Although there have been moments over the past 3-4 years when I thought I would never want to hear about or see Greece again, it is in fact a place that is very special to me and my family. My children are half-Greek, I’ve spent lots of holidays in Greece, I learnt to speak (and read a little) Greek and of course when I fell in love with a Greek back at university, I went through a period of intense study of Greek history and literature.
Constantine Cavafy soon became one of my favourite poets: his sensual descriptions of night-time encounters in the fascinating melting-pot of cultures that is the city of Alexandria are soooo me (which is probably why I loved The Alexandria Quartet so much in my teens). I have about 4-5 different translations of Cavafy’s poems in English, so you can imagine that when I heard about this novel that reimagines a key moment in Cavafy’s life, I had to get it.
Ersi Sotiropoulos is a very prolific, award-winning writer in Greece, but not much of her work has been translated into English as far as I can tell. What’s Left of the Night may be about to change her reputation abroad: it was translated into French and won the 2017 Prix Méditerranée Étranger, and in 2018 the English translation by Karen Emmerich (published by New Vessel Press) was talked about and reviewed quite a bit.
It is 1897 and Cavafy is in Paris, the last stop on the European tour he has embarked upon with his brother. He is a clerk in the Ministry of Public Works in Alexandria, the city that he considers home, although the family has also lived for a while in Constantinople and (surprisingly and far less romantically) in Liverpool. He has published some poems by that point, but largely for close friends – but his best known poems are still to come, and in fact most of his reputation was posthumous, as he was not following the current ‘fashion’ in poetry.
So the novel traces his possible sources of inspiration: Ancient Greek history, erotic desires for men (about which he feels somewhat conflicted still), feeling suffocated by his family and by society. We see Cavafy’s obsession with finding the perfect line or the right word – he was a skilled craftsman and a perfectionist, and had a rather unique use of the Greek language that perhaps only someone brought up abroad could have. This makes him fiendishly difficult to translate, but in this novel Sotiropoulos tries to capture some of the feel, the rhythm, the sensibilities of the poet… and succeeds most of the time.
I’m not quite sure if it is historically accurate to say that this trip to Paris marked a turning point in Cavafy’s writing, but that turning point undeniably did occur at some time:
The great need for rupture in his poetry he had felt so strongly in recent months, the reckless urge to break the rules… to share free of lyricism and elegance, to banish all influences from other poets and movements, to become a movement of his own, may in the end have reflected a need for rupture in his life… How could someone who lived a conventional, conservative, medocre life write important peotry? How could he speak of great passions, heroic ages?
In Alexandria he felt mediocre, a failure. He may have admired Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde, but he did not want to write like them. In Paris, he hoped that he would feel closer to the artistic pulse of the ‘fin de siecle’, but everywhere he goes, he carries the the curse of the city, that lazy, dirty, inadequate city with him, as he says in one of his most famous poems. He cannot leave behind his prejudices, his impatience, his dark and selfish impulses. This is no hero-worship of Cavafy we find in this book, but an acknowledgment that, while the poetic process remains mysterious and unfathomable, it is all about transformation. Taking sorrow, shame, anger, fear of mediocrity and turning it into… complexity. And complexity is beautiful.