Thursday, 12 December 2013

C.P. Cavafy

The venality and faithlessness of lovers, especially those younger than oneself, has been a subject of poets from Sappho to Catullus, from Petrarch to Swinburne, and of course to the present day. (When love is going well, one has better things to do than write poems.) Here is a poem on that subject, in the original, scanned from the works of Cavafy (My English translation to follow, I hope.)
In this poem the speaker (who is not the poet) tells how his boyfriend has deserted him and gone with the Mayor's son, who has given him a house and a villa on the Nile, from which he can no doubt watch the crocodile-catchers. The speaker consoles himself with the thought that for two years this lovely boy was his, 'And not for a house, or a villa on the Nile.'
Many English readers of my generation first came across Cavafy as 'The Old Poet of the City', mentioned in Lawrence Durrell's 'Alexandria Quartet', and perhaps, like me, imagined he was a fictional character. A few years ago I was in Alexandria just for eight hours, so I consulted a map and set out on foot to find the flat where Cavafy lived most of his life. I got hopelessly lost, wandering through some very dangerous-looking areas and expecting to be mugged for my English passport. It didn't help that I spoke only English and Greek, so couldn't ask for directions, and anyway the name 'Cavafy' got blank looks. Eventually I gave up, tired and sweaty, (five minutes is enough to make any visitor to Alexandria tired and sweaty) and sat drinking tea at a roadside cafe. When I called the waiter over to pay him I thought 'Why not? One last try; he won't know but I'll ask him.' 'Cavafy? House? Can't find.' 'But it's right here!' It was in the very block of flats above the cafe, which was no doubt where the poet himself had his elevenses.
I climbed the dark staircase of the silent and apparently deserted old-fashioned high-ceilinged block, and on the third floor came to a door with a note saying 'C.P. Cavafy' in both English and Greek. Feeling foolish I knocked, and was surprised when someone answered. 'Is this Cavafy's flat?' 'Yes, come in. have a look round.' Here was his writing room with desk and pen and, I think a pair of his almost trade-mark round glasses. And here his bedroom, with balcony. I went onto the balcony and looked out over a rather grotty part of the city. 'Cavafy himself stood here' I told myself, and tried to feel whatever emotions are appropriate.
It was one of those things whose significance strike one later, long after the event.
I said 'My English transation later, I hope.' I know I translated it once, but I can't remember if, or where, the translation was published, and my (Windows PC I'm afraid) computer has with its usual philistine illiteracy decide the original file is old and boring and deleted it. I shall have to translate it again. Watch this space.
Meanwhile I must find some recordings of English poets reading their own poems, for my 'Apprentice', young Anastasia, to listen to. She speaks very good English, but her school English teacher (who is Greek) has told her that her pronunciation is very bad. She (Apprentice, not teacher) rang me yesterday, almost in tears at the falsity and injustice of the accusation.

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