Cavafy & the unreal city

Constantine Cavafy was a Greek poet of the early Twentieth Century. Well, i say he was Greek. He was actually born in Alexandria to parents whose families came from Constantinople – as the Greeks call Istanbul. He spent his teenage years in England and then moved back to Alexandria where, barring a couple of years in Istanbul, he lived for the rest of his life.

And yet he was Greek, quite truly, which i find fascinating. He wrote in Greek, his work is full of references to Greek history and mythology and he identifies himself very clearly as a Greek. At the same time he was completely a creature of his city:

… decaying Alexandria, the city whose decline reflected in large the poet’s own

As Avi Sharon puts it in his introduction to Cavafy’s Selected Poems*.

And there again Cavafy stood apart from Alexandria, not just because he was Greek in an Egyptian city and probably not just because he was gay either, but because the city he inhabited – the world he inhabited – was in truth the city of his imagination. Sharon calls it “Cavafy’s unreal city” and compares it to Joyce’s Dublin.

“Unreal cities” fascinate me, as do “unreal countries” and “unreal worlds”. Indeed for a long time i have had my own unreal city, but for me unlike Cavafy that remains a private place. As a teenager i remember being enchanted by Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe, which he wrote while recovering from illness drawing on his own internal, “unreal England” of the past – which made the book a great contrast to his realistic historical Scottish novels. Likewise, the wild imaginary landscape in which Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is set. These places have an intensity, a charge, a meaningfulness which is lacking – mostly – from places in the real world. And often a poignancy too. I have often felt that there is no journey i would rather make than one into an imagined land – my own or that of others; although i suspect they would lose some of their magic if examined close up. We’re not very patient gods. We haven’t the time or concentration to make individual leaves for our trees or even individual trees for our forests.

Cavafy’s Alexandria is unreal in a more subtle way than the worlds of the novels i’ve mentioned above – or perhaps it just seems so because, Alexandria being unknown to me in either its real or unreal form, it’s not easy for me to see where one ends and the other begins. The poet weaves together images and characters from the city’s Hellenistic past with those from the modern city. The streets along which he walks, the brothels he visits and the beautiful young men he encounters: do they belong to the “real world”? Are they merely disguised by imagery from the past? Or are they “imaginary”, made real by Cavafy’s conviction?

Just as the world of his poetry is glorious in a way that the “real city “ of Alexandria was not, so too Cavafy’s life in his poetry seems more exciting than his “real” life: he was a civil servant and lived at home with his family till the age of 45. Yet despite the poetic glamour there’s a sadness and a claustrophobia that permeates the poems i’ve read so far, a feeling of being trapped in this beautiful imagined place. One particular poem seems to encapsulate this and it’s called – in English anyway – The City:

The City

You said: ‘I will go to another land; i will try another sea.
Another city will turn up, better than this one.
Here everything i do is condemned in advance
And my heart – like a dead man’s – lies buried.
How long can my mind remain in this swamp?
Wherever i turn, wherever i look, i gaze
On the ruins of my life here, where i’ve spent
And botched and wasted so many years.’

You will find no new land; you will find no other seas.
This city will follow you. You will wander the same
Streets and grow old in the same neighbourhoods;
Your hair will turn white in the same houses.
And you will always arrive in this city. Abandon any hope
Of finding another place. No shop, no road can take you there.
For just as you’ve ruined your life here
In this backwater, you’ve destroyed it everywhere on earth.

(translated by Avi Sharon)

What trapped Cavafy in this “city”? Was it that this was the only way he could resolve the paradox of being a Greek in a city that was itself no longer Greek? A creator of masterpieces that those around him couldn’t read? A member of a diaspora in a world becoming increasingly nationalistic and – in its aspirations anyway – monoethnic? Was it how he made sense of his homosexuality, the expression of which in the “real city” would have been severely circumscribed? Or was the “real city” the place in which he felt trapped – and, if so, why? Was a static, humdrum life the price he had to pay for being able to roam freely in his imagination?

* ISBN: 978-0-141-18561-3. Published by Penguin Classics. All poems translated by Avi Sharon. I don’t know Greek so i can’t comment on how faithful the translations are to the originals, but they make beautiful poems in their own right which to my mind is just as important.


That song about a youth hostel

Ah, the wonders of shuffle mode on an iPod. Today, for instance, the song “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People popped up. This has the distinction for me of being the first song i ever bought – or rather the first i ever got my mum to buy for me. I was ten years old and we were holding a concert at school, or maybe it was a talent contest; i can’t remember now. At any rate, everyone was being encouraged to join in, so i got together with another kid, C, and we decided to do a dance routine. “Y.M.C.A.” was our soundtrack. What a dance routine it was: all high kicks, claps and those other ‘groovy’ moves: drop to the floor, turn around, make a funny little circle gesture with your arms*. We thought were it!

The song itself, i didn’t really understand. I vaguely imagined the “Y.M.C.A.” was some sort of American version of a youth hostel. Not that i’d been to a youth hostel, but there was one on the main road that led to my Nan’s, so i knew they were big old houses that hikers stayed at. Who knew why anyone would write a song about one and quite honestly who cared? The main thing was that it was catchy as hell and one of the guys in the group wore a “Red Indian” costume. How i loved that costume.

Gay references? What did ‘gay’ mean? Mind you, to be fair, i didn’t know what ‘straight’ meant either. I quite naively believed that sex – which i was aware of in an anatomically incorrect sort of a way – was something married people did. Nor do i remember anyone worrying about the political correctness of spoofing a Native American (or whatever the current term is). It was all about fun and energy. AIDS was just round the corner, about to bring with it a different, darker image of homosexuality – at least in the short term; but also an increased openness. So that these days most school kids know what it is to be gay – or at least think they do, which is much the same thing when you’re ten.

Anyway, back to that concert (or talent show, whichever it was). Only as an adult could i appreciate how painful it must have been for the assembled parents to watch us. Or rather mothers, because back then it wasn’t yet the done thing for men to take time out for their kids, at least not in Britain. Children are so innocently self-centred that the idea that their audience might not be enjoying watching them as much as they’re enjoying being watched doesn’t really occur to them. And if it does, it doesn’t cause them much guilt. Yet it must have been torture: dance routines (ours wasn’t the only one, oh no), songs, magic tricks, ‘comedy’… even juggling i think. Everyone had to have their spot in the limelight. ‘That’s what you get for not using birth control,’ i thought to myself smugly when i looked back at the scene.

And yet… when my own son went to school and entered upon his own round of nativity plays and concerts i made an interesting discovery. Other people’s children are indeed tiresome, but your own are wonderful. Bona fide talents no less. His Jimi Hendrix routine was marvellous (no cheesy disco for him!), his leading role in the anti-smoking polemic which prefaced it no less so. And as for his interpretation of Shepherd #1 (or possibly #2 or #3, i’m not entirely sure) paying homage to the infant Jesus in the school nativity play… well, words fail me. Unfortunately, the camera failed me too, so i have no pictures of that one.

So, maybe my mum did enjoy the imaginatively choreographed dance that C and I performed to the song “Y.M.C.A.”. Or maybe she too was wondering why someone had written a song about a hostel.

*A bit like demonstrating how a wheel works while wearing a muff**
**As in ‘handwarmer’!