20 July 1996

An Irishman’s Diary: CP Cavafy

An Irishman’s Diary
Patrick Comerford

CP Cavafy ... a portrait by David Hockney

IT IS HARD to imagine that modern Egypt dates from 1799, when Napoleon drove out the Turks. It is even harder to imagine that until this century, the port city of Alexandria was one of the major centres of Greek culture and civilisation.

In a heated conversation late one night or early some morning in a taverna in Crete, I was told pointedly by a Greek whose grandparents came from the city that “there were Greeks living in Alexandria when Moses was a boy.”

The city, of course, takes its name from Alexander the Great. But it is well to remember that Cleopatra was not an Egyptian but a Greek, and that in classical times Alexandria was as purely Hellenic as Ptolemy, the founder of the dynasty of Greek monarchs which ruled the city for generations. This first Ptolemy was determined to make his capital the world centre of culture, the “Glory of the Ptolemies”:

The mentor city, the Hel-
lenic world’s acme, wisest in all the arts, in all:

In the mid 19th century, Greeks controlled the commercial life of Cairo, Khartoum and Alexandria, and in 1900, there were still 20,000 Greeks in Alexandria.

It is no accident, therefore, that Constantine Cavafy, hailed by Kimon Friar as “the undisputed founder of modern Greek poetry”, was born in Alexandria in 1863 and lived there for most for of his life, living in declining grandeur as a civil servant until his death in 1933. When his relatives, scandalised by the neighbourhood, implored him to leave his flat at 19 Rue Lepius, he went to the window drew back the curtain and asked. Where else could I be better situated than here, amidst these three centres of existence, a brothel, a church which forgives, and a hospital where you?

Craved recognition

During his life, Cavafy craved public recognition. He was introduced to English readers early in the century by F.M. Forster, T.S. Eliot, T.E. Lawrence, and Arnold Toynbee, and he is the genius loci in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. But his own sister forbade her daughter to read, her Uncle Constantine's, disreputable verses, scandalised by his homosexuality, decadence and rejection of the Orthodox Church.

Cavafy went unrecognised and without appreciation from the Athenian literati until some time after the publication of his first collected edition in 1935, two years after his death.

Today, he is read in every Greek school, and schoolchildren easily recite poems such as Ithaka, Waiting for the Barbarians, The City, and The god abandons Anthony. He has been popularised among English language readers with translations by Peter Bien, Kimon Friar, John Mavrogordato, Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, among others, and major studies by Friar, Sherrard, Christopher Robinson of Christ Church, Oxford, and Peter Bien of Dartmouth. His popularity was confirmed when poems by Cavafy were read at the funeral of Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

Yet little attention has been given to a translation of 33 of Cavafy’s poems by the Irish poet, Desmond O’Grady. O’Grady, who was born in Ireland in 1935, later travelled as a student and teacher throughout Europe, America and Egypt, where he taught at the American, University of Cairo and the University of Alexandria.

In recent years, with a grant from the Cultural Relations Committee of the Department of Foreign Affairs, he was able to accept an invitation from the Greek poet Kostis Moskof to go back to Alexandria.

Through the tireless efforts of Moskof, the Hellenic Foundation and other admirers of Cavafy’s poetry, and his cultural legacy, Cavafy’s house at 10 Rue Lepsius (now Sharm elSheykli) has been restored to what it looked like when the poet lived there and has been turned into a museum and library in his memory.

Returning to Egypt and the English Department of the American University in Cairo, O’Grady completed his translation of a selection of Cavafy’s poems, and Alternative Manners, his version of 33 Cavafy poems, was published in 1993 by the Hellenic Society, Athens Alexandria. Unfortunately, much to his regret, the proofs were never properly corrected. And so the book was never put on the market commercially and has never been reviewed in newspapers.

Readers, forgive

He feels Alternative Manners “reads like Greek ruins” and asks readers now to “please forgive, and overlook, and correct.” But, he concedes modestly, the collection has its admirers. “Greek people who know their Cavafy and who have read it found my Hiberno English very suited to Cavafy’s Alexandrian Greek, and closer to the text of Cavafy’s language than standard British and American translations.”

A reading of two of Cavafy’s best known poems illustrates the particular insights and turn of phrase which an Irish translator can bring to his work.

His translation of Ithaka loses the references by Friar and Keeley and Sherrard to Laistrygonians and Cyclops; instead, they become “cannibal bogeymen met in half light” and “those with one eye, open for their main chance.” The “Phoenician trading stations” or “market places” of the other translators become “ports you’ve not dreamed of” and “every city”.

In Waiting for the Barbarians, Sherrard and Keeley have the city fathers “assembled in the forum” and Friar has them mustered in the forum but O’Grady has them “waiting, here in the square.” Instead of the barbarians being dazzled, they are not impressed by “bamboozle”. And, instead of rhetoric and public speaking or “eloquence and public speeches”, O’Grady speaks of boring baloney.

Secretary to Pound

For some years, Desmond O’Grady was secretary to the American poet Ezra Pound in his exile in Italy. Now he lives in Kinsale, but regards Greece as his second home. His work as a poet has, of course, been recognised at home, where he is a member of Aosdana, and where he has been back for the opening of “Waves of the Sea”, the new writers’ and translators’ centre.

His earlier frustration with the printers handling of Alternative Manners could be rectified if an Irish publisher found an interest in the book. But in the meantime, he can take comfort from the theme in Cavafy’s Ithaka: the journey, not the destination, is what constitutes our true reward.

This ‘Irishman’s Diary’ was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 20 July 1996

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