Saturday, December 19, 2020

WHAT'S LEFT OF THE NIGHT, three Parisian days in poet C.P. Cavafy's life when his world changed

(tr. Karen Emmerich)
New Vessel Press
$16.95 trade paper, $12.95 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In June 1897, the young Constantine Cavafy arrives in Paris on the last stop of a long European tour, a trip that will deeply shape his future and push him toward his poetic inclination. With this lyrical novel, tinged with an hallucinatory eroticism that unfolds over three unforgettable days, celebrated Greek author Ersi Sotiropoulos depicts Cavafy in the midst of a journey of self-discovery across a continent on the brink of massive change. He is by turns exhilarated and tormented by his homosexuality; the Greek-Turkish War has ended in Greece’s defeat and humiliation; France is torn by the Dreyfus Affair, and Cavafy’s native Alexandria has surrendered to the indolent rhythms of the East. A stunning portrait of a budding author—before he became C.P. Cavafy, one of the 20th century’s greatest poets—that illuminates the complex relationship of art, life, and the erotic desires that trigger creativity.



My Review
: Poets puzzle me. As in all arts, there is a paucity of genius to go around; a spark here, a flare there, and honestly so little of that is even comprehensible during the poet's lifetime. Remember that scene in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as Ford and Arthur are being strapped into the Vogon Poetry Appreciation chairs, the most dreaded of all torture devices? Even Prostetnic Jeltz wasn't the worst poet in the Galaxy, an English schoolgirl (recently atomized for that blasted bypass) was, while still (mercifully) unknown.

I think many of us feel the same way, attending slams and readings because we want to bag one or more of the poets (so totally guilty) without the fuss and bother of dating...ahem...I fear I've said too much. And the point is, this book's subject is one of the acknowledged geniuses of twentieth-century poetry around the world. Constantine Peter Cavafy was one of those gay boys who got bullied a lot. He was unhealthily attached to his mother, who in this book is called "The Fat One" as often as anything else. His family had a very great social fall, investments and wars and other things a young Costakis (one of his nicknames) really wouldn't know much about. He wrote and wrote, completing little and publishing not at all except in ephemera like magazines and broadsheets. He died at seventy, all unknown.

And now he's world-famous, acknowledged as a great master! Go read "Ithaka" if you wonder why. His fellow gay poets, Auden and Forster, bigged him up after his death; but honestly, it was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis whose death did the most to bring him Fame. ("Ithaka" was read at her 1994 memorial service.) How appropriate, I think; a woman whose life was begun, lived, and ended in a world Cavafy would've recognized...the haute bourgeoisie...and who, but for the lightning of Fate would've been his equal in obscurity, used (albeit unwittingly) her own fame to make his.

Okay. I've given you the stakes...poet of huge talent labors in obscurity his whole life like everyone else who commits what's all this got to do with What's Left of the Night? Ersi Sotiropoulos wrote a paean, a song of praise, to the man at a critical juncture in his life, a birthing pain of a poet emerging from a boring failed bourgeois. Cavafy, the poet, doesn't appear like Aphrodite from the foam; he left behind a truncated-by-war but still considerable paper trail. His juvenilia were, in a word, mediocre. He lashes himself with this knowledge, but Author Sotiropoulos puts its cruel certainty into the hand of Greco-French poet Jean Moréas where Cavafy, not known to have met the great man on this flying tag-end trip, can see it en passant as it were. As with all artists, Cavafy responds to a hurtful characterization of his poems as having "weak artistry" by going off the deep end, by standing on his agonized, violated sense of himself and leaping head-first into an insomnia-generated sensory fugue state.

He develops an erotic obsession with a young Russian man, who on scant evidence he decides is a dancer; he spends a long passage working himself into a frenzy without so much as looking full-face at the man, and ending his very peculiar but very hot and sweaty public arousal with a mad dash to his bedroom for a (shameful, second) rub-out. Being a repressed, and very horny, thirty-four at the time, he recognizes that fleeting pleasures are not good for a whole lot: "...he already knew that his desire was far greater than the satisfaction would be, that the satisfaction would betray the desire…that this immediate relief would only disappoint him." A mature person with the drives of a lad, what could be worse.
For many of you, what I'm about to say is a death knell. I didn't want to say it at all. I thought of ways only to hint at it and still not have dirty looks cast at me when the duped reader ran into the wall of stream-of-consciousness prose.

For the six of you who are still reading, let me be plain, this is a *good* thing because Author Sotiropoulos is deploying the wooly sense of place and painful edges of reality that are most available to the writer using this narrative device in service of bringing you-the-reader into the deepest possible contact with Constantine's terrible, terrible agonies of self-knowledge. He is always, in every moment of this novel, in an altered state. He is sometimes, briefly, exalted by some male beauty. He is frequently unkind and downright abusive. And no one feels the sting of his lash more than he does himself. Always sure he is wrong, he projects his convictions without conviction; conversely, he spends gallons of tears sure he knows the location of the art locked inside him, a key nowhere to be found.

It is there. The key is always there in the great poets and writers. Sometimes finding it is more painful than they can bear to endure, so they fail; other times, they find the key and unleash...a hollow thunk; a mousy squeak, a pathetic mewl. To very few the key arrives at the moment they can most ably use the art within. Cavafy, in this book, is not ready; and he does not find the key; but he spends three Parisian days making a map that will lead him back to it: Men, sex, humiliation, and rage.

I caution the readers I know: Do not read past the scene in the Ark. A carriage draws up, a blond aristocrat appears, and shut the book. You'll feel better that way.

I really, really hope, despite my possibly off-putting advisories, that you will attend the birth of the incontestably great poet Constantine Cavafy as midwifed by Ersi Sotiropoulos. The book is gorgeous, and like its stylistic forebears, offers a unique and deeply participatory entrée into the shadowed corners and sunlit uplands of a unique individual's life at its moment of greatest impact. The poet is made to say, during the briefest of lucidities, that:
The purpose of art is to abolish distance.
Cavafy's observation, oneiric and onanistic as it is, explains perfectly this novel's appeal. I think it might be the most profound of the profound things that Author Sotiropoulos has Cavafy say.

Though "It must have been the perch" is a close flatulent second. Heh.


  1. Thanks! ^^ Mighty poet, that Cavafis : ever read his Ithaca? Jolly splendid by Jove ;)

    1. I have indeed read it, P.E. and found it greatly moving. I don't love all his stuff quite as much.


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