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Book review: Imagining Alexandria, By Louis de Bernières

A worthy homage and a delight

Constantine Cavafy is probably the best known and best loved modern Greek poet outside the Greek-speaking world.

Born in Alexandria in 1863, he published little in his lifetime, but his reputation has grown since his death in 1933. His poems, full of melancholy, irony, and desire, took inspiration from the classical world and Byzantium. As Louis de Bernières confesses in his introduction, “it is difficult to imitate his double game with katharevousa (a traditional, literary Greek) and demotic Greek”. In English, without the language play, Cavafy come across  as a master of poem-sized ideas, profound and perfectly compacted.

Who better to pen this homage than Bernières, with his deep link to Greek culture. He is modest at the outset. “I dedicate this book to the memory of Constantinos Cavafis, unworthy of him as it is,” he announces. “I have mainly written under the influence of Cavafy, rather than in his manner … because Cavafy’s poetry is stuffed with narrative, it is a style of poetry that comes naturally to a writer like me.” So, with his novelist’s eye for a curious tale or compelling character, how does he fare?

His vignettes from the ancient world are among the most successful poems. “Marcus Severus, of Late Memory” is particularly neat: “Marcus Severus, of late memory, was so / Prodigiously endowed that / When he attended the public baths / The bathers stood and cheered …” It might be noted that “Prodigiously endowed that” is no sort of poetic line. Nonetheless, “Marcus Severus …” has just the right poetic twist, ironic, amusing and somehow deeply sad. 

Cavafy is also the great poet of gay love, a topic Bernières has not much affinity with. There are poems to Antinous and a sexy young drifter who is “handsome as Endymion”, but Bernières addresses heterosexual love with much more gusto. “At the Sorbonne” recounts a memory of a doomed student affair all the more intense for its pauperism: “There was no hot water, this was Paris; / The sewage breathed from the grates.”  “Your Brighton Dress” also summons up a long-lost lover in the form of a fondly remembered brown dress, “the colour of / Melancholy, the colour of 1979”. This delightful little book does not disgrace its great forebear.