The Cinnamon-Coloured Suit
(C.P. Cavafy 1863-1933)
by Rhys Hughes
The first time I heard of the poet Cavafy was in my initial aborted attempt to read Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, a set of books that can’t be appreciated or understood by readers with insufficient life experience. I lacked that experience back then.
Durrell mentions him frequently as an epitome of a particular type of excellence, though I was unsure what type exactly. I wasn’t ready for that quartet. It poured through my mind like wine through a sieve, a wasted cascade of observations and allusions.
Yet the name ‘Cavafy’ lodged firmly in my memory. Years later I saw a collection of his poetry in a peculiar second-hand bookshop near the village of Chagford in Devon. That bookshop was peculiar because it was one of a group of buildings in an out-of-the-way compound that sold used items of almost any kind. You could buy an old suit of armour there, a hooped skirt, a blunderbuss, a wrecked ship’s figurehead, a top hat with hinged lids and secret compartments.
The compound was always deserted. After you had chosen what you wanted, it was difficult to find anyone to give your money to. I flicked through the Cavafy book but didn’t buy it and regretted it later. The few words my eyes had chanced on played on my mind over the coming days, though I couldn’t say why. There was an aura of mystery about them. I must have picked up a poetry infection.
More years passed. I learned by chance that Cavafy never submitted his poems to publishers in order for them to be issued in book form. He preferred to print them privately on single sheets and distribute them to his friends. Like Pessoa, publication wasn’t his main objective. I found this approach refreshing, admirable, exemplary, a happy change from the more familiar world of desperately ambitious and forceful writers seeking maximum exposure for their output.
Beguiled by his modesty, I finally ordered his selected poems in an attractive modern edition. The modesty was a mirage of sorts, for it turns out that Cavafy was unabashed about his stature as a very fine poet. He merely pushed himself on the public to a lesser degree than most. Or to be more accurate, he regarded his audience as not-yet-born and himself as “a writer destined for future generations”. Yet this private grandiosity is expressed in a manner both wistful and mildly humorous. The charm of Cavafy’s assertions, even about his own importance, dissuade any sneer of disdain from the judicious reader.
I liked his poetry the moment I began reading it properly, beginning with early poems from the late 1890s and ending with poems written the year of his death. They are direct and modern in tone but infused with the ways of former times, wistful without being sad, dreamy without being escapist, simultaneously classical and romantic, softly lyrical in sentiment but manly in shape and sound. They immerse the reader in two different periods of culture, Alexandria at the dawn of the 20th Century and the entirety of the Ancient Greek world. Curiously, both epochs are contained within each other, warped but mutual subsets.
Frequently the contemporary reader of Cavafy is tugged backwards in time to the café society of a century and a quarter ago only to find that the café and its inhabitants frame a still earlier age, an age that provides the original image which has now been distorted by imperfect reflection. The encounters and ardours of the poet’s context are shadowy, perilous and fleeting variations on the antique themes.
Both environments appear exotic to us now, for we easily romanticise their distracting satisfactions while ignoring the tribulations. The pangs of the office worker in the unlighted alley at night are of the same substance and quality as those of the celebrated youth with the dissipated existence during the surge and struggles of dead empires. But the former risks his reputation, the latter only his life. What is always true naturally remains true, what is acceptable has changed.
The powerful impression of sensual loss in Cavafy is poignant but never dismal. His nostalgia is the rugged and resilient kind. He conjures up past encounters in order to reuse them, or at least expresses a wish to be able to do so. Underneath the sadness and yearning there are also hints of a fatalistic attitude that verges on the positive or motivational. Love has been lost, yes, but it can still be appreciated for what it was, and there may be other loves in the future, equal or even better. This caveat is never spoken aloud, but it exists in the measured thoughts anyway. The passion in Cavafy’s work is calm, genuinely strong, accepting, never controlling. It is an easy flowing eroticism that claims the moment but relaxes without any violence of self pity or rancour.
An early poem, ‘The City’, is perhaps my favourite poem by any poet. I prefer to regard it as a warning and a prompting rather than a prediction or imprecation. It is one of the few poems I’ve read that made me shiver on first reading. Aspirations are often or usually chained to doubts. This particular poem is so close to the aspirations and doubts of my own heart that it is exactly adjacent to them. It rests lightly on my heart like a hand, a hand that can be smooth or grip depending on faith. “I will go to a new land, I will try another sea.” The rubric of escape and betterment, of happiness elsewhere, is the equation that has controlled my entire life. In this poem the equation turns out to be erroneous, self defeating. “You will find no new land, you will find no other seas.” The unsatisfactory city is one we must inevitably take with us.
But again, there is no certainty in the process of this message. Rather than act as a restraint on movement and hope, the poems fills me with an urge to heed the admonition that one shouldn’t allow life to become sour in that way. The new land and the other seas might still be there provided we are already reconciled to ourselves.
I have read interior poets before, those who seem unduly to focus on isolation, abandonment, restriction and confinement, and they have been dour, gloomy and effective jailers of themselves. Cavafy is not at all like that. His simple rooms, furnished with only a bed, in crumbling houses in the less salubrious quarters of Alexandria still seem suffused with gentle light, a radiance that is no less emotional than solar or lunar. I share the despair of his narrators who are thwarted by societal prejudice, but there is no bitterness in them. They bide their time for the next opportunity and recapture the past in a future encounter.
The possibility of endless loop and replenishment is what gives to the poems of Cavafy the note of clandestine optimism that a loss in not quite the same as Loss, that the past exists in refracted and reflected form in the present and future, that what might have been can sincerely become what will be, although in a changed form with different protagonists. Nor is it beyond the bounds of plausibility that the new might be superior to what has gone before. ‘The Mirror in the Entrance Hall’ tells the tale of an old mirror that has witnessed many scenes and people during its existence. At last, very late in its life, it has the chance to reflect perfect beauty when a young tailor’s apprentice who is delivering a package to the household is made to wait alone in the hallway. This youth straightens his tie in the glass. The mirror is happy for the first time.
The objects of Cavafy’s desire are remarkable souls in mediocre jobs who, short of money but intoxicated with what little freedom they have, spend their spare hours carefully, fruitlessly or voraciously with as much abandon as can be gathered from their immediate environs. They may be primarily driven by the need to make money, but nothing tarnishes their allure, which is entirely dependent on the poet’s longing. Or else they may be too proud to accept menial employment and abide in poverty instead, wearing the same “faded cinnamon-coloured suit” every day, earning a few shillings playing cards or backgammon.
Cavafy was born in Alexandria but when he was nine years old his family moved to Britain, where he acquired a love of English literature. Later he also lived for a short time in Constantinople, but the majority of his allotted span was spent in one city in Egypt, his birthplace and his final resting place. E.M. Forster, who met him in 1916, said he only saw Cavafy “going either from his flat to the office or from his office to the flat,” but he also described the poet as “standing absolutely motionless at an angle to the universe.” He was too different to be unremarkable.
My personal discovery of Cavafy and his spell has reconciled me to the writer who lives a quiet and unadventurous life. For this is merely the surface of things. Not everyone can be an Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Kurban Said or Ernst Jünger, flying, riding or charging over oceans, mountains, battlefields. True enough, but the coffee shops and unfurnished rooms of Cavafy are mighty landscapes too, ripe with incident.