Tag Archives: Jorge Luis Borges

Fiction Fiesta, reality, and Alastair Reid

26 Sep

borges in library

The first Borges story I ever read was ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, in the translation by Alastair Reid, while living in a derelict shepherd’s hut on a Cretan hillside. A couple of years later, like so many others readers, I underwent a kind of epiphany while reading One Hundred Years of Solitude.

I was twenty years old, and from that point on, Borges’ fictions, alongside García Márquez’s recreation of the semi-fictional world of Macondo, forced me to re-evaluate almost everything that I had been reared to believe about literary fiction.

Thinking back, I had never had much truck with either realism or naturalism – the antagonists, in their way, of so-called ‘magic realism’ – and since my exposure to Borges and García Márquez, I never quite trusted them again. These two writers, followed by other discoveries, such as Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and Augusto Monterroso, opened the doors to different perceptions of reality, in which the frail membrane separating one world, one mode of understanding, from another, was always permeable, subject to movement and interpenetration. Everything was a fiction. This was a model, I believed, that could be applied to almost anything: culture, language, philosophy . . . it was almost, but not quite, a religion.

Alastair Reid, who died in 2014

Alastair Reid, last year.

Last July I was reminded of this lifelong struggle with the false dichotomy between fiction and reality, when I travelled to Dumfries and Galloway to meet Alastair Reid himself. The Scottish poet – friend as well as translator of Borges, Neruda and García Márquez – spent a large part of the day talking with me about Latin America and its literatures, especially Borges. I recorded the conversations, and consider myself incredibly fortunate to do this as, just over a month following my visit, Alastair passed away, at the age of eighty-eight.

One of the things he told me – which also crops up in one of his essays – was the reluctance of Latin Americans in general (not just authors) to discriminate between what ‘actually’ happened, and what might have happened under other circumstances. Thus life (and storytelling) is a continuous weave of memory, confabulation and invention. In one of his essays, Reid cites the American diplomat George F. Kennan, who, after an investigatory trip through several Latin American countries in 1950, wrote, in a tone of exasperation:

Latin American society lives, by and large, by a species of make-believe . . . a highly personalised, anarchical make-believe, in which each individual spins around him, like a cocoon, his own little world of pretense, and demands its recognition by others as the condition of his participation in the social process.

While the sentiments expressed here might be familiar to many as a symptom of European or North American ethnocentrism, the diplomat had a point. Reid himself lived for many years among villagers in the Dominican Republic, and describes a ‘fictive’ cast of mind, in which the vague boundary between history and invention is blurred beyond recognition. This is not simply a case of the ‘objective’ European mind critiquing the supremely subjectivist world-view of those in ‘the third world’: it is a truth (if such a word has any meaning) borne out by Reid’s experience, and one described most succinctly by Borges himself. For Borges, everything put into language is a fiction, whatever ‘literary’ or non-literary’ form that might take. Thus a poem, a newspaper article, or a letter from the bank manager all fit the category of ‘fiction’ as each uses language as their mode of expression. As Reid says:

A fiction is any construct of language – a story, an explanation, a plan, a theory, a dogma – that gives a certain shape to reality.

And it is with this in mind that we must think of Fiction Fiesta; not in the limited sense of a festival that celebrates the genre of literary fiction. FF is a platform for building fictions that give shape to reality. On one level, FF complements work that I am doing, alongside others – with the invaluable support of Wales Literature Exchange and Wales Arts International – in taking Welsh writing out into the wider world; at the same time we are helping Welsh readers discover more about contemporary Latin American writing.

Fiction Fiesta started out in early 2012 as a conversation in a pub between myself and Nick Davidson, landlord of the now defunct Promised Land in Windsor Place, Cardiff. My idea for Fiction Fiesta was simple: to team up writers in both the languages of Wales with writers from Latin America, and initiate a discourse between us and them, with the aim – among other things – of dismantling such notions as ‘us’ and ‘them’

Nick got some money from the San Miguel brewery and I managed to secure some from Cardiff University and the thing was on. We followed up in 2013, with an Arts Council of Wales small festivals grant, inviting Eduardo Halfon from Guatemala, Inés Garland and Andrés Neuman from Argentina, alongside writers from Wales and elsewhere in the UK, and The Independent covered the event, with a feature on one of our guests, Angharad Price, which attracted more attention.

Through Fiction Fiesta, we set out to pay particular attention to literature in translation and, by extension, to explore the larger idea of translation as a concept that, to some degree, governs all our lives. In literature, even without being translated into other languages, we are translating emotions and thoughts into words. ‘Reading poetry is itself a kind of translation,’ commented Andrés Neuman during a discussion at Fiction Fiesta in 2013. And Octavio Paz goes further: ‘in writing a poem we are translating the world, transmuting it. Everything we do is translation, and all translations are in a way creations.’

It was never our intention to put on a big festival. We always wanted Fiction Fiesta to retain a sense of intimacy that came from holding the first edition of the fiesta in the upstairs room of a local pub. And we wanted to keep a sense of celebration, of literature as something to be savoured and enjoyed by readers, like food and drink, which the large-scale corporate festivals cannot provide. In addition, we wanted Fiction Fiesta to help develop contacts and friendships between Welsh writers and writers from Latin America, which, as I explained at the start of this piece, is where a lot of my own literary interests are centred.

This year’s Mexico-themed Fiction Fiesta teamed up with Wales PEN Cymru and the British Council to hold an event at the Wales Millennium Centre on Friday 17th April. Owen Sheers hosted the Mexican writer Juan Villoro, along with Francesca Rhydderch, while I was in conversation with Pedro Serrano and the Scottish poet W.N. Herbert. FF is hoping to maintain the partnership with Wales PEN Cymru, and bring many more writers from Latin America to Wales over the years to come.


Juan Villoro, Owen Sheers and Francesca Rhydderch at this year's Fiction Fiesta, held at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Juan Villoro, Owen Sheers and Francesca Rhydderch at this year’s Fiction Fiesta, held at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff


Blanco (centre) with Pedro Serrano (left) and Bill Herbert at Fiction Fiesta

Blanco (centre) with Pedro Serrano (left) and Bill Herbert at Fiction Fiesta


This piece first appeared in the New Welsh Review, 1st July 2015

No ideas but in things

21 Sep
The young Marcel Proust

The young Marcel Proust

Since I began teaching creative writing, some fifteen years ago, I have become accustomed to the sad refrain from younger writers that although they fervently wish to write – or perhaps ‘become a writer’, which may or may not be the same thing – they don’t have anything to say.

It was with some pleasure, therefore, that I noted, during my leisurely (i.e. very slow) re-reading of Proust, the following passage:

‘. . . since I wanted to be a writer some day, it was time to find out what I meant to write. But as soon as I asked myself this, trying to find a subject in which I could anchor some infinite philosophical meaning, my mind would stop functioning, I could no longer see anything but empty space before my attentive eyes, I felt that I had no talent or perhaps a disease of the brain kept it from being born.’ (The Way by Swann’s, Lydia Davis translation).

But interestingly – at least for my purposes – the suggestion is made that the answer to his lack of inspiration might be found in the things around him, the very things, in other words, that are distracting to him:

‘ . . . suddenly a roof, a glimmer of sun on stone, the smell of the road would stop me because of a particular pleasure they gave me, and also because they seemed to be concealing, beyond what I could see, something which they were inviting me to come and take, and which despite my efforts I could not manage to discover . . . I would concentrate on recalling precisely the line of the roof, the shade of the stone which, without my being able to understand why, had seemed to me so full, so ready to open, to yield the thing for which they themselves were merely a cover. Of course it was not impressions of this kind that could give me back the hope I had lost, of succeeding in becoming a writer and a poet some day, because they were always tied to a particular object with no intellectual value and no reference to any abstract truth. But at least they gave me an unreasoning pleasure, the illusion of a sort of fecundity, and so distracted me from the tedium, from the sense of my own impotence which I had felt each time I looked for a philosophical subject for a great literary work.’

It is noteworthy here how Proust (through his young protagonist, Marcel) disavows any connection between these ‘objects with no intellectual value’, and his frustrated desire to write. For it is that very particularity, that sense of thingness (which always, as Proust suggests, is a cover for something else, something ineffable) that so often provides the starting point for a writer, if only he or she would look.

‘No ideas but in things’: the line by William Carlos Williams has been taken up as a mantra by teachers of poetry to students obsessed, like the young Marcel, with trying to convey deep philosophical concepts, and instead sinking in a morass of tired imagery, expressed through endless clichés of emotion and language.

I think this is the notion I was trying to convey in my post of 29th August. You can simply be drawn in by some aspect of the inanimate world without knowing why. Not that everything is a metaphor, precisely, nor even that every object is a cover for something else (Borges reminds us that a stone might want just to be stone, a tiger a tiger), but that, using Ricardo Piglia’s thesis of the short story as an analogy, every account, every story conceals within it another telling, a secret story, and it is the quest for this other story that leads young Marcel, in his walks with his grandfather near the beginning of A la recherche du temps perdu to understand that this great, almost suffocating desire to be a writer – a desire that one observes (though perhaps in a less astutely articulated form) in many young students of creative writing who likewise find difficulty in finding subject matter to accommodate their ambitions – might find the beginnings of a solution by looking at ‘things’ in the world, rather than heading straight for the ‘idea’.

Finally, an insight from Jane Smiley, in her 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, which drily sets to rest the maddening condition familiar to all writers of wanting to start a piece of writing, but managing to find any number of things to prevent them from doing so:

‘My definition of “inspiration” is “a condition of being stimulated by contemplation of the material to a degree sufficient to overcome your natural disinclination to create.”’

How long is a piece of string?

13 Sep

cafe parisOr how long should a piece of writing be? Reflecting on this, in relation to a piece I am working on, I haphazardly check into an article in The New Yorker and am reminded by John McPhee that “ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material—that much and no more”. He is talking about non-fiction, but of course the same applies to poetry or to fiction: some might say it is even more crucial that fiction writers learn how to discern what length can be reasonably sustained by the selected material so as to avoid rendering the reader senselessly bored. Why, as Borges asked – and I often ask myself – succumb to the laborious and impoverishing madness . . . “of composing vast books—setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes.”?

And while on the subject of contraction, here’s a lesson to learn about how to save time in storytelling by presenting several ideas at once. In Mavis Gallant’s short story ‘Grippes and Poche’, her protagonist, the solitary and sardonic writer, Grippes, witnesses a quartet of plain-clothes police beating up a couple of pickpockets, and escapes into a café. He has been out to collect some offal from the butcher’s to feed his cats. Rather than have Grippes ‘find’ his idea about realism – or ‘writing about real life’ – while seated at the café reading a newspaper; or even allowing the thought to present itself to him through internal monologue, reverie, or conversation with a literary adversary, Gallant allows her character to discover it on the newspaper in which the butcher has wrapped a sheep’s lung.

                    Returning on a winter’s evening after a long walk, carrying a parcel of sheep’s lung wrapped in a newspaper, he crossed Boulevard de Montparnasse just as the lights went on – the urban moonrise . . . Grippes shuffled into a café. He put his parcel of lights on the zinc-topped bar and started to read an article on the wrapping. Someone unknown to him, a new name, pursued an old grievance: Why don’t they write about real life any more?

                    Because to depict life is to attract its ill-fortune, Grippes replied.

And that ‘attracting of ill-fortune’, uttered to no one in particular by a man reading from a newspaper in which rests a sheep’s lung, while outside – in the ‘real’ world – the police exercise some casual violence on a couple of petty criminals, achieves a marvellous contraction of idea and imagery, without spoiling the effect by any explanation or commentary.

Exhibit B in Santiago de Chile

17 Jan
A Place in the Sun, from Brett Bailey’s “Exhibit B”. This installation was based on an account of a French colonial officer who kept black women chained to his bed, exchanging food for sexual services.

From Brett Bailey’s “Exhibit B”. This installation was based on an account of a French colonial officer who kept black women chained to his bed, exchanging food for sexual services.


Continuing my readings of Alastair Reid, while travelling in Chile, I find the following: “The fictions we make are ways of ordering and dominating the disorders of reality, even though they in no way change it. The ‘truth’ of a fiction is less important than its effectiveness; and since reality is shifting and changing, our fictions must constantly be revised.”

‘Fictions’ here has the broadest meaning possible, and should not be confined to those things that are written down and sold in the Fiction Section. Fictions, following Borges, are anything – a story, an explanation, a plan, a theory, a dogma – that gives a certain shape to reality. A piece of theatre, for example.

Arriving in Santiago from the south of Chile yesterday evening, I was invited by friends to attend a performance of Exhibit B, showing as part of the Santiago a Mil theatre festival. Exhibit B is a theatre installation that replicates the grotesque phenomenon of the human zoo during the 19th Century, in which Africans were put on display like circus freaks “for the titillation of European and American audiences under the guise of ‘ethnological enlightenment.’” The show created something of an outrage when performed at the Edinburgh Festival last year. There were complaints that the actors were being to subjected to a similar form of exploitation as the people whose lives they were reproducing, and its run at the Barbican in London was cancelled, on the grounds – according to the sociologist and activist Kehinde Andrews, writing in The Guardian “that it reinforces, rather than challenges the racism it stands as a commentary on.”

Holding the performance in the baroque and excessive setting of the nineteenth century Cousiño Palace in central Santiago was a stroke of genius. The Cousiño Goyenechea family owned coal and silver mines, as well as the Cousiño-Macul Vineyards. The nouveau riche glitz of the palace set off by classical music, provided a sinister but peculiarly fitting locale.

The experience of Exhibit B was painful, as I expected it to be, and my emotions as I walked slowly round the exhibits were complex, and included a degree of shame in experiencing discomfort of any kind, given the extremes of discomfort, abuse and torture suffered by the subjects whose pained existences were being recreated by the actors. I was confused, as I was doubtless meant to be: should I make eye contact with the exhibits, for instance? Would I not be replicating the white man’s gaze that the performance so vehemently questions? The actors weren’t avoiding my gaze, that was for sure, and even on occasion followed my passage across the space in front of them, especially the replica of the man adopted by some Austrian prince in the 18th century who, when he died, had been skinned and stuffed (and blanched) and put out on display for visitors to admire.

My confusion – and the residual sense of shame which I had no power to resist – was exacerbated by a string of questions to which I had no answers. I think the most powerful message to come from this important work is that the objectification and exploitation of society’s others – and our continuing projection of otherness onto immigrants and asylum seekers – continues and will continue. We cannot change the past, but we can at least help shape the future. That is why I cannot support the position taken by the protesters who forced the closure of the Barbican show. A discussion between one of the black performers, Stella Odunlami, and Kehane Andrews (who was active in getting the show shut down, despite never having seen it) provides valuable arguments on both sides. Essentially though, I feel that censorship cannot be justified simply because a work of art chooses a difficult subject and questions reality in a way that some might find offensive.

By the criteria presented at the start of this post, that the fictions we make are ways of ordering and dominating the disorders of reality, even though they in no way change it, and that the ‘truth’ of a fiction is less important than its effectiveness, I can only say that in the case of Exhibit B, its effectiveness was not in doubt. It was both effective and a deeply moving testament to human cruelty and human suffering. As the performer Stella Odunlami writes in response to Kehane Andrews : “my fellow performers and I chose to be part of a production that exposed racism then and now. We have had to defend our decision to exercise our freedom of creativity to those who call us puppets. It is not your job to decide what is or isn’t good for me; I am capable of doing so for myself.” Brett Bailey’s own defence of the work can be found here.

At the very end, when we were standing around in the courtyard about to leave, I caught sight of the actors smoking and chatting by the side entrance of the palace. I was relieved that the company included the taxidermically conserved dead man whose gaze I had failed to meet. It was as if, with the actors out of role, no longer being the people they represented in fiction, their humanity had been restored to them, and with theirs, my own.




Three things I learned from Cavafy

20 Feb

C.P. Cavafy (from the Cavafy archive)

For a long time, while I was tramping around southern Europe, escaping the collective embarrassment that was Britain in the 1980s, I carried with me the poems of CP Cavafy. Other books I picked up and discarded along the way, but Cavafy, in one edition or another, stayed with me for much of the decade. I forget the precise circumstances that led to me making this choice, but most likely it was not a choice at all; I suspect the book was dropped into my bag by a passing sprite, concerned for the welfare of an ephebe like myself, setting out into solitary exile to learn, among other things, the road of excess and the skills of guile and trickery. It would suit my story if this were the case, but the truth is I had been reading Cavafy since I was sixteen, and once he had become a staple of my travels, I didn’t feel properly equipped without him. A slim volume, joined during those early years by Borges’ Fictions and Calvino’s Invisible Cities. These three books had three things in common: they were all small-scale and dense; they all subverted familiar stylistic mannerisms; and they were all conceived in the element of mercury. One thing I didn’t know then was that forty years later I would still be reading Cavafy, with more curiosity than ever.

If we are lucky, we get the writers we deserve, and at the right time of life. Reading Cavafy at a young age nurtured in me the then enthralling (but now merely fashionable) notion that time is not a linear construct, but rather resembles a shifting, mutable state in which past and present might be accessed simultaneously. Cavafy’s poetry, as Patrick Leigh Fermor once wrote, skilfully interweaves time and myth and reality, allowing for a particular kind of mutability, an ability to flit between perceptive modes that, once grasped, will stay with the reader always. If that sounds grandiose, I would like to clarify: there is no distinction in these poems – I would like to say in life, also – between what is imagined and the literal or mechanistic world of everyday understanding, and we must appreciate that this is essential to a proper appraisal of Cavafy. There is no point in conceding to the sordid demand for what ‘really happened’, claiming that any other version is a fantasy or a dream, and that reality is ‘out there’, the other side of the window, any more than one can discern, in Cavafy’s work, between the literal Alexandria and the one held in his imagination. In Cavafy’s poetic world the two are one and they merge, diverge and re-converge continually.

When I was eighteen I spent a summer living in an abandoned shepherd’s hut on a hillside overlooking the Libyan sea in southern Crete, near the tiny village of Keratokambos. Reading outside one evening, I heard an exchange of voices. In the near distance, some way above me, a man and a woman were calling to each other, each voice lifting with a strange and powerful vibrancy across the gorge that lay between one flank of the mountain and the next. Only the nearer figure, the man, was visible, and his voice seemed to rebound off the wall of a chasm, half a mile away. The woman remained out of sight, but her voice likewise drifted across the gorge, with crystalline clarity. There were perhaps a dozen exchanges: and then silence. I listened, spellbound. And that brief exchange, that shouted conversation, with its strange sounds, the tension between the voices, the exhalations and long vowels echoing off the sides of the mountain, would haunt me for years, haunts me still. They seemed to me to be speaking across time, that man and woman. Their ancestors, or possibly they themselves, had been having that conversation, exchanging those same sounds, for millennia. It was, for me, a lesson in the durability of human culture and at the same time, the incredible fragility of our lives; the conversation, the calling across the chasm, represented our ultimately solitary and unique chance at communication with a presence beyond ourselves. It was the vocal correlative of a strange sensation that I had experienced since first arriving in Crete: everywhere I went I was walking on bones, walking on the bones of the dead; and now I was hearing the echo of their voices as well.

In ‘Ionic’, translated more recently by Daniel Mendelsohn as ‘Song of Ionia’, Cavafy sums up an exemplary moment, suggesting that despite the destruction of their monuments and statues, the old gods still dart among the hills on the coast of Ionia (today’s western Anatolia), and it concludes with the lines:


When an August morning dawns over you,

your atmosphere is potent with their life,

and sometimes a young ethereal figure

indistinct, in rapid flight,

wings across your hills.


Here, the ‘young ethereal figure’ is surely Hermes. He is, after all, the winged god, and the god of transition and boundaries, and therefore more than likely to be seen at dawn, in the breach between night and day. Perhaps the Hermes association is personal, owing to the fact that in my experience, Hermes, god of travellers, was almost always the one who came to sort out the mess after Dionysos had wreaked his havoc. It seems likely, according to Daniel Mendelsohn’s wonderfully thorough notes that Cavafy, too, was thinking of Hermes, although I did not know this when I first read the poem.

That the past cohabits eternally with the present is a specifically Cavafian notion, and this subversion of linear time was the first thing I learned from his poetry. The second was his unique conceptualisation of place, in relation to the city with which his name has become ineluctably associated, Alexandria. As Edmund Keeley points out, Cavafy was the first of his contemporaries (woh included Yeats, Pound, Joyce and Eliot in the English-speaking world) to ‘project a coherent poetic image of the mythical city that shaped his vision’. His poetic vision – even when concerned with matters of erotic desire, which it often is – involves a constant pursuit of ‘the hidden metaphoric possibilities, the mysterious invisible processions, of the reality one sees in the literal city outside one’s window’. Cavafy takes the idea of the city and expands upon it so that it carries mythic significance. The poem he chose to begin his first pamphlet of work, distributed among friends, is, significantly, ‘The City’. The poem is addressed to one whose life is bound by literal time and literal thought while, by contrast, the poet-narrator lives according to other parameters, which are timeless. Like other great poets Cavafy mythologises a personal landscape so that it becomes universal:


You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.

This city will always pursue you.

You’ll walk the same streets, grow old

in the same neighbourhoods, turn grey in these same houses.

You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:

there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.

Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,

you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.


The poet’s difficulties over the composition of ‘The City’ – fifteen years lapsing between the first draft in 1894 and publication – are perhaps a reflection of Cavafy’s uncertainty over whether or not he wanted to settle permanently in Alexandria, or himself ‘find some other city’, like the protagonist of his poem. ‘What trouble, what a burden small cities are’, the forty-four year-old poet complained in an unpublished note, dated 1907. He apparently made up his mind to stay by 1910, the year that ‘The City’ was published. It would seem that around this time he experienced an epiphany or at least a shift in his trajectory as a writer, deciding that his destiny lay with Alexandria, and that he would probably never leave. The choice of ‘The City’ as the lead poem in published selections of his work is as intentional as, say, Wallace Stevens’ insistence on ‘Earthy Anecdote’ opening all collected editions of his poetry.       Alexandria became, from that point on, the principle vehicle for his poetic imagination. Conscious of this, he again addresses the theme of leaving the city – actually of being abandoned by the personified city – in ‘The God Abandons Anthony’, when the speaker admonishes the Roman general, who was closely associated with the god Dionysos, at the moment of departure:


When suddenly, at midnight, you hear

an invisible procession going by

with exquisite music, voices,

don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,

work gone wrong, your plans

all proving deceptive – don’t mourn them uselessly:

as one long prepared, and full of courage,

say goodbye to her, to Alexandria who is leaving.

Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say

it was a dream, your ears deceived you:

don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these . . .


It is this self-degradation with false hopes, this yearning for the sacred centre, the object of desire that can never be attained, the love that will never be requited, which makes of all of us an Anthony. Whenever one thinks one has arrived at one’s destination, then will be the time to move on. There is no way of making peace with any objective, real or imagined, until one has first made peace with oneself, and the process is self-perpetuating, and the cities mount up. ‘The more you travel’ as the Turkish poet Adnan Özer writes, ‘the more cities you will find within yourself’.

So, the second thing I learned from Cavafy was that the city is a cypher for the self, reflecting our fragmented or multiple selves. We know that Cavafy is speaking of Alexandria, but we also know that the city is a state of mind – one’s personal predicament, and the human predicament also – from which we can never be free.

The third thing I learned from Cavafy is that we are always at risk of misreading the signs and portents that surround us: arrogance and self-satisfaction dim our vision and make us ridiculous. It is a favourite theme of Cavafy’s, most often delivered with a profound sense of irony. Let us consider the poem ‘Nero’s deadline’:


Nero wasn’t worried at all when he heard

what the Delphic Oracle had to say:

“Beware the age of seventy-three.”

Plenty of time to enjoy himself.

He’s thirty. The deadline

the god has given him is quite enough

to cope with future dangers.

Now, a little tired, he’ll return to Rome –

but wonderfully tired from that journey

devoted entirely to pleasure:

theatres, garden-parties, stadiums . . .

evenings in the cities of Achaia . . .

and, above all, the delight of naked bodies . . .

So much for Nero. And in Spain Galba

secretly musters and drills his army –

Galba, now in his seventy-third year.


At a superficial reading, the conceited, megalomaniac Nero, cosseted by the apparently safe verdict of the oracle, is undone by his comprehensive misunderstanding of its hidden message. But as Mendelssohn points out, the poem does more than make fun of Nero’s self-satisfied complacency, it puts forward Galba as the avenging hero, come from obscurity in his old age to save Rome. However, Galba, in turn, was a disaster for Rome, his greed and lack of judgement causing him to be murdered seven months after his accession as Emperor, on the orders of Marcus Salvius Otho, a fellow-conspirator against Nero. (Otho, incidentally, lasted only three months as Emperor before stabbing himself in the heart). ‘Nero’s deadline’ offers a cinematic vignette of power’s corrupting influence. And by omitting Galba’s own downfall – assuming, as he so often does, that the interested reader, if curious enough, will find out – Cavafy adds a layer of hidden significance to a piece that already works as a denunciation of grandiosity and hubris. The poem reveals betrayal lying beneath betrayal, all of it stemming from overreaching and a smug belief in one’s own achievements, only for each incumbent to meet with a grisly end.

I wanted to write this essay in order to find out why Cavafy has held such a longstanding fascination for me as a reader (and therefore as a writer, since the two activities are composite: we read, at least in part, in order to learn, or to steal). I have discussed three things that are particularly important in my own understanding of his work. But there is something else, greater than the sum of its parts, which asserts this man’s comprehensive poetic vision. Cavafy was a poet who, throughout his life, was – in Seferis’ words – “constantly discovering things that are new and very valuable”. It may be that this capacity for discovery, a reflexivity regarding his personal as well as a collective Hellenic past, his subtly revelatory intelligence, are somehow transmitted onward, and we, as readers, are infected by his own enthusiasms. “He left us with the bitter curiosity that we feel about a man who has been lost to us in the prime of life,” wrote Seferis. This is not simply on account of his relatively small output, but because of its seeming unity of construction and purpose, its sense of unfulfilled possibility, and the poet’s curiosity at being in a world in which past and present merge in an invisible procession.

Translations from the Greek are by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard in C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems, Chatto & Windus, 1990. The references to Daniel Mendelssohn concern the notes to his own translations in C.P. Cavafy: Complete Poems, Harper Press, 2013.

First published  as ‘An Invisible Procession: How reading Cavafy changed my life’, in Poetry Review, 103:3   Autumn 2013.







Patagonian People

4 Sep

gaucho and horse

Driving with Hans Schulz towards the Alerces National Park on Monday, we passed this gaucho, who allowed us to take his photo. He was accompanied by four large dogs, who sniffed me respectfully but, like the horse, knew exactly who was boss. He gave his name as Muñoz, and looked after cattle belonging to a landowner from Bariloche.

LunedLuned González, above, great-granddaughter of one of the original Welsh settlers, EdwinRoberts. A formidable personage, and the individual who got the machinery into gear for our visits to Trelew and Gaiman.

AzdinI met this market stallholder, who gave his name as Azdin, in the Andean town of El Bolsón, a town colonised as a hippy settlement in the 1970s, and still carrying a distinctly alternative flavour. Azdin came to Argentina as a refugee from the Algerian civil war and was ‘adopted’ by a Welsh family in Trelew. He sold herbal remedies for ailments ranging from constipation to madness, but refused to accept payment because, he said, he loved the Welsh people, who had taken him in and looked after him when he first arrived in the country.

 Hans Schulz 1Argentine anthropologist and writer Hans Schulz, pictured above, a ridiculous optimist, and all-round good egg. Hans drove us all the way across Patagonia with incorrigible good humour, was a wonderful source of stories and useful information, as well as somehow managing to negotiate free board and lodging for all eight members of the Writers Chain expedition at one of the world’s most exclusive hotels, the Llao Llao, near Bariloche.

And, as further evidence of our intrepid journey to the heart of all things:

Blanco working undercover as a wax model, with a simulacrum of Famous Argentine author in La Biela café, Buenos Aires.

Blanco working undercover as a wax model, with a simulacrum of Famous Argentine author in La Biela Café, Buenos Aires.

Karen 'Chuckie' Owen considers the copulatory behaviour of the Ballena Franca (Southern Right) Whale at the Peninsula Valdes Information Centre.

Karen ‘Chuckie’ Owen considers the copulatory behaviour of the Ballena Franca (Southern Right) Whale at the Peninsula Valdes Information Centre.

Billionaire fashion guru Mererid Hopwood poses for the press at Llao Llao Hotel, Bariloche.

Billionaire fashion guru Mererid Hopwood poses for the press at Llao Llao Hotel, Bariloche.

Presidential candidate Natasha Atkhinovich in the Eisenhower suite at Llao Llao Hotel.

Presidential candidate Natasha Atkhinovich in the Eisenhower suite at Llao Llao Hotel.

International cultural events coordinator Nia Davies pondering the exchange rate, El Bolsón.

International cultural events coordinator Nia Davies pondering the exchange rate, El Bolsón.

Verónica Zondek endures the interminable wait for coffee, somewhere in Patagonia.

Verónica Zondek endures the interminable wait for coffee, somewhere in Patagonia.

 Explorer and hired secret agent Jorge Aulicino with entrepreneur extraordinaire Jorge Fondebrider, prepared for penultimate leg of Patagonian trip in Casa de Piedra, Trevelin.

Explorer and secret agent Jorge Aulicino with entrepreneur extraordinaire Jorge Fondebrider, prepared for penultimate leg of Patagonian trip in Casa de Piedra, Trevelin.

The other side of the other

22 Jan
Cat in Sultanahmet

Cat in Sultanahmet


In my last post I mentioned that perennial companion and source of consternation, the other, the doppelganger, the one who walks beside us, both ourselves and not ourselves.

I cited the introduction from Orhan Pamuk’s memoir of Istanbul, but cut the quotation short. I did this on purpose, because Pamuk leads off into the dark side of the other, to the fear of replication that beset him when he once came to grips with the awfulness of one’s own doubling:

On winter evenings, walking through the streets of the city, I would gaze into other people’s houses through the pale orange light of home and dream of happy, peaceful families living comfortable lives. Then I would shudder, thinking that the other Orhan might be living in one of these houses. As I grew older, the ghost became a fantasy and the fantasy a recurrent nightmare. In some dreams I would greet this Orhan – always in another house – with shrieks of horror; in others the two of us would stare each other down in eerie, merciless silence.

‘As I grew older’. There’s the rub. Just as all literature leads us back to children’s stories, as Borges notes, so, in an inverse sense, stories that begin as childhood diversions, of daydreaming and harmless fantasy, with time become the stuff of nightmares. The prospect of possessing (or being in the possession of, possessed by) a double, a version of oneself both intimate and foreign, both known and unknowable, intrudes into consciousness with the stealth of a thief, come to steal our bones, come to steal our soul.

After reading my last post, The one who walks alongside us, a friend commented that in Freud’s essay ‘The Uncanny’, he refers to the terror implicit in the concept of the double, the creeping horror of replicating something long known to us, once very familiar, but which has now become terrifying. What could be more familiar to us – and therefore possess the greatest potential for horror – than ourselves?

In literature, notably in the works of Edgar Allen Poe, Guy de Maupassant, Alfred de Musset, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad, Jorge Luis Borges and Thomas Bernhard, we frequently encounter something approaching a paranoid state revolving around the persecution of the ego by its double. Otto Rank, Freud’s precursor in the study of the double, compares these imaginary creations to their authors’ symptoms, through which the theme of the double reveals a psychopathological dimension. Well . . . you might see it that way, you might even, as Freud suggests, see the expression of the double as a symptom of the ego’s inability to outgrow the narcissistic phase of early childhood, but that would be to pathologize a great number of writers, and I don’t for one moment believe in the notion that you have to be mentally ill to be intrigued by the notion of a double, or to write effectively on this theme, or to be encouraged to think there may be some profound connection between an awareness of one’s own otherness (expressed in many ‘traditional’ cultures as an animistic belief in immortality) – or to believe that after a certain age it should be regarded as an unhealthy or pathological condition.

We all possess the ability to imagine ourselves as other, and this imagining, or daydreaming, is the beginning of all literature. How appropriate then, that when a writer sets out to put down an account of his or her own life, they seem best able to do this by imaging their story as one that happened to someone else. It seems to be the core paradox that confronts anyone who writes a memoir, and has certainly been my own experience.

Pamuk too, apparently: “I’d have liked to write my entire story this way – as if my life were something that happened to someone else, as if it were a dream in which I felt my voice fading and my will succumbing to enchantment.”

More to follow. Written either by me, or the other bloke.


View from Megara Palace


Sultanahmet shack


Flying carpet









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