Tag Archives: Daniel Mendelsohn

Cavafy for the first time

C P Cavafy: Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (Chatto & Windus 1990)

0701136626.jpg Constantine P Cavafy (Kavafis/Kavaphes) is one of the many literary giants I haven’t read. This relatively slender volume offered a way to put that right.

Cavafy (1863–1933) lived in Alexandria for most of his life. He published little poetry while alive, mainly printing poems off privately and giving copies to friends and visitors. Though he spoke fluent English and other languages, he wrote poetry only in Greek. E M Forster was impressed: the two men’s meetings are beautifully imagined in Damon Galgut’s novel Arctic Summer. Cavafy’s quiet reputation in the literary world was solid by the time he died and grew hugely after that. Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian novel Justine (1957) introduced him to a wide Anglophone readership. Leonard Cohen’s beautiful ‘Alexandra Leaving’ is a loose rendering of Cavafy’s ‘The God Abandons Antony’. Martin Johnston, the most awesome intellectual of my university days in the early 1970s, referred to him, along with Borges, Seferis, Berryman and others who didn’t turn up on the Eng Lit course.

You can see why I’ve felt there was a Cavafy-shaped gap in my education.

And now there isn’t, though I think this is poetry you’d need to read in the original Greek to really read it. And you’d need to know a lot more of the history of Alexandria, from ancient times to modern decadence, to enjoy it. And it might help if nostalgia for a real or imagined youthful homoeroticism was your thing.

There are some wonderful poems: ‘Waiting for the Barbarians‘ and ‘Ithaka‘ are justly famous. And there are plenty of incidental pleasures. Of the poems set in the ancient world, ‘The footsteps’, which may have had satirical resonances in the early 1900s, certainly does in 2017:

Eagles of coral
adorn the ebony bed
where Nero lies fast asleep –
callous, happy, peaceful,
in the prime of his body’s strength,
in the fine vigour of youth.

But in the alabaster hall that holds
the ancient shrine of the Aenobarbi
how restless the household deities!
The little gods tremble
and try to hide their insignificant bodies.
They’ve heard a terrible sound,
a deadly sound coming up the stairs,
iron footsteps that shake the staircase;
and, faint with dear, the miserable Lares
scramble to the back of the shrine,
shoving each other and stumbling,
one little god falling over another,
because they know what kind of sound that is,
know by now the footsteps of the Furies.

The place where I engaged most with Cavafy is where the poetry deals with the struggle between Christian and pagan moralities. He comes down pretty clearly on the side of the pagans, th0ugh Julian the Apostate doesn’t fare much better than the grey, repressive Christian authorities. Read in that context, the many poems about young men with beautiful lips that have performed or might perform forbidden or shameful deeds come to seem less deadeningly masturbatorial. And it was one of those poems, it turns out, that Martin Johnston included in his 1973 book, Ithaka: Modern Greek Poetry in Translation, three years before the first edition of the book I’m discussing.

Because I can’t read Greek, and felt underwhelmed by the language of this poetry, I did a little triangulation, comparing Martin’s ‘On a Ship’ (MJ), Keeley and Sherrard’s ‘On Board Ship‘ (K&S) and Daniel Mendelsohn’s ‘Aboard the Ship‘ (DM). If anyone thought translation was a straightforward business, they’d surely be prompted to think again by those three titles, all faithful translations but each different from the others. When I ran the original ‘Του πλοίου‘ through Google translate, it gave a fifth version: ‘Ship’s’.

You can look up all but Martin’s at the links. Here’s his translation:

On a Ship
It looks like him, certainly, this small
pencil depiction of him.

Executed quickly, on the ship’s deck,
one magical afternoon,
with the Ionian sea all round us.

It looks like him. But I remember him more beautiful.
he was sensuous to the utmost,
and that illuminated his expression.
He seems more beautiful to me
now that my soul must call him out of time.

Out of time. All these things are very old,
the sketch and the ship and the afternoon.

Though the translations differ as much as their titles, only a handful of words seem to have been troublesome:

  • MJ’s ‘more beautiful’ is ‘better looking’ in K&S and ‘handsomer’ in DM. Each of the translators seems to have chosen a different position in the gender politics of the word. Google Translate opted out, giving ’emorfo’.
  • Where MJ has ‘sensuous to the utmost’, K&S have ‘almost pathologically sensitive’, and one suspects that while ‘pathological’ might be fine in Greek it’s in a wrong register in Engish. DM has, ‘To the point of illness: that’s how sensitive he was.’ And K&S had a second go at it: their online version has ‘sensitive almost to the point of illness’. It does seem that MJ was squibbing it to avoid any reference to illness, and ‘sensuous’ rather than ‘sensitive’ may have been simply wrong.. Google Translate offers ‘disease was a beautician’.
  • MJ’s ‘my soul must call him out of time’ compares well with DM’s ‘my soul recalls him, out of Time’, because ‘recall’ in English has lost all sense of summoning, and that does seem to be needed, as K&S have ‘my soul brings him back, out of Time’.

Comparing these translations, and Don Paterson’s looser ‘The Boat‘ (‘more handsome’, ‘so much the sensualist’, ‘my heart calls him / from so long ago’), is a way of staying with the poem long enough for it to sink in a little, to feel the care for language that has gone into it, and to catch the whiff the memento mori that emanates from it. Maybe (of course?) this will be so of much more in this book if I come back to them.

 

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015: My Day 1

I arrived at the Sydney Theatre (recently renamed something else in honour of a member of a media dynasty) yesterday morning without a lot of time to spare before my first event at this year’s Writers’ Festival.  In the absence of electronic ticketing I had a whole swag of cardboard to collect and the foyer was jam packed with milling sex- and septuagenarians. Luckily the system was working smoothly and within minutes I was settled in my seat next to a couple of women who had come down from Brisbane for the Festival, and for Vivid (which starts tonight).

11:30 Writers on Writers: Malouf and Mendelsohn on the Classics (click for the podcast)
Daniel Mendelsohn, memoirist and literary critic from the USA, was in conversation with David Malouf. They spent minimal time praising each other’s writing – Mendelsohn reviewed Malouf’s Ransom very positively in, I think, the New Yorker. They launched straight into stories of how they first became interested in classical culture – that is, the culture of ancient Greek and Rome. Mendelsohn, master of the witty remark, quoted John Winkler (I think): ‘What’s not to love about the Greeks? Naked statues and bad behaviour!’ They were both drawn to Greek culture when young as an alternative to the ones they were brought up in. The classics allowed exploration of aspects of existence that were forbidden in their own cultures – including but not limited to sex, and, as David Malouf put it, ‘the flesh as a good place’.

There was a seamless shift from their early attraction to classical images and stories to their serious engagement with the same as adults. Mendelsohn is a classicist, and Malouf put a case for polytheism as a sophisticated way of thinking about the world, certainly more interesting than the worship of what William Blake called Nobodaddy.

I hope that some of our current adapters of ancient drama for the Australian stage get to hear this conversation. Both men agreed that it is a mistake to strip away all the things that make the Greek characters different from us. Mendelsohn described a Medea in which the lead character was pretty much a New York housewife on the edge of a nervous breakdown. This, he said, completely missed the point of Euripedes’ play: that Medea was a granddaughter of the Sun, possessed of uncanny powers, and the Greek male audience would have been afraid of her because she was a woman who acted like a man – that is, destroyed her enemies. To make the play a domestic drama about a pill-popping neurotic is to drain it of its power. Likewise, they talked about how most modern adaptations take the Chorus out – but to do that is to radically change the nature of the play. Among other things, the Chorus underlines the nature of those plays as concerned with public events. In ancient Greece, you could never be alone. That may be why Achilles is so hard to grasp: he had almost figured out how to be an individual, and everyone freaked out because no one had ever tried that before.

There was a lot more: western poetry owes a huge debt to Ovid, the first flâneur; drama owes a similar debt to Aeschylus, who was the first to have woman characters give voice rage against the state of things, a tradition that led directly to Ibsen and Tennessee Williams; balance is central to ancient Greek culture (what is the Bacchae about if not the importance of stopping at three drinks?). Mendelsohn mentioned Edith Hamilton a number of times: I’m guessing she introduced generations of US children to the myths of ancient Greece and Rome – the way the Queensland School Reader did for David Malouf (and me), and the Argonauts Club for many of us as well. Oh, and my parents gave me a copy of Kingsley’s heroes when I was about ten.

Then out into brilliant sunshine and more milling bodies, to catch  a bus home. Back into the city in the evening, to the fabulous Eternity Theatre, where I met up with a number of friends for:

6.00 Readings of Matchbox Theatre
Michael Frayn, every inch the British literary gent, explained that while writing his many plays, novels etc, he also writes tiny plays that just accumulate in his files with nowhere to go. His wife, without consulting him, suggested to his publisher that these little doodles could’ve gathered into an anthology. The publisher agreed, and the book exists. It probably helped that his wife is the brilliant biographer Claire Tomalin.

Frayn then left the stage to four actors who read no fewer than eleven of these plays: a David Attenborough account of the shy species of scene changers that lurk in the theatre; a mobile phone conversation between two people who turn out to be in the same supermarket; an irritable dialogue between tomb sculptures that could have been inspired by Philip Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’; a torturer-tortured Pinter parody.

It was all good clean fun. Which is more than I can say for the Wok On Inn where we had a quick and unpleasant dinner before getting back to the Eternity for:

8.00 Dalloway
A bravura one woman performance by British actor Rebecca Vaughan of an adaptation by Elton Townend Jones of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. My companions enjoyed this a lot more than I did. I responded to it as an actorly reading of the novel, which just made me want to read the novel itself without abridgement and without someone else’s insistent emotions being imposed on it. Others saw it as an engaging theatrical rendition of the substance of the novel.

And so home to the lonely dog.