Ersi Sotiropoulos: Τι μενει απο τη νυχτα (What’s Left of the Night)
C(onstantine) P Cavafy was a noted Greek poet, born in Alexandria, where he spent most of his life, though he did also live in Liverpool and what was then Constantinople. He was a friend of the writer E M Forster and influenced, amongst others, Lawrence Durrell, who even had him as a character in The Alexandria Quartet.
This novel is set during three days in 1897 when Cavafy, together with his older brother, John (Constantine was the youngest of nine) visited Paris. This period was key for Cavafy’s artistic development, which is a key theme of the novel. However, the reduced circumstances of the Cavafy family and Cavafy’s sexual issues are also key. The title comes from Isaiah 21:11 ( A prophecy against Dumah : Someone calls to me from Seir, “Watchman, what is left of the night? Watchman, what is left of the night?”)
We follow the two brothers as they make their way round Paris. They are being careful with money, not least because the Cavafy family fortunes, which had been very high, have now fallen on hard times (hence the period in Liverpool) and money is tight. For example, they yearn to dine at the Maison dorée, an expensive restaurant, where they would have regularly dined in days past, and, more than once, consider going there, only to reject the idea.
The key plot involves their relationship with Nikos Mardaras. Mardaras is the unpaid secretary to the influential Greek poet Jean Moréas, who wrote in French. Moréas is away in Greece during the course of the novel but Mardaras seems to have the run of his house, not least to deal with his correspondence. The Cavafy brothers are taken there twice and Constantine marvels at his extensive library, though does somewhat sneer at it (I thought it somewhat limited in range). Constantine had sent two poems to Moréas and sees the envelope on the desk, with a handwritten comment: Weak expression Poor artistry. Who wrote this comment? Constantine does not know but is haunted by it throughout the book.
Mardaras seems to take the two brothers in hand and take them round Paris. John is very fond of him while Constantine is highly critical of him, seeing him only as Moreas’ lackey. (Cavafy clearly is somewhat snobbish, as we will see elsewhere in this book.) Thanks to Mardaras, they do get to see parts of Paris they might not otherwise have done, including inside Moréas’ house and a guided literary tour of Montmartre with a countess. In particular, there are references to The Ark, a somewhat risqué and exclusive night club, outside Paris, which Mardaras mentions several times and which Constantine suspects does not exist. He later finds out that it very much does exist.
As well as struggling with the reaction to his poetry, Cavafy struggles with his poetry, his creative art.
He had come to a kind of conclusion a short while ago. Not a conclusion, exactly, but an aesthetic model of sorts, a concept that might relate to poetry more generally and which, were it to be applied with talent, might be the key to a poem’s success. The circle of life. Life, death, the in-between.
His ideas, he states, grabbed hold of a thread, a scrap from the weft of life, something so small as barely to register in the grand turmoil of passions and events. They grabbed hold of it and stripped it to the bone. Is this the right approach? He remains unsure. For him there has to be some form of necessity shaping Art, presumably a reaction to the Art for art’s sake exponents.
We hear of numerous other writers during their stay. The Countess, for example, shows them places associated with Verlaine, Rimbaud, Zola, Baudelaire and others. He himself is eager to learn about a new young writer, Marcel Proust, but feels that he will stick to Anatole France. He compares himself (very unfavourably) with Tolstoy as well as with Rimbaud, Verlaine, Mallarmé and Baudelaire. He makes comparisons with other art forms. He does not, for example, particularly like music but does enjoy listening to human voices.
There is also criticism of the French. Much is made of anti-Semitism, in the light of the Dreyfus Affair, and also of the fallout from the Taxil Hoax. However, he is also critical on several occasions of Tout-Paris, i.e. Parisian Society, though this may be, at least in part, because he and his family have fallen on hard times. It is not just the French but the English as well who come in for mockery, with Mardaras saying civilisation stops at the English Channel.
The other key issue that Cavafy struggles with is his sexuality. A group of Russian ballet dancers are staying at the same hotel and he is attracted to one of the (male) dancers, masturbating over him several times and being jealous when he hears him having sex with a woman.
As his brother says of him You must admit, your way of seeing things is rather different from how mere mortals think. Clearly, Sotiropoulos is showing that the artist is a different person. His brother John is also a poet (though Constantine remarks that there is only room in the family for one poet) but he is seen in this novel as merely the kindly older brother and no more. Cavafy is different as we see in many occasions and not just in discussion of his art. He does not quite seem to fit in – to Paris, its society and even is geography, to his family (he is very critical of their mother, calling her The Fat One) and to the people me meets, such as Mardaras and the Countess.
Given that we follow him for only three days (albeit with references to is past life), Sotiropoulos gives us an excellent portrait of the artist and his struggles, how he copes (or does not cope) with his art, other people, his family, his sexuality and his environment. Whether you know of or interested in Cavafy or not, it is an excellent novel about the artist and his life.
First published 2015 by Ekdoseis Patake
First English translation in 2018 by New Vessel Press
Translated by Karen Emmerich