Another gem from wood s lot: Ithaka/Ιθάκη presents all the poems of Constantine Cavafy (Κωνσταντίνος Καβάφης) in both English and Greek, many with audio files, as well as a biography (English, Greek), a gallery of images (including his passport, signed in both Greek and Roman script), and much more. I remember a drunken evening in Athens when I celebrated my birthday by reciting “Η πόλις” (“The City“) in public and getting too much retsina bought for me as a result; it’s still one of the most powerful poems of pessimism I know (right up there with “This Be the Verse“). The site does justice to a great poet.


  1. I now frequently think about Cavafy’s candles poem. At the beginning of your life you see this long row of fresh new candles ahead of you, and as you get older the fresh new candles ahead of you become few and you start looking back on the long row of melted, burnt candles…..
    Now that’s pessimism. I could have done without the Larkin, though.
    Alexandria and Trieste are my favorite examples of mediocre cities housing major writers. Buenos Aires should be on the list too, and maybe Oslo and Prague. Not everyone can live in Paris, London, or New York.

  2. Prague? A mediocre city?

  3. Well, perhaps I’ll be a minor writer (hopefully not a mediocre one) here on the small island of the eastern coast of North America, then.

  4. Arrgh. “Off” the eastern coast. Some days even the Preview button doesn’t help.

  5. Prague is full of drunken Americans now. Worse than mediocre. I’m reading about Hasek now (Good Soldier Schweik) and Prague does seem provincial in that book. Trieste was also much more important 100 years ago because it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s only port.
    I just found out that Prague is cosiderably west of Vienna.

  6. Wow. *is depressed*

  7. Of course, Hasek lived his life in dive bars. Perhaps a false impression.

  8. John, if you think Prague is destroyed, you obviously haven’t been to Riga yet…

  9. I have to strongly dissent about both Prague and Buenos Aires (I’ve visited the former and lived in the latter)—they’re great cities that have been suffering from hard times. Surely your definition of “great” doesn’t require continuous prosperity?

  10. Occasionally I say things off the top of my head which a weaker man might end up regretting.
    Prague and Buenos Aires were off the beaten track and not imperial cities. Prague didn’t even have the status of Budapest (the Austrian monarch refused to be crowned King of Bohemia.) A notch above Triests, I guess, but then Alexandria is 2300+ years old.
    How about “peripheral”?
    Good thing I didn’t mention Dublin. (And thank God the Norse are mild-mannered.)

  11. Prague and Buenos Aires were off the beaten track and not imperial cities. Prague didn’t even have the status of Budapest
    If I may be so bold, this is a very silly definition.
    If we were to use it to judge a city’s “mediocrity” or “majorness” (whatever that may mean), then Bratislava is a more “major” city than Prague, since it was an imperial city while the Ottoman armies besieged Vienna and several of the Austrian monarchs were crowned there. But surely not even I (a reluctant Slovak patriot) would argue that Bratislava rocks harder than Prague.
    To describe Prague as “off the beaten track” is simply wrong, both geographically as well as culturally.

  12. Mr. Emerson has some high standards. When I think of “mediocre city”, I think of places like Columbus, Almaty, Leeds or Essen. All the cities John mentioned are pretty much gems relative to most of the world.
    But back to poetry – the wikipedia entry didn’t have much to say on Cavafy’s language. Is it mostly Katharévusa or are there Demotic elements? Seems like an interesting poet I’ll have to look into further.

  13. Is it mostly Katharévusa or are there Demotic elements?
    Both; Cavafy’s use of Greek is extremely interesting and has been much discussed. I seem to remember running across such a discussion online — if I find it, I’ll link to it.

  14. Speaking of ‘mediocre cities’, after I read about Vienna in ‘The World According to Garp’, I lost all desire to go there.

  15. Perhaps Hacek led me astray.

  16. Oh, Paris, London and New York are pretty mediocre when you think about it. Wichita, now… there’s a city. And Rhyl. Ah, great times, great times.

  17. Perhaps I merely meant “not an ultimate destination” the way the major capitals were. I suspect that most of the leading lights of all the cities I mentioned had some practical reason why they couldn’t go to Paris, London, Vienna, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, St. Petersburg, etc.
    Columbus, Almaty, Leeds or Essen would be less-than-mediocre cities. Portland, OR, I would describe as mediocre but nice. Except for a few kinds of music and the U of C, Chicago strikes me as mediocre. So yeah, I do have a high standard.

  18. Did you know that Paris Hilton has poor cousins named Omaha Hilton and Gdansk Hilton?

  19. So yeah, I do have a high standard.
    … and good values, too. Together with decent education. And proper manners as well.

  20. Kári Tulinius says

    Huh! Yesterday I first came across Cavafy while reading the bits which interested me of E. M. Forster’s Alexandria – A History and a Guide and today I’ve seen him mentioned three times. Coincidences are great.

  21. Kári Tulinius says

    I forgot to mention that Forster dedicated the book to Cavafy.

  22. Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet has some flaws, but the best parts were amazing. The Italian poets Ungaretti and Marinetti came from Alexandria.

  23. Yeah, and let’s not forget Plotinus.

  24. Why is he known in English by an anglicised version of his name? In Dutch we simply call him Kaváfis.

  25. LH, forgive me if I already asked you before, but have you read Stratis Tsirkas’ trilogy Akyvernites polities (Ακυβέρνητες Πολιτείες)? I find it uneven (the second volume, Ariagni is perhaps the best one), but it gives some background from someone who knew Cavafy personally (he also devoted a couple of books to him) and was a real Aigyptiotis (from Cairo).

  26. Bertil,
    He himself signed “Cavafy” when writing in Latin letters (in English or French). “Kaváfis” is an accurate transcription of Καβάφης, but it is not how he chose to write his name (he had lived in Great Britain and wrote his travel journal to Greece in English, so the script difference was a conscious choice).

  27. I have Ariagni and I nikhterida but have not read them despite my extreme interest in the subject matter, because 1) reading Greek is hard for me and 2) I don’t have the first volume, and there’s a natural reluctance to enter in medias res. If you think one can read Ariagni without having read the first, maybe I’ll give it a try once I’m past my current obsession with the Russian Revolution(s).

  28. Maybe you would lose something if you start with Ariagni without being already familiar with the key characters (the narrator, etc.) presented in I leskhi, the first volume, although it would be technically possible; sort of like taking a television series in the middle of a “season”, I guess.
    Which reminds me that there was a televised adaptation of the trilogy in the early Eighties (a Greeko-Franco-something-panEuropean coproduction series), starring Georges Corraface (whom I can obviously relate to, though I wish he’d refuse stereotypical “olive-skinned mobster” roles) as the protagonist, but how little I’ve seen of it was very mediocre and doesn’t do Tsirkas’ work justice. I’ve also managed to avoid that movie about Cavafy that came out some ten years ago in Greece.

  29. To be clear, though, aside from the documentary interest and a few things like the description of zikr, I wouldn’t say that Tsirkas’ trilogy is a major work. Maybe a novel like Nikos Kavvadias’ I vardia (Η βάρδια) would be more worth your time: cosmopolitic and very rich on a linguistic level (slang, dialects, foreign languages). Very dark, too, but you said you like the early Céline. Kavvadias has also written “sailorman” poems (more like easy-rhyme songs), but they’re too exoticist for me.

  30. OK, I’m intrigued — Kavvadias is definitely going on the list.

  31. Good; one minor correction, though, now that I’ve looked at my copy (the original 1954 edition) again: the title is just Βάρδια, without the article.

  32. Thanks for the explanation, Jimmy.

  33. Sunt et versiones Latinae, sed bibliographiam non habeo

  34. For various reasons, I don’t care anymore about (and stopped linking to) Wikipedia, but I too am curious about those Latin translations of Cavafy; too bad the entry’s author “doesn’t have any bibliographical reference” (but then how did they hear about it?). As an aside, one of the interesting pieces collected in Papoutsakis’ edition of Cavafy’s Prose (Πεζά) is a letter exchange with his brother John (Τζών) about the latter’s translation of a poem into English.
    (And Bertil, you’re welcome.)

  35. All right, maybe I am being overly serious and those “versiones Latinæ” are merely a literate play à la Borges?

  36. after I read about Vienna in ‘The World According to Garp’, I lost all desire to go there.

    John Irving’s descriptions of Vienna are so distant from reality I find it hard to believe he ever lived there. Not someone I would rely on as a guide. Certainly the city has also changed tremendously in the intervening years.

  37. Thanks for reviving this thread; I am delighted to learn that the Cavafy site is still up and running after all these years. “Last Updated: November 10th, 2005”!

  38. John Emerson says

    The only thing I’ve read by Irving (not Garp) was so strongly flavored by Irving’s obsessions that I would never take anything he wrote as accurately descriptive of anything.

  39. That’s wise, but he’s an enjoyable writer. (You can’t take Gogol as accurately descriptive of anything either.)

  40. When I visited Vienna as a teenager, we saw an American television program* being filmed there. I was struck by how much the site where they were filming (in front of a hotel on der Ringstrasse) had to be gussied up to look like the classy, European Vienna that American viewers apparently expected.

    * I Spy Returns (1994). At the time, it felt terribly exciting to meet Bill Cosby and hand around with his entourage for a while. Now, I can at least still think back on it fondly as the time I met Robert Culp. (None of us teens actually knew about the original I Spy series or who Culp was at the time. One of the adults with us on the trip filled us in when we got back to our hotel for dinner.)

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