My enjoyment of What’s Left of the Night increased dramatically after I stopped reading and did a bit of online research on Cavafy, possibly the most celebrated Mediterranean queer poet since Antiquity. Herein lies my advice to future self (and fellow readers).
Before starting this novel by acclaimed Greek writer Ersi Sotiropoulos, I had only read two or three of Cavafy’s poems. He’d popped up here and there in my reading, in books or articles by Daniel Mendelsohn and Andre Aciman, brief but indirect glimpses of a towering figure of turn-of-the-century literature.
What’s Left of the Night isn’t a biography, focusing instead on three days Cavafy spends in Paris with his brother in the summer of 1897. When I put the book down, perhaps a third of the way through, I was frustrated by the mundane details of the brothers’ trip. Much was made of where they should eat and who they should try to meet. They hang out with the “tout Paris”, the aristocrats and intellectuals who make-up the literati, and yet no one seems to have anything insightful to say. They vaguely search for the Ark, a secret underground party whispered about for its debauchery. Cavafy agonises about what an influential local writer may or may not think of his poetry, and the homosexual desires that he can no longer deny.
Come on! This is one of the world’s greatest queer poets, in the world’s cultural capital, at a moment when the continent is on the cusp of colossal transformation. Is that all you have for me?
I shut the book and put it away. Often, when a piece of writing doesn’t make sense, I turn inward rather than against the author. What am I not getting? Irritated, I read a few reader comments and reviews: the frustration wasn’t mine alone. There is both too much exposition and too little. I am not an erudite reader, was I missing context?
I found a few of his poems online (the recently published Mendelsohn translations were priced out of my reach). Appreciating poetry does not come easy to me, but Cavafy’s verse felt lucid, clear and pierced with insight. I read some biographical notes. Aha! There was the context. Finally, I settled on an interpretation of this book that allowed me not only to persist but, eventually, to enjoy it thoroughly.
Cavafy’s celebrated style came into being as the century turned, shortly after his Parisian trip. By 1897, I’m told, the 34 year-old Cavafy had written very little of lasting significance. This seemingly innocuous interlude is not a revealing glimpse into the mind of a great poet. It’s the last days of a mediocre talent about to rebel against everything that has informed his writing to date. Sotiropoulos doesn’t describe the click of the artist finding his voice exactly, she explores the moments that immediately precede it.
The young poet’s Parisian long weekend takes on a new meaning through this lens. The critics’ opinion should matter to the poet as much as ornithology matters to birds. The intellectuals’ pronouncements are irrelevant. The aristocrats’ gossip is just noise. The ornament and lyricism of Cavafy’s own writing are nothing but an affect to be shed. Rhymes, it turns out, are a prison.
And the desire and transgression that his contemporaries seek – in the form of an illicit party accessible only to those in the know – pale in comparison to Cavafy’s own true longings.
The real epiphany of What’s Left of the Night, felt like deeply buried treasure, at least in the eyes of this superficial reader. In reality, it was right there beneath the surface. Cavafy cannot become a true poet until he follows his own illicit yearning and emancipates himself from the rules and conservative conventions of society.
His rising, inexorable desire – expressed in a feverish and hallucinatory scene where he fingers a hole in the upholstery of a chair behind which sits the object of his lust – is the key that unlocks this creativity. The truth he finds in himself, after a couple of sleepless nights and exhausting flaneries through the capital, is the true rupture he needs to free his poetry from the need to please others or follow trends.
Meanwhile, I also wondered if a knowledgeable Cavafy enthusiast might glean another layer of meaning from the prosaic meanderings and superficial observations recorded in this travelogue. Will some of the seemingly unimportant observations of the fledgling poet find their way into his future verse, transformed through creative genius? I guess the only way to find out is to read the poet’s work…
Don’t you love it when that happens?
What's Left of the Night by Ersi Sotiropoulos is translated by Karen Emmerich and published by New Vessel Press (2018)