Wednesday, 6 June 2018

E M Forster, Constantine Cavafy and George Valassopoulos in Alexandria

The home of George Valassopoulos at 9 Rue des Fatimites in Alexandria.
When E M Forster was in Alexandria working for the Red Cross during the First World War he came to know George Valassopoulos, a lawyer in the city and a fellow graduate of Kings College, Cambridge.  Forster often called round at Valassopoulos' home at 9 Rue des Fatimites in the Quartier Grec. There Valassopoulos would lead Forster through the poems of their mutual friend Constantine Cavafy in their original Greek and also provided him with elegant and, Cavafy felt, faithful translations. Valassopoulos became their chosen instrument for rendering the poems into English so that Forster could introduce them to the English-speaking world.

Valassopoulos' living room where Forster and Cavafy came as guests.  

Forster first became acquainted with Cavafy's poetry at the home of the poet himself at the Rue Lepsius.  One evening 'a poem is produced - The God Abandons Antony - and I detect some coincidences between its Greek and public-school Greek. Cavafy is amazed. "Oh, but this is good, my dear Forster, this is very good indeed", and he raises his hand, takes over, and leads me through. It was not my knowledge that touched him but my desire to know and to receive'.

Here is the translation of The God Abandons Antony done by Valassopoulos.

When at the hour of midnight
an invisible choir is suddenly heard passing
with exquisite music, with voices --
Do not lament your fortune that at last subsides,
your life's work that has failed, your schemes that have proved illusions.
But like a man prepared, like a brave man,
bid farewell to her, to Alexandria who is departing.
Above all, do not delude yourself, do not say that it is a dream,
that your ear was mistaken.
Do not condescend to such empty hopes.
Like a man for long prepared, like a brave man,
like to the man who was worthy of such a city,
go to the window firmly,
and listen with emotion,
but not with the prayers and complaints of the coward
(Ah! supreme rapture!)
listen to the notes, to the exquisite instruments of the mystic choir,
and bid farewell to her, to Alexandria whom you are losing.

Alexandria was the capital of Cavafy's imagination, 'Queen of the Greek world, / genius of all knowledge, of every art' (The Glory of the Ptolemies), and though the settings of his historical poems range throughout the Greek diaspora, from Italy through Greece to Asia Minor, to Syria and into Persia, ancient Alexandria claims the greatest number. It is 'Alexandria, a godly city' (If Actually Dead), where 'you'll see palaces and monuments that will amaze you' (Exiles), and where 'all are brilliant, / glorious, mighty, benevolent; everything they undertake is full of wisdom' (Caesarion) - yet in each of these poems the theme is failure.

In Alexandrian Kings, for example, published in 1912, the populace turns out in force at the Donations of Alexandria, a great festival arranged by Cleopatra and Antony, where their children were proclaimed kings of Armenia, Media, Parthia, Cilicia, Syria and Phoenicia, and where Cleopatra's eldest, Caesarion, her son and heir by Julius Caesar, was proclaimed King of Kings.  The translation is again by Valassopoulos.

... the day was warm and exquisite,
the sky clear and blue.
the Gymnasium of Alexandria a triumph of art,
the courtiers' apparel magnificent,
Caesarion full of grace and beauty
and the Alexandrians ran to see the show
and grew enthusiastic, and applauded
in Greek, in Egyptian, and some in Hebrew,
bewitched with the beautiful spectacle,
though they knew perfectly well how worthless,
what empty words, were these king-makings.

In historical fact the Donations were neither empty words nor meaningless pomp; they were part of Antony's realisable if ambitiously far-reaching design for a new Hellenistic empire based on Alexandria. All the same, we know that things did not work out that way, that Cleopatra and Antony were defeated at Actium three years later in 31 BC, that they took their lives the following year and that the victorious Octavian, addressing the same throng in the same Gymnasium, promised the Alexandrians leniency because their city was so splendid, because Alexander was its founder -- and then had Caesarion put to death ('It is bad to have too many Caesars'). Yet for all their willing delight in spectacle and their pleasure in playing along with dreams, Cavafy's Alexandrians also know: 'It wouldn't have lasted long anyway / years of experience make that clear' -- three thousand years of experience in which Greek cities and kingdoms and empires and dreams have fallen again and again to the ironies of history.

When Forster came to Alexandria he thought the war would bring an end to the civilisation he had known, but he was determined at least to fight against its 'inward death'. Now he found that Cavafy, standing on his balcony, was already surveying a wider wreckage. His exemplar was not Alexander who had founded the city but Antony who bade it farewell; fallen to Rome, fallen to the Arabs, Cavafy saw failure and loss as the central Alexandrian experience, his native city the capital of the repeatedly wounded world of Hellenism, which as he spoke could seem to connote the entire civilisation of humankind. Like the populace in Alexandrian Kings, he snatched what he could from the moment.

These photographs of Valassopoulos' house were taken after his death in 1972.

The complete translations of Cavafy's poetry by George Valassopoulos are found in The Forster-Cavafy Letters, edited by Peter Jeffreys, published by The American University in Cairo Press and available directly from them or from online outlets like Amazon.

Soon after these photographs were taken the house was pulled down.