When E.M. Forster sailed to Alexandria in the autumn of 1915 to take up a post as something called a “searcher”—a Red Cross functionary whose job it was to interview wounded soldiers about those still missing—he cannot have guessed at the magnitude of what he ended up finding. It certainly wasn’t what he was looking for officially; nor was it quite what he may have been seeking privately, even subconsciously.
Although a few weeks shy of his thirty-seventh birthday and already a celebrated writer when he set out for Egypt, there was something incomplete, something hobbled about him. He was as “timid as a mouse,” as Virginia Woolf (who liked him) once wrote; more to the point, he was still a total stranger to sex—secretly homosexual and as yet wholly unable to “connect,” to use his own famous term. Upon landing in Alexandria, he found himself in a place that did not, at first glance, seem likely to effect any great fulfillment, erotic or otherwise. “Vastly inferior to India,” he wrote to a friend in December 1915, reflecting the prevailing British disdain for its Levantine protectorate, “flat, unromantic, unmysterious, and godless—the soil is mud, the inhabitants are of mud moving.” Things hadn’t improved by April 1916, when in a letter to his friend Edward Carpenter he apologized for having to “grouse” about “this physical loneliness” and his fear that “the spirit is being broken.”
And yet something in Egypt loosed rather than broke his spirit. For one thing, we know that a few months after he wrote Carpenter, Forster was finally relieved of his sexual innocence by a soldier on a beach—clearly a crucial milestone. But it is tempting to see Forster’s erotic loosening-up as somehow connected to another encounter he had, just a few weeks before he wrote the letter to Carpenter, one that would prove to be momentous both for him and, in time, for the world: his meeting with the poet Constantine Cavafy.
Like Forster, Cavafy was a homosexual; unlike Forster, Cavafy, who was half a generation older—he was born in 1863; Forster, in 1879—had found a way to be unconstrained about homosexual desire in his writing. It’s worth remembering that Cavafy was circulating clearly homoerotic poetry already in 1911—fully a year before Forster, during a visit to Carpenter’s home, received the infamous “touch above the buttocks” that inspired Maurice, the novel about homosexual love that he finished in 1914 but that, on his instructions, was published only after his death in 1971. To some extent, the insouciance of the one and the constraint of the other had to do with the difference between Alexandria and England; but there were also striking differences of temperament and biography.
Forster, after all, was the Northern optimist, with his belief in the possibility of “connection”; Cavafy the weary Levantine chronicler of separations, exiles, diasporas, of loves and empires that had somehow taken the wrong turn. Forster persisted in his romantic yearning for long-term connections (which, to his credit, he held out for and found: first with an Egyptian tram conductor and then with the policeman Bob Buckingham); Cavafy was the celebrant of casual encounters in pubs and in closed carriages, on street corners and in anonymous inns, on deserted beaches and moonlit wharves. And of course Forster was an internationally celebrated novelist, with popular as well as critical successes such as Howards End (1910) to his name; Cavafy, with his studied professional disinvoltura, circulated to a few score friends, patrons, and fellow literati the broadsheets that he had privately printed and would then pin together with metal tacks.
Yet some kind of spark was struck when the two met at a dinner given by a mutual friend at the Mohammed Ali Club in March 1916. In the course of the few years in which they were both living in Alexandria, Cavafy came to be, in Forster’s eyes, “the best Alexandrian I know,” as he wrote a friend at the time. “Cavaffy [sic]—reminds me of Callimachus or some such poet—sensitive, scholarly and acute—not at all devoid of creative power but devoting it to the rearranging and resuscitating of the past.”
It is, indeed, to Forster’s enthusiasm for his often inscrutable Greek friend that the English-speaking world owes its discovery of Cavafy and his poetry. For a decade and a half, he sent translations of Cavafy’s work to anyone among his wide circle of literary acquaintance who would look at them: the Woolfs, T.S. Eliot, Arnold Toynbee, Lawrence of Arabia. “I did a little to spread his fame,” he wrote in 1958, twenty-five years after his friend’s death, with a characteristic excess of modesty (another trait he did not share with Cavafy). “It was about the best thing I did.” How difficult it was to do—and how odd their relationship was—is abundantly clear in their strangely stilted correspondence.
The extent and doggedness of Forster’s efforts are evident in the letters he wrote to Cavafy, a generous sampling of which—along with the poet’s far fewer, often very terse replies—have now been published in a lightly annotated volume (which owes its subtitle to Forster’s by-now-canonical description of Cavafy, from a 1923 essay on the poet, as “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe”). It must be said that, despite the editor’s optimistic assertion that “readers of these letters will no doubt find them entertaining and remarkable for a number of reasons,” even specialists will be hard put to locate either quality in these pages. Cavafy, famously, spent his professional life as a clerk in a government office with the Dantesque name of “Third Circle of Irrigation”; you believe it when you read his mail.
Part of the problem is that, despite its subtitle, The Forster–Cavafy Letters isn’t really about a friendship; it’s about a poignantly, sometimes rather pathetically, and often almost comically one-sided crush. If anything, you sense throughout these pages how strenuously Cavafy held himself aloof from the kind of intimate friendships that give vividness and color to so many other literary correspondences (between Flaubert and George Sand, say, or even between Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford). The first item in the exchange, dating to May 1917, is an inconsequential note from Forster concerning an imminent visit (“Expect me in a few days”); the last, a New Year’s greeting from Cavafy in Egypt to Forster in England, six lines long and of scarcely greater interest, was written in January 1932. That there were few items of significantly greater emotional substance during the intervening fifteen years is not surprising. When, early in the correspondence, Forster wrote a long letter to Cavafy in which he attempted to be familiar—he had heard from their mutual friend George Valassopoulo, a young lawyer whom Forster engaged to translate Cavafy’s poems, that “something occurred that has made [Cavafy] very unhappy,” and had eagerly offered a few paragraphs of earnest sympathizing—he never got a reply.
What Jeffreys has assembled here is, essentially, a lengthy and (in the event) failed business correspondence. Forster returned to England in the beginning of 1919, and soon afterward was writing to Valassopoulo asking for more translations of Cavafy’s poems; some of these were published, at Forster’s urging, in the Athenaeum, and over the next few years Forster managed to get selections of the poet’s work published in a number of prominent journals. These, as Forster hoped, favorably impressed a number of influential readers. (Jeffreys helpfully includes letters to and from the many people whom Forster lassoed into his scheme to promote Cavafy.) T.E. Lawrence thought the poetry “a very great achievement—modern literature of the very highest order in its class,” and compared the work to Hérédia’s; Arnold Toynbee shrewdly saw that Cavafy was “an adept at the dramatic monologue, without Browning’s overemphasis and elaboration. I admire the way in which he makes his point by a series of flat colourless statements.”
By the summer of 1923, Forster was confiding to Valassopoulo that “we might…think of a book.” It’s impossible not to feel, in his fervent underlining, the rather touching intensity of his belief in Cavafy’s work, which whatever his other failures to understand so much about Cavafy do him great credit even now. “I feel you owe this not only to Cavafy and yourself, but to Literature. If you don’t do it, the (English speaking) world will be definitely poorer.”
About this he was right; but about Cavafy himself, Forster was always a little bit wrong—always at a slight, and rather obtuse, angle. This is clear in both small and big things, from his early, inevitably mistaken characterization of the poems as “unrhymed, offhand”—many are neither, but Forster had no modern Greek—to his failure to grasp Cavafy’s approach to Greek history. (In his 1923 book about Alexandria, Pharos and Pharillon, Forster attacks the fourth-century patriarch Athanasius—a victim of the emperor Julian’s persecution to whom Cavafy, no fan of Julian’s, devoted a sympathetic 1920 poem.) And evident in almost every one of Jeffreys’s pages is Forster’s larger failure to understand that Cavafy, a happy practitioner of samizdat, was apparently no more eager to be published in English than he was to be published in Greek. The poet did publish a number of poems when he was in his late twenties and early thirties, but afterward—after repudiating much of this early work—adopted the method of self-publishing he stuck with for the rest of his life. The first printed collection of his work in Greek to appear in book form came out in 1935, two years after his death.
“It would certainly give great pleasure to the discriminating who read it,” Forster wrote to Cavafy in July 1923, of the book-length English translation he dreamed of. “I hate it when beautiful things are kept from places where they are needed. It makes me angry.” But it didn’t make Cavafy angry—perhaps because the poet was delivering the poems himself to people he thought “needed” them. Though Cavafy was always politely appreciative when Forster wrote to say this or that poem had been published in some journal, there is no getting away from the painfully obvious fact that Cavafy wasn’t interested in communicating with Forster nearly as much as Forster was in communicating with Cavafy—for whatever private, emotional, or artistic reasons. “How I wish you ever wrote a letter!” Forster complained in the autumn of 1919—a refrain that runs, with almost embarrassing frequency, through these pages.
When Cavafy does reply, it is often maddeningly—and, you suspect, purposefully—off-topic. The Greek’s man- darin evasiveness sometimes gives the proceedings a farcical zaniness; I laughed out loud more than once as I read these letters. In response to one urgent query from Forster, Cavafy rattles on with ostentatious politeness about the success of A Passage to India, and then goes into some gossip about a mutual friend—a tactic, surely refined during his years as a bureaucrat, to which he smoothly resorted more than once. To a generous letter from Leonard Woolf expressing serious interest (“The few translations of your poems which we have seen have interested us very much indeed”), he replied not at all for nearly two years; when Woolf quite urgently wrote a second time, Cavafy politely sidestepped the urgency, saying he now needed more time for “revision.” When at last he received a contract from the Hogarth Press, he sent it back unsigned, expressing anxieties that the project was (still!) “premature.”
The few tantalizing throwaway remarks of any real interest on Cavafy’s part are—significantly—usually to be found in letters to people other than Forster. Late in 1925 he wrote to the young editor of The Chapbook, in which his poem “One of Their Gods” had been published, saying how much he liked a line from a poem of Siegried Sassoon’s that appeared in the same number: “how strange we grow when we’re alone,/and how unlike the selves that meet and talk”—a line that is, unsurprisingly, rather Cavafian.
And Forster’s more substantive remarks are usually to be found in his letters to people other than Cavafy. Chief among these was George Valassopoulo, with whom Forster is always more relaxed and natural than he is with Cavafy; in these letters you often find observations about the literary world of the 1920s far more useful than the oddly obsequious kowtowing that prevails in the letters to Cavafy himself. To Valassopoulo in 1924 Forster wrote of Cavafy’s erotic poems, which he was understandably keen to see, and admirably keen to see published:
I quite agree with you that they ought to be published, and I don’t think that the British Public is as silly as it used to be on this point. It stands Aldous Huxley and D.H. Lawrence, and I don’t imagine Cavafy will be hotter stuff than they are…. I have never held up a poem because I thought it voluptuous or sordid.
To my mind, the most valuable part of Jeffreys’s volume is the inclusion, at the end, of the forty-seven extant translations by Valassopoulo—which, because they were vetted and authorized by Cavafy himself, will have to be consulted by all future translators of the poet into English.
It says something that the greatest pleasure to be had in Jeffreys’s vol- ume comes in a footnote. In a 1927 letter, Cavafy mentions that he’s had a brief visit from the novelist Nikos Kazantzakis, who was passing through Alexandria. Jeffreys here helpfully appends the text of the novelist’s later published reminiscence of this visit with Cavafy:
He should have been born in fifteenth-century Florence, a cardinal, the secret confidant of the Pope…. Now as I see him for the first time this evening and hear him, I feel how wisely such a complex, heavy-ladened soul of sanctified decadence succeeded in finding its form in art—a perfect match—in order to be saved…. Cavafy has all the formal characteristics of an exceptional man of decadence—wise, ironic, hedonistic—a charmer with a vast memory…. Seated in a soft armchair, he looks out the window, waiting for the barbarians to arrive. He holds a parchment with delicate encomia written in calligraphy, dressed in his best, made up with care, and he waits. But the barbarians do not arrive, and by evening he sighs quietly, and smiles ironically at the naiveté of his own soul which still hopes.
If only this alluring figure had allowed himself to be glimpsed in his letters to Forster!
Jeffreys, who has written a book on the effects of Orientalist attitudes in the work of Forster and Cavafy,* tries strenuously to justify his new publication by giving the inert exchange between his two principals a high ideological significance. In Forster’s aggressiveness and Cavafy’s evasiveness, he suggests, we can see a reenactment of the “politics of empire”—the arrogant presumptions of the colonialist occupiers, the necessarily passive strategies of resistance on the part of the occupied. But this is a stretch. Perhaps the greatest virtue of this collection is that it makes immediately clear a fact about Cavafy, well known to anyone familiar with the poet’s idiosyncratic publishing history, that it took Forster years to acknowledge (and which he then went on to ignore): “he is against the publication of any translations in book form,” as he gingerly admitted to Valassopoulo in 1924.
And how not? Few poets had as acute an appreciation as did Cavafy for the way in which a great deal of time must often pass in order for the contours of the truth, in art as in history, to be revealed. Certainly he seems to have felt this way about his own poetry. In an appreciation of his own work that he anonymously contributed to a French journal (the piece is included in Jeffreys’s edition of Cavafy’s prose), Cavafy described himself as “ultra-modern, a poet of the future generations.” The Alexandrian understood this, but the Englishman never quite did. The first English translation of the poems appeared in book form nearly twenty years after the poet’s death, translated by someone other than Valassopoulos.
“Only connect.” But in the end, The Forster–Cavafy Letters is about a failure to connect. The emotions it provokes are, at best, accidental: there is something extraordinarily touching about the way in which, incandescent with belief in his own way of seeing things, Forster failed, over the course of a decade and a half, to see that at the heart of Cavafy’s work—and, possibly, his life—lay a kind of willed disconnection. We must take seriously Cavafy’s description of himself as a poet-historian: the meanings of so many of his poems lie precisely in what you could call the imperative of detachment, the historiographically crucial element of separation, of distance, of perspective. If there is something curiously unachieved about the Cavafy–Forster correspondence, it’s because only one of the letter-writers was interested in getting through.
Cavafy is said to have enjoyed a friend’s remark that the poet didn’t do three things: grant interviews, give lectures, and write prose. As it happens, Peter Jeffreys is also responsible for bringing to an Anglophone audience that other significant body of the prose writing that Cavafy himself apparently disdained: the short essays, occasional pieces, and literary journalism that he produced, primarily in Greek but sometimes in English, mostly when he was a young man, on a range of usually esoteric subjects. (There are also a handful of prose poems and one short ghost story.) Like the correspondence with Forster, Selected Prose Works—translated, when necessary, into English by Jeffreys, who also provides a commentary—demonstrates that Cavafy, at least, knew what his strengths were.
The pieces collected here, long known to Cavafy scholars, are precisely the kind of thing you’d expect an idiosyncratically gifted young littérateur of the last fin de siècle to produce for newspapers and magazines; of rarified interest in themselves, they can, occasionally, shed some light on Cavafy’s poetry. An essay on “Coral from a Mythological Perspective” dovetails with our knowledge, evident in the poems, that Cavafy was very interested in gems and jewelry. A longish 1893 essay on Keats’s Lamia already makes clear the young Cavafy’s deep interest in, and profound knowledge of, the work of the sophist Philostratus (circa 170–250 AD), whose Life of Apollonius of Tyana (from which Keats apparently derived his lady- vampire subject) was an important source for a number of the poems. A shrewd essay called “Shakespeare on Life” not only reveals the poet’s strong interest in the playwright—one early poem, “King Claudius,” is a witty retelling of the Hamlet story from the point of view of a courtier sympathetic to the prince’s stepfather—but contains a passage that nicely displays Cavafy’s characteristic aversion to monolithic worldviews and rigid ideologies:
I esteem the observations of great men more than I do their conclusions. Minds possessed of genius observe with exactitude and assurance; indeed, when they outline the pros and cons of a matter for us, we are able to draw conclusions for ourselves…. I do not have much confidence in the absolute worth of a conclusion…. I do not care for excessive dogmatism.
While not of the highest quality or originality, such declarations—along with the translations of the poet’s “Twenty-Seven Notes on Poetics and Ethics,” which do shed some stronger light on Cavafy’s philosophy of life and art—could have served as a useful adjunct to interested readers of the poetry.
I say “could have” because neither Jeffreys’s translations nor his commentary is of a sufficiently high level to make this volume as useful as it should have been. The English versions of the Greek are marred by errors, unjustified small interpolations, and solecisms. One egregious example must suffice. In the Lamia essay—which more than most collected here has a real importance, given the centrality of Philostratus to Cavafy’s mature work—a defensive Cavafy condemns the traditional attitudes of Western scholars toward the literature that he himself, rather unfashionably for the time, championed: the literature of the Greek East under the Roman Empire. The following is a straightforward translation of the passage:
Foreign philologists generally speak with disdain about Philostratus and his works, just as they speak with disdain about many writers of the decline (as they have been accustomed to calling it) of Greek literature.
The readers of Jeffreys’s volume get the following:
Foreign philologists generally speak about Philostratus and his work with the usual disdain they show when discussing many writers of the decadence which is how they traditionally refer to the Hellenistic period of Greek writing.
Apart from the gross inelegance of the (wholly unpunctuated) English rendering, the translation is simply wrong: Cavafy says nothing about the “Hellenistic period of Greek writing,” not least because he is talking about the acme of the period known as the Second Sophistic, which came centuries later.
The failures of the commentary are, perhaps, even more reprehensible. Often these are sins of omission. Cavafy’s interests, as is well known, lay in what, until fairly recently, were thought of as the margins of Greek history and culture, especially the Late Antique and Byzantine periods; most readers will require illumination about the often obscure figures belonging to those epochs who appear in Cavafy’s prose as much as they do his poetry. For instance, in a significant essay on the Byzantine poets, a subject of great importance to Cavafy, he writes, of a twelfth-century poet called Michael Choniates, that “only a few of his verses have survived but they are vivid and full of true poetic emotion.”
It would be nice for the reader to know something about these verses, which greatly touched Cavafy—not least because the emotion they sometimes express is the Cavafian one of regret for decayed grandeur. Indeed, it would be nice to have a note on Choniates, a friend and pupil of Eustathius, the greatest of commentators on Homer; an archbishop of Athens, who turned the exhausted city over to the Crusaders; and, interestingly, the last person to own complete versions of two important works of Callimachus, a Hellenistic poet with strong significance for Cavafy’s own work—the writer to whom Forster, in fact, compared Cavafy. It is the job of the commentator to make this kind of connection for the reader; Jeffreys nearly everywhere fails to do so.
And then there are the out-and-out mistakes. It is clear that Jeffreys has no real grasp of the later Greek literature and culture that were Cavafy’s great subjects. One gaffe is the kind of thing that wouldn’t pass in an undergraduate seminar paper. In one essay, the poet writes about the sophists, the itinerant Greek-speaking scholars who flourished at the height of the Roman Empire, at once teachers and practitioners of public rhetoric. These often quite glamorous public intellectuals often wielded considerable influence. Apropos of one Hadrian, Jeffreys helpfully offers the dates of the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian. But anyone with even a passing familiarity with the sophists about whom Cavafy writes—and who people his poems so memorably, not least in the marvelous “Herodes Atticus”—recognizes that the Greek Adrianos refers not to the emperor Hadrian but to the second-century sophist called Hadrian (or Adrian), who lived during the reign of (and was admired by) the emperor Marcus Aurelius—and who, far more important for the reader of Cavafy, was a prized pupil of none other than Herodes Atticus.
How such errors could have made their way into a volume published by a scholarly press is difficult to fathom. They are especially regrettable since this is likely to be the only English edition of Cavafy’s prose for a long time; and they are particularly galling in a volume dedicated to Cavafy—the self-described “poet-historian,” it’s worth remembering, who held his verses about the past to the strictest standards of professional historians. (He considered one poem unfinished and unpublishable because he hadn’t been able to track down the ancient source for the incident it dramatizes.)
One thing Peter Jeffreys gets right is the “high regard” in which Cavafy held the sophists, those formidable intellectuals. But his edition of Cavafy’s prose shows deplorably insufficient regard for Cavafy and the values—of elegance and accuracy of expression, and above all of intellectual scrupulousness—that give such astringent force to his poems, which, in the end, is the work that most readers of Cavafy want to connect with . Like E.M. Forster, Peter Jeffreys admires Cavafy extravagantly, but views him from the wrong angle.