Review: Kyriaco Nikiason Cavafy

The Many Lives of Constantine Cavafy: What’s Left of the Night by Ersi Sotiropoulos

Constantine Peter Cavafy (1863–1933) is the most widely read modern Greek poet both in Greece and in translation. If we count the ancients, then he is second only to Homer in a literary tradition spanning three millenia. But for all his fame, Cavafy’s biography is defined by just a few stale fragments left scattered by him and those who knew him. These traces form such an incomplete picture that Greece’s Nobel laureate Seferis once remarked: ‘outside his poems, Cavafy does not exist’.

This is a cliché which realises itself, since the image of Cavafy is usually taken directly out of the material found in his poems. With Cavafy, the line between life and art refuses to be drawn.

Cavafy rescues characters picked from neglected histories and obscure places and breathes into them a new existence. His tone is didactic and often ironic – he tells us what to think about his subjects. It is tempting to think that the poet himself is more than mere narrator of his poems, but that he himself is the declared subject. This is nowhere more true than in ‘I have brought to art’ (1921):

I sit and I reflect.
that I have brought to Art—
faces or lines:
of unfulfilled loves.
It knows how to shape
almost unnoticeably
blending impressions,

Desires and sensations
things half-glimpsed,
some uncertain memories
Let me submit to Art.
the Form of Beauty:
filling life up,
blending the days.

The ceremony of reflection marks a total dedication to art as the source of liberation from the harsh sentence of history. This is somewhat predictable for a poet in his circumstances. Here we can already make out one of the most common psychoanalyses of Cavafy’s art of poetry: that writing was his escape from reality.

Early in his life, Cavafy’s well-bred, formerly rich family lost its money. The Cavafys operated a lucrative commercial trade company, which allowed them to maintain a luxurious lifestyle between Constantinople, Alexandria, and England. But by the 1870s, when Constantine was just a boy, their good fortunes had dried up. Within a few years of the death of his father in 1870, the company was wound up, and the family’s luxury would become a closed chapter in their memory.

This was an age of great disruption for the Greek world, which was then spread across the eastern Mediterranean from Egypt to the Levant to Romania and Ukraine, far beyond the borders of modern Greece. Families and clans were split by borders as new states replaced an old empire. Classes were shaken up. The Cavafy children would be forced to worry about how they would maintain their once grand lifestyle. The young Constantine was unready to face the coldness of reality.

The same fate was shared by the family of Manoly Lascaris, the son of a family who claimed descent from a Byzantine dynasty, but whose family had so fallen that he found himself working as a teller in the bank used by Cavafy in Alexandria. Lascaris met a Cavafy whose description follows the textbook definition of the maligned poet: ‘he never washed himself and stunk from afar, despite some whiff of cheap perfume on his face!’

Cavafy was to find work for thirty years as a clerk in a department of the Egyptian civil service known as the ‘Third Circle of Irrigation’, a name that recalls a Dantean prototype. His new position in the world was, in the judgment of Lascaris, ‘what happens, as you know, with all bankrupt bourgeois’. What could not be lived in reality would have to be imagined, sprayed-on.

Much has been made of Cavafy’s act of working on a family history titled My Genealogy between 1882 and 1909, a catalogue of distant connections to figures of minor nobility and historical significance. To recall ancient grandeurs was to remind himself that he was not the same as (in his own words) the ‘insignificant functionaries’ he sat with at work. The same for Lascaris, whose sense of nobility was so strong that even after he had made a home in Sydney with Patrick White he was still bitter about the end of the Lascarid dynasty of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1261.

Constantine’s reconstruction of his sense of place in the world would dominate the rest of his life and determine the shape of his poetic world. The harsh view is that for Cavafy poetry was a kind of perfume sprayed onto a wretch of a life. A body of poems singing the stories of Hellenistic princes, Phoenician luxuries, and perfumed boys allowed imagination to replace reality.

In his poem ‘Of Coloured Glass’ (1925), two Byzantine rulers wear crowns of fake gems at their coronation, their empire having been drained by war and plague:

For they had but a few precious stones
(great was the poverty of our suffering state)
they wore manufactured ones. A pile of glass bits,
red, green, or blue. Not at all
too plain, nor improper
do they seem to me, those bits
of coloured glass …

They are the symbols of what they ought to have had,
of what after all it was right for them to have,
in the crown of a lord such as John Kantakouzenos,
a lady such as Irene (daughter of Andronikos Asan).

Perhaps the poet saw his own life reflected in parallel stories of fallen glories. Facing decline, poetry was an imperative and a solution. But Cavafy’s poetry is not defined by straightforward lament – instead by idealism, a system of reactions to the past and lessons on ways forward. In the poem above, Cavafy raises reticence in the face of the decline of the empire from disgrace to virtuous pride. The lesson is that virtue exists where those who define it see precisely the opposite.

Cavafy’s poems are often concerned with destinies confined to hopelessness by time and place – again, perhaps an abstraction of the way he viewed his own life. In his famous poem, ‘The City’ (1910), the subject, longing to escape to some other place, is instead trapped in the present:

New places, you’ll never find them. You’ll never find other shores.
The city will follow you. In the same streets you’ll stroll,
and around the same places you’ll grow old,
and in the same houses will you go grey.
You’ll always come back to this city. Don’t hope to go away.
There’s no boat for you, no road.
Since you’ve wasted your whole life here,
in this little corner, so you’ve ruined it in all the world.

The message here is not simply that the fate of circumstance is unavoidable, as it is often read. No, here the very longing of the character is both the cause of his imprisonment and his way out. The task for him is not simply to wish and imagine another reality, but finally to leave behind his present one.

The emphasis of the poet is once again on positive action as opposed to miserable indifference. This again we see in ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ (1904), where a city comes to a standstill as its rulers wait for the impending invasion of a foreign horde. When they never turn up, no one knows what to do next:

And now what will happen of us without the barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

In essence Cavafy puts the burden of action on the subject. In ‘And the wise perceive things coming’ (1915), the future is ruled by those who keep their ears open, literally:

The wise are the ones who know
what is coming in the future. Their hearing
is here and there disturbed in times
of deep contemplation. The mystical sound
of things to come reaches them.
And they listen carefully. But in the street
outside, the masses hear nothing.

We see that Cavafy is not merely the poietes–historikos (poet–historian) as he so called himself, but a poietes–didaskalos, a poet–teacher. But if Cavafy’s authoritative voice is a few centuries late to the coronation of the Kantakouzenoi, the same didactic and moralist position can still be seen even in the poetic works that have ordinarily been called ‘erotic’ and cast aside from his formally ‘historical poems’.

Across Cavafy’s oeuvre, his positions are founded on dialectical oppositions. Cavafy reacts to the treatment of histories by others. His work is marked by the uniformity by which he refuses the rejection of periods like the late Byzantine (which others, following Gibbon, treat as decadent and degraded) and of experiences like the love between two men (which is immoral, fleeting, and destructive).

The canonical reception of Cavafy’s works denies the dialectical method in the poet’s work and so denies the work’s unity. The ‘historical’ poems are separated from the ‘erotic’ (the second category so christened with the same disapproval that classicists once used the term ‘Greek love’ to refer to homosexuality.) An early foreign admirer of Cavafy’s, W.H. Auden, saw the latter as ‘too camp’. In the national reading, the sexuality of the ‘official’ Cavafy is an exception to the rule that defines the poet as the lyricist of the Greek spirit. To apply Lukács’ commendation/condemnation of Hölderlin, ‘[Cavafy’s] glory is that he is the poet of Hellenism’. (Take that as you like it.)

But the Cavafian corpus resists the absurd opposition that is imposed on it – erotic versus historical, homosexual versus patriotic. Rather, Cavafy’s erotic sensibility actually defines his outlook on society and history, and is not separate from it. Oscar Wilde’s ‘love that dare not speak its name’ is in Cavafy an ‘unlawful’ and ‘irregular’ pleasure. Cavafy adopts the language of his opponent to supress it. The ordinary operation of syntax is inversed: since the ‘pleasure’ is extolled by the poet for its beauty, the noun denies the negativity of its epithets, ‘unlawful’ and ‘irregular’.

The poet redignifies the desire between two men for both its spiritual and physical validity. In ‘Two young men of 23 and 24 years’ (1927) this desire becomes so much as ‘sensual agapē’ (using the Christian and spiritual word for love) and plainly ‘eros’ (the word that connotes sex and passion). Here Cavafy takes full ownership of his marginality and sees pride where others see only shame: again, from Hölderlin, ‘Where there is danger grows / salvation too.’

All this having been said, Cavafy’s idealism is problematic for a reader who wants to know more about his real life. The damning observation of Seferis would have that the only way to know Cavafy the man is to read his poems. The problem is to what extent his poetic world is more artificial, more sur-real than simply real. Since the poems are built on a system of dialectical responses to history and reality, the world they construct is more properly seen as a variation of reality than a representation of it. The problem is: what was the reality to which he was responding?


This question is taken up in a new work by one of Greece’s most decorated contemporary writers, Ersi Sotiropoulos. Her What’s Left of the Night, impeccably translated by Karen Emmerich, gives an imagined account of Cavafy’s three-day visit to Paris with his brother in 1897. Cavafy, then in his mid-thirties, had been experimenting in verse for a decade.

All we know about this period in Cavafy’s life is contained in a few documents held in the Cavafy Archive in Athens: several letters from his mother, one sent to a cousin, and some financial records for travel expenses. In May 1897, Constantine and his brother John set sail from Alexandria for a tour of Marseille, Paris, and London. The boys’ mother wrote several letters to her ‘most beloved and golden, golden boys’, sent so frequently that she could not practically have received replies between mailing them. The boys were, by this point, conditioned by their family’s financial decline and were concerned about money – Cavafy noted that ‘funds are not inexhaustible’, and his brother kept tabs on their expenses abroad. In Paris, they stayed at the Hôtel Saint-Petersbourg, near to the Opéra where they saw Faust. Cavafy wrote that ‘“Opera” is not quite in my lik[ing]. I like drama best, which is literature in action’. He preferred Œdipe Roi at the Comédie Française, which was put together ‘wonderfully well’. From Paris the two brothers moved to London, then back to Paris on their return to Marseille to take the ship back to Egypt, where they would return in June.

Since this glosses almost all we know about the brothers’ short holiday in Paris, there is not much in the record against which Sotiropoulos’ fiction can be compared and not much on which it can be based. In choosing to elaborate on this episode in Cavafy’s life, Sotiropoulos’ hands are tied by very little that is concrete.

This freedom is reflected in the fact that Sotiropoulos’ novel does not follow any real plot. The author attempts a portrait of the poet over a short space in time. The process of building the necessary backdrop – of the artistic world in Paris at the fin de siècle – occupies most of the first several chapters. But why Paris? This seems to be driven by the broader objective to situate Cavafy among a network of artists to which the author seems to believe the poet belongs, in both repute and stature. Justifying this then takes up the remainder of the book, which is a kind of narrated journal of meetings and visits around the city which are punctuated by Cavafy’s self-reflections as the author imagines them.

The task of assimilating Cavafy into the world of European modernism is played out literally: the author follows the introduction of Cavafy and his brother John to the Parisian literary scene. Cavafy goes red at the prospect of meeting fellow Greek poet Jean Moréas – the father of Symbolism in France – because ‘after all, he wasn’t just any poet, but a leading cultural figure who had inspired many literary movements, perhaps one of a handful of individuals whose opinions truly mattered’. He sends two of his very earliest works to Moréas for his opinion. The verdict of the ‘great poet’: ‘Weak expression Poor artistry.’ The young poet is devastated. He feels awkward when he visits his judge’s library, even if the man himself is not there.

It turns out that Cavafy’s literary initiation to the Parisian scene equates at most to nibbling at its margins. The poet’s failure seems to serve two purposes in the book. It is more believable for not being easily done. More importantly, however, it is the basis of a portrait of Cavafy which is consistent yet problematic in Sotiropoulos’ book. The encounter with Moréas (even if the two poets never meet in person) is one of a series where Cavafy is portrayed as the unsure artist, daunted by the standard of the great masters and his inadequacy.

In one scene, a sleepless Cavafy in his hotel room observes his clothes ‘flap[ping] without a care … indifferen[tly]’ in the wind. This ‘recalled [to him] the death of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which he had recently read.’ Cavafy does not only realise his powerlessness before death, but his mortality before the gods of art, whom Tolstoy represents:

Would he ever be able to write with that kind of force [as in the scene of the prince’s death], to achieve the loftiness of Tolstoy’s prose? What he desired above all was to shake his poetry free of lyricism and ornamentation, to uproot the unnecessary, to cut as close to the bone as possible. Would he be able? So often, reading a volume by another poet, he felt a kind of physical irritation at all the adjectives, the flights of fancy, telling himself with disdain that the poet simply made the language undigestible – but could he identify the same flaws in his own poems?

Here is one of the tensions in the book. Is Cavafy dominated by unsureness because he feels unable ‘to achieve the loftiness’ of the greats? Or is his will to ‘shake his poetry free’ a search for liberation from the chains that bind (and which have been laid by those same greats)?

Everything we know about Cavafy’s creative method and its product leads us to believe that the poet was motivated more by perfection than fame. But Sotiropoulos takes the other route – a Cavafy trembling at the feet of Moréas and Tolstoy, longing to be accepted into their world. In this the author has adopted the familiar motif of the artist afflicted by the dread of comparison to the greats. But in doing so, her portrait of Cavafy departs from believability.

Cavafy is a poet defined by didactic confidence yet here he is reduced to self-doubt. This is not only wrong – for Rilke teaches that the only cure for the dread of comparison with others is in retrospection, to ‘[g]o into yourself’ – but worse, it is very un-Cavafian. If any artist embodies the Rilkean ideal of the poet fixated on the purity of his art and not on his reception, it is surely Cavafy. What little he published was disseminated only among his trusted friends, a calculation in favour of being true over censoring himself.

Poetic self-exile was for Cavafy a source of freedom. It was a way to avoid the pressure to conform to someone else’s rules, those of readers and critics, as he writes in one of his essays on poetic methodology:

The author who seeks the certainty, or just the likelihood, that he will sell all his books … he is sometimes influenced by those prospective sales. Even if he is honest, … there we bill be times when – without him even wanting it, without even realising it – he will think about what the masses like, and what they buy, and he will make some small sacrifices – he will say some things in a different way, and omit others.

To recycle his words, the aim was ‘the pure pleasure of [the] pure body’ (‘Days of 1896’ (1927)) – the unburdened words of sense and experience.

Cavafy did the very thing that Sotiropoulos describes above – he purified his style. The cutting of words and ornaments evolved into a conscious ritual of cleansing, what he called a ‘philosophical scrutiny of my poems’. But this was only possible in a state of self-imposed creative isolation – or at least so Cavafy thought.

Instead, Sotiropoulos’ Cavafy grovels at the image of Moréas, who is not even there to meet him. In Paris, Cavafy floats around a world in which, as Sotiropoulos describes it, the ‘crème de la crème of Paris [is] luxuriating in dainty indolence’ and the poet is but a mere spectator of it.

Sotiropoulos’s book faces a great challenge because Cavafy already exists beyond its pages. Two Cavafys must compete – an ‘imagined’ and a ‘real’. The failure is that the author so much blurs the lines between the two by saturating the text with biographical and historical artefacts that the imagined character is never allowed to truly exist. The walls of the stage are hanging with guns that never go off. Sequences of historical trivia do nothing for the story. The poet is denied all autonomy. The city map is a web of did-you-knows and the plot a guest list for some gilded literary salon with Cavafy knocking at the door.

What could have been a delicate portrait of a troubled and paradoxical France at the fin de siècle instead soon falls to a series of awkward and predictable references. ‘[T]here was no doubt that French fashion was at the forefront internationally’. All the great cafés and restaurants have to be mentioned: Café de la Paix, Le Procope, Café Riche, Maison Dorée. One of these is where ‘Balzac and Dumas used to eat’, another ‘where Rimbaud stabbed Verlaine. The poet Charles Cross had been there, too.’ The Nouvelle Athènes is barely mentioned before someone must ask ‘Did you know Émile Zola lives near [t]here?’ The Cavafys’ hotel is where ‘The Russian Ballet of St Petersburg … always stay … when they’re performing in Paris’.

Sotiropoulos’ description of the city follows her portrait of Cavafy: nothing is of any value or significance if it is not associated with someone important. Everywhere is ‘le Tout-Paris’, ‘the chosen few. Politicians, princes, even kings’, and ‘smartly dressed ladies with white lace umbrellas … followed by governesses loaded with purchases from Galeries Lafayette’. The Commune is mentioned dismissively a few times when the brothers go for a literary tour of Montmartre (an uncomfortable metaphor for the whole book).

Nowhere is the Paris in the wake of social and industrial revolution, or the city recovering from its defacement by Baron Haussmann, where the lace frocks of grandes dames brush past urchins in dirty canvas.

Sotiropoulos has tried to situate her Cavafy in a glamorous network of artists in a decadent age. This is less objectionable for being ahistorical – the Cavafy in this book we can find nowhere outside it – than because it suppresses the individuality and complexity of Cavafy’s poetic identity. His poetics – it is important to recall – was scarcely at home even in contemporary Greek literary circles, let alone at Paris.

The failure of this book should be read in line with the problem of the reception of Cavafy into the Greek national canon. There he is destined to be read by schoolchildren who are meant to be awed by the long and great cultural legacy of their nation. The process of ‘officialising’ Cavafy in this way follows three stages: sanitisation, nationalisation, and exemplification. First it castrates the poet by sanitising him of his indecent element (the homosexual, of course). Then it works to situate him among other ‘great men’ of the national literary tradition, alongside Homer, Thucydides and Solomos. Finally it searches for him an even higher pedestal, to claim him as Greece’s representative among the gods of literary modernism.

Sotiropoulos cannot be accused of the first objective, of de-sexualising Cavafy. But if the poet’s sexuality is not in this book repressed as it is elsewhere, it is nevertheless reduced to satisfy the author’s reductive conception of decadence, where gay desire is just another benign folly without substance. This we see in a scene where Cavafy masturbates to the thought of a young dancer from the Russian ballet company visiting his hotel, and at the end of the book, where Cavafy observes the dancing shadows of men at the urinal: ‘It all meant something but he was too confused to figure out what.’ The same we may repeat for the treatment of the poet’s sexuality in the book.

If Cavafy’s sexuality is not here served with scorn or ridicule, it seems at most to have been included because the poet’s sexual identity is taken conveniently to support the second and third objectives of the process of ‘officialisation’– to paint a portrait of Cavafy as some grand homme de lettres. Cavafy’s sexuality is represented as a kind of self-pleasure, a decadence not to be condemned but to be seen as a chosen Epicurean ideology. Since this just happens to fit with the lives of literary contemporaries, Wilde, Verlaine, and such, Cavafy can be allied with them and paraded as our man in Paris.

To get to this stage, the author has tried to make the poet fit to the well-rehearsed script for a developing artist, forcing him into a kind of made-to-measure character. This Cavafy wholly unfits both the polemical character we meet in the poems or the introspective creative method by which they were formed. But if there is hope between the lines of this attempt to cleanse and appropriate the poet, it is that the book shows that it can only be done at a stretch.

All foreign sources have been translated by the author unless a translation is cited. The supplied dates for Cavafy’s poems follow those of G.P. Savvides. I thank my friend Michael Alexandratos for helping me with the painful task of deciphering Cavafy’s handwriting in documents from the Cavafy Archive, held by the Onassis Foundation at Athens, and accessible digitally.

Works Cited

Friedrich Hölderlin (Michael Hamburger trans., Jeremy Adler ed.), Selected Poems and Fragments (Penguin 1998).
Κωνσταντίνος Π Καβάφης (Γ.Π. Σαββίδης ed.) Τα Ποιήματα, 2 volumes (Ίκαρος 2014 [2019]).
Κωνσταντίνος Π Καβάφης (Μιχάλης Πιερής ed.), Τα Πεζά (1882; -1931), (Ίκαρος 2010).
Vrasidas Karalis, ‘In Memoriam Manolis Lascaris, a Byzantine Aesthete in Australia’ (2006) 66:3 Southerly, pp. 76–81.
Georg Lukács, ‘Holderlin’s Hyperion’ in Georg Lukács (Robert Anchor trans.), Goethe and His Age (Merlin Press 1968), pp 136–156.
Rainer Maria Rilke (Charlie Louth trans.), Letters to a Young Poet (Penguin, 2013).
Γιώργος Σεφέρης, Δοκιμές (Ίκαρος 1974), vol I.
Ersi Sotiropoulos (Karen Emmerich trans.), What’s Left of the Night (New Vessel Press 2018).
Στρατής Τσίρκας, Ο Καβάφης και η εποχή του (Κέδρος 1978).
Nanos Valaoritis, ‘A Memoir’, (2008) 43:2–3 Agenda.