24 November 2014
When Cavafy met Marinetti
Constantine Cavafy (1866-1933) is the best-loved modern Greek poet whose life and work has inspired a legion of artists, men of letters, and film-makers. Already a legend during his lifetime, friends and admirers held regular literary gatherings in his apartment in Alexandria, where foreign visitors also paid their respects. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944) was one of those visitors and his meeting with Cavafy must count as one of the most surprising encounters in literary history, comparable to the friendship between T.S. Eliot and Groucho Marx or the encounter between Guy de Maupassant and Algernon Charles Swinburne.
The two men were temperamentally very different. Cavafy was retiring, patient and gentle, Marinetti brash, ebullient, theatrical. They were both united, however, in their love for Alexandria, their shared birthplace. Marinetti was introduced to Cavafy by Atanasio Catraro, the scion of a distinguished Triestine family (he was a great-grandson of Ciriaco Catraro, the founder of the Stock exchange in Trieste). A friend of Cavafy and an habitué of his salon, Catraro translated some of Cavafy’s poems into Italian and in the 1960s wrote a memoir about Cavafy, published only in a Greek translation in 1970.
The meeting with Cavafy came about in 1930 during Marinetti’s visit Alexandria to give a series of lectures on Futurism to the city’s Italian community. Marinetti’s account of the meeting was first published in the Gazzetta del popolo in Turin on 2 May 1930 and was included in the volume Il fascino dell’Egitto, a collection of articles about his visit to Egypt, first published in 1933. Another account is given in Catraro’s book and it was probably Catraro who provided Marinetti with information about the Greek writers discussed.
In his article Marinetti evokes, with a few deft strokes, the atmosphere of Cavafy’s salon. The head of the poet is maliciously described as that of “the small, grey head of a sweet and intelligent tortoise whose slim arms are rowing out of its immense Greco-Roman shell of learned shadow”; the room has dark red velvet walls and is hung with paintings encrusted with “the dust of centuries”. After whisky and soda and the traditional cheese meze are served, conversation begins with Cavafy praising Futurism and the merits of free verse. Marinetti points out that Futurist poetry goes much further than free verse, into the simultaneism of words-in-freedom which are the expression of “our great mechanical civilization of speed.”
The ensuing discussion about modern Greek literature shows how French literature, especially poetry, was, at the time, the yardstick used in assessing the merits or otherwise of all literary works. Kostēs Palamas, the great rival of Cavafy, is deemed to be verbose like Victor Hugo and sentimental like Lamartine, Miltiadēs Malakasēs a cross between Alfred de Musset and Sully-Prudhomme, Lampros Porfiras a cross between Baudelaire and Verlaine, the sonnets of Giannēs Gryparēs like those of José Maria de Heredia. Contemporary Greek playwrights like Grēgorēs Xenopoulos and Paulos Nirvanas are deemed to be under the spell of Ibsen. By contrast, Spyros Melas and his “Scena libera” (Eleutherē Skēnē), headed by Marika Kotopoulē (“the Greek Eleonora Duse”), are praised for their performances of French avant-garde plays.
The conversation also touches on the merits of Demotic language in poetry, the language of Giannēs Psycharēs, its dynamism and its use of foreign words, especially Italian ones. Cavafy recites, for the benefit of Marinetti, some verses where Italian words like ‘porta’, ‘cappello’, ‘calze’, ‘guanti’, ‘carriera’ are harmoniously incorporated into the Greek text as necessary neologisms whereas English, French or Spanish words would have a jarring effect.
The assembly then asks Cavafy to recite one of his new poems. He finally obliges with “God abandons Antony”, his slow recitation accompanied by gestures tracing minute arabesques in the air.
In Catraro’s account Marinetti, pacing up and down and gesticulating, filled the room with his presence, like an actor on stage. He suddenly declared Cavafy a Futurist, an honour the poet gently declined, remarking that the little he knew about Futurism made him think that he would be considered a passéist. Marinetti conceded that Cavafy was, to a certain extent, a passéist in that he was not impressed by the beauty of machines and he still used verbs and punctuation: a passéist in form but intellectually a Futurist, like Michelangelo, Leonardo, Wagner and all other artists who revolted against tradition.
Marinetti’s article omits his unsuccessful attempt to proselytise Cavafy and it ends on an unexpectedly lyrical and wistful note. After leaving Cavafy he drives to the beautiful gardens of the Villa Antoniadis. In the full moon, he hears the song of nightingales which are, however, interrupted by the noise of machines demolishing the old villa to erect in its place a modern one destined for visiting foreign sovereigns. In a typical Marinetti simile, the funereal crash of demolitions is likened to the sound of exploding grenades. When the noise finally dies out, Marinetti movingly concludes his article by assimilating the landscape of Alexandria to the poetry of its great poet: “the Mahmoudieh Canal is full of liquid nostalgia-inducing moons, like the free verses – modern and at the same time ancient – of Cavafy, the Greek poet of Alexandria.”
The Villa Antoniadis, where Marinetti had his nocturnal reverie, was built in 1860, as a miniature Palace of Versailles, by Sir John Antoniadis (1818-1895), a wealthy Alexandrian of Greek origins, and in 1918 was bequeathed to the city of Alexandria by his son together with the family’s collection of Egyptian and Graeco-Roman antiquities. At the time of Marinetti’s visit its gardens formed part of a green area which also included zoological and botanical gardens. In antiquity this area was a suburb of the city, the residents of which included Callimachus, the librarian of of the ancient Library of Alexandria. Appropriately, the villa and its gardens now form part of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Cavafy's apartment is now a Cavafy museum.
Chris Michaelides, Curator Italian and Modern Greek Studies
Atanazio Katraro, Ho philos mou ho Kavaphēs (Athens, 1970). Awaiting shelfmark
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Il fascino dell’Egitto. (Milano, 1981) X. 809/66786