Felicities of Touch

forster

I can’t say I am an avid reader of E. M. Forster; I read and liked Howard’s End and a Passage to India among others but maybe at too early an age to fully appreciate the wider context.

These days however a multitude of threads seem to capriciously weave a cathedral of wonder pulling me in. A subset of them is discovering that Forster not only visited Alexandria and wrote a guide to the city, but that he actually then met Cavafy, whose work he helped to introduce in England. What’s more, the guide’s introduction is written by — of course — Lawrence Durrell.

This work is something more than just a work of literary piety devoted to that strange and evocative city called Alexandria… it succeeds in being a small work of art, for it contains some of Forster’s best prose as well as felicities of touch only a novelist of major talent could command.

Lawrence Durrell — Introduction to E. M. Forster’s Alexandria: A History and Guide.

• • •

This Summer

corfu

This just arrived in the mail, a sign: I will go to Corfu this summer on a voyage home to myself, to make room for myself. I know not with whom or when or for how long, but the preparations have begun.

I want to go to Corfu and stay at the Durrells’ house (which one can) and breathe the bay of Kalami from the veranda and rent a boat and explore the secret beaches and lie naked in the sun and read Miller’s Colossus and Cavafy’s poems and Durrell’s guides to the islands and talk and sleep and sip my ouzo and swim in the warm, transparent and turquoise sea and make love and drink wine and cook and eat and drink wine again and talk more and make love again and talk again and drink more wine and fall asleep and wake up to the aegean sunrise and die just a little from the exaggerated bliss.

And long for Alexandria, every day, again and again and again.

The city calls.

• • •

What do all these Ithakas mean?

Darrin

Have you ever experienced that moment when something that has appeared in your life, apparently randomly, slowly becomes a central obsession to the point of making you think that you either suffer from some kind of mental disease or else the universe is trying to tell you something really really important?

It is the moment when I suddenly realise that I am being pulled into an inescapable vortex of wonder, born from some mysterious fractal algorithm where each fragment of information I unveil is another world onto itself, one again made of other fragments, endlessly. It is the moment when like a blinding light it hits me that all of it has always been in me, the moment when I loose every concept of my own self as if I was being shown a dimension of me which transcends any kind of rationalisation I have to offer. This how feel right now and I can hardly breathe.

Let me tell you a story:

Many years ago during a more dissolute period of my life I found myself at someone’s house party. I can’t remember how I got there (or much of the party for that matter, don’t even think of asking why). By six in the morning or so, when the music isn’t as loud and more intimate moments set in, when small groups of hushed conversations form, I found myself sitting on a couch next to a man, silent as I was, both of us peacefully observing the living room while looking within. He looked different, foreign. A lanky but graceful surfer with a face that could have been chiselled from the rocks of the Cyclades.

How the conversation (if I can call it that) started I don’t know. We exchanged a few words in English and the whole dialogue can’t have lasted more than a few minutes. He introduced himself as “Ithaka”. “That is a curious name,” I offered, “isn’t that also an island in Greece”?

He then explained that it was his stage name and that because he was part Greek, he had chosen it because of a poem about the island, a poem he “really liked and tried to live by”, proceeding to either show me the poem or maybe recite it from memory or else tell me to look it up, I can’t recall which. What I do remember is that it was beautiful: full of longing and wisdom and comfort and sadness and hope. Still, it was six in the morning: I filed it in some obscure and night-soaked drawer in my mind and have never since thought about it again, except for these lines which sometimes resurface for no apparent reason:

Wise as you will have become, with so much experience,
you will understand, by then, these Ithakas, what they mean.

To my recollection we exchanged no further words. This is all I remember of both the poem and the man and never saw him again. Much later of course I connected this encounter with the artist Ithaka Darrin Pappas, living in Lisbon at that time and whose music I actually owned on CD (just one album had been published back then). I found out by chance that he used to surf and hang out with some other people I knew tangentially but that was about it.

Not much of a story, then.

Except for Cavafy.

When my delight with his work began (and steadily increased to alarming levels in the last few days) I couldn’t help but to feel that, amidst all the joy, I was missing something important. Why did it sound so familiar? Maybe because of Pessoa? Or Alexandria? Yes, those are obvious, but there still lingers an inexplicable and undeniable melody that resonates within me for reasons that feel so my very own, as if sometimes he was writing to me personally, as if it was part of my very fabric.

And then I found Ithaka (or was it my destination all along?)

Ithaka

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Constantine Cavafy — Ithaka

The resonance is older, much much older. It may even be older than that chance encounter. I can’t begin to describe how this all makes me feel: a little more complete, connected to myself and excited at the prospect of diving carelessly into it all, trembling in anticipation at the prospect of discovering the glow of new infinite threads of light and of making them shine even brighter.

Maybe I have indeed become sufficiently wise and experienced to have been allowed to understand what all these Ithakas mean.

This is how the voyage begins and I hope it’ll be a long one.

• • •

Every Night I Dream

photo

Considered the Cavafy of our days, Nanos Valaoritis was witness to the moment when Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller first met George Seferis and George Katsimbalis (who first published the poet in 1939, and was of course to become Miller’s Colossus).

Every night I dream of great poetry
Quite different from mine
Or what I will ever write
And yet – every night I dream
Of this very different poetry
Composed of lines so solid
So dense and grainy
They could have been made of granite I ask myself – what is their subject
What do they say these marvellous lines
Which to behold – will leave you aghast
They’ll take your breath away
But – however – in any case – I’m sorry to say
Impossible to guess what it’s all about
And I have tried and tried, believe me,
And puzzled over these lines
Day after day – and in the night
They keep on coming back
With new earthshaking and tremendous
Messages – of great import
That everyone should hear
But not a single word remains
When I open my eyes – they’re gone
They vanish in pure daylight
These huge edifices – those titanic
Workings of each night.

Nanos Valaoritis — Every Night I Dream

It is all an unfathomable, endless web.

• • •

The City

The_City

In Heather’s defense, she couldn’t have known that my quick and slightly alarmed reference to Durrell while talking about Cavafy was precisely quick, meant to not let an obsession which has plagued me for most of my life rear its beautiful head.

The innocent comment was that there were perhaps references to Cavafy in the Alexandria Quartet. What she couldn’t have known is that once I discovered Cavafy, it struck me that in the Quartet, the city of Alexandria is possibly the canvas on which Durrell paints Cavafy, a city which has haunted me and drawn me in all these years. She didn’t know that I was in panic of reopening the book and never be able to come back up for air again, lost in my increasingly isolated bouts with an excess of beauty. And paint Cavafy he does, most notably at the very end of Justine, where he offers his own translation (he calls it a “transplant”) of The City:

I have tried to transplant rather than translate — with what success I cannot say.

There is much more throughout the book, but I have not come back up for air yet.

Since my obsessions are all somewhat related, this one awoke an even older one, which is wanting to understand Greek. Because the language sounds beautiful, yes, but especially because it is at the root of so many words we use every day and at the core of so much of what we call “civilization” (yes, Latin too, but the Romans also “transplanted” significant parts of the Hellenic culture and adapted it to their own). I’ve always thought that Europe itself is a Greek idea. That we’re all really Greeks. That the very least I should do is explore my heritage. That I ought to be able to read and write in Greek. Alexandria was always there, of course: it never left my mind that it was an Hellenic city for one thousand years (maybe still partly is), after Alexander the Great founded it.

And now, as if there is no possible escape, I want to go to Greece.

Kalami

I want to go to Corfu and stay at the Durrells’ house (which one can) and breathe the bay of Kalami from the veranda and rent a boat and explore the secret beaches and lie naked in the sun and read Miller’s Colossus and Cavafy’s poems and Durrell’s guides to the islands and talk and sleep and sip my ouzo and swim in the warm, transparent and turquoise sea and make love and drink wine and cook and eat and drink wine again and talk more and make love again and talk again and drink more wine and fall asleep and wake up to the aegean sunrise and die just a little from the exaggerated bliss.

And long for Alexandria, every day, again and again and again.

It took me too long to realise that the city can have me, all of me, but I must better my ways. If it would let me in its arms, I’d stay there for the rest of my life.

Awake.

 

 

The City

You tell yourself: I’ll be gone
To some other land, some other sea,
To a city lovelier far than this
Could ever have been or hoped to be-
Where every step now tightens the noose:
A heart in a body buried and out of use:
How long, how long must I be here
Confined among these dreary purlieus
Of the common mind? Wherever now I look
Black ruins of my life rise into view.
So many years have I been here
Spending and squandering, and nothing gained.
There’s no new land, my friend, no
New sea; for the city will follow you,
In the same streets you’ll wander endlessly,
The same mental suburbs slip from youth to age,
In the same house go white at last-
The city is a cage.
No other places, always this
Your earthly landfall, and no ship exists
To take you from yourself. Ah! don’t you see
Just as you’ve ruined your life in this
One plot of ground you’ve ruined its worth
Everywhere now-over the whole earth?

— Lawrence Durrell’s “transplant” of Cavafy’s poem, a gift for Justine. See The City, the Spirit, and the Letter: On Translating Cavafy, for more on the various versions.

 

 

• • •

Alexandria, Lisbon, Cavafy & Pessoa

Cavafy_Pessoa

 

Costantine Cavafy was a wholly unknown Greek poet to me until a friend, in the middle of a conversation we were having about growing, referred me to some of his verses. The poem was this:

Days yet to come stretch out before us
like a row of candles, burning brightly —
vivacious candles, golden and warm.

The days that have passed fall behind us,
burned-out candles in a dismal row:
those closest at hand still smoking;
cold candles, melted and deformed.

I don’t want to look; their state saddens me;
it saddens me to remember their initial glow.
I look ahead, instead, to my lighted candles.

I don’t want to turn back to see, with horror,
how quickly the dark row of candles has lengthened,
how rapidly the number of dead candles has grown.

Despite it being almost certain that something was lost in the translation from the Greek (and we have to thank E. M. Foster, of a Passage to India fame, for the fact that Cavafy’s work was translated at all, curiously), it struck us both immediately as something Fernando Pessoa, or one of his many heteronyms could have written. Beautifully simple and elegant, unpretentious and yet so very well crafted. One can feel the painful introspection, nowhere present in the words themselves.

Upon further research it was surprising to discover that Cavafy’s pathos and yes, his relationship with Alexandria, where he was born and lived, was akin to Pessoa’s with Lisbon, also to Joyce’s with Dublin, or Kafka’s with Prague. Even their lives were similar, having lost their fathers at an early age and moving with their mothers to English-speaking countries (Cavafy to England, Pessoa to South Africa) and being perfectly bilingual.

All very well and amusing, but not exactly earth-shattering.

Yet.

Earth-shattering (to us at least) was to discover that Cavafy and Pessoa actually met each other on a ship, by the most random of coincidences, a story which is worthy of a film. The original Greek documentary is below (with English subtitles) and explains it so much better than I ever could, dumbfounded as I still am at the whole story, which has given more information than I can ever hope to process. It goes on for more than one hour, but is worth every minute. (update: the complete video is now gone from YouTube, sorry.)

I can’t really begin to comprehend these stratospheric levels of serendipity and what they might mean; it’s a little frightening to consider the options, and I haven’t even reopened Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet yet. Rachel Cohen’s essay on Cavafy and Pessoa helps, but adds another layer to this web, this, well, fugue: it was written in 2002, six whole years before it was known that the poets had met, an eery presage.

Beauty, incomprehensible. As it should be.

 

 

 

• • •