The ladies and gentlemen of New Vessel Press, having seen my previous writing on the Greek Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy, offered me a copy of Ersi Sotiropoulos’s novel about the poet, What’s Left of the Night. I agreed to post my impressions on this blog.
The good news is, it is not a bad book by any means. The fact that Edmund White praised it is some indication of its quality. The fact that the language — either that of the original or that of the translation — is a bit soft for my personal taste would not have kept me from completing it. What did was the fact that the author was attempting to represent the poet’s internal life.
If there’s one thing that gets my hackles up it’s the phrase, literal or implied, “…the poet thought…” And of course, that was the whole point of the book. In the same way a movie version of a book can forever paste an actor’s face over your imagination, I began to fear this book’s version of the poet would take over from my own shadowy conversations with him through both his poems and my writing about the poems and my poems about reading his poems. I feel enough of a connection to Cavafy that any version of him that has him going to the store or stewing over a slight would damage my relationship with him or my picture of him: the transparent image of a man with glasses on a street corner by the sea, which fades with the sunrise.
In other words, I cannot tell you that this book was wrong-headed, just wrong for me. I don’t want you to make Cavafy real for me. He’s already more real than is probably good for me. His poems of nostalgia are among my favorites. His poems about one obscure historical figure drove me to seek out unpublished poems on the same topic and write an essay. He’s inspired poems of my own, leading me to obliqueness as a tool of style and to the bittersweetness of time as a reality of life.
You might well enjoy the novel. In fact, I intend to give it to a doctor friend of mine who is visiting and who may well love it. I just can’t continue with it. Everything I need to know about Cavafy is in his poems, and in my imagination, and maybe in Forster’s quick sketch of him: “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.”