” As for his role in the Quartet, the old poet was “the expresser of the essence of the city.”
In fact, Cavafy does not merely haunt the city, its brothels and cafes, he illuminates and evokes it in passages throughout Justine. In one, Durrell’s alter ego Darley recalls visiting “the worm-eaten room” on the Rue Lepsius (the street Cavafy lived on most of his life) “where once the old poet of the city had recited ‘The Barbarians.’” On another occasion, Darley/Durrell describes hearing “with an emotion so deep it was almost horror” a gramophone recording of the old poet reading lines clearly based on an actual poem of Cavafy’s. But then this is the case all through the novel, where you have, in effect, Durrell improvising on existing translations. In another scene, Justine recites “those marvelous lines of the old Greek poet about a love-affair long since past.” For Darley/Durrell, “hearing her speak his lines, touching every syllable of the thoughtful ironic Greek with tenderness, I felt once more the strange equivocal power of the city … and knew her for a true child of Alexandria.”
In my five-day tour of Cavafy and Alexandria, I’ve been struck by his use of the second person as a way to bring the reader into the charmed element of the poem. In Durrell’s admitted “transplanting” of an existing translation of “The City,” Cavafy directly approaches you (“You tell yourself”) and later no less directly, intimately addresses you (“Ah, don’t you see”). Durrell may be taking liberties, but being a poet himself, he knows what Cavafy’s doing, as well he should, given his stress on the word “charm” (as in lucky and luciferian) in the postcard he sent Miller. Whether you speak of it in terms of charming or seducing, or simply bringing the reader in, that’s what’s happening; however you describe the effect — personal, magical/poetical or luciferian — you’ve been charmed.
Cavafy does it again in “Waiting for the Barbarians,” the other piece of the “lucky charm” Durrell sent to Miller. From the first line, “What are we waiting for,” to the closing stanza’s “And now what shall become of us,” you’re in the poem; the question isn’t coming to you from some nameless persona in an unspecified past, it’s coming from Cavafy, as if he were sitting across the table from you in one of the cafes he frequents. The effect is also movingly evident in “The God Abandons Antony,” which Durrell pairs with “The City” on the last page of Justine. As Mendelsohn points out in his commentary, Cavafy is improvising on a passage from Plutarch’s Life of Antony, when his troops had deserted him and “all Alexandria knew that his cause was totally lost.” In Cavafy’s second-person, you the reader are Antony and the city has been set in motion like the dream of a ship departing without you “at darkest midnight.” As the poem ends, the city having become something to “be worthy of” if you can shed misleading dreams and “useless hopes,” Cavafy’s right there with you again in the cafe of his charm, telling you how to endure it, how to say “with courage … your last good-byes/To Alexandria as she is leaving.”
Cruised by Cavafy
So there you are at the cafe table feeling emotional after saying your last goodbyes in “The God Abandons Antony” (the poem also inspired a song by Leonard Cohen), when you realize that the old poet wants to take you home with him, he’s speaking English now, having gone to school in Liverpool from the ages 7 to 14 (his family was in the import-export business). Before you can explain your boringly hetero inclinations, he understands. As W.H. Auden observes, Cavafy is an “exceptionally honest” witness who “neither bowdlerizes nor glamorizes nor giggles,” one who “refuses to pretend that his memories of moments of sensual pleasure are unhappy or spoiled by feelings of guilt.” Auden quotes as an example a poem from 1921 (“Their Beginning”) where Cavafy makes the connection between sex and poetry explicit. After the lovers fulfill “their deviate, sensual delight,” they rise and dress and go their separate ways (“furtively … somewhat uneasily”), “as if they suspect that something about them betrays/into what kind of bed they fell a little while back.” But for the “life of the poet” nothing’s lost; its all gain: “Tomorrow, the next day, the vigorous verses/will be composed that had their beginning here.”
My well-marked Dell paperback of Justine was in my jacket pocket the night I went walking in Cavafy and Durrell’s Alexandria. I’d been rereading the novel on the boat from Beirut. I was 25. I never considered that I might be at risk, having ignored Durrell’s warning in Justine, that Alexandria “was not really a safe place for Christians.” The problem was that the locales in Justine I’d hoped to see could not be found because the streets had been renamed since Durrell’s time. There was no Rue Lepsius, no Cafe Al Aktar. Ah, but there was Lake Mareotis, and that was all I needed. One line I’d practically marked to extinction began “The first wet blank lamps had begun to stiffen the wet paper background of Alexandria,” which ended with “Mareotis crouched among her reeds, stiff as a crouching sphinx.” The lake also served as the setting for one of the most haunting scenes in Justine, where in the pre-dawn darkness of a duck hunt, the one-eyed Capodistria is killed, “a death that hangs in the still air like bad smell, like a bad joke.”
I had no map. Someone at the fleabag hotel where I was staying had given me sign-language directions, so off I went, throwing myself on the mercy of the “thousand dust-tormented streets” described on the first page of the novel. I soon found myself in the company of a self-appointed guide. I didn’t want company, but I hesitated to tell him so. He was promising me Lake Mareotis. Yes, this way, this way, he’d insist, taking me in precisely the opposite direction to the one I’d been shown. I took out my copy of Justine and pointed to the underlined sentence about the crouching sphinx, explaining to him, idiotically, why the fact that the lake could be found in a novel made it worth searching for: “A lake that is like a sphinx — you know the Sphinx? In Cairo? Near the pyramids?”
Suddenly something happens that changes everything, when he says: “I know that place, the lake like a sphinx. It’s not safe for you.” Nothing is, it seems. I’ve given up ever finding Durrell’s lake, but whenever I see a street I want to start down, he says, “No, no, that’s a bad street. No good for you there.”
It occurs to me as I try to make sense of the memory of that long-ago night, that I’ve consumed too much Cavafy in too short a span of time. It’s his birthday, April 29, as I write. Three competing translations are piled on my desk. I can’t be sure where one leaves off and the other begins, or where Durrell’s old poet becomes the real Cavafy, or if I’m in the company of someone who decided not to cut my throat when I showed him that line about the lake. He’s taken me in, that’s all. Alexandria’s “luciferian charm” is all around us.
There’s no ending, no farewell, as he goes his way and I go mine, it’s like that poem, “Their Beginning,” only nothing happened. Nothing.
I’m looking at the copy of Justine I read at 20, not the paperback, but the hard cover, in which, not knowing any better, I wrote in ballpoint “Noon, April 19,” under the last line on the last page, Durrell’s translation with his italics,
“And say farewell, farewell, to Alexandria leaving.”
The 1975 interview I mentioned is from Anthony Hirst’s essay in Lawrence Durell and the Greek World, edited by Anna Lillios.