Alexandria, Lisbon, 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.


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.




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