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Biography as Novel: A Look at Cavafy in Love

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I )

Constantine P. Cavafy’s sexuality (1863-1933) was a paradox. While he composed daring homoerotic verse, he wrote very little about his own erotic life.

As a result, few traces of his homosexuality remain in the archive. Not a single letter addresses the topic in any detail, nor is there a journal or a diary devoted to it. Anyone interested in Cavafy’s life is left with the puzzling question: How could someone, who published path-breaking poetry about men loving men, have written so little about his own lovers?

Quite possibly Cavafy feared being ostracized from his social milieu. Alexandrians knew of his “anomaly” and accepted it as long as it led to no scandal. While they may have made passing references to this “perversion,” they did not write about it, preferring a conspiracy of evasion.

Therefore, little exists in the historical record about the poet’s intimate life. We know from hearsay that he had his first sexual experiences with a cousin in Istanbul between 1882 and 1885 and that he frequented the hamams (bath houses) in that city. But we have no eye-witness account and certainly nothing from Cavafy himself.

Of course, Cavafy might have written about his experiences with men in texts that had been expunged from the archive. His executors, Alekos and Rika Sengopoulos, had access to many boxes of his private notes, drafts, and belongings. Rika, who planned to write a biography of the poet, was the first to examine and organize this material. Did Rika and Alekos delete certain letters, comments, or other papers in their desire to present a more acceptable Cavafy?

Quite likely they removed their own letters to the poet from the archive. Although Constantine wrote to both of them when they visited Athens in 1928, none of their own responses to him survive, a remarkable occurrence for a man who kept receipts, lists of tasks and kitchen articles, train tickets, and drafts of letters.

In order to compensate for this hollowness of the archive, a biographer of Cavafy has to work like a novelist, conjecturing and recreating scenes, filling in the gaps. Of course, all biographies are imaginative reconstructions but even more so those that are marked by the deep absence of information.

As an example of this literary reconstruction in biographical writing, I would like to point to Cavafy’s friendship with the poet Napoleon Lapathiotis who was born in 1888 and who committed suicide in 1944. Did the two share a sexual relationship? While the historical record is inconclusive, I propose through a retelling of their story that we can imagine them to be in love.

Cavafy, then 54, met the 29-year-old Lapathiotis in 1917, a year before he had made the acquaintance of E. M. Forster. In his autobiography, Lapathiotis, who in his later life was open about his homosexuality, tells us that he had arrived in Alexandria as a second lieutenant to accompany his father, a general in the Greek army.

Like many visitors to Alexandria, Napoleon wanted to meet the then famous poet and asked a friend to arrange a visit. And Constantine himself, keen to spend time with young men, embraced the idea and prepared for it with anticipation. He lit, for instance, his artistically-made, “damask lamps” in the “oriental” siting room and strove for the right atmosphere of suggestion and artistic illusion. Charming and affable, he offered hors d’oeuvres and served special cognac in his prized red glasses. And Napoleon, so taken by the attention he received in the magical setting of poetry, promised to return.

But one day, promenading in his military uniform on the elegant Rue Rosette, the main corridor for European Alexandria, Napoleon felt someone’s approach. Turning around he saw Constantine with his round glasses and piercing eyes who chastised him for not having visited him as he had promised. Constantine then invited the young man to a patisserie and afterwards to his apartment. According to Napoleon, who would become an ardent supporter of the poet in Athens, the relationship remained amicable but they never saw each other again.

Constantine, however, saw the relationship differently as he reminded Napoleon in the fall of 1932 when he had arrived in Athens for a tracheotomy. Staying at the Hotel Cosmopolite before his operation, he received a visit from Napoleon and Marios Vaianos, then 26 and the most passionate disciple Cavafy had in Athens. Marios, who claimed that Napoleon had always referred to Constantine as his “teacher” and to himself as “pupil,” described the scene in his own memoirs.

As soon as he and Napoleon appeared at Constantine’s door, the poet embraced Napoleon warmly, in contrast to the frosty welcome he showed Marios a few days earlier. Constantine, overjoyed to see the now middle-aged Napoleon, exclaimed how “you were constantly in my mind and I tried to conjure you up alive, just like that time, whenever I came upon a poem of yours.” Pulling his visitor by the hand, he sat down at the foot of the bed and beckoned to Napoleon to join him. Constantine looked him straight in the eyes, “as if erotically,” while he placed “his left hand on his shoulders and with his right hand struck tenderly and playfully his two thighs, constantly and with warmth.” Napoleon, “pleased and satisfied,” looked occasionally up at Marios, perhaps out of embarrassment, but otherwise remained silent. Constantine in the meantime “continued his love in this manner” drawing his head ever closer to his guest.

Marios, for his part, feeling as if he had been an obstacle to some more intimate communication, escaped to the balcony. After some time he returned to find that Napoleon, still looking “satisfied and happy,” had moved to a chair leaving Constantine still at the foot of the bed. But both continued to smile and stare into the eyes of the other “in unbroken exultation.” And then as if to break the spell, Constantine, indifferent to what his actions and words might be having on Marios, reminded Napoleon of the pleasant time they had spent together in Alexandria fifteen years earlier. “It was very lovely, when you came. Young, very young …. But now you are the same, Dorian Gray – and even more young … with your uniform, with your curiosity, and your frequent questions … Ah, how lovely it was and how you struggled to forget these things when you returned home.” He expressed the hope that Napoleon would revisit Alexandria so that they would go to the same gardens to “see what we like.”

Then something remarkable occurred. Leaning closer to his visitor, with his voice “dry and forbidding,” Constantine let out a pain through his “ailing throat” which he had until then suppressed. “I am very jealous, Napoleon, of your freedom, of the life you lead… It is as if you had your ideal Republic where you live and invite others for your company.” But “we can’t,” he emphasized with much anguish. Napoleon, made uncomfortable by this intense confession responded that “whoever wants can” achieve such freedom.

But Constantine affirmed that such conduct was impossible in Alexandria. “People there are very conservative. One surveils the other, through windows and through keyholes. Because of a few poems, they characterize me as unlawful and stigmatized.” Although he felt free to write “scandalous poems,” he could not lead Napoleon’s life in his city. He seemed defeated when he said these words. Sensing the poet’s fatigue, Napoleon gestured to Mario that they should go.

In the following days, Constantine underwent surgery, lost his voice, returned to Alexandria and died a couple of months later in April 1933. Napoleon’s return to Alexandria never materialized.

It is tempting to wonder if Constantine and Napoleon had an intimate relationship exactly as Marios’ description allows us to assume. If this was indeed the case, why did Napoleon himself not reveal this in his autobiography? Why did he not include the poem, “To the Artist from Tyre” with its subtitle “À la manière de… Kavafis” (1924) in his collected works of 1964? Was he not as in love with Constantine as Constantine himself seems to have been? Had he suppressed the affair after his return to Athens, as Constantine implied? Why were Constantine’s two letters to Napoleon in 1923 and 1925 so dry and professional in tone? (His correspondence was always cold, as many of his friends, including E. M. Forster, complained.) Finally, what were Vaianos’ intentions? Was he himself infatuated with Constantine? If so, was he jealous and hurt by Constantine’s apparent rejection of him?

We will never know. But this vignette comes as close as possible to offering us a picture of Constantine in love. Given the absences in the Cavafy archive, we have no choice but to fill in the gaps with our imagination, bringing together disparate stories and reading between the lines – in Cavafy’s words –“perfecting life, synthesizing impressions, blending the days.”

Gregory Jusdanis's picture
Gregory Jusdanis teaches Modern Greek literature and culture at The Ohio State University. He is the author of The Poetics of Cavafy: Eroticism, Textuality, History (1987), Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture: Inventing National Literature (1991), The Necessary Nation (2001), and Fiction Agonistes: In Defense of Literature (2010), A Tremendous Thing. Friendship from the Iliad to the Internet (2014). He is currently working on a biography of C. P. Cavafy.