Cavafy, Forster & Cohen

April 29: The Greek poet Constantine Cavafy was born on this day in 1863, and he died on this day in 1933. A career civil servant, Cavafy wrote only some 150 poems, most of these almost unknown beyond his circle of friends and writers in Alexandria, Egypt. E. M. Forster, who was part of that circle for a time, introduced Cavafy to the world in a 1919 essay which famously described him as a "Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe":

Yes, it is Mr. Cavafy, and he is going either from his flat to the office, or from the office to the flat. If the former, he vanishes when seen, with a slight gesture of despair. If the latter, he may be prevailed upon to begin a sentence—an immense complicated yet shapely sentence, full of parentheses that never get mixed and of reservations that really do reserve; a sentence that moves with logic to its foreseen end, yet to an end that is always more vivid and thrilling than one foresaw…. It deals with the tricky behaviour of the Emperor Alexius Comnenus in 1096, or with olives, their possibilities and price, or with the fortunes of friends, or George Eliot, or the dialects of the interior of Asia Minor.

Wendy Moffat's A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster (2010) emphasizes the impact of Cavafy's unusual personality and lifestyle: "He was palpably artificial, and palpably homosexual. And he was utterly intoxicating to Forster." W. H. Auden, also a fan, helped to spread Cavafy's reputation in the West by introducing one of the first English editons of his Complete Poems. Cavafy found new readers recently when Leonard Cohen turned his poem "The God Abandons Anthony" into "Alexandra's Leaving" (Ten New Songs, 2001); below, excerpts from both, Cavafy first:

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don't mourn your luck that's failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don't mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.…

***

 

Suddenly the night has grown colder.

Some deity preparing to depart.

Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder,

they slip between the sentries of your heart.

 

Upheld by the simplicities of pleasure,

they gain the light, they formlessly entwine;

and radiant beyond your widest measure

they fall among the voices and the wine.

 

lt's not a trick, your senses all deceiving,

a fitful dream the morning will exhaust—

Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving,

Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost….


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

advertisement
Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.