Sotiropoulos, Ersi. “What’s Left of the Night”, New Vessel Press, 2018.
The Young Cavafy
In June 1897, young Constantine Cavafy came to Paris on the last stop of a long European tour. This trip deeply shapes his future and pushes him toward poetry. “What’s Left of the Night” is about those days as Cavafy is on a journey of self-discovery across a continent that is about to undergo tremendous change. Cavafy is dealing with his homosexuality and he is both exhilarated and tormented by it; the Greek-Turkish War has ended in Greece’s defeat and humiliation; France is ravaged by the Dreyfus Affair, and Cavafy’s native Alexandria has turned culturally East. This is a portrait of a budding author before he became one of the 20th century’s greatest poets. We read of the complex relationship of art, life, and the erotic desires. We read about the poet’s mind, his wavering between faith and despair at his own talent and his desire to be heard.
It was in 1897 during those three days when Constantine Cavafy began to understand what his destiny would be his destiny (his voice and his subject) as a major poet. Writer Sotiropoulos notices every encounter and records every intuition in her lyrical, impressionistic style. Sotiropoulos has done an incredible job of showing us Paris as it was during the Dreyfus affair while at the same time giving a glimpse into what it was like to be a poet at that time. What set Cavafy apart is his original approach to poetry. Readers may well leave this novel with a sincere desire to pick up a book of his poetry. This is both a character study and a look at the creative mind as it questions the relationship between an artist’s life and his art, especially the quality of art that comes out of immense suffering. To escape darkness of this kind is to transmit misery into works of beauty.
We can read this as an account of three days in the life of Constantine Cavafy and we can read it as a passionate introduction to his work and on a more metaphorical level as a reflection about art and where it comes from. Sotiropoulos maintains that “the gloomy darkness of real life is often the breeding ground of great work.”
This is a convincing portrait of the poet as a young man as he seesaws between faith and despair at his own talent and his desire to be heard.