Indisputably the greatest Greek poet since antiquity, C.P. Cavafy achieved his genius because of, not in spite of, his homosexuality. Dan Chiasson argued as much in his spectacular five-page appreciation in The New Yorker, excerpted below, on the occasion of Daniel Mendelsohn's "extraordinary," must-own translations, Complete Poems and The Unfinished Poems. For a first-hand account of the man, read E.M. Forster's touching biography in his Alexandria: A History and Guide, published in 1922, eleven years before Cavafy died of larynx cancer on his 70th birthday. Four decades later, David Hockney created a dozen etchings inspired by his poems, including this one, In the dull village. The director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, chose this print as #97 in his A History of the World in 100 Objects. Covering more than a million years of human experience, MacGregor can give the era from 1914 onward only five items: a Russian Revolution plate, a Mozambique throne constructed of rifles, a Sharia-compliant Visa credit card, a solar lamp, and this ode to gay sex.
"By day, he performed his ordinary Alexandrian act: leaving the office, hitting the stock exchange, where he was licensed to trade; visiting a billiards club. At night he paid beautiful young men -- dishwashers and tailors' assistants and grocery boys -- for sex. Cavafy's work draws from two intensely private sources: the old histories of the Hellenic world which he read in the evenings, and the nights of sex, rigged for retrospective poignancy, that ensued.
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"Because everybody dwells in history together, all at once, Cavafy refused to divvy up the available moods into one pile appropriate for obscure Byzantines and another for his Alexandrian rent boys. This makes him a master of mismatched affect...
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"These were the years when Cavafy maintained a double life, letting his mother wear herself out over dinner, then sneaking off, aided by her servant, into the seedy districts of Alexandria to cruise for young men. In short, if a great poet hadn't been sneaking around on his mother, an entire world of cabarets and coffee shops, as vivid in its way as Dickens's London, might have passed without notice.
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"Cavafy would write a number of erotic poems in historical dress -- "Caesarion" is one -- but until 1910 he hadn't attempted what Pound called "direct treatment of the thing." "The thing," in Cavafy's case, was homosexual desire, a difficult subject to treat directly at the time. Oscar Wilde had, within memory, spent two years in prison for "gross indecency." Cavafy had a model for sexual frankness in the Greek Anthology, that remarkable compilation of ancient insults, boasts, epigrams, and erotica, much of it recovered from mummy wrappings and pottery shards. But many of those writers were anonymous and all of them had the advantage over Cavafy -- a towering advantage if one wants to talk openly about gay sex -- of having been dead several thousand years."
Additional kudos to Chiasson for including James Merrill's comment, "The difficulty of being Cavafy's kind of homosexual in Alexandria in those years must have been staggering. How to choose among a thousand daily opportunities."
Last month, Everyman released a pocket Cavafy edited by Mendelsohn.