Books Decide for Me: The Millions Interviews Ersi Sotiropoulos

January 4, 2019 | 3 books mentioned 12 min read

Greek writer Ersi Sotiropoulos’s novel, What’s Left of the Night, is a lyrical and erotic reimagining of the gay Greek-Alexandrian poet C.P. Cavafy’s three-day trip to Paris in 1897. The book, which won the prestigious Prix Méditerranée Étranger, is dizzying, fevered and beautiful, and very, very horny. It’s also chimerical: Like Cavafy himself, it exists at a nexus of concepts—identity, queerness, modernity, making art, and Greece’s tortured relationship with Europe, which has come full circle since 1897, when foreign powers commandeered the nation’s finances.

Earlier this fall, I had the opportunity to review the book, and it was, without exaggeration, one of the most challenging things I have ever tried to write; I kept stumbling upon more questions with each draft. Fortunately, Sotiropoulos and her translator, Dr. Karen Emmerich of Princeton University, made time to entertain both my questions and slack-jawed observations. Over the past few weeks, we spoke by email and Skype while Sotiropoulos was in China. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

The Millions: Ersi, I know that you learned about Cavafy’s 1897 trip to Paris while you were working in Italy in 1984. Can you tell us a little bit more about that situation and what you discovered? 

Ersi Sotiropoulos: That’s so many years ago. In 1984 I curated an exhibition dedicated to Cavafy at the Palazzo Venezia in Rome. While consulting the archives I came across references to his trip to Paris in 1897—the first and last holiday journey of his life. There was very little information about it, only a few memorabilia: copies of the review “L’Illustration,” a shirt maker’s card, etc., obviously gathered to show to his mother when he went back. Cavafy himself left no written trace, not a personal note, nothing.

I started thinking of that young man (whose future course we all know very well), his trip to Paris at a very special moment in time, his passion for writing, his anxiety to find his own voice, and how he was tormented by sexual desires forbidden back then. I started to imagine him at that unique crossroads: Alexandria in the background, both remote and cosmopolitan, further away Greece, humiliated and once more destroyed, and finally Paris, illuminated, at the height of its glory. Later, I wrote a documentary film about Cavafy for the French television series Un siècle d’écrivains (A century of writers), and the same questions kept coming back.

TM: What intrigued you about this period in Cavafy’s life, and why did your interest in those three days persist for the coming decades? 

ES: Writing for me is about obsession. I don’t start with a predetermined idea about a book. I don’t have fixed plans. Sometimes it’s just a fleeting impression, a voice heard in the street, someone talking in the darkness. And I have to dig into this nothing, to insist and persist. In Cavafy’s case, the void of information about his trip was the trigger. What did Cavafy do in Paris? Whom did he meet? Paris in the last years of the nineteenth century was a mecca for the avant-garde, the place where Marcel Proust, Erik Satie, and Edgar Degas were living and creating, where modernism was being born. What intrigued me was the encounter of Cavafy—reserved, awkward, oppressed in his personal life, tormented by contradictions and doubts—with this dazzling world.

In addition, the year 1897 has strange analogies with what had happened to Greece recently: the Olympic Games of 1896, which flattered its national pride for a very short time, and then once more and again a ruined, bankrupt Greece which would suffer under international economic control for 80 years, from 1898 to 1978.

TM: From what I understand, your novels have mostly dealt with contemporary people and subjects, and What’s Left of the Night is your first piece of “historical fiction,” although I’m not sure it’s appropriate to call this book by that term. Why did you decide to take this turn in your subject matter around 2009, at least for this book? Why was the story of Cavafy’s three days in Paris, specifically, the one that you wanted to tell at that time?

ES: I didn’t decide to take a turn. It’s the other way round. Books decide for me.

At any rate, I would like to point out that this is not a novel about Cavafy, the poet. Not a historical or fictional biography. It’s mainly about the making of the artist. One has to read the book as the three days spent in Paris in June 1897 by a young, aspiring poet from Alexandria. It is a pleasure trip and at the same time a process of initiation that the reader will follow alongside the man who will become the poet Constantine Cavafy. If we read Cavafy’s poems before 1897, the date of the trip, with a few exceptions they are poor, mediocre, clumsy. Then, a couple of years later, there is an immense leap forward in his writing.

What fascinates me, what fascinates us all, is how an artist, a poet still incomplete at age 34, someone rather formal and conventional, but possessed by the passion for writing, tortured by his desire for men at a time when “coming out” was unthinkable: how does he make this huge leap forward? How does he become Cavafy? These accomplishments don’t happen in a void. They trail behind them many aborted attempts, failures, despair, misery.

Working on this novel, I arrived at two conclusions, each of them related to the importance of the year 1897 for Cavafy as both a poet and a person. First, it’s only after that date, as I said before, that he becomes the poet we know and admire. He abandons lyricism, shakes off the influence of romanticism, and develops his own distinctive voice, in which complex meanings are conveyed in a bare, limpid form. As a poet Cavafy matured very slowly. He was obsessed with formal perfection. Just imagine that the poem “The City,” which is mentioned in the novel, took him more than ten years to complete.

The second concerns his private life. By 1897 Cavafy had accepted his homosexuality, though socially he was a very formal and old-fashioned person. But however tormented and secretive he may have been about his desire for other men, Cavafy was coming to a point in his development as a poet where he was able to write about that desire openly, in an unapologetic, direct way, unifying his passion for the Hellenistic civilization of the past and his passion for other men in poems that met his own rigorous standards for publication.

TM: You’ve spoken elsewhere about how this book took you six years to complete, and how writing it was like “splitting your head in two.” From what I understand, these were pretty rare circumstances for you: since 1980, you’ve published on average one book every two years. What was different about writing What’s Left of the Night? 

ES: I don’t remember having finished a book in two years! Stories, shadows of voices, backbones of novels, stay within me for years while I work on something else.

In this novel I was driven by questions. My sources were not only the Cavafy archives, but all sorts of information, books, letters, personal narratives, photos, documents: novels of the late 19th century, books on the political and economic history of Egypt, on the Greek community of Alexandria, on the artistic life in Paris, on the Dreyfus affair, on the Greek-Turkish war of 1897, etc. etc… And of course I visited Paris and Alexandria many times. Then, at a certain point, I had to confess myself that going further into this mass of documentation was an excuse for not starting to write. I hate writing. Many writers do. Each time the beginning of a new work is excruciating.

TM: I was really intrigued by how frankly you portrayed Constantine’s sexuality. He doesn’t seem repressed so much as scared: that his affections won’t be reciprocated, or that he’ll be disappointed by the reality of sex compared to his expectations. There’s one powerful paragraph where Constantine says, “he already knew that his desire was far greater than the satisfaction would be, that the satisfaction would betray the desire…that this immediate relief would only disappoint him.” Can you discuss the relationship between Constantine’s sexuality and his creativity in this book?

ES: What interested me from the very start was to capture the moment, that exceptional moment when physical desire turns into creative impulse. What happens is that, for Cavafy, erotic desire becomes a driving force. But what is at stake in art is how desire is represented, whatever this desire is—that is what differentiates an amateurish poem from a great one: how the desire unfolds, transcends the poet who wrote about it and turns into something capable of transmitting emotion to readers who do not share the same desire.

There is a poem of that period titled “Half an Hour”—one of the “hidden poems” that Cavafy refused to publish in his lifetime—that has always stayed with me, especially these lines:

But we who serve Art,
sometimes with the mind’s intensity,
can create—but of course only for a short time—
pleasure that seems almost physical.

That passage has served as a sort of central thread for my book. Like [a lighthouse] during the long years of loneliness and writing.

TM: I read this book as a long meditation on the writer’s “process” and the irony of literary inspiration. How, if at all, did writing this book transform your writing practice?

ES: Writing books transforms me—they are like persons. I live with them. But if by writing practice you mean my schedule, that I start working very early when it’s still night, and that I travel all the time, I did not change. I don’t travel looking for inspiration, I travel to be myself.

In this book I followed in extremis my idea of art, in whose ardent pursuit the profane is sacralized; of an artwork that seems raising from the dust. Where does art come from? That’s the question I ask in my book. Can art come from something tiny, from an insignificant detail? Can this near-invisible detail—a tiny hair, a little harder than the others, on the pubis of the lover—suddenly gain substance and flow into creation?

TM: You’ve been writing professionally since shortly after democracy was restored to Greece after the military dictatorship in the 1970s. Greece and its relationship to Europe have changed several times in several ways in those ensuing 40 years, most dramatically during the debt crisis. To what extent has this affected what it means to be a Greek writer, especially during and after the crisis? 

I ask this question because I interpreted this book, in part, as a commentary on the (often unfair) way that a writer is torn between global aspirations and national “duty,” for lack of a better term, especially when their homeland or culture is being internationally humiliated, endangered, etc. 

ES: Your comment brings to mind the famous line from George Seferis’s poem: “Wherever I travel, Greece wounds me.” This was true then, it is true today.

The crisis weakened the already vulnerable status of the Greek writer. Arts, the book market, were among the first victims. Crisis has impregnated everything. It doesn’t have a face, it is a complex of crisis. And what interests me as a writer is to see how, besides its devastating impact on people’s lives, financial crisis has been corroded by a deeper crisis, an existential, ethical emergency, and how menacing those little symptoms can become, that at a first glance seemed totally superficial and inoffensive. “We don’t know anything, we don’t know we’re all sailors out of work,” Seferis wrote. Once again, in this country, the poetic word is more substantial and true than the words of the politicians. And much more clairvoyant too.

What is Greece? What does being Greek mean? I tried in the book to render the very particular, and not limited or nationalist, position of Cavafy in this matter. He was the opposite of a chauvinist. He said, “Είμαι κι εγώ Ελληνικός, Προσοχή, όχι Έλλην, ούτε Ελληνίζων, αλλά Ελληνικός” (impossible to translate) [I tried anyway: “I am, also, Hellenic, mind you, not a Greek national nor a colonized foreigner who has adopted a Greek identity, but Hellenic.”] The hellenism of Cavafy is like an embracing movement—Marguerite Yourcernar gives us a vivid image—it passes through a complex series of Greeces more and more distant from what appears to us the golden age of the race, but where persists a living continuity.

TM: The value that international critics have put on Greek literature in the past decade seems to have been pegged to its mimesis of life under austerity. It’s as if they’re saying, “Greek literature is only interesting if it’s giving us a glimpse of what it’s like to be in Greece during the crisis.”

ES: I think that’s just idiotic. Whenever foreign journalists come to Greece, one of the first questions they ask is: What are you doing about the crisis? What can the writer do to help? That’s bullshit! All the writer can do is write. 

I remember once I was talking with Nanos Valaoritis, a poet of the old Surrealist group, and he told me how, during the years of the German occupation—when the situation was infinitely worse than it is now, people were starving to death and the streets of Athens were littered with corpses—poetry helped them survive. Poems such as “Amorgos” by Gatsos and “Bolivar” by Eggonopoulos and many of Elytis‘s best poems—which did not describe the horror of the war, but an unprecedented lyric ecstasy—were written then. Those poems were not miserable or mournful, they were full of an orgasmic greed for life. 

[A writer] does not have to be a mirror for his time. This is very silly, I think. And, always, you [a writer] have to step back a little, to observe from a distance. I, personally, take distance. All my friends, everybody I know, keeps asking me: Are you going to write about China [where ]? I don’t know. Perhaps I will, perhaps I won’t. I mean, you need to live things first. And then maybe they will come back to you, in a way. 

TM: Karen, building off this last question, how has the international interest in Greek literature changed over the course of the past decade, thanks to the financial crisis or for other reasons?

Karen Emmerich: I can only speak to Anglophone markets, since I don’t know much about other linguistic spheres in which Greek literature is circulating. But to tell the truth, I don’t really see much of an impact in terms of quantity of books coming out—perhaps because the numbers are just so small to begin with. Certainly we’ve had several anthologies of poetry that use the crisis as a focal point—including Theodore Chiotis’s Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis and Karen Van Dyck’s Austerity Measures—and have gotten a fair amount of press. And perhaps the kinds of books publishers are willing to get behind are different: If literature from other languages is often used as cultural commentary, showing something true about that other place, Greece (in the Anglophone imagination) is no longer the place of quaint village and donkeys; it’s gritty, impoverished, urban. The extensive reviewing of Ersi’s novel has little to do with all that, of course—but Cavafy is always a draw.

TM: You’ve really been instrumental in bringing many Greek writers, especially Greek women writers, to English-speaking readers, who most likely only think of male names when they think of contemporary Greek literature: Kazantzakis, Seferis, and, of course, Cavafy. Has the crisis had any specifically adverse effect on the translation of Greek women’s writing?

KE: I hope that eventually some new names will start to fill out that list! Not only women, but more contemporary writers in general. It’s been more than 50 years since the last of the writers you named died, and that’s five decades of literary production that deserves attention. I think the crisis has had an adverse effect on the translation of Greek writing by anyone, frankly; there used to be some very limited state support for translations, and those programs shut down with the austerity measures. There has also been, as Ersi says, a decline in publishing in Greece, again because of the crisis—and if things aren’t being published in the first place, we’ll never know what literary treasures are out there that could be being translated. But again, the market for translations from Greek is so small to begin with that it’s hard to talk about the statistical significance of any changes we’re witnessing.

I would note that there are perhaps more translations of works by contemporary Greek women than by men: Jacob Moe’s outstanding recent translation of Maria Mitsora, Pavlos Stavropoulos’s translations of the wonderfully bizarre Ursula Foskolou that have been appearing in online journals, Patricia Barbeito’s translations of Amanda Michalopoulou, whom I have also translated. It’s an exciting moment, I think, for Greek literature in translation precisely because of this new crop of translators getting work out. Just imagine what could happen if we could rustle up some funding from a foundation to help support translation work!

TM: I know that you’ve written at length about Cavafy and the difficulty of translating his work. Briefly, what are some of the biggest challenges?

KE: They are neverending, which is why they’re so much fun to talk about. Many people who read Cavafy in English think of him as a prosaic writer, one who eschews literary devices as customarily understood. But in fact, he is a master of what Roman Jakobson and Peter Colaclides called “grammatical imagery,” using rhythm, rhyme, and even grammar itself to enact in his poems the very things he’s writing about. It’s astonishing, the tight complexity of the poems in Greek—and not just Greek as a singular language but Greeks, plural, a range of different idioms. Katerina Stergiopoulou has written brilliantly on this issue, including on Cavafy’s use of ancient Greek in epigraphs and within the texts of his poems themselves, and then of course there is the issue of Cavafy’s Alexandrian Greek, and Byzantine phrases as well. It’s a very rich linguistic tapestry, and rich in a way that English just isn’t. So the translator has to find other means, the means of the language she’s writing her translation in.

TM: How did you and Ersi collaborate to get the tone and vocabulary of the English translation just right?

KE: We went back and forth several times with the translation. She and I don’t always see eye to eye, since she’s reading the translation alongside the Greek and looking at the level of the word, whereas I’m trying to work on a level far larger than the word, but I have to say the collaboration was invaluable in many regards. I don’t know if the translation is just right—she’s a stickler in her own writing for every word being in place, and in order for me to feel that way about my translations I would need six years, too. Which most publishers don’t allow, unfortunately! Or perhaps fortunately—because otherwise, if everyone felt the same as me, we’d never get to read anything in translation at all!

TM: With the crisis now “ended,” what is your outlook for Greek literature in translation, specifically literature by women? 

KE: The “crisis” is anything but over. I think it’s heroic of people to keep on keeping on—as writers, as publishers, as creators, as readers, as engaged humans, as humans period—given the current situation in Greece. I can’t give you an outlook, but I can give you a desire: for greater support for writing of all kinds in Greece, writing that helps hone our understanding of the present, the past, and the future. If some of that support could come in the form of book deals abroad, or royalties for struggling writers, or grants for writers and translators, then that would be a positive step. If anyone’s reading this who’s in some position of power and authority with discretionary funds to think about setting something up, my lines are open!

is a freelance writer and critic and far too often on Twitter @NikoMaragos.

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