- Forster & Cavafy
E. M. Forster and C. P. Cavafy met in Alexandria during the First World War when Forster was a "searcher" for the Red Cross, visiting hospitals to ferret out information from the wounded. Their shared interests in Classical antiquity, literature, and young men brought the novelist and the poet together in a kind of happy collision that proved especially productive for Cavafy, for Forster, on his return home, did much to bring the writings of the Greek-speaking, cosmopolitan poet to the attention of the English literary establishment and sophisticated readers. This generous enthusiasm, thoroughly documented here, forms the main thrust of an epistolary contact intermittently maintained for nearly fifteen years. The letters cover a range of topics: reports on mutual acquaintances, discussions of work, the ins and outs of the publishing culture of the day, and the varied aspects of translating modern Greek poetry into English.
This addition to Forster scholarship presents both sides of the extant correspondence, from the first letter dating from May 1917 to the last of January 1932, a year before Cavafy's death. They are supplemented by relevant letters to and from others, mainly George Valassopoulo (an Egyptian lawyer who was Cavafy's first translator and, like Forster, a Kingsman). Also included are letters from William Plomer and Leonard Woolf, the latter writing in his capacity as publisher for the Hogarth Press. More surprising, since it is neglected in the book's title and subtitle, is the appended "C. P. Cavafy Anthology," Valassopoulo's translations of the poems, edited by Katerina Ghika and Peter Jeffreys, occupying sixty-six pages, a third of this slim volume. On offer as well are a short and genial foreword to the volume by Manuel Savidis (Director of the Cavafy Archive in Athens); a brief introduction by the editor setting out the friendship and the nature of the surviving evidence; twenty-five illustrations; a preface by Valassopoulo, first printed in 1931; and an index, mainly of names and book titles.
Forster's own query about his novel Maurice ("Publishable, but worth it?") might be posed about this exchange. The answer would be, on the [End Page 374] whole, favorable. The documents undoubtedly enrich our understanding of a friendship, an "angular" one as the volume's subtitle suggests, and they form interesting footnotes, as it were, to literary publishing in the 1920s and 1930s and the construction of a "gay" identity during the period. The decision to print all that survives means that a few humdrum, bread-and-butter letters are lovingly presented, but Forster's letters are worth reading. Many are sprightly, urbane, and performative, as Forster characteristically shapes a persona for his correspondent, amusing himself with a turn of phrase or a piquant observation.
By contrast, Cavafy's letters are straightlaced and almost always of the workaday kind, the poet never appearing in less than business suit and carefully tied cravat. They are also not a pleasure to read because, save for two texts, all are drafts that Cavafy kept. (The originals disappeared as Forster downsized his personal papers on moving house.) Readers must thus make their way through a layer of barbed wire: "early
in May this month" or "Ever Yyours." Having chosen to render Cavafy's letters in this way, Jeffreys felt he had to preserve Forster's erasures as well: "Thank you for my the note."
Given this scrupulous (and in the case of the Forster letters arguably fussy) treatment of the texts, there is, disappointingly—and such might rightly be expected in a scholarly edition of correspondence—no information about prior publication (if any) and none as to whether the address line is handwritten or on printed letterhead. (One assumes the latter for missives from the Sultan Hussein Club, but Forster often set out his address as if it were printed, as only his originals make clear.) Nor indeed is it indicated whether a given letter is typescript or holograph.
The explanatory notes display an even greater uncertainty about the volume's target...