CJ Online Review: Cavafy, Selected Prose Works

posted with permission:

C. P. Cavafy, Selected Prose Works. Translated and annotated by Peter Jeffreys. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2010. Pp. xix + 163. Paperback, $24.95. ISBN 978-0-472-05095-6.

Reviewed by James Nikopoulos, Rutgers University

Despite the numerous translations into English of C.P. Cavafy’s poetry that have appeared in recent years—no less than seven in the last decade alone—Cavafy’s prose output has been ignored by translators. Peter Jeffreys has stepped in to fill this void. The result is an admirable compilation of a notoriously idiosyncratic body of work. Among the forty pieces included in this volume one finds essays and reflections on such diverse subjects as The Elgin Marbles to Shakespeare to Lycanthropy, written both in English and Greek. Jeffreys provides enough notes to allow the reader to contextualize each piece, and his translations of Cavafy’s Greek are accomplished and clear.

Thus the goal of introducing the non-specialist to heretofore neglected work has been achieved. However, as the one who has taken upon himself the responsibility of introducing Cavafy’s prose to a larger English-speaking audience, Jeffreys also takes on the responsibility of explaining it. To be more precise, Jeffreys is left with the unhappy task of trying to justify the presence of what is essentially mediocre work by one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets.

That this is a task the book feels obliged to perform comes across clearly in the introduction, in which the reader is presented with what amounts to a series of excuses for why the Alexandrian’s prose is so inferior to his poetry. My problem is not that Jeffreys does this, for it needs to be done. Any reader of Cavafy’s poetry expecting to come across the same caliber of thought and style in these pieces as one habitually finds in the poems will be strongly disappointed; therefore some explanation is in order. My problem then is not the presence of a defense but how Jeffreys goes about formulating it.

The Introduction begins by pinning the blame on necessity:

Cavafy’s Greek readership expected a peculiar style of learned journalism that consisted of a formulaic blend of encyclopedic dilettantism interspersed with choice translations of foreign authors and foreign journalists.

Many of these pieces are journalistic, thus Cavafy had to keep an eye firmly fixed on the requirements of the job, but to pin the blame on an expected readership is an inadequate explanation for lackluster work, especially when one considers that many of these pieces were either never published or remained fragments. Jeffreys continues in this vein in the following sentence:

The fact that the literary preferences of late nineteenth-century fin-de-siècle readers diverged greatly from those of the early twentieth century and post-World War I era—the period during which Cavafy found his mature poetic voice—surely induced Cavafy to view his early prose as unfashionably dated and even embarrassingly pretentious.

It is as though the zeitgeist is more to blame for a writer’s immature work rather than the author’s immaturity itself.

Jeffreys’s comments also speak negatively of Cavafy’s use of katharevousa—the artificial language that emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with a view towards “cleansing” modern Greek of its foreign impurities. He writes:

As nearly all prose during this period was written in puristic Greek, Cavafy had to display his journalistic mastery of this cumbersome idiom for the public while simultaneously satisfying his more private creative impulses, attempting in the process to craft a lucid, effective and learned prose.

It is true that Cavafy progressively moved away from katharevousa in his writing, both in his prose and his poetry, but Jeffreys implies that Cavafy’s early use of it was a kind of necessary evil, as though forced against his will to cultivate an unwanted idiom. Cavafy, however, is not like the many Greek writers of the twentieth century who argued against the unnatural language. He is even recorded to have been disgusted by the debate between katharevousa and demotic, stating that both sides aimed to “throw half our language away.”[[1]] Jeffreys himself admits that Cavafy did not consider katherevousa to be such a horrible thing. The lead note to the essay, “Professor Blackie on the Modern Greek Language,” reads: “John Stuart Blackie, Professor of Greek at the University of Edinburgh, was, like Cavafy, favourably disposed towards the purist ‘katharevousa’.”

Professor Jeffreys’s best means of defending these pieces is also the most obvious. As he writes, the prose “remains fertile ground for furthering our critical understanding and evolving appreciation of the poet.” Thus, whenever possible, the notes seek to connect the piece at hand to Cavafy’s verse. For example, we learn that the essay, “Coral from a Mythological Perspective,” testifies to Cavafy’s lifelong interest in ancient mineralogy, which can be seen in the poems “Indian Image” and “The Footsteps” as well as in the prose poem “The Ships.” Why Jeffreys would fail to mention that coral also appears in perhaps Cavafy’s most famous poem, “Ithaka,” I do not quite understand.

Despite these flaws, there is much that deserves praise here, especially considering the lackluster material Jeffreys is presenting. The defense he offers may be flawed, but the spirit behind it is commendable. Overall, for those seeking that quintessential Cavafy voice, the prose works are sure to disappoint. However, anyone seeking a deeper understanding of Cavafy’s development as a thinker and as a writer will surely find much to his liking in this volume.


[[1]] See Roderick Beaton, An Introduction to Modern Greek Literature (Oxford 2004) 338 n. Beaton’s note also mentions a review Cavafy never published in his lifetime of the second edition of H. Pernot’s Grammaire du Grec Moderne (1917), in which Cavafy makes his most overt comments on the “Language Question.” This review can be found in the standard edition of Cavafy’s prose: Πιερής, Μιχάλης. Κ.Π. Καβάφης: Τα Πεζά (1882–1931) (Athens: Ikaros, 2003). The review is not included among Jeffreys’s translations.

Hellenistic Harbour from Akko/Acre/Ptolemais

This appears to be the big news of the past few days, and all the coverage seems to stem from the MFA coverage, so ecce:

In archaeological excavations the Israel Antiquities Authority is conducting at the foot of Akko’s southern seawall, installations were exposed that belong to a harbor that was operating in the city already in the Hellenistic period (third-second centuries BCE) and was the most important port in Israel at that time.

The finds were discovered during the course of archaeological excavations being carried out as part of the seawall conservation project undertaken by the Old Akko Development Company and underwritten by the Israel Lands Administration.

The first evidence indicating the possible existence of this quay was in 2009 when a section of pavement was discovered comprised of large kurkar flagstones dressed in a technique reminiscent of the Phoenician style that is characteristic of installations found in a marine environment. This pavement, which was discovered underwater, raised many questions amongst archaeologists. Besides the theory that this is a quay, some suggested this was the floor of a large building.

According to Kobi Sharvit, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority Marine Archaeology Unit , “Among the finds we’ve discovered now are large mooring stones that were incorporated in the quay and were used to secure sailing vessels that anchored in the harbor c. 2,300 years ago. This unique and important find finally provides an unequivocal answer to the question of whether we are dealing with port installations or the floor of a building. In addition, we exposed collapse comprised of large dressed stones that apparently belonged to large buildings or installations, which was spread of a distance of dozens of meters. What emerges from these finds is a clear picture of systematic and deliberate destruction of the port facilities that occurred in antiquity”. Sharvit adds, “Recently a find was uncovered that suggests we are excavating part of the military port of Akko. We are talking about an impressive section of stone pavement c. 8 meters long by c. 5 meters wide that was partially exposed. The floor is delimited on both sides by two impressive stone walls that are also built in the Phoenician manner. It seems that the floor between the walls slopes slightly toward the south, and there was a small amount of stone collapse in its center. Presumably this is a slipway, an installation that was used for lifting boats onto the shore, probably warships in this case”. According to Sharvit, “Only further archaeological excavations will corroborate or invalidate this theory”.

The bottom of the ancient harbor was exposed at the foot of the installations. There the mooring stones were found as well as thousands of fragments of pottery vessels, among which are dozens of intact vessels and metallic objects. The preliminary identification of the pottery vessels indicates that many of them come from islands in the Aegean Sea, including Knidos, Rhodes, Kos and others, as well as other port cities located along the Mediterranean coast.

These finds constitute solid archaeological evidence regarding the location of the Hellenistic harbor and perhaps the military port. According to Sharvit, “It should be understood that until these excavations the location of this important harbor was not clear. Remains of it were found at the base of the Tower of Flies and in the region of the new marina in excavations conducted in the early 1980s by the late Dr. Elisha Linder and the late Professor Avner Raban. But now, for the first time, parts of the harbor are being discovered that are adjacent to the ancient shoreline and the Hellenistic city. Unfortunately, parts of the quay continue beneath the Ottoman city wall – parts that we will probably not be able to excavate in the future.

Nevertheless, in those sections of the harbor that extend in the direction of the sea and the modern harbor the excavation will continue in an attempt to learn about the extent of the ancient harbor, and to try and clarify if there is a connection between the destruction in the harbor and the destruction wrought by Ptolemy in 312 BCE, the destruction that was caused by the Hasmonean uprising in 167 BCE or by some other event.

All the coverage includes the same (it seems) three photos which are kind of underwhelming, given the obvious importance of this find. For the coverage from 2009, see: Hellenistic Harbour Remains from Ptolemais/Akko/Acre (ours) or A Pier from the Hellenistic Period was Discovered in Akko (the full IAA coverage mentioned there; it has moved as Joseph Lauer predicted).

Other coverage:

Stolen Sarcophagus Recovered

This one’s interesting, given that we were pondering the origins of that sarcophagus in the sea near Antalya t’other day … from the Local:

A Roman sarcophagus, believed to have been excavated illegally from an archaeological site close to Turkey’s Antalya, has been seized by authorities from a Swiss warehouse, a customs official said on Monday.

The marble tomb, bearing carvings depicting the 12 labours of Hercules, dates to 2 AD.

It was found by customs officials who were carrying out inventory checks at Geneva’s tax-free warehouses, said Jean-Marc Renaud, who heads Switzerland’s central customs services, confirming a Swiss television report.

According to Swiss television, Ankara is seeking restitution of the sarcophagus believed to have originated from the Greek-Roman archaeological site of Perge, about 22 kilometres from Antalya.

Swiss customs are currently holding the object, and have brought the case to Geneva prosecutors which opened a probe last year.

Roman Cemetery from Norfolk

Scouring my email box still … from the BBC a couple of weeks ago:

Archaeologists have discovered 85 Roman graves in what has been hailed as the largest and best preserved cemetery of that period found in Norfolk.

The site at Great Ellingham, near Attleborough, has been excavated over the last four months and the findings have now been revealed.

Among the skeletons, which have been exhumed for further study, there were some which were beheaded after death.

The cemetery is thought to date from the 3rd/4th Century.

The excavation was part of a planning process following an application for the residential development of a site in Great Ellingham.

Complete burials and isolated finds of human bones have been recorded at, and immediately adjacent to, the site since the late 1950s.

An archaeological evaluation by trial trenching in November 2011 by Chris Birks Archaeology revealed Roman burials and isolated finds of human bone, confirming the cemetery extended into the proposed development site.

The works have been co-funded by the landowner and developer.

Chris Birks said: “Even from the results of the evaluation, we never expected to find 85 burials, the most previously being recorded in Norfolk was about half this amount.”

He said one particular feature that had been identified from the excavations is the seemingly deliberate placement of flints around the skull.

One burial represents a decapitation burial where the head has been placed by the feet, which Mr Birks said was “surprisingly not an unknown type of burial from other Roman cemeteries”.

“Analysis and research by a human bones specialist will no doubt shed more light on these and the other burials,” said Mr Birks.

The only grave goods found at the site was an iron finger ring.

“The population represented by this cemetery was most probably a rural settlement reliant on farming practices though, at present, we don’t know where this settlement was,” said Mr Birks.

David Gurney, historic environment manager at Norfolk County Council, said: “Only 300 Roman burials have been found in Norfolk. This discovery is a fantastic opportunity to look at these skeletons, to find out clues about their life and diets.”

All the burials at Great Ellingham have now been removed.

The original BBC item does include a photo of the decapitation burial …