He was a poet of a lost world. A hundred years ago, there were still Greek communities along the coast of the Mediterranean, in Asia Minor and in South-East Europe that have since dispersed or died out. I know a little about them since part of my family, on my mother's side, are descendants of Greek merchants who were permitted to settle in Belgrade by the Ottomans in the late 18th century; they prospered, became wealthy and over time intermarried with Serbs and lost their ethnic distinctness. My mother heard Greek spoken in the homes of certain family members when she was a young girl. I did not, but I remember how foreign these ancient cousins and aunts appeared to me, how cluttered their small, dark apartments were with furniture, their walls covered with Turkish carpets, icons or paintings of bearded priests and plump-looking men with heavy black moustaches who kept a stern eye on me as I poked around. There were also old books and magazines in many languages. These were educated people who had attended schools abroad but whose families had long since gone broke and were at the point of extinction. Those stuffy apartments came to mind as I read about Cavafy's home in the old Greek quarter in Alexandria, crowded with his mother's furniture. On the lower floor was a brothel, one of the many on his street, with a church and a hospital also nearby. One can imagine him sitting late into the night in his bedroom, which served as his study, staring through his large spectacles at the half-finished poem lying on his desk or glancing past the oil lamp towards the window and the sound of voices in the street.
LRB 20 March 2008 | PDF Download