April 28, 2015
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.
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.
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.