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Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Book Reviews

Waiting for the Movie

The Life and Work of C. P. Cavafy by Dimitris Daskalopoulos and Maria Stassinopoulou. Metaichmio, Athens, 2003, 181 pages, 35 euros.

Roderick Beaton’s magnificent new biography of George Seferis (Waiting for the Angel, Yale University Press, 2003) leaves the reader with only one question: Why is there still no equivalent work about C. P. Cavafy? To this day, there is no authoritative biography of Constantine Cavafy, one of the best-known and most widely read and translated twentieth-century poets. A total of two “lives” of the poet exist, one in English (Robert Liddell, 1974) and the other in Greek (Michael Perides, 1948). Neither work can reasonably be described as scholarly or even accurate; both are riddled with basic errors in facts and dates. A third and more useful work is the schematic “chronology” produced by Stratis Tsirkas in 1963, which is one of the sources used by Daskalopoulos and Stassinopoulou, but which, as Tsirkas says himself, is no substitute for a proper biography. Tsirkas explained the reason why no biography could be written 40 years ago: the lack of access to archival material. Thirty years on, when the poet has been dead for as long as he was alive, the situation remains almost unchanged.

In the absence of available archival sources for Cavafy’s life, one option for the scholar is to concentrate on the poet’s work. In the introduction to his “skeletal sketch for a chronography,” Tsirkas lamented the absence of a second Giorgos Katsimbalis, prepared to put in the hard slog of going through old periodicals and amassing all the available information and texts by and about Cavafy. This, however, is precisely what Dimitris Daskalopoulos has now done — and not just for Cavafy. Daskalopoulos has produced bibliographies of Seferis (1979), Katsimbalis himself (1980), and now Cavafy (forthcoming). He has also researched Alexandrian literary periodicals and collected and edited all the parodies of Cavafy’s work until 1977. All of this represents impeccable and very valuable scholarly work. One can only wonder at his association with the book under discussion.

The present volume raises two essential problems: what it is and for whom it is intended. Its title is, frankly, misleading: The Life and Work of C. P. Cavafy might, not unreasonably, be mistaken for a new biography. Instead, we have what the authors describe, in their brief introduction, as an “ergography” (as though this were a self-evident term). Tsirkas described his own1963 work (Sketch for a Chronology of C. P. Cavafy) as “bio-biblio-chronography,” which conveys the message that we are dealing with some kind of hybrid genre. In the introduction to her Seferis Chronology, Stassinopoulou states that a chronology is selective, not exhaustive (Tsirkas, by contrast, strongly argues in favor of exhaustiveness, and laments his own lack of information and archival access). According to Stassinopoulou, the basis for selection is largely personal, although she says that there are landmark dates and facts in any life that cannot be omitted. She also helpfully explains that a work of this nature should not much exceed 100 pages, for reasons of publisher- and user-friendliness. I am, incidentally, using the terms “chronography,” “chronology,” and “ergography” interchangeably because there are no obvious generic distinctions between the works under discussion.

The Daskalopoulos-Stassinopoulou ergography is a kind of illustrated anthology, not even a catalogue raisonné, of the poet’s life and work. The illustrations are a mixture of visual images and textual quotations. The use of text as a form of decoration in a book about Cavafy may not appeal to every reader. I regret to say that, in this reader’s opinion, The Life and Work of C. P. Cavafy is a profoundly uninteresting book, unsuited even to a coffeetable. It contains the same old pictures (many of the reproductions duplicated here can be found in the Cavafy Album, where they are mostly bigger and better-produced); same old facsimiles; same old errors (the minor English poet William Cowper wrote Hamlet and Charles Dickens has a character called “Silan” [for “Silas”] Wegg in Our Mutual Friend). These errors, incidentally, are merely copied by the present authors from existing published sources. We have to read the same apocrypha about Cavafy’s mother dressing him up as a girl because she had lost her only daughter in infancy, with the implication that this gave him homosexual tendencies. Even if it isn’t common knowledge that little Victorian boys wore pinafores and knickerbockers, how can anyone seriously imagine that Cavafy’s father, an eminent figure in the Alexandrian Greek community of his day, would have permitted his son to go to the photographer’s studio dressed as a girl? (Also, as far as I’m aware, there is no scientific evidence connecting early childhood attire with sexual orientation.) The book also provides unexplained corrections (in this case copied from the Cavafy Album): Did the Cavafy family live on Bedford Street in Liverpool (as Liddell tells us) or on Breadford Street (as the Cavafy Album has it)?

One of the many anomalies in the existing publications relating to Cavafy, and in particular to his archives, is that non-scholarly works have often been permitted to precede promised scholarly ones, which typically then fail to materialize for many years or even altogether. This is like having the spin-offs before — and in some cases without — the movie, and just as purposeless. The most glaring example is Lena Savidi’s Cavafy Album, a kind of scrapbook of previously unpublished photographs, manuscript facsimiles, and manuscript excerpts from the archive, in many cases incompletely or erroneously labeled. This book was never intended as a scholarly work, as was clearly stated by its author, but it contained archival material (truncated and often clearly mistranscribed) that is still not available in any other published form. Meanwhile, the Cavafy archive remains in private hands and accessible only on the basis of personal permission. It seems unfortunate, in the light of this publications history, that The Life and Work of C. P. Cavafy should have been allowed to see the light of day before the Daskalopoulos bibliography.

A life-and-work-ography is not a book that I would choose to read under normal circumstances. I find a mixed anthology of life, work, photos, quotes, and comments very tedious. I have, however, had the dubious pleasure of reading this volume twice: once in the original Greek for this review and once in the English of the forthcoming translation by David Connolly. As one would expect from Connolly, the English version is absolutely flawless, but, once again, who is it for? (I shall also be very interested to learn what kind of text will finally be inserted into the lacunae in the translated version, marked by rows of dots, currently representing citations from Cavafy’s 1903 Memorandum about the Cavafy family, a 40-page, unpublished, English-language document, extracts from which appear in the Cavafy Album — and again in the book under discussion — translated into Greek by Jenny Mastoraki. Not one word of this important document has ever been published in Cavafy’s original English!)

The Life and Work of C. P. Cavafy begins with the birth of the poet and proceeds backwards to the origins of his parents. The first illustration is the well-known photograph of Cavafy’s mother as a young woman. This can also be viewed in the Cavafy museum in Alexandria, and there are excellent reproductions in the Cavafy Album and elsewhere. Quotations follow from Cavafy’s writings about his family, incompletely referenced and taken directly (with permission) from the Cavafy Album. The book is set out by date, but the dates vary in format — from day-month-and-year to month-and-year to, sometimes, just year — depending on the quantity of information available for a given period. Obviously, this increases as the years progress. The book weaves in quotations from Cavafy’s writings, including letters, diary-notes, notes about poetry, and published prose. Regrettably, there are several errors in the quotations from Cavafy’s youthful, humorous diary of the family’s exodus to Constantinople (Constantinopoliad: An Epic), as these have been miscopied from the Cavafy Album (which already contains misreadings). There are also published quotations from critics and readers garnered from periodicals. The main interest in all this mixed material is bibliographical, and the information about Cavafy’s critical reception during his lifetime. The only new piece of biographical information seems to be that Cavafy’s father spent a significant period in Syria (1827-1847). Unlike the Cavafy Album, which ends in 1910, The Life and Work of C. P. Cavafy at least ends with the poet’s death in 1933.

This is a book whose form or format, as imposed by the “genre” of chronography, represents an impediment to accessing any useful content. It is a shame, in the true sense of the word, that the Cavafy scholar should be constrained to read books of this nature in order to glean scraps of information unavailable elsewhere. It gives one the absurd sense of being in the same position as the unfortunate reviewer for Field and Stream who read Lady Chatterley’s Lover to get practical information on gamekeeping.

The last 80 pages of The Life and Work of C. P. Cavafy are devoted to a chronological anthology of Cavafy’s poetry. The selection (as “anthology” means “flower of,” it hardly seems like the right term here) includes early unpublished and disowned poems, and completely subverts what Cavafy himself called the correct thematic arrangement. Although there are no obvious arguments in favor of reading a “chronological” selection of Cavafy’s poetic output, this so-called anthology seems admirably suited to the book that precedes it.

There are now three spin-offs on the market from Daskalopoulos’s bibliographical work on Cavafy begun in 1978: the published text of a lecture on The Alexandrian Literary Periodicals; the fascinating volume, Parodies of Cavafy’s Poetry, 1917-1977, which raises questions about the definition of parody that are beyond the scope of this review; and now, with Stassinopoulou, The Life and Work of C. P. Cavafy. Meanwhile, the movie, C. P. Cavafy: The Bibliography, is eagerly awaited.

Sarah Ekdawi is currently academic director of the Oxford English Centre and a faculty research fellow at the University of Oxford.
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