The Greek poet C.P. Cavafy is a writer who elicits ambiguous reactions. He seemed to follow a conventional path in his writing in formal terms, while at the same time confronting moral taboos with his erotic themes, often tinged with suggestions of homosexuality. Conventional as they might sound at first for a reader more attuned to avant-garde experiments, the intense poignancy of his poems places him among the ranks of the extraordinary.
In What’s Left of the Night, a novel by Greek writer Ersi Sotiropoulos which takes Cavafy as its protagonist, the poet’s struggle against conventions, social and personal, takes center stage. The book, which was translated into French in 2016 and received the Prix Méditerranée for foreign fiction, is a fictional account of the last days of a long journey through Europe undertaken by Cavafy in 1897. At the time, he had already published some poems and essays in journals and newspapers, a practice he continued throughout his life, eschewing book publication, but he was not widely known.
This is a coming-of-age novel, told through a layering of parallel themes and stories, centered around three feverish days that the poet spent in Paris. This was to be his only visit to the French capital, but Cavafy would always regard the city as a decisive place in his development.
The story itself is quite simple, almost plotless in action terms. Cavafy is on the last leg of a European voyage he has made with his brother John. They are in turn-of-the-century Paris, where the Commune is still a recent memory, the Dreyfus affair is polarizing the nation, and artistic ferment continues to electrify. Gone are poets like Rimbaud and Verlaine and Symbolists such as Redon and Moreau, yielding their place in the avant-garde to the Impressionists, Cézanne and Picasso. Surrealism is in the air. Einstein is dealing in relativity. Freud and Jung are writing about the discovery of the unconscious and the importance of dreams.
In this context, Cavafy’s transgressions seem small and personal, but they split the armature of the somewhat inflexible poet. Cavafy himself realizes that he is naïve and also comes to realize that this naïveté is something that he needs to shed in order to shoulder what is at that point the burden of his unrecognized genius. In fact, Sotiropoulos brings her protagonist to muse frequently on the comparative differences between himself and the writers who live in the world. Rimbaud, the poète maudit who stopped writing at twenty-three, functions as his alter ego, his shadow in Jungian terms: “The question, he thought, is who can produce better poetry? The one with the quiet life, bent timidly over his desk, his mind fired by desires and the most wild imaginings, fantasies he knows will never become reality, or the other, who rushes at life with gusto, who taunts life like a foolhardy warrior, daring it, betting his very existence in a game of heads or tails?”
Similar doubts were addressed by Cavafy in his work, in a manner which suggests that he strived to move beyond the either / or of action and morality, contesting and destroying artificial and inauthentic polarities.
Many years after his trip, he would write in his Ars Poetica: “Also care should be taken not to lose from sight that a state of feeling is true and false, possible and impossible at the same time, or rather in turns. And the poet—who even when he works the most philosophically, remains an artist—gives one side. . . . Very often the poet’s work has but a vague meaning; it is a suggestion: the thoughts are to be enlarged by future generations or by his immediate readers: Plato said the poet’s utter great meanings without realizing them themselves”.
What were the transgressions that he needed to initiate and experience in order to complete the parallel journeys of art and individuation? In one sense he was a “mama’s boy,” still tied to the Greek notion of filial devotion, despite the fact that he and his brother referred to their mother as “The Fat One.” But there was also a broader issue of family honor and pride: after his father died, the family’s financial circumstances plunged, and with it their social standing. In one of the most poignant scenes of the book, he and his mother make a social call on former friends and social peers. Toward the end of the call, other people in the drawing room make their way to another room, apparently invited to stay to dinner, while Cavafy and his mother are left alone, too déclassé to remain part of their former tribe.
Although this change came late, Cavafy had to come to terms with it in a way that was beneficial rather than poisonous, using it as a means to shed some of the stifling social values and compartmentalization of people with its suffocating rigid morality. Sotiropoulos suggests that this didn’t come easy, however. Despite their own class fall, Cavafy castigates and deprecates his brother John for buying a lovely red kerchief for Rozina, a governess, with whom he is in love, because the woman is of the wrong social class. He comes to recognize his snobbery in this stance and apologizes to John, but still cannot bring himself to ease John’s way with their mother about it; in fact, he adds duplicity to his sins as he lies to his brother about his promise to do so.
The Greek Orthodox ban on homosexuality wars within Cavafy with the ancient Greek exaltation of the self-contained male in myth and legend as well as its cultural acceptance of homoeroticism in literature and art. At a certain point in the story, he feels himself entranced by a Russian dancer (or so he imagines him to be) who is part of a visiting ballet troupe. Cavafy does not engage him, speaking only a line or two about reservations in Paris, all the while despairing of his own timidity. His fantasies and desires raise to a fever pitch. One night at the hotel where they both lodge, he finds the dancer’s door and squats there for three hours with his ear to it, listening to the muffled sounds of what he is sure is lovemaking. He finally rips himself away, overcome with the fear of discovery and jealousy of the unseen and perhaps non-existent couple, and runs to his room where he scourges his body with a loofah: “He stood in front of the mirror and stripped off his shirt. He plunged the glove into the basin and rubbed himself vigorously. . . . He hadn’t given in. Not this time. His rules had helped. He felt almost relaxed. Just now he would like to read a good poem, or to write.”
Decades later, Cavafy would write of his time in Paris and understand that it functioned as a counterpart to his childhood city, Alexandria. Paris was an irreplaceable catalyst to his maturation. Although he realized how different his poetry would have been if he had been brought up there, it would never be Alexandria for him: too much of the grounding of his poetry would center on memories. Alexandria formed his early consciousness of the world. Paris represented a Valhalla and a Hades—a plunge into his unconscious, deep and often scary, but rich in the treasures of communion and self.
Cavafy’s life-affirming mantra in the closing chapters of the book encloses within itself: “abandon. . . .abandon. . . . abandon. . . .abandon.” Not four times, but many, many more, the words reveal themselves as a sacred chant that celebrates, purifies, and then transcends the pedestrian existence that the poet sees as his life.
Sotiropoulos infuses the most intense episodes of this decisive séjour with a surrealistic flavor, a dreamlike flow that unveils ideas and truths not found or not understood in the conscious world. Surrealism thus becomes a privileged perspective above reality. In clear opposition are the majority of scenes in the work, barring the erotic, told in an almost-monotone, somewhat opaque. It is as if the surface of the novel doesn’t extend an invitation to the reader, and resists depth, as perhaps the surface or persona of Cavafy. I believe this reserve kept me from enjoying the book as I might have. The character of Cavafy is rarely appealing: he comes off as petulant, and selfish, although by the end of the work and his journey much of that has changed.
With the caveat that I read this book only in translation, I found the writing to be beautiful, flowing and sensual, with an extreme mastery of rhythm, particularly in the erotic musings and scenes. Unfortunately for this reviewer, the novel in its entirety was a case of not enough, not soon enough, for sustained interest.