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The Tomb of Translation

BEFORE TIME COULD CHANGE THEM The Complete Poems of Constantine P. Cavafy Translated from the Greek by Theoharis C. Theoharis; Harcourt: 354 pp., $28

July 01, 2001|CHRISTOPHER ROBINSON | Christopher Robinson is professor of European literature at Oxford University and the author of several books, including "C.P. Cavafy" and "French Literature in the Twentieth Century."

It is an odd fact that poets tend to be either larger-than-life figures of rebellion, as Lord Byron and Allen Ginsberg were, or that they happen to lead lives of (at least outward) banal conformity: Mallarme the schoolmaster, Philip Larkin the librarian, Wallace Stevens the insurance man. Constantine P. Cavafy belonged firmly to the latter group. Apart from the periods spent in England and Constantinople, he hardly left Alexandria, where he led an uneventful existence, punctuated only by occasional family dramas, as a clerk in the Irrigation Office: Irrigation is of course an issue of some importance in Egypt, but hardly the stuff of which a poet's dreams are made. Nor is there any evidence of a secret life of debauchery. He was probably seduced, in his early 20s, by an older male cousin in Constantinople and may well have followed up this initiation by exploring the night life of the Ottoman capital. But on his return to Egypt he evidently capitulated to the social demands of respectability.

Yet he is the poet of nonconformity and marginality par excellence. The gap between life and art typifies the Cavafean paradox as a whole. Cavafy is the only modern Greek poet who is so well-known that his work has virtually become part of English, indeed of European, literature. Writers as diverse in generation and context as the Irish poet Cathal Searcaigh, the Portuguese Fernando Pessoa and the American Mark Doty pay open tribute to him. Yet it would be difficult to find poetry more deeply rooted in the byways of Greek history and culture, more evocatively referential to events and subcultures outside the ken of the average non-Greek reader. He is fascinated with the post-classical Greek East, with the artists, aesthetes and lads-about-town of Hellenistic and Roman Alexandria, Antioch and Beirut. What interests him in history is its shadowier or at least its less familiar figures: Caesarion, son of Caesar and Cleopatra; or Julian, the Roman emperor who tried to bring back paganism as a corrective to the frivolity of contemporary Christianity. Even when he deals with a well-known event such as the battle of Actium, he focuses on its unimportance to the man-in-the-street.

The paradox goes beyond questions of his range of reference. His rejection of socially constructed morality, his ironic debunking of ambition and his exposure of hypocrisy, his frank cult of momentary sensual pleasures, seem absolutely 21st century. Yet his emphasis on life as a series of fragmented experiences and sensations whose significance is limited to the person undergoing them, links him directly to the European Decadents of the late 19th century, as does his faith in the supremacy of art. For Cavafy, as for writers from Baudelaire to Wilde, only art, particularly poetry itself, can preserve the fragments of experience and give them lasting value. So, while evoking, in "Permanence," the aftermath of an episode of what he elsewhere refers to in invisible quotation marks as unlawful pleasure, he asserts:

Pleasuring of the flesh between

our half-open clothes,

rapid baring of the flesh--the ideal vision of it

has crossed twenty-six years, and now has found

permanence in this poem.

In an age in which confidence in the survival of high art is evaporating, there is a hint of smug elitism in this assertion of the eternal value of the poem, the same overestimation of the self-as-creator that characterizes Proust. Not surprisingly then, what makes Cavafy's poetry appeal to a modern readership is sometimes less what he says (though his vignettes of a variety of social misfits, his reflections on the nature of time and the power of memory, his sheer delight in young male beauty and in the electrifying quality of moments of sensual pleasure all square with a certain contemporary sensibility) than the way he says it. What Auden called "his tone of voice."

This fact presents a major problem for a translator. Theoharis C. Theoharis' predecessors tended to opt for one of two approaches: Either, like Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (1975, revised 1992), they settled for privileging matter over form, or like John Mavrogordato (1951) or Memas Kolaitis (1989), they were far more observant of verse forms, lineation and other technical effects. Only Rae Dalven, in a translation that originally appeared in the late 1940s but was reissued in 1961, struck a compromise between the two dimensions. Unfortunately, her versions are prone to small errors and the poetic qualities are sometimes hers rather than those of the original, but it was a translation that greatly influenced the liberated young readers of the '60s and still commands a certain affection.

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