Cavafy at Random: The remains (in prose) of the great Greek poet

CavafySelected Prose Works

by Constantine Cavafy translated and annotated by Peter Jeffreys Michigan, 184 pp., $24.95

Constantine Cavafy is a major figure in modern poetry, repeatedly translated into English. His prose, however, remained uncollected and unpublished in English — until now.

Of course, a good many fine poets have proved no slouches when it came to prose: Baudelaire and Poe, both influences on Cavafy, are prime examples. Yet perhaps the most interesting thing about these 40 short pieces (chosen from 64) is that many of them were written in the decent English Cavafy picked up during several years in England. They stem chiefly from his early to early middle years, and only 13 had been published before. They comprise essays, prose poems, what Peter Jeffreys judiciously terms “attempts at short story writing,” articles on the Greek language, and aesthetic reflections. They extend from Greek folk songs to Shakespeare, from Philostratus to Browning and Tennyson, and touch upon Keats and Wilde, Lucian of Samosata and Leigh Hunt.

Cavafy goes in for lengthy quotations, sometimes dwarfing his own contributions, either out of scrupulous modesty or to spare himself some effort. Curiously, writing on a poem such as “The Glove,” he merely paraphrases Schiller’s original, quotes the English of Hunt in full, and concentrates on the extended Browning version. The problem that affected so much of Greek literature concerned Cavafy in Alexandria relatively little: Was one to write in katharevousa, the stiffly purist, or dimotiki, the spoken Greek? The latter won out, but Cavafy himself, though slowly gravitating toward the demotic, eventually coined his own hybrid language. Of course, this does not come across in translation.

Jeffreys has divided the material into four categories: Essays, Fiction and Creative Writing, Literary Reflections, and Miscellaneous. There are political subjects, such as two pieces arguing for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece, and one on the unhappily divided island of Cyprus. There are historical items, such as “Greek Scholars in Roman Houses” and “A Page of Trojan History,” as well as curiosities, such as “Fragment on Lycanthropy” and “Coral from a Mythological Perspective.” Linguistics figure in “Professor Blackie on the Modern Greek Language” and “A Note on Obsolete Words.” More or less disguised autobiography appears in “Musings of an Aging Artist” (written when Cavafy was somewhere in his thirties) and “On the Poet C. P. Cavafy,” which Jeffries describes as “a French auto-encomium that was written by Cavafy but meant to be anonymous.”

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