Saturday, April 1st, 2023

A novel of Cavafy ca. 1897

I do not share the high valuation of Ersi Sotiropoulos’s novel about the 32-yer-old Constantine Cavafy in Paris on three days in 1897, What’s Left of the Night. Though more of the book details the last night, I also find the title unhelpful.

I hope that Cavafy has some satisfying sex either then or earlier than
Sotiropoulos grants him. I also have to say that although there are female historical novelists whose portrayals of male homoeroticism convincing (e.g., Mary Renault, and Marguerite Yourcenar, both lesbians), I don’t find Sotiropoulos’s convincing. In particular, the two masturbation scenes do not ring true to me (the question is not whether they happened, which no one knows, but if they are psychologically credible.

I am also far from convinced that Cavafy the poet broke through in Paris in 1897 (four years before he started publishing broadsheets of his poems). Perhaps he began reflection on “abandon” in reference to Mark Antony’s (and Cleopatra’s) last night in Alexandria. Sotiropoulos’s reading of Baudelaire’s “The Albatross” seems credible to me (as how Cavafy may have understood it). But I am unconvinced that Cavafy was thinking of what became “The City” (My mind remain in this wasteland.
Wherever I turn my eyes, wherever I may look
I see black ruins of my life here,
where I spent so many years destroying and wasting.
ou will find no new lands, you will find no other seas.)
Though Cavafy no doubt thought about the city to which he was about to return, was he so lacking in any hope while in “the city of light”?

None of the other characters (well, with the exception of his (s)mother back in Alexandria) seem developed, least of all the peasant boy with bruised legs, or the pigeon boy (last seen bound). John Cavafy and their “friend” (for whom CC has mostly contempt), Nikos Maaras (secretary to the then prominent Greek poet who published in French as Jean Moreas) has much substance. And the most sustained object of adoration, a Ballet Russe male dancer is not touched or spoken to (an older Tadzio to Cavafy’s Aschenbach). OK. Cavafy’s poems were frequently about yearning (though sometimes about remembered encounters), so there is some justification for aim-inhibited (failed) desire in imagining a younger Cavafy.

Though I am aware that Edmund White is an often very generous blurb-supplier, I am astounded that he could write that What’s Left of the Night is “a perfect book” (though “lyrical, impressionist style” is apt enough, White has gone beyond hyperbole in this assertion). To me is it not even close to perfect.

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.