Saturday, 7 December 2013

English Cavafy

One of the last photographs taken of Cavafy, 1932.

I was reading this entry for the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy in The Oxford Companion to English Literature.  It mentions the several ways in which Cavafy is connected to England and the English language and which justify his inclusion in this companion.  

But what it fails to mention is how much Cavafy's mind was an English mind and how his Greek poetry began life in the English language.

When reading Cavafy's poetry in English translation one has the uncanny sense that one is reading it in a language whose rhythms and nuances inhabited Cavafy.  Cavafy spent many years of his childhood and youthful education in England and to his dying day he spoke Greek with an English accent and he most certainly first 'thought' some of his poems in English before writing them in Greek.

Evidence of this was found by Gwyn Williams who in the 1930s was a lecturer in English literature at Fuad (later Cairo) University and then became a close friend of Lawrence Durrell's in Alexandria during the Second World War, by when Williams had become head of the department of English Literature at Farouk University in the city (today's Alexandria University).   

After Cavafy's death in 1933, Cavafy's friends and downstairs neighbours Rika and Alexander Singopoulos brought out the first edition of Cavafy's works, but there were also numerous pieces of paper of all sizes and quality, some of them pages torn from exercise books, others small irregular scraps, on which Cavafy had scribbled severely truncated, almost coded notes in English - some of them after he had been out prowling at the tavernas. 

Rika and Alexander Singopoulos wanted them deciphered, and so they gave a sheaf of these papers to Michael Perides, another friend of Cavafy's, for Gwyn Williams to see. Many offered glimpses into his homosexual emotional life, while others, to Williams' surprise, bore first drafts of his poems written in English prose which Cavafy would then rework into poetry in Greek. 

As The Oxford Companion to English Literature says, for more on Cavafy 'see Michael Haag, Alexandria: City of Memory (2005)'.