Dec/Jan 2011

Selected Prose Works

Eric Ormsby


The poems of C. P. Cavafy, even when fragmentary or incomplete, have a stamp of finality about them; they seem permanently incised, like inscriptions recovered from antiquity. The same cannot be said of Cavafy's prose. His essays and reflections are restless, hesitant, darting. That makes them all the more precious. They reveal to us a Cavafy shorn of pince-nez and sleeve garters; still at a slight angle to the universe, as E. M. Forster memorably described him, but somehow more cozily akimbo. Peter Jeffreys, who last year edited the dry and amusing correspondence between Cavafy and Forster (The Forster-Cavafy Letters, published by the American University in Cairo Press), has here collected, edited, and translated Cavafy's prose writings dating from around 1882 through 1930, three years before the poet's death. The subjects are wildly eclectic. There are essays on lycanthropy, Persian manners, Greek misogyny, Shakespeare; there are gloomy short stories and prose poems in the manner of Baudelaire; there are "literary reflections" that include a fascinating essay on Browning, who was a powerful influence on Cavafy. A section of miscellaneous writings includes "Twenty-Seven Notes on Poetics and Ethics," a series of revealing aphorisms. Thirteen of these forty pieces were composed in English, a language Cavafy knew from childhood. The selection concludes with a self-portrait, written anonymously in French for a Parisian literary magazine, in which Cavafy calls himself "an ultra-modern poet, a poet of the future generations," and shamelessly praises his own "impeccable style" and "perfect sentences."

For the most part, these are the writings of a young man. Cavafy resorted to prose less and less as he matured. Still, it is surprising, and even a bit endearing, to find so austere a stylist indulging in such shamelessly purple prose. When we read his youthful effusions over the "perfumed eloquence" of flowers and the "silver mantle" of the waves of the Bosphorus, we realize with a bit of a start that the distinctive irony we associate with his most famous poems was something learned, something willed, and took years to form.

In certain aphorisms, Cavafy tackles the problem of sincerity in art. Is a poem "insincere" if the feelings that inspired it have changed? But, he asks, "doesn't art always lie?" In fact, "isn't it when art lies the most that it creates the most?" Are Truth and Falsehood just terms for New and Old, "with Falsehood merely being the old age of Truth?" In such reflections, which date from 1902, we witness Cavafy beginning to grapple with concerns that lie at the heart of his verse. We sense that the question of sincerity, which at first appears rather quaint, obsesses Cavafy not simply because he wishes to capture his own experience in an authentic way but because he feels impelled to enter imaginatively into the experiences of others, especially of those who lived and breathed centuries before. Can this be done authentically, or will it result merely in "descriptive poetry—historic facts," a mode he despises? Out of these perplexities, which occupy him for a decade, Cavafy will come, sometime around 1911, to the breakthrough that marks the beginning of his artistic maturity. As early as 1903, in "Philosophical Scrutiny," he seized his guiding insight: "One lives, one hears, and one understands; and the poems one writes, though not true to one's actual life, are true to other lives." It was the truth of those other lives—obscure and long-vanished scholars and sages, as well as emperors and upstarts—that Cavafy would spend the next twenty years exploring in the greatest of his poems.

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