NEW YORK – An overflow crowd packed the McNally Jackson Bookstore in Soho on October 15 to meet brilliant novelist Ersi Sotiropoulos at a panel discussion sponsored by the Greek Consulate and New Vessel Press. In What’s Left of the Night, the author imagines three life-changing days when the great poet Constantine Cavafy made a trip to Paris. Panel members included author Edmund White, who pronounced her novel “a perfect book,” and translator Karen Emmerich.
Her hair in bangs almost obscuring dark eyes, chicly outfitted in black dress and short boots, Ersi did not disappoint. Discussing six years spent researching and writing the book, she told The National Herald: “I took a lot of time in order to hear his voice. I was following him. I wanted the reader to follow in the footsteps of the man who became Cavafy.”
Sotiropoulos portrays Cavafy as fascinating, obsessed, competitive, insecure, an original, an artist unwilling to follow the poetic pack. She reveals Cavafy’s creative process, his sensuality, sniffing the aroma of a book, caressing a fabric, his intense and suppressed eroticism that would find its way into his poetry, his compulsion to endlessly work on one line of a poem.
In the novel, Cavafy grasps at a stray hair of an attractive ballet dancer, and then listens at the door to hear the dancer’s romantic interlude. Says Sotiropoulos: “What is art? Where does it come from? What is its source? A tiny hair can become the impulse for the creative process. I think a tiny hair is enough.”
In writing the novel, “There were ups and downs. You want to give up. It was fun and despair at the same time. But I did the best I could and I am happy with the book. The real inspiration was his writing – how erotic desire becomes the driving force of his poetry. Cavafy is unique because of his slow maturation. Some poems took him fifteen years to write. He was looking at the past and the future.”
She readily admits that although her novel is based on a real event she “had no information on the trip. It was all invented.” Her research included not only the Cavafy archive, but letters, books, the economic and political history of Egypt, the artistic life of Paris, the Dreyfus affair. “I visited Paris many times and Alexandria as well. His home there is a museum now.
“After the Paris trip, Cavafy shakes off romanticism. He’s someone who matured slowly. It took years for him to write the first definitive poem, and he never published a book. Toward the end of the century he reached the point where he could write about his desire for other men.” Cavafy was one of the first writers to acknowledge his own homosexuality in poetry.
Translator Emmerich and the author discussed the complexity of the language in Cavafy’s poetry, a mixture of archaic Greek and the new Greek, as well as rhymes which are not found in English translations. Emmerich has published a dozen book-length translations of modern Greek poetry and prose and teaches comparative literature at Princeton.
Sotiropoulos has written ten works of fiction and a book of poetry. Her Zigzag through the Bitter Orange Trees was the first novel ever to win both the Greek national prize for literature and Greece’s preeminent book critics’ award. Her work has been translated into many languages. What’s Left of the Night won the 2017 Prix Mediterranee Etranger in France, and nominated for the Prix Femina 2016 and the European Book Prize 2017. She has been a fellow at institutes and universities around the world, including the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program and Princeton University. She lives in Athens.
Panelist White said: “In most lives, there are no crucial moments, only representative ones. What’s Left of the Night illuminates three days in 1897 when Constantine Cavafy began to glimpse what would be his destiny (his voice and his subject) as a major poet. Sotiropoulos notices every encounter and records every intuition with a lyrical, impressionistic style of her own.”