Scroll To Top

Polishing Cavafy's
Dazzle: A Conversation with Daniel Mendelsohn

Polishing Cavafy's
Dazzle: A Conversation with Daniel Mendelsohn

Classical scholar and bestselling memoirist Daniel Mendelsohn explains why the time is right for his new translation of eminent gay poet C.P. Cavafy's collected works

Looking at modern desire through the eyes of history, literature and myth is a recurring theme in Daniel Mendelsohn's books, including his family memoir The Lost: The Story of Six of the Six Million , and his literary criticism. So it's little wonder to discover he's been working on a major new translation, C.P. Cavafy: The Collected Poems and The Unpublished Poems for the last ten years. Cavafy (1864 -1933), one of the most renowned modern Greek poets of the 20th century, lived most of his life in Alexandria, Egypt. A journalist and civil servant, he was also a gay man deeply in touch with his desires though not always at ease with them. While Cavafy's poem "Ithaca" has become a staple of LGBT anthologies and lit courses, many of his other historical poems, with their references to figures in Greek antiquity that are unfamiliar even to classicists, have more often fallen by the wayside. But Cavafy has found a powerful champion in Mendelsohn, whose sensitive translations and accompanying commentary make this important poet's haunting meditations on Eros, memory, time and antiquity significantly more accessible and rewarding.

What do you love most about Cavafy?

He's an erotic realist. He sees love through the eyes of the historian. Usually, it's already over and done with by time he starts writing about it. He goes to the uncomfortable places -- to desire when it's gone, to desire when you're too old to be desired back. They may not be prettiest places, but they're important. He's not embarrassed about it, he's forthright. The margins, the shady areas, the out of the way places and people -- these are his themes.

He's also a historian who brings a new context to gay lives in antiquity.

What Cavafy gives gay readers is a deep sense of one's position within a group of people with a history, and within the sweep of History. He's shows that there have always been cute boys who dissed you, that people always grew old and stopped being the most beautiful ones on the block. We get so embroiled in the day-to-day, we often miss the deepest history. But this history is crucial for gay people, because they are so often told they don't have a history. Cavafy's always saying that this has all happened before -- and every time it happens, it's thrilling, heartbreaking, and wonderful.

We take it for granted that Greek antiquity was a haven for homosexuality. But how does Cavafy play with that idea?

Classical Greek antiquity was a time when men and boys had erotic relationships with impunity, and it makes sense that people would idealize it as a moment of safety, even though the actual historical picture was more complicated and weird. But Cavafy has no interest in that era at all. He likes the Hellenistic period, around the third and fourth century AD, when that safety was disappearing and homosexuality was becoming problematized. He's looking at the survival of Greek love as Christianity is rising.

How would you describe Cavafy's position in the literary canon?

He's in a canon of gay writers, but the average college graduate isn't likely to have a lot of Cavafy under his belt. Part of the problem of Cavafy is that his interest in the margins and out of the way places puts him in danger of placing himself out of the canon. He's a contemporary of T.S. Eliot's, and his themes are very much those of 20th century poets: time, memory, cultural appropriation. Yet he's from Alexandria, this weird, rich backwater that's no longer politically important. This might be the final irony of Cavafy's career: He's a major 20th Century poet, smiling at you from the margins of the 20th Century.

Yet his emotional immediacy and world-weariness also make him seem way ahead of his time.

This is an incredibly interesting moment to read his wry, sardonic take on passing of world orders, the disintegration of empire, the inevitable end of the political status quo. All of these are themes of our historical moment.

In a gay context, Cavafy was writing slightly after Oscar Wilde and contemporaneously with Marcel Proust. He was first brought to the English speaking world by E.M. Forster and was also championed by W.H. Auden before you. What do you make of this chain of creative midwifery?

This midwifery isn't exclusive to gay artists. It's what artists do in general. But for minorities -- who are exactly the kind of people that Cavafy was interested in -- it's particularly important to keep the memory of certain poets current. Mass culture favors the obvious, the pat, the reassuring. Yet to have this tart person saying sardonic, true little things is something you want to make sure doesn't get lost.

What challenges did translating Cavafy pose for you?

The deeper into it I got, the more I realized what was needed was not just a new translation, but a full commentary for intelligent, non-specialist readers who want to know what Cavafy is about. A friend who is an eminent classicist told me, "we can't understand these poems unless we understand some important ironies that just disappear if you don't know the historical specifics." I was also able to bring out the meter, assonance, rhyme that people didn't think was there because it wasn't in the previous translations. That was so exciting for me. In previous attempts to present Cavafy as an accessible poet, the poems have been flattened. But his poems are haunted by languages, history, complications. I'm just trying to help polish the dazzle.

How did immersing yourself in Cavafy affect your own work?

I was working on Cavafy the whole time I was working on my book The Lost, and he deeply influenced how I related to my material. He writes about the little people who get crushed by the great forces of history. For example, he has a poem set in 31 BC in Alexandria -- a poem about a perfume peddler who comes into the square on the day of the defeat of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra is announced, but he doesn't know what's going on. I didn't realize it at the time, but as I look back now, it seems obvious that that sensibility really influenced my thinking about how the big events of history affect the little guy, the people we don't remember -- in that case, six members of my family during the Holocaust.

Why do you think there have been so many enduring gay poets through the centuries -- from Sappho to Walt Whitman to Rimbaud to Cavafy, to name just a few? Is there something about queerness that makes for good poetry, or something about poetry that's ideal for expressing queer themes?

The self-positioning of any serious artist is at an angle to everyday experience, and that is a priori the self-positioning of all gay people and minorities. So we have a strong attraction to artistic projects. For comparison, let's think of the nationalities that famously throw off great poets-like the Irish and the Greeks. Maybe there's something about having a boot on your neck for most of history that produces the marginality and anguish that combine to create an extreme poetic sensibility. Irish and Greek poets are part of a colony, yet they also have a sense of patriotism -- a sense that what they are beautiful and noble, despite their oppression. So translate that into homosexuality and there's your answer: everyone's telling gay people there's something wrong with them, yet we know it's beautiful and true. There's the truth of what you feel versus the precedent of people who don't like you. So then you have to say what you think is beautiful, but you can't say it in an obvious way. That makes for great poetry.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Charlotte Abbott