Poet's Parisian sojourn

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday January 15, 2019
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Poet's Parisian sojourn

I know I'm leading with a tautology here, but I've never before read a book anything like "What's Left of the Night" (New Vessel Press). Writing about what happened during a brief interval in a historical personage's life about which there is no competing official record has often proved a rich vein for novelists to mine. Ersi Sotiropoulos' "account" of what happened during Constantine Cavafy's three-day sojourn in Paris in 1897 gives primacy to the events that took place in Cavafy's mind.

The tissue between dream and waking reality is ever-porous. Earth time is melted as it is in Salvador Dali's clock. The few distinct events in three days appear with the same shock value as the nightmares. The genius of Sotiropoulos' fiction is that the only way they could accurately and fully be recounted is in her very words (brilliantly translated by Karen Emmerich).

I've never had a harder time starting a book without even considering stopping. It opens, hypnotically, with a long sentence that begins, "The earth still seemed flat then, and night fell at once until the end of the world," which has the cadence of Genesis as if, like this novel, Genesis had been written in Greek. Often, particularly early on as my body was adjusting to the fluctuations of the prose's water temperature, I had to put the book down after a page or two, to breathe heavily and prepare to sally forth.

The last book that seemed to me as simultaneously concrete and hallucinatory in its opening was "Under the Volcano." With this novel my pauses between return engagements were in moments (to wipe my eyes, mostly) rather than the years before I was finally able to scale "Volcano."

Until I got my footing in its rhythms (again, pages, not chapters), my eyes kept sliding off the page after her pregnant words had negotiated a "carriage return," so I kept slipping off the unfettered imagination of her writing. This is not a book to miss, but neither is it one to take to bed, at least literally.

I'll condense what I think Sotiropoulos says happened to Cavafy and his brother John during their fateful Paris sojourn. The weather was bad (on the hot end of the scale), the entertainments worse (on the coarse end of the scale). Cavafy found the people he knew largely insufferable, so took to elaborate Joycean fantasies about strangers he saw briefly but didn't know.

Principal among them were a strappingly handsome apprentice Cavafy saw slaving over a machine that threw sparks on his exposed, hairy body, and a curly-haired dancer from the visiting St. Petersburg Ballet. There, in the reader's imagination, now as heated as Cavafy's, one imagines the Ballets Russes, the dancer Nijinsky himself.

At the 11th hour, Constantine (John, lying sick in bed at the hotel) is driven by carriage with a sexually ambiguous "comte" to a forbidden club on the outskirts of Paris even beyond its demimonde. Something like a sex club is teased, but here the writing is at its most hallucinatory, inviting the reader to read in at will.

The central conflict is in the budding poet's mind and is best expressed, plotlessly, near the end of the novel: "How could someone who lived a conventional, conservative, mediocre life [as the real Cavafy would] write important poetry?" What we've been given a window on is nothing less than Cavafy we have come to know (some of us to revere) in utero, as both person and poet.

The point of view is spectral, all-seeing if less than omniscient third person. Sotiropoulos' sleight of hand — her sentences, even the page-long ones, are diagrammable, with the occasional sentence fragment clear as a cut diamond in context — is an act that could get an enchanted reader to follow a traveling circus around the Great Plains in winter. Sotiropoulos can find the hum in ennui, the charge in what masquerades as the everyday, the eternity in weather.

Particular scenes burn in the memory long after they have been read, and the author brings some of them back just when you need snapping out of reality. The stunner is her account of the drunken Constantine crouched on his boots outside the door of the hotel room in which he imagines the dancer with a woman he is fucking, then sleeping — listening through a keyhole for what could be hours, until pain and the specter of shame drive him back to his own room. A pubic hair he imagines having come from the dancer's balls becomes a relic for contemplation, even adoration.

If you've already found Rumi but not yet Cavafy, this novel should fix that.