Marvelous Poet

Cavafy, a Critical Biography

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

C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems

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

John Ruskin
John Ruskin; drawing by David Levine

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:

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