Posts Tagged ‘Cavafy’

On J. R. Farrell’s Troubles [1971 novel set in Ireland 1920s] “Troubles is not a ‘period piece’; it is yesterday reflected in today’s consciousness. The ironies, the disparities,the dismay, the unavailingness are contemporary” (Elizabeth Bowen, a review published 1971)

Dear friends and readers,

You see the increasing good news for people in the US — also other countries, where vaccination is proceeding apace (Israel, the UK, Chile, the US, Bahrain are among these). Pressure is being put on the Biden administration to cooperate quickly over sharing our excess vaccine supply (AstraZeneca, as soon as the FDA approves it officially), and to use a temporary waiver on copyright. I hope people here are aware of how much we owe to Biden and his administration as we move into a post-pandemic era, which Biden is trying also to renovate through the first large and decent gov’t programs intended to reach everyone to enable us to improve our and all communities’ lives. He, his wife, the VP and the others working with and for them are my new paladins and heroines.

I do have some news. I’m near finishing teaching and following courses for this term (today my courses on the weather, Early Pulitzer Prize-winning Women Poets, and Edith Wharton ended) and within a month the summer’s teaching and new (though less than I have been taking) courses begin. For June at OLLI at AU, I will repeat my Two Novels of Longing Across an Imperialist Century, and for June-July (6 weeks) at OLLI at Mason I’ll continue my study of contemporary novels from a political POV, this time colonialist: my books will be Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s A Backward Place, Caryl Philips’s Crossing the River and Jane Mander’s The Story of a New Zealand River. Although I do have my review of the standard edition of Anne Finch’s poetry yet to do (I must buy the second very fat and very expensive volume), and am part of two reading groups on line (my Trollope&Peers, and an FB The Way We Read Now page) and via Zoom (Trollope Society), I fancy I have enough time to get back to my original projects, let go of this past winter.

But they have morphed from my reading and trying to be more realistic so I can envisage single volumes. Don’t imagine I seek to publish these; I’m returning to the way I was when I translated the poetry of Colonna and Gambara, and did all that original scholarship on Anne Finch, wrote a biography of her, did etext editions and so on. This is to give me a meaningful goal and extend myself, teach myself how to write a book regularly — so to speak. Even at age 74. So I rearranged my books, put many away, made the two stacks for the two courses, and fixed the others towards the projects and towards my sheer love of this or that topic or language or type book — some of the books I read relate very much to my movie-watching and love of travel books.

This was not a trivial task. Some still had their spaces waiting for them but others has lost ground, and I had to improvise shelves, turn the books this way and that, and it took hours to re-pile what I hope to go through this summer in a way that showed the trail or path ahead. Gentle reader, I chain-read.

In this remarkable book (which I’ve been reading) Bowen teaches us how to travel, enacts for us how to think and feel to get inside a place and understand its feeling, an extraordinary recreation of atmosphere

an evocation of a city – its history, its architecture and, above all, its atmosphere. She describes the famous classical sites, conjuring from the ruins visions of former inhabitants and their often bloody activities. She speculates about the immense noise of ancient Rome, the problems caused by the Romans’ dining posture, and the Roman temperament, which blended ‘constructive will with supine fatalism’. She envies the Vestal Virgins and admires the Empress Livia, who survived a barren marriage. She evokes the city’s moods – by day, when it is characterized by golden sunlight, and at night, when the blaze of the moon ‘annihilates history, turning everything into a get together spectacle for Tonight. [As good as Eleanor Clarke’s Rome and A Villa


So I will work on, maybe write my Poldark book but not as a literary biography. I just don’t have the resources or personality to do what’s necessary to be done. My aim now will be to return to reading all his extant works, which I have, including re-reading the Poldarks, and then writing a book on historical fiction and romance. This will lead to me reading more 20th century books, probably mostly by women. I have this term been reading political novels by women, which I discover, to be like many men’s often, set back further in historical time. I need to get back to the Graham books and historical romance.

Lampedusa’s Gattopardo – which I read in the original Italian and at the time thought the best book in Italian extant

This connects to the other project, a book on life-long single women writers. I was having the hardest time deciding which ones — there are so many, as my definition of lifelong single women does not exclude women who have been married. The criteria is rather that they have lived independently, developing their own career or vocation for most of their lives. This term I discovered how much I love 20th century women writers — I just fell in love with two of the women, Bowen and Manning — and how many of these fit my definition. So here as in the other project I must not dwell on a limited number of people but see their work as part of groups, subgenres, and emerge with another related theme beyond this groundwork criteria of a long time alone. If nothing else, this will guide my chain-reading. Right now I’m so taken, exhilarated (by Bowen), interested touched by Olivia Manning and am finishing all of her Balkan and Levant trilogy.

It’s not only the franker and deepening depiction of what goes on between heroine and hero, Harriet and Guy (I may be wrong about Aiden but I’m thinking that Guy is also implicitly supposed to be having an affair with Edwina — the giving her of that rose diamond that Harriet treasured as a gift from Angela is singularly cruel as a careless act) but the actual events we are shown — in the desert and also the colonialist politics where the English are now outsiders, unwanted — for the Greeks divided into fascists who wanted them out and nationalists and communists types too. The gov’t such as it was made a pact with the Germans, who proceeded of course to invade anyway.

I’m finding the whole depiction of Alexandria in a book on far more than Manning: Eve Patten’s Imperial Refuges of such interest – there is a section on the people who lived there — this brings us back to the Durrells — Lawrence, EM Forster, Cavafy, and group of gay people as well as others leading fluid lives not just sexually but also financially (desperate poverty some of them, while others have the private income). She means to bring this group in to — so that’s why I wondered about Aiden Pratt — based on someone real. The matter flows into my interest in colonialism (above), the course I’ll give at OLLI at Mason June-July — and poetry below.

Episode 6 of The Fortunes of War where Harriet (Emma Thompson) visits Luxor conveys the profound pessimism of the symbolic statues Manning intuits
(I’ve been re-watching Alan Plater’s masterpieces of BBC/ITV films)


More very sad news: one of the friends I mentioned last time who I’ve become close to since Jim died, and who dropped me, Phyllis Furdell, has died. At age 75: her third husband (ex) emailed and then I phoned him and I will be going to her funeral service May 18th. Cheerful on the surface, in her inner life she was a troubled and acid soul; she had only one son, now in his late 50s, who needs someone to help him survive psychologically. She was a good painter and left paintings of the Washington DC subway with people on it (studies). Also astute portraits. Her ex-husband is trying to get some institution or art-seller to take them.

A fellow 18th century scholar, in his later 80s, a colleague, Manny Schonhorn. I knew him only in his later years and as a friend-acquaintance at the EC/ASECS meetings. He was so friendly, kind, full of fun, and candid. Wonderfully pleasant over drinks, informative if you sat with him for a full lunch. He and I would exchange email missives too. I’ll miss his presence at our meetings. He was a Defoe, Swift and Pope, & Fielding man from before feminism and post-colonialism so changed the field.

And a young woman of 43, once Laura’s close intimate friend, the maid of honor at Laura’s first wedding, also died — probably of cancer. Jessie never was able to emerge from her working class deeply anti-intellectual Trumpite family environment; going to college did not help pull her out into other worlds. Her last job was that hard work, little pay install electricity for rich-people’s parties that Laura did for a couple of years. Jessie never got another job; both husband/partners were utter failures; she left a 16 year old daughter. She never traveled (as my 75 year old friend did), never had a chance to fulfill her considerable gifts, never discovered where she could put them to use. Very sad.

20 Years Ago: Laura (bottom to the left) Jessie (top row to the right) as part of a theatrical crew and production


On the up side now that the pandemic seems to have lost its grip (and Biden is aiming at 70% vaccination by June), it does look like I’m managing to keep enough students taking my courses and either in the fall 2021 (I’ll do Trollope’s Prime Minister with a book of political writings by 19th century women) or spring 2022 teach in person once again. I hope zooms will continue (from the Trollope Society, from Cambridge, from other academic type environments), for they are a mainstay for me where I don’t have to waste time traveling and can reach more than I ever dreamed of — and where I used to go when my eyes were better, like Politics and Prose Bookstore community in DC where the classes are often at night and I can’t drive. And in less than 2 weeks Laura, Izzy and I will find an Italian restaurant where we can eat outdoors and commemorate Izzy’s birthday: she’ll be 37!

An Image of Stark Grief

That’s all I have to report that’s new of changing, moving on. Maybe I should close on a movie I recently saw which I found to be a dazzling masterpiece — costume drama, period piece, Martin Scorcese’s Age of Innocence out of Edith Wharton’s remarkable ironically titled novel of the same name. I usually tell, however briefly, of a book or movie I’ve recently read or re-read. I was bowled over. Truly. You do have to pay attention to nuances, and respond to the imagery and what happens — Daniel Day Lewis as a profoundly melancholic Newland Archer – and the narrator’s studied lines.

Suffice to say it seemed to me for a movie to be the closest thing I know to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: more adequate to Tolstoy’s book than the 1977 Anna Karenina (which, together with oe Wright’s AK do as much and more justice to a deeply felt and complicated story of human beings than I ever realized before — yes I’ve been reading in this one). Even if I found a class to be worse than a waste of time (parts of the book were dismissed as of no interest – Levin, the politics of the three men &c), I have stayed with the book insofar as skimming/reading and then watching and thinking is concerned.

Stuart Wilson as Beaufort

Joanthan Pryce, the dangerous (blackmailing ever-so-discreet) secretary

Stuart Wilson, the Vronsky of the 1977 AK is the Beaufort of this Age of Innocence: we are in the movie (never mind the book) to assume he and Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer as a nervous, neurotic, deeply passionate and in the end withdrawn to find “repos” woman) have been having an affair — that she succumbs to several men, including her brutal husbands secretary (played by Jonathan Pryce — only a few minutes but he manages to emerge from the costume to dominate the stage with an insinuating dangerous presence). Sian Phillips as the knowing mother who backs the manipulative winner May Welland (Winona Rylands) in order to hold onto her son. The old woman grandmother (the book is about a world of women, a matriarchy) played by Mariam Margoleyes who loves Ellen and knows she should marry Newland but let’s the repressive even spiteful world have its way and grants Ellen the allowance which allows her to live independently in peace, privately.

One of the miracles of the movie is how it alludes to other movies in the same spirit. It is intended to project 19th century or now collapsed attitudes towards marriage and sex – -and does this through presenting the characters as neurotic and near breakdowns as well as the society as incessantly nasty and oppressive. It’s a costume drama about costume dramas as much as anything

Ending on a poem by C. P. Cavafy as translated by Edumund Keeley (there are better translations, one by Lawrence Durrell):

The City

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried like something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.

This harsh ending means to convey to the person who wants to travel to entertain, flee themselves, provide substitute (tourist?) meaning, that the soul makes her own landscape, your own inner environment, out of ennui or social desperance, you can create your own forms of beauty. It might be you want to reach Ithaca, far away, but take a long time getting there. Olivia Manning returned from Egypt having learned from Luxor to write of Ireland, The Dreaming Shores, with these exquisite photographs of this green temperate world – which I’ve been reading and perusing too.



Read Full Post »


Dancing and Dinner (Huston’s The Dead)

I cannot change my mind for you, my dears ….
all the lovely and beautiful times we had — Sappho, trans. M. L. West

Sounds from our life’s first poetry —
like music at night, far off, fading out — Cavafy, trans. Avi Sharon

Friends and readers,

The last few days and evening have passed peacefully and mostly cheerfully.

Izzy has been “let out” of work (like some prisoner whose sentence is briefly commuted) early repeatedly: the 22nd, 4 pm, the 23rd, the same, then the 24th at noon! she betook herself to Old Town on Christmas Eve day, had lunch out, walked (though the wet sky did persist in raining on her) amid the pretty place and got home just as I was leaving. I spent the evening with a new friend, Phyllis: spinach inside some kind of light baked flaky dough; home-made soup, squash (vegetables are such a treat for me nowadays), banana bread, all washed down by wine. We listened to musicals (Weber, Fosse) and women narrators: Lorrie Anderson who conjures up worlds of half-mad Americans, and Nora Ephron’s wry essays from her I Feel Bad About My Neck. She sounded to me just like Laura Linney — one of my favorite actresses.

Christmas Day I slept until nearly 8. Izzy’s custom is to play good Christmas music, and this morning she had the whole of the Christmas Revels. Around 1:30 we began what some and we call (comically meant) a “Jewish Christmas,” out to a Chinese restaurant (good food, warmly lit felt place – since some detail menus, we had peking duck and savory eggplant dish, me Riesling wine). Phyllis met us there because I had forgotten my reading glasses the night before, and then stayed for dinner. Before the hot rain began to pour (the 25th was like a day in May, muggy, heavy, raining dankly like some neglected greenhouse), brief walk for me & Izzy, and then she and I at home watched John and Tony Huston’s moving delicately nuanced sometimes very funny (as when Lady Gregory’s dreadful poem is read aloud and all admire it) film adaptation of Joyce’s culminating Dubliner story, The Dead, starring Donal McCann as Gabriel and Anjelica Huston (this was a family affair) as Gretta. We had together written a paper a few years ago on this story, comparing it to one by Anne Enright. At the close of the movie Huston films older parts of Dublin and then the Irish countryside, a couple of old churches and some very ancient gravestones, and McCann uttering Gabriel’s magnificently melancholy words ….


Evening for me one of my presents, Patti Smith’s M Train and for her ice-skating on the Net and her present, Mary Beard’s SPQR.

These latter were acquired on the evening of the 23rd. Caroline came over and we drove about and went shopping to an open group of sidewalks, semi-mall in Arlington. The Apple Store. Izzy did not need an new ipad after all, resident “geniuses” in red t-shirts fixed it for her and improved my access to g-mail on my cell phone. Then we adjourned to a bookstore and bought two books each. We then did our exchange of presents in Caroline’s car. (I forget what books Caroline got, what was Izzy’s second, mine was Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name, the second of her Neapolitan novels as I recently finished her powerful My Brilliant Friend.) We did Christmas in the car.

I do wonder on and off why I just don’t sit and cry, and the answer comes back, it’s useless, plus would ruin what we can have. “Though nothing can bring back the hour/Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;/We will grieve not, rather find/Strength in what remains behind…” I had a panic attack one noon, the 22nd: I became convinced my car had been stolen. I went out to my car park and it was not there. It took three hours, frantic phone calls, a police officer coming over and questioning me slowly — and courteously, to awaken the memory I had left it the night before near the Metro because a neighbor offered to drive me home. The sadness is worse at night, sometimes sleep comes hard, at the same time as in one way at least for this yearly event this year I felt freer without him.

You see Jim hated Christmas in his deepest self from bitter memories of childhood as well as times in public school as a day boy. (I’ve met a lot of people who dislike the imposition, find the insistence of others oppressive; cannot ignore family pathologies.) Then I watched the famous BBC documentary from the 1960s, Cathy Come Home. I had been waiting for weeks for it to come from Amazon.uk as I am in the midst of reading an good book on British Television Drama (Lez Cooke) which discuss the very best (also John Caughie’s Television Drama: realism, modernism, British culture). A devastatingly traumatic story about a couple driven into homelessness (he cannot make enough money for rent once he gets into a bad accident and loses physical abilities, once she has children, she makes none), rightly immensely respected: I had not quite realized what it means to say the Wednesday Night plays on the BBC were not presented as plays but as contemporary films, this one with its montage, over-voices, photographed real places, a seeming documentary. The last scene because Cathy has become obstreperous she is evicted from the last shelter, and since she has no hope of anyone who will rent her a place for her meager change, her children are forcibly removed from her in a bus station she has fled to.

It is an unforgettable experience.

Chance turned out to be fitting for me because the film brought home to me one aspect of how & why Jim came to feel about Christmas the way he did. In 1948 to 51, when he was born until age 3 or so, his mother and father lived in condemned housing where they were continually harassed to get out of it, berated for not finding another place, threatened, without being given the slightest help (money, contacts, nothing) — the excuse was that there was no housing and probably just after the war there wasn’t. Unlike Cathy, my mother-in-law remained polite (she had been an under-governess in a great house, a job she hated but taught her silence). They were not evicted. After a futher year of misery (he was 4) Jim’s mother’s best friend managed to get a larger flat where she could invite them to stay with her. Then a year or so after that, with her negotiating skills and a loan on remarkably easy terms (2% interest at first) from a Friendly Society (workman’s loan association), Jim’s parents bought an long old narrow attached house in Southampton. They lived there until Jim’s father died in 1978 and his mother moved to Leeds to be near her daughter (Jim’s sister, now a vicar).

Jim’s first remembered Christmas was hardly any food to eat, much less presents ,and heartless menacing and cold scorn from authorities who came to nag because these people feared for their jobs if people stayed in condemned housing. A first searing experience of individual and community hypocrisy. I had tried until I was 9 to be the child I was supposed to be on Christmas day in myths, but experience and truthfulness began to break this veneer down when I was 11. Over the years he moderated: after 11 years of marriage, when Laura was 2 we had a tree for her sake, and in her and Izzy’s babyhood, I performed the Santa shower of presents, and then my parents started coming over and we’d have the family meal, but suffice to say as time went on, and hard experience intervened, this yearly enforced set of demands became more and more fraught. The imposition, the grating on my worn nerves while I kept trying, a increasing grief to me.

He did break this cycle in 2000. He took Izzy and I to Paris for 2 weeks over Christmas and past New Year’s Day. We all remembered it afterward as a magical time. We saw so many plays: Corneille’s Cinna (slow enough I could understand), Moliere’s Tartuffe (very acrobatic), a dramatization of Goethe’s Elective Affinities, Offenbach’s La Perichole (extraordinarily festive operetta), Strauss’s Die Fledermaus (for New Year’s Eve after which we walked to the Eiffel Tower to see the fireworks); we went to fascinating movies, remarkable bookstores, ceaseless museums, to Versailles, on bus tours into the countryside; we even went to the banlieus. We were in an apartment worthy a movie about picturesque Paris (not far from Notre Dame). Christmas Day Jim went to a market and brought home cooked what he said was French Christmas meal — I recall a ham, some yummy vegetable dish, a roll of fancy cake. The best thing about Christmas day in Paris was so much was open; you didn’t have to observe the day if you didn’t want to, and lots of people were going out. We saw some Racine play that day. The last day we were there (January 3rd) Izzy stood on one of the bridges and stared hard to try to keep in her mind all we had experienced.

Then for a couple of years we tried for a new set of customs: the Jewish Christmas, Chinese restaurant and movie and for a couple of years enough of the Paris mood and memories remained. One of these two or three years we happened into a restaurant where the Peking Duck came out with flames and it was carved in front of us. We added on Boxing Day one year: we hadn’t one set of relatives to go to, much less a second, but discovered how all the museums in DC were open and put on special blockbuster shows. So we began to do the second British Christmas day: I remember (and have the books for) The Victorians, John Singer Sergeant, Vuillard; Age of Watteau, Chardin, & Fragonard; an innovative exhibit on the natural landscapes and photographs of the Pre-Raphaelites. I wrote blogs on some of these. But not every year is there is worthwhile exhibit. We also added going to Kennedy Center for New Year’s Eve and the ball there. But by 2010 we had again been thinking, we needed to break away, do it freshly, the three of us, a trip elsewhere for the two weeks — Scotland maybe.

Artemis and deer (from after Augustus, in Rome)

Izzy and I had not planned to do Boxing Day this year: I cannot remember if we did it last. I knew we had had a good day the 25th and I said to her this morning, a little regretfully but thinking this was best to make it explicit, well maybe it’s time to give up this second day. She responded, “At the National Gallery they have a good exhibit on Hellenic Sculpture.” “Would you like to go?” “Yes.” As her present of Mary Beard may suggest, Izzy is into Latin and Roman Culture. She took Latin in school every year from the time she was 11; some years she had Latin two hours a day; she minored in it at Sweet Briar. During the 4 years between getting her librarian job and graduation from Buffalo (MLIS), she took 3 courses in latin and Roman history/culture at Mason (post-graduate, no credit). This exhibit would be part of her thing.

It was somehow so touching that when we walk round back, we discovered he has these perfectly delicately carved feathery wings — the human presence who did this came across

We set forth by 11 am. Pathos and Power one of the more intelligently put together exhibits I’ve seen in a while. the curators reveal an art of true individuality, subjectivity grew up in the ancient Greek empire as artists commemorated heroes, royals and heroines (Athena and Artemis were there; also one Egyptian queen), and some ordinary people in bronze between 300 BC and 100 AD. There are photographs of frescos, paintings of places in Greece and Italy where these were found or temples are or were located. The exhibit includes a room on collectors, what periods this material was gathered in, where; in slightly later centuries (3rd century AD) how they were used, then how copied by the Romans, then the 18th century excavations, 19th. We noticed how much is recently found: since the 20th century maybe it’s been more obvious to fisherman or people living near frozen mud they can get money for these objects? A piquant well-photographed 25 minute film from the Getty narrated by someone Izzy recognized as a fine narrator and scholar. I bought a book of Greek Lyric Poetry — fresh lovely translations with a picture of Sappho by Gustave Moreau on the cover.

Sappho on the Rock (Moreau)

Downstairs to the cafeteria for a sit down and lunch. We were game for more and, escalator up, went back to the main galleries and lost ourselves among 19th and early 20th century American impressionist and realistic pictures. I began to feel dizzy and she to have had her full. Christmas Done.

I had so liked the displays of scarlet and pink winter flowers and large green trees with white lights around the garden and fountain areas so we took photos of one another before we left.



By a much later Greek poet than Sappho

In the Evening

It would not have lasted long in any case.
Years of experience taught me that. And yet,
it was rather hasty, the way Fate ended it.
The good times were brief.
Bur how powerful the fragrances;
ow wonderful the bed we lay in;
what pleasure we gave our bodies!

An echo from those days of pleasure,
an echo from those days came near,
an ember from our youth’s fire;
I took one of his letters
and read it over and over until the light faded.

Melancholic, I stepped out on to the balcony –
Stepped out to change my mood by seeing at least
a little of this city that I love,
a little movement in the streets and in the shops.
—C. P. Cavafy, trans. Avi Sharon

Miss Drake

Read Full Post »