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Marvelous Poet

Cavafy, a Critical Biography

by Robert Liddell
Duckworth (London), 222 pp., £4.95

C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems

translated by Edmund Keeley, by Philip Sherrard, edited by George Savidis
Princeton University Press, 451 pp., $3.45 (paper)

Mr. Liddell’s is the first life in English of the Greek poet Cavafy. A sensitive and informed chronicler, he also quotes generously from Greek sources, Cavafy’s diaries and scholia, as well as recollections of people close to him. His treatment of Cavafy’s social and sexual life is entirely plausible. Mr. Liddell knows Egypt, too, and guides his reader blindfolded through the Alexandrian genealogical maze, as through the smart or infamous quarters of the city.

Born there (in 1863) into a world of forms and frivolities, Cavafy was to be anchored firmly beyond its shallows, less by impoverishment—for in “le grand cérémonial du tralala” a good family like his would still have a part to play—than by his vocation and his sexuality. He was seven when his father died. There followed years of displacement from one Unreal City to another. His closest ties were to his mother Haricleia, “one of the most beautiful women in Alexandria” and one of the most idle—“her son affectionately addressed her (in English) as ‘Fat One’ “; and to his two immediately older brothers, the dependable John who worshiped him, who even translated him, and the unhappy Paul who drank and ran up debts. The latter and Cavafy, both over forty, still shared a flat and “a ‘phaeton’ in which they drove about. Mention is made of their rings and their ties; one is afraid they may have been rather ‘flashy,’ trying to prolong youth into middle age.” Paul finally went to the Riviera and made ends meet as a kind of Jamesian companion-guide. “To the last he sighed for the great days in Alexandria…. Constantine never mentioned him to his younger literary friends.”

The prevailing idea of culture cannot have gone much beyond salon music, vers de société, and lip-service to the illustrious dead. Half Cavafy’s life was over before he met, in Athens, any real authors. One of them noted his smart clothes, “slight English accent” in Greek, and how “all his ceremonies and politenesses strike an Athenian used to…the shy naïveté and simple awkwardness of our men of letters.”

The difficulty of being Cavafy’s kind of homosexual in Alexandria in those years must have been staggering: how to choose among a thousand daily opportunities. Cavafy by and large stuck to Greeks, young men of the working class. “We do not know whether his emotions were in any way involved,” writes Mr. Liddell, meaning by emotions “genuine affection” rather than the mere desire, compassion, and regret that fill the poems. But he makes the essential observation that

out of the mess and squalor that occupied part of his life he has created a unique order and beauty. Homosexuality was no doubt a disadvantage to Paul Cavafy, who was mondain, and at one time hoped to make a marriage of convenience; but it made Constantine what he was.

As Constantine knew very well:

My younger days, my sensual life—
how clearly I see their meaning now.
What needless, futile regret….
In the loose living of my early years
the impulses of my poetry were shaped,
the boundaries of my art were plotted.

At thirty Cavafy settled down in Alexandria’s Ministry of Public Works, as a clerk in the Dantesque “Third Circle of Irrigation.” Here he stayed (he was also a broker on the Egyptian stock exchange) until his retirement thirty years later. He would not hit his stride as a poet, in fact, until after the office routine had provided the foil his ever livelier imagination needed. His successor, then a young employee, recalls:

On very rare occasions he locked himself into his room. [Cavafy was by then a “sub-director.”] Sometimes my colleague and I looked through the key-hole. We saw him lift up his hands like an actor, and put on a strange expression as if in ecstasy, then he would bend down to write something. It was the moment of inspiration. Naturally we found it funny and we giggled. How were we to imagine that one day Mr. Cavafy would be famous!

After the Fat One’s death and Paul’s removal to Europe, Cavafy spent his last twenty-five years alone in a flat on rue Lepsius—“rue Clapsius” as it was known to some, a neighborhood of brothels and shops gradually overtaking some nice old houses. Indoors one found a high concentration of the usual period junk, inlaid tables, carpets, mirrors, shabby divans, fringes of society, photographs, a servant bringing drinks and appetizers cheap or not, depending on who was there; the lighting constantly adjusted—an extra candle lit “if a beautiful face appeared in the room.” The company seems to have been predominantly younger men of letters; but one may bear in mind that the guest from a higher or lower world seldom troubles to write memoirs.

Cavafy is that rare poet whose essential quality comes through even in translation. One sees why Auden thought so. By limiting his subject to human deeds and desires, and his mode to statement, Cavafy makes the rest of us seem to be reading ourselves laboriously backward in a cipher of likenesses and generalizations. He writes without metaphor. Of the natural world we see nothing. The Nile?—an agreeable site for a villa. Flowers?—appropriate to grave or banquet table. Not for Cavafy to presume upon his kinship with sunset and octopus. Having once and for all given the lie to the nonhuman picturesque in eight appalling lines (“Morning Sea”), he is free to travel light and fast and far. His reader looks through brilliantly focused vignettes to the tonic ironies beyond.

What ironies? Well, take “The Mirror in the Front Hall.” The handsome delivery boy gets that far and no further into the house, whose rich privacies would in any case be lost on him. Nor is Cavafy about to pretend interest in anything so conventional, so conjectural, as one more young man’s inner life. Is there to be no “understanding,” then, beyond that which brings him and his boys together in some anonymous room with its bed and its ceiling fixture? Ignorance is bliss, he might answer—or would he? for it is not ignorance so much as a willed narrowing of frame; and it is not bliss but something drier and longer-lasting, that radiates its own accumulated knowledge. Always, in Cavafy, what one poem withholds, another explains. This coldness of his comes through elsewhere as reticence imposed by an encounter with a god,

his hair black and perfumed—
the people going by would gaze at him,
and one would ask the other if he knew him,
if he was a Greek from Syria, or a stranger.
But some who looked more care- fully
would understand and step aside…

Indeed, one way to sidestep any real perception of others is to make gods of them. But the ironic wind blows back and forth. The gods appeared to characters in Homer, disguised as a mortal friend or stranger. Put in terms acceptable nowadays, that was a stylized handling of those moments familiar to us all, when the stranger’s idle word or the friend’s sudden presence happens to strike deeply into our spirits. Moments at the opposite pole from indifference; though on that single pole Cavafy’s world revolves.

The unity of divine and human, or past and present, is as real to him as their disparity. Between the poor, unlettered, present-day young men and the well-to-do, educated ones in his historical poems (“Myris…reciting verses / with his perfect feeling for Greek rhythm”) there is an unbroken bond of type and disposition: what Gongora called “centuries of beauty in a few years of age.” This bond is at the marrow of Cavafy’s feeling. It reflects his situation as a Greek, the dynamics of his language—indeed the whole legacy of Hellenism—and incidentally distinguishes him from, say, that German baron who spent his adult life in Taormina photographing urchins draped in sheets and wreathed in artificial roses.

The first verb to learn in Ancient Greek was $$$. Pronounced piedew-o, it meant “I teach.” In Modern Greek the same verb, spelled as before, is pronounced pe-dhe-vo, and means “I torment.” The old word $$$ (good) has come to mean “simple-minded.” These shifts are revealing, and their slightness reassures. I have heard my host in a remote farmhouse tell Aesop’s fables as if he had made them up; that they had made him up was closer to the truth. I have heard a mother advise her child to tell its bad dream to the lighted bulb hanging from a kitchen ceiling, and for the same reason that Clytemnestra, in one of the old plays, tells hers to the sun. For while the ancient glory may have grown dim and prosaic, many forms of it are still intact. (One feels it less in Italy than in Greece where, thanks first to Byzantium and then to the Turks, the famous Rebirth of Learning had no opportunity to sweep away just this kind of dusty, half-understood wisdom.)

So, in Cavafy, the Greek—or Hellenized—character shines forth: scheming, deluded, gifted, noble, weak. The language survives the reversals of faith and empire, and sharpens the dull wits of the barbarian. The glory dwindles and persists. The overtly historical poems illustrate this great theme in a manner which certain Plutarchian moments in Shakespeare—Casca’s deadpan account of a crown refused—read like early attempts to get right. Cavafy himself draws on Plutarch, Herodotus, Gibbon, and a host of “Byzantine historians” whom he praised for writing “a kind of history that had never been written before. They wrote history dramatically.” So did he.

Unexpected strands interconnect these historical pieces. A Syrian “Craftsman of Wine Bowls,” at work fifteen years after Antiochus the Great’s defeat at Magnesia in 190 BC, is overheard while decorating a silver bowl with the remembered figure of a friend killed in that battle. “The Battle of Magnesia” itself reminds Philip of Macedonia of his own defeat by the Romans; with scant pity to waste on Antiochus, he calls for roses, music, lights. We see elsewhere (“To Antiochos Epiphanis”) a grandson of the defeated king greeting with prudent silence, thirty years later, his favorite’s plea for the liberation of Macedonia—that would be worth, to the boy, “the coral Pan…the gardens of Tyre / and everything else you’ve given me.” (The issue is still alive in our time.) This very favorite, or another, becomes the ostensible subject of some erotic verses by “Temethos, Antiochian, AD 400”—a flashback from far in the future, the date referring us to poems about the last stages of Hellenism in the Middle East.

In one of these (“Theatre of Sidon”) the speaker confesses: “I sometimes write highly audacious verses in Greek / and these I circulate—surreptitiously,” much as Cavafy did his own, neither wanting to offend the prevailing Christian morality. Back to Antiochus the Great’s lineage, a second grandson (“Of Dimitrios Sotir, 162-50 BC”) next occupies the Syrian throne with Roman recognition. This idealistic young king was raised as a hostage in Rome. At last where he belongs, he cannot recognize the Syria of his dreams in exile. It has become “the land of Valas and Herakleidis.” Valas is the adventurer who, bribed by a Ptolemy whom Dimitrios Sotir once tried to help (“The Displeasure of Selefkidis”), is presently to overcome Dimitrios. In “The Favor of Alexander Valas,” its fatuous object will be found exulting, briefly we may assume, “Antioch is all mine.” And the Satrap Herakleidis is none other than he who, years earlier as Antiochus Epiphanis’s treasurer, commissions a wine bowl from the melancholy but uncomplaining silversmith.

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