The Greek observer of human folly refuses to be entombed by his latest translator's academic thoroughness
When Constantine Cavafy died on 29 April 1933, his 70th birthday, his work was little known beyond Greece and Alexandria, where he spent most of his life. In 1935, with the publication of the first substantial collection of his poems, he began to receive the critical attention his genius merited. His foremost, lasting admirer was another great Greek poet, George Seferis, who observed: "Outside his poetry Cavafy does not exist."
That was in 1946, when several of Cavafy's friends and acquaintances were still alive. Yet the remark is not a harsh one, because the artist he was referring to was the least self-assertive of men. He worked for 30 years as a civil servant in the ministry of irrigation, sometimes making extra money as a broker in the Alexandria stock exchange. His lovers, golden youths who needed money to buy clothes, have all disappeared into the nameless history that accounts for the majority of the human race.
He was fluent in three languages besides his own – English, French and Italian – and enjoyed reading detective stories when he wasn't immersed in the classic Greek and Latin texts that had captured his quizzical and ironic imagination from an early age. In his 60s, he described himself, aptly, as a "poet-historian" and a "poet-novelist".
Daniel Mendelsohn, the latest of his many translators, has had access to Cavafy's 30 unfinished poems and four fragmentary pieces. This beautifully produced book is therefore as complete an edition as one can expect. Mendelsohn's scholarship is formidable. He produces mini-biographies of the emperors, mystics and martyrs who populate the ancient civilisation Cavafy captures with such beguiling immediacy. No previous editor or translator has been so thorough. It could be said, with a certain accuracy, that Mendelsohn is a larger presence here than his unassuming subject. He takes slight issue with WH Auden, who said that Cavafy survives translation, as very few poets do. Auden counted the Alexandrian as one of his main influences, and knew what he was talking about. Mendelsohn argues that the poems are more lyrical, more musical in their original form. This may well be true, but it's not just a matter of coincidence that Cavafy's poetic voice sounds much the same in the renderings into French, by Marguerite Yourcenar, and the English versions of John Mavrogordato, Rae Dalven, and Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.
Let me cite two versions of a single poem "One Night", which was started in 1907 and completed in 1916:
The room was cheap and sordid,
hidden above the suspect taverna.
From the window you could see the alley,
dirty and narrow. From below
came the voices of workmen
playing cards, enjoying themselves.
And there on that ordinary, plain bed
I had love's body, knew those intoxicating lips,
red and sensual,
red lips so intoxicating
that now as I write, after so many years,
in my lonely house, I'm drunk with passion again.
That was by Keeley and Sherrard, writing under the benign guidance of the foremost expert on Cavafy, George Savidis. And this is how Mendelsohn renders it:
The room was threadbare and tawdry,
hidden above that suspect restaurant.
From the window you could see the alley,
which was filthy and narrow. From below
came the voices of some laborers
who were playing cards and having a carouse.
And there in that common, vulgar bed
I had the body of love, I had the lips,
sensuous and rose-colored, of drunkenness –
the rose of such a drunkenness, that even now
as I write, after so many years have passed!,
in my solitary house, I am drunk again.
It could be that Mendelsohn is more accurate than Keeley and Sherrard, but it's their interpretation I prefer. Their ears are attuned to colloquial English, whereas Mendelsohn's aren't. "Having a carouse" is as ugly as it is daft. I can't recall ever having had one. They opt for "intoxicating", which suggests delirious happiness, rather than the unromantic "drunkenness" he uses. That interfering exclamation mark spoils the look as well as the felicitous melancholy of the poem, as Keeley and Sherrard understood. Their edition of the collected poems, published in 1975, remains unsurpassed.
Those dates of composition demand some explanation. It was Cavafy's habit to set down a few lines on a sheet of paper and then place the sheet in an envelope for future inspection. He stored these envelopes in his cluttered apartment, opening them when he felt capable of bringing the half-poems they contained to a satisfactory end. This was his lifelong method. Whenever a poem was finished, he showed it to a discerning friend, not an editor or a publisher. What seems so spontaneous, on the page is the result of years of rewriting and rethinking.
It was EM Forster, who befriended him in Alexandria during the first world war, who said of Cavafy that he stood "absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe". He remained thus, this acute observer of human folly, throughout his heroically ordinary life. He celebrates homosexual desire in a way his near-contemporary AE Housman never could. Housman escorts the living to death, but Cavafy restores the dead to moments of sublime liveliness. This new volume is top-heavy with Mendelsohn's knowledge, yet Cavafy refuses to be entombed academically. He flies free, in his straw hat and his dapper suit, from even the worthiest explication.
• Paul Bailey's Chapman's Odyssey is published by Bloomsbury