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Discovering A Myth-Maker

Cavafy's Alexandria: Study of a Myth in Progress. Edmund Keeley Harvard University Press, 1976. $11.50. 196 pages.

By Marilyn L. Booth

WHEN T.S. ELIOT reviewed Ulysses for Dial Magazine in 1923, he used the phrase "mythical method" to characterize the literary schema then being developed by his contemporaries--Joyce, Pound, Yeats--as well as by Eliot himself. But while the use of "a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity," as Eliot explained his term, was setting the literati of America and the British Isles on fire, in far-off Alexandria, Egypt, a poet who is just now receiving the recognition due a major literary figure was fashioning his own "mythical method." Constantine P. Cavafy, the poet of "Greeks in exile," had begun to construct his corporate poetic statement a dozen years before Eliot's review, and in isolation from the rich literary interchange of artists in the West. Cavafy published for a very select audience during his lifetime--and translations of his work into English were rarer still. When Cavafy died in 1933 on his seventieth birthday, he was known to very few outside the Greek community, but a resurgent interest in the poet during recent years has generated several translations of his work. Very recently, two English-speaking scholars have contributed significantly to our knowledge of Cavafy with complementary works which differ vastly in approach, subject matter and style, but give the English-speaking world a full-length portrait of Cavafy and his work for the first time. Robert Liddell's Cavafy: a Biography sorts out the ambiguities of the poet's life; Edmund Keeley, who praised Liddell's work as "the most authoritative and comprehensive biography of the poet," focuses on Cavafy's poetic development in Cavafy's Alexandria: Study of a Myth in Progress.

Liddell's biography is a pioneer work, for no one has ever presented a complete treatment of Cavafy's life in any language. Previous Cavafy scholars have dealt with biographical material only insofar as it has enhanced their particular interpretations of the poet's work; moreover, the dearth of source materials has made possible a wide spectrum of interpretations, and has even generated disagreement as to dates and details of the poet's life. Liddell has carefully scrutinized all previous sources in an effort to weed out fancy from fact, and the result is a thoughtful, sympathetic and above all scholarly rendition of a life. Launching his study with a discussion of the Cavafy genealogy, Liddell traces the poet's boyhood in Alexandria, London and Constantinople; his return to Alexandria as a young man; and his attempts to conceal his homosexuality from the Alexandrian society in which his family moved--despite their displacement from the upper-class Greek community to a state of near-impoverishment. The book is to a certain extent a biography of the entire family, for Cavafy (who never married, although he may have had heterosexual affairs in early manhood), lived with his mother until her death, and was in frequent contact with his six brothers--whose fortunes Liddell follows almost as assiduously as he does the poet's. And, while Cavafy was not entirely representative of his time, place and background, his story gives an indication of the life of Egypt's ingrown expatriate Greek community at the turn of the century, of the political temper of the times (in which Cavafy was as uninvolved as he could manage to be), of family relations and of social expectations.

The biography is more authoritative than it is provocative, and it is seemingly directed more at those who already claim some familiarity with Cavafy--and especially with the disputes surrounding his life and work--than at newcomers to the poet's work. While straightforward as biography, the author's propensity to lock horns with previous scholars (albeit cautiously and respectfully) impedes the clear flow of narrative by tending toward the tangential. It leaves the novice groping for first base, lost in a fog of detail. Perhaps that is only fair--Cavafy scholars have been stumbling through that fog all along. In addition, the book's organization is often disconcertingly abrupt; an impressive juxtaposition of facts and interpretations unfortunately yields "warehouse" rather than "museum."

BUT FOR THE SAKE of those of us with less prior exposure to Cavafy, the authoritativeness hailed by Keeley is occasionally supplanted by enlightening as well as entertaining sketches of the poet. Liddell's chapter on "Reading and Working Life" is considerably enlivened by the reminiscences of a colleague in Alexandria's Irrigation Office, where Cavafy worked for years. The co-worker remembers:

Cavafy was very cunning. He covered his desk with folders, opened them and scattered them about to give the impression that he was overwhelmed with work and, when the time came for us to go off, he collected them and put them back in their place...On very rare occasions he locked himself into his room. Sometimes my colleague and I looked through the keyhole. We saw him lift up his hands like an actor, and put on a strange expression as if in ecstasy, then he would bend down to write something. It was the moment of inspiration. Naturally we found it funny and we giggled. How were we to imagine that one day Mr. Cavafy would be famous!

Passages like this redeem Liddell's work as an introduction to Cavafy, mitigating to some degree the overabundant attention to less lively details (such as the poet's finances), which are nonetheless of primary concern to those who are truly preoccupied with the poet. But one cannot really criticize Liddell for thoroughness verging on tedium--after all, thoroughness is his avowed goal. An invaluable last word for aficionados, a complete and scholarly treatment of a much neglected subject, Liddell's biography is not, however, calculated to generate a great upsurge of interest in the poet. English-speaking readers are much more likely to encounter Cavafy and his poetry in the works of Lawrence Durrell and E.M. Forster, both of whom used the poet to further their own literary development, thus giving more visibility to Cavafy himself.

LIDDELL'S BIOGRAPHY is just that--a life history--and no more. While he discusses Cavafy's poems as they reflect the poet's life experiences and as they illustrate Cavafy's growing and changing technique, Liddell has not attempted to incorporate a detailed interpretation of the body of Cavafy's work into his treatment of the man. His biography is not the place to turn for an appreciation of the poetry.

But Keeley's essay fills that gap in Cavafy scholarship admirably. Keeley traces the poet's evolution from a labored Romanticist of no particular distinction to a creative and unique spokesman for the contemporary and ancient Hellenic worlds. Cavafy's literary odyssey bequeathed to modern literature a contribution which is just beginning to receive due recognition--a contribution, Keeley believes, akin to that of major poets such as Yeats, Eliot and Pound--who, like Cavafy, shaped "their individual myths out of the cities and countries of their imaginations." But Cavafy, in relative literary isolation, "was the first of these to project a coherent poetic image of the mythical city that shaped his vision"--what Keeley terms "the Alexandrian mode." Keeley shows how Cavafy's development of his "myth in progress" paralleled his personal acceptance of Alexandria in literal and metaphorical terms--and how the mythical city increasingly shut out the real one below Cavafy's apartment window. Thus, imagination and memory became the primary agents of poetic re-creation, giving the real city importance as a "catalyst" for the synthesis of a poetic myth.

Cavafy spun out his Alexandrian mode on two planes simultaneously: the contemporary "sensual city" and the historical "world of Hellenism." His alienation from the real city is most visible in the erotic poetry which sprang from his own experiences--those of a homosexual necessarily but bitterly shackled by the conventions of his milieu. The evolution of these poems from composition to publication reveals a progression from cautious ambiguity to an increasingly more explicit statement of the poet's passions. Such an advancement mirrored Cavafy's developing belief in honest acceptance of one's passions and surroundings, in bowing to the inevitability of circumstance and human limitations. This belief became the sole moral yardstick by which he could judge him self and others. The creation of a myth around his own city--about which he had ambivalent feelings--as well as the acceptance and open avowal through his poetry of passions which were unacceptable to his cultural milieu, were ongoing expositions of the poet's personal unveiling and his commitment to honesty. During Cavafy's last years, his poetry began to display a universal statement: recognition of "man's subservience to the will of the gods," as Keeley puts it.

This development also occurs in Cavafy's historical poetry, which focuses particularly on ancient Alexandria from the age of the Ptolemies to the Arab conquest in the 7th century, although the poet also branched out to other areas of the Panhellenic world and to other historical time periods. In his re-creation of history, Cavafy is selective, searching out historical byways and frequently portraying events from the perspective of the "victim" rather than the "manipulator." Thus, "the game of nations interests Cavafy primarily because of what it reveals about basic, perennial attitudes or emotions and only secondarily because of what it reveals about the historical process..." Keeley explains. History serves a "metaphoric function," and it becomes one limb of Cavafy's poetic organism.

Keeley's skillful organization of the material enhances his thesis, for the essay progresses much as Keeley would have Cavafy's myth evolve--from the first tentative attempts to circumscribe a subject to the buildup of a multicellular organism in which each part functions to the betterment of the whole. Keeley first discusses the interplay between the literal city of Alexandria and Cavafy's mythical counterpart. He then treats each plane--the sensual (contemporary) and historical--separately, and finally unifies the two in a brief discussion of the poet's latest work, and the beginnings of a "universal mode," which led George Seferis, a Cavafy scholar, to state:

...in the poems of old age he gives the impression that he is constantly discovering things that are new and very valuable...It is a strange and rare thing: he died at seventy, but he left us with the bitter curiosity we feel about a man who has been lost to us in the prime of life.

FOR THE CURIOUS neophyte, Keeley's book is a more provocative introduction to Cavafy's world than is Liddell's biography. Yet the two complement one another, for Keeley discusses the poet's life only insofar as it enters into the progression of the poetic myth, while Liddell brings poetry into his book only insofar as it illuminates the poet's life. Thus, for the truly inquisitive neophyte, reading both books more or less concurrently is a highly satisfactory introduction to Cavafy's life and work. And, by juxtaposing the two studies, one is relieved of Liddell's occasionally tedious scholarly circumspection. Both authors write clearly, although Keeley gets the laurels (as Cavafy would put it) for flowing prose and consummate organization. And, for the non-Greek speaker who has lamented the dearth of any form of scholarship on one of Greece's foremost literary figures, the appearance this fall of both works is gratifying.

You said: "I'll go to another country, go to another shore,

find another city better than this one.

Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong and my heart lies buried like something dead.

How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?

Wherever I turn, wherever I look,

I see the black ruins of my life, here,

where I've spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally."

You won't find another country, won't find another shore.

This city will always pursue you. You'll walk the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in the same houses.

You'll always end up in this city. Don't hope for things elsewhere: there's no ship for you, there's no road.

Now that you've wasted your life here, in this small corner, you've destroyed it everywhere in the world. --C.P. Cavafy, 1894.

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