Burn Before Reading

27 Oct

Burn Before Reading

Constantine Cavafy and Other Reluctant Geniuses

            In the damaged part I see the words… “Him … Alexandrian”

Then come three lines … much mutilated

But I can read a few words … perhaps “our tears” and “sorrows.”

C.P Cavafy translation by George Valassopolou from E.M. Forster’s Pharos and Pharillon 1923

            In his Tristia Ovid describes the anguished moment when he throws his Metamorphoses on the fire. It is like killing his child, he says, burning this blameless book. He does not even quite know why he does it: perhaps it is out of hatred for the Muses or perhaps because he does not deem the book polished enough for public consumption. Then, just when you think the poet might try to wring some more emotion from this scene he pricks the bubble, adding: “but it survives, for many copies have been made, I believe.” Ovid has, in typically Ovidian fashion, exposed one of the great tension in our construction of artistic personae, we relish it when a poet disavows their work but we also want that work to survive.

Stories of authors wanting their books burnt have become canonical. Virgil wanted his epic consigned to the flames, prompting the oft-set exam question “Would you have let Virgil burn the Aeneid?” Nabakov would have sent Lolita the same way and Kafka gave Max Brod instructions in his will to destroy his entire corpus. Philip Larkin’s secretary, Betty Mackereth, stands out among this crowd as someone who actually complied with the poet’s request to destroy his diaries. She shredded and then burned all 25 volumes.

There is often an unwillingness to view successful artists as sullied by anything as base as desire for success. This phenomenon seemed to arise in a recent discussion I was involved with on twitter with Daniel Mendelsohn. (I am aware of the irony that a twitter discussion is about the polar opposite of burning ones own manuscript in terms of self-regard and I was myself quite flattered that Mendelsohn entered into it with me). PEN American tweeted: “Cavafy never published while he was living but printed poems for friends. 150 years later, he is the one we remember.” The thrust seemingly, similar to that of the poet who orders her works burned, is that Cavafy was not interested in the indulgences of ‘publication.’ He does not go as far as to burn them he just does not want them to circulated. Yet by fate, or his (undeniable) quality, his poems are still read today.

However, as I pointed out, “he did happen to be friends with some very influential people. Which helps.” It was at this point that Daniel Mendelsohn, scholar and translator of Cavafy, asked “which influential people are you referring to?” He added that “the issue here is implication that C[avafy] used “influential” connections to advance work: but this is false… [he] didn’t care about publication.”

I want to first make it clear that I think that Cavafy is a great poet and Mendelsohn’s recent book on Cavafy is excellent. As Yahia Lababidi commented, “you are not championed by greats if your work is mediocre.” That is true, in almost every case, at least. However, in this blog I want to look a little more at the issue that was raised in the discussion and its wider themes.

I’d like to separate this task into two sections. The first is: who are the influential people I was referring to – who did he associate with? And the second, and more difficult, is: did Cavafy actively seek their help publishing his work?

In answer to the first question, the most obvious influential person who knew Cavafy and championed his work was E.M. Forster. A collection of the letters between these two is reviewed by Mendelsohn here. Cavafy, himself born in Liverpool, also knew, it seems, almost all of the English department of Cairo University at the time. Amongst them some rather influential people in their own right: Sir Robert ‘Robin’ Furness civil servant, member of the Apostles and close friend of John Maynard Keynes among others. Christopher Scaife, poet and regular contributor to the Bulletin of the Faculty of Arts – usually on the lesser known inscriptions of the Egyptian hinterlands.  Scaife worked with Cavafy on translations of a number of his poems. Cavafy also met with Bonamy Dobree and Bryn Davies, two other members of the English department at Cairo. As Peter Jeffery’s collection of Cavafy’s letters makes clear he also made contact with T.S Eliot and Robert Graves, founding member of Cairo University’s English department. Cavafy was pleased too to hear that T.E. Lawrence admired his poems. On top of this, Cavafy’s influence, perhaps mediated through Forster et al., on Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet is evident and frequently discussed.

I do not think it is controversial to say that part of Cavafy’s popularity in the English speaking world can be attributed to the efforts of the above mentioned names. I do not think that Mendelsohn would disagree with this either. In his review he quotes Forster saying “I did a little to spread [Cavafy’s] fame” and calls this an “excess of modesty”. So, it seems he at least gives him some credit for spreading Cavafy’s fame. The role that Cavafy plays in Forster’s Alexandria and Durrell’s Quartet have ensured that today he has that most prized accolade of a great poet: people talk about him without having read his poetry.

The second part of the issue is the more difficult. Did Cavafy actively seek out any his admirers and accolades or did he actively avoid them? Mendelsohn said “the point is C[avafy] didn’t want to be published [and] didn’t pursue “opportunities” or influence.” For Mendelsohn it was Forster who was doing all the work to get Cavafy published and Cavafy did his best to put Forster off. In the few occasions Cavafy does express his interest in being published to Forster, Mendelsohn argues, not unconvincingly, that he is just being polite. Cavafy does say in a letter to Forster “I am delighted at your intention to place in the “Nation” one of the translations of my poems” but these instances are certainly few and far between. Forster even admits that “he is against the publication of any translations in book form”. And perhaps he is being naive when he speculates that “[Cavafy] felt, along with his literary ancestor Callimachus, that a large book is a large evil” and he would prefer single poems to be published.

Therefore, on the basis of some of the evidence Mendelsohn argues that Cavafy was uninterested in publishing his works. Yet the image of Cavafy as uninterested in his posthumous plaudits is one that I find difficult to maintain. He not only spent time translating his works in collaboration with Valassopoulo but also with Christopher Scaife, towards the end of his life. The fruits of both of these collaborations went on to be published. Naturally, for they were meant for publication. Yet Cavafy still spent a great deal of time with both of them creating English translations of his work. It is hard to think that when he was giving his poems to his friends who were so avidly intent on publishing them he did not have a mind on what would happen. If he was intent in not publishing his work he was taking entirely the wrong steps.

In the case of Cavafy, as in the case of most tales of burning of destroying manuscripts, there is a sense of stagecraft on the part of the author. Kafka may have told Max Brod to burn all his works but, as Brod comments in the post-script to the first edition of the Trial, he had already had this discussion with Kafka and had refused to burn his works. “Convinced as he was that I meant what I said, Franz should have appointed another executor if he had been absolutely and finally determined that his instructions should stand.”[1] Likewise, John Addington Symonds locked his dirty poems in an iron box and gave the key to Henry Sidgwick to dramatically throw into the river Avon; but he kept the box of poems.[2]

Destroying manuscripts and not publishing them are different beast but they both have the same bite: ultimate destruction of the work. In both cases the instructions of the author should be interpreted, as Forster might say, “at a slight angle”. It is very well to issue instructions to destroy works (or not to publish them) but taking the step and destroying them yourself – not too hard a task with a fireplace and a box of Cook’s matches – evades most authors. As Ovid understood well, poets are happy to burn their manuscripts as long as they have a copy.


Daniel Mendelsohn C.P. Cavafy Complete Poems


Peter Jeffreys The Forster-Cavafy Letters

[1]From the Trial Schoken edition of 1968. Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. Revised and with additional material translated by E.M Butler.

[2]With thanks to Nakul Krishna for pointing me towards that anecdote.


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