Content in Plato’s Cave: Ersi Sotiropoulos’s “What’s Left of the Night”

By Niko MaragosOctober 26, 2018

Content in Plato’s Cave: Ersi Sotiropoulos’s “What’s Left of the Night”

What’s Left of the Night by Ersi Sotiropoulos

CONSTANTINE PETROU CAVAFY’S three-day adventure in Paris during June 1897 had all the makings of an ambitious literary crossover event. He was a stateless gay Greek poet en flâneur in fin-de-siècle Paris amid the Dreyfus Affair, barely a month after Oscar Wilde left Reading Gaol as a free man. Some beautiful boys were expiring from epic pleasures in the modernized city, while others were furtively making love in Haussmann’s new public toilets. Art was supposedly being made for art’s sake. And, as has been the case since at least the Fourth Crusade, far-flung Greeks, like Jean Moréas (born Ioannis Papadiamantopoulos) and Theodoros Ralli, were afoot — kosmopolítes in the truest sense. To read about that time now, magic and positivism were both flourishing in the capital of the 19th century, waiting for the barbarians of the next. However, none of this Cavafian grist seems to have gone through the poet’s mill: he wrote nothing about his three days in the City of Lights.

It’s an especially intriguing gap in his fragmented biography, and for decades, it needled the curiosity of another Greek writer. Ersi Sotiropoulos (Έρση Σωτηροπούλου), one of Greece’s most prolific and decorated writers of literary fiction, learned about Cavafy’s Parisian trip in 1984, but didn’t begin writing about it until 2009. By 2015, she had filled in the gaps of those three days with this novel, Τι Μένει Από Τι Νύχτα or What’s Left of the Night, which earned Greece’s highest literary awards. More success came in 2017 when the French translation received the Prix Méditerranée Étranger, whose previous winners include Umberto Eco, Orhan Pamuk, and Ismail Kadare. Notably, Sotiropoulos is the fourth woman and only the second Greek to win the award in its 25-year history — a timely and much needed glory for Greece. This past August, after a lost decade, the country nominally emerged from foreign financial conservatorship. How appropriate, then, that this book appears now in English, lovingly translated by Dr. Karen Emmerich, and published by New Vessel Press.

As Greece begins another phase in its long, mutually disappointing relationship with Europe, What’s Left of the Night sighs wearily and then laughs, remembering all too well when both were here before. Set in 1897, this novel’s events come in the aftermath of the first Greco-Turkish War, which the young nation waged in order to annex Crete. Armed with artillery leftover from the 1821 War of Independence, Greece quickly failed, provoking the swift intervention of the Great Powers. As compensation for this aid (and at the pronounced insistence of imperial Germany), Greece resigned its financial sovereignty to an international committee until 1936. Now, Greece has virtually returned to “Black ’97” — what with its youth fleeing, wealth mortgaged, and government kneecapped by unheard-of peacetime budgets. “Grexit” is no longer imminent, never mind that Europe is a Greek word. Still, to observers inside and outside Greece, this victory is a Pyrrhic one, as bitterly and bitingly ironic as Cavafy’s poetry.

It’s this irony that distinguishes Cavafy from his contemporaries, that accounts for his prescient modernity, and that — to borrow scholar Peter Jeffreys’s perfect phrase — endears him to “diaspora Greeks, classicists, and gays” (hello). In What’s Left of the Night, Sotiropoulos excavates the origin of this irony in the early years of Cavafy’s poetic awakening, a period in which his work was, by all accounts, unremarkably competent and nothing more. Her protagonist, the fictionalized Cavafy here called Constantine/Costis, is painfully aware of these shortcomings but terrified to take the necessary steps to correct them. Practical, methodical, and traumatized as a child by the vaporization of his family’s wealth, Constantine “had chosen to remain whole, untouched, safe, at the borders of the known world.” He clings to clear conceptual distinctions and abides in the predictability of clean, metered lines.

In 1897, under the long shadow of Baudelaire, such a temperament disadvantaged an aspiring poet. Languorous prose poems and pleasures-to-excess were de rigueur for writers of good verse, but Constantine could abandon himself to neither. “The problem was Alexandria,” the hometown where he is sequestered among the Greek minority, yoked to a manipulative but helpless mother, and depleted by a sex life that’s either too active or not active enough (it’s unclear). Squeezed to the point of combustion by the city, Constantine “felt useless, irresolute, a failure,” unable to liberate the “chunky pastiche” of his amateur poetry from the “churning runoff of […] lyricism” and sentimentality. If he were to become a poet, Constantine “determined, without really believing it, that he needed to erase the Alexandria within him.”

To that end, in May 1897, Constantine embarks with his older brother John on a six-week journey to other cities, other shores, ending in Paris. This novel chronicles their three days there, fortuitously symbolic of Christ’s resurrection — a connotation Sotiropoulos subtly amplifies with allusions to Orthodox paschal hymns and images. Rebirth of sorts is, after all, what Constantine wants from Paris once it kills the provincial Alexandrian within. As to what extent it succeeds, Sotiropoulos is tantalizingly ambiguous. Did Paris remake him in the image of a French poète maudit? Or did it simply drive Constantine to discover that, in the same way he wasted his life in Alexandria, he had wasted it everywhere else in the world? Sotiropoulos enigmatically implies here that the answer is both and neither, much like how Cavafy straddles poetic styles. In this sense, What’s Left of The Night mythologizes the origin of Cavafy’s distinct marriage of fin-de-siècle mysticism with modernist irony.

Appropriately that marriage begins in Paris. Constantine relishes the city, “whose smallest corner seemed large and important,” as well as endowed with his poet idols who have the power to cure his ennui. Such language of the Decadents permeates this novel without transforming it into pastiche, nodding just enough to the historical Cavafy’s life-long aesthetic debt to effete British and French letters. Fittingly, the shadows of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Wilde, loom over the book’s version of Paris, which is sprinkled with places they lived, dined, and made love. And yet, even the lingering magnetism of these poetic titans doesn’t galvanize Constantine, one of several instances in this book in which expectations exceed reality. Whether masturbating or morose, he is as unmotivated as in Alexandria. Worse, he has no new material to show for his time in this city where, unlike home, everything truly was copy.

Walking into the night, he laments how the “city rushed toward him and he would have liked to be pure and open, so as to meet It properly, to catch even its subtlest hints,” in the manner of a true flâneur like the Baudelaire he idolizes. That kind of life, kaleidoscopic with pleasure, tenderness, and monstrous depravity, both enchants and repels Constantine. Meeting someone adjacent to those who live such a life — Nikos Mardaras, a bootlicking diaspora Greek and Moréas’s (fictional) unpaid secretary — doesn’t improve his ambivalence. A wolf of a social climber with a fleecy “sheep-like head,” Mardaras becomes the brothers’ obnoxious Virgil through the Paris nighttime. In its cafes and carriages, he interrogates them about Parnassianism, Aestheticism, Symbolism, and other “–isms” that Constantine abjures in his own nascent ars poetica. “Do you believe in art for art’s sake?” Mardaras asks. “I believe in life for art’s sake,” Constantine replies, sidestepping into a place of withheld disavowal, neither Decadent nor Modern.

These conversations propel the narrative toward a nighttime adventure at the underground bacchanal called “The Ark” — a MacGuffin that seems to exist only to expand Constantine’s opportunities for angsty meditation. Along the way, Sotiropoulos evokes the pictorialism of the Decadents and texturizes the prose with ekphrasis of the Belle Époque’s grotesque images: thrashing hysterics from Charcot’s Salpêtrière, an absinthe-drunk model missing her front tooth, and a dog curiously sniffing a turd near the skirts of a comtesse. By turns angular and voluptuous, clinical and hallucinatory, Sotiropoulos’s prose (and Emmerich’s glistening translation) glazes multiple pasts and presents on top of one another, blissfully dizzying the reader at times, dragging them at others. Often, the prose dips the reader, without warning, into Constantine’s interior consciousness, parts of which are not what we may have wanted to see.

There, his revelations about art, beauty, and poetic inspiration are sometimes anodyne, even cliché; his classist and sexist prejudices are repugnant; his warring impulses irritatingly adolescent. Yet, to read Cavafy is to realize, perhaps reluctantly, that these are as present in his poetry as his adoration of what is never meant to last but that, ironically, often become what does. Here, Sotiropoulos reconstructs the mind of the poet with the believability of a lifelong friend or lover, working into the book’s weft and warp imagined personal tics, which feel as verifiable as his biographical details. What’s Left of the Night is a swirling Sargasso of Cavafy’s lifelong inspirations and anxieties: gay love, ephemera, decay, and Hellenic identity, in which Antiquity, Byzantium, the reborn Greece and its diaspora exist simultaneously.

To read this book is to encounter, unforgettably, the best and worst of Cavafy, who was excruciatingly aware of the parts of himself and his heritage that were both bad and good. At its best moments, Sotiropoulos’s prose strikes a chord of dark beauty, visceral grossness, and ironic humor indistinguishable from the experience of reading Cavafy’s poetry. At its worst, it’s overstuffed with fin-de-siècle tropes. Still, even that seems purposeful: Mardaras and his Paris of stock-figures and poseurs come to exemplify how people and places are far too often better in the abstract, which Constantine believes and has tried to deny but can no longer. For this poet, memory and myth must outrank observation and experience. It’s an ironic relationship between truth and art, poetry and history, one that Sotiropoulos codes with references to the Allegory of the Cave, closed doors, unlit hallways, and hazy images. Cumulatively, they suggest that if her Constantine were offered the chance to leave Plato’s cave, he would elect to stay.

“What’s left of the night?” is, after all, an appropriate question from someone who can see better in the dark, like Constantine, who is repeatedly repulsed by the sunlight. He’s equally unmoved by Paris’s famed evening lights, as becomes clear in the chaotic final chapters. Drunk at The Ark, he confesses that “he wanted to hold onto the euphoria of the carriage ride,” a pitch-black journey through the country to the closely guarded location of the bacchanal. “Surely he could squeeze a few words out of that insane journey. Perhaps an entire line.” He has little to say about the sparkling depravity around him, however. Imagining his future self, remembering this night: “The Ark doesn’t exist,” he would say. Believing is better than seeing for Constantine, as becomes most climactically true in his erotic fixation while in Paris.

A gray-eyed Russian dancer, with a muscled male body that “had just left childhood behind” and the “empty, flat […] voice of someone who has not yet lived” catches Constantine’s eye. Imagined liaisons between the two ripple the book with “[b]ites. Deep, wild kisses. Hands tightly gripped, pinned behind the back […] Mouths that struggled to come together,” but succeed just enough to make this book erotic and not so much as to make it pornographic. Which is to say, there is no real sex in this book. Instead, there is “the convergence of two bodies that hadn’t actually converged” — erotic emptiness crackling with the anticipation of sex that, for Constantine, is better than sex. It’s another example of Sotiropoulos’s deep engagement with the poetic tastes of Cavafy’s formative years: the Decadents were known to prefer the coy glamour of the erotic, rather than the demystified meat of straight pornography.

Intriguingly, Sotiropoulos refrains from attributing this preference for autoeroticism to any “repression” of Constantine’s homosexuality, who, like the historical Cavafy, is reconciled to how he has been made (and might even think it makes him a better artist). In fact, Constantine is candid that, if he wanted, he could be “enjoying […] a beautiful male body.” Perhaps he doesn’t because “he was timid, a shrinking violet.” Or perhaps he knows exactly what he is doing. The “purpose of art [is] to abolish distance,” he thinks. If two bodies converge, what emptiness is left for him to write about? Better to let his pleasures “become inaccessible, unattainable, so he could experience them with the power of memory and of Art.”

In one surreal chapter, he takes his own advice when desire inundates him as he overhears young lovers, speaking Russian — is it his dancer? — thrashing in a neighboring hotel room. Crouched outside what may or may not be his beloved dancer’s door (does it matter?), Constantine descends into reverie, driving himself dangerously close to orgasm. “When his longing for the young dancer had reached a peak of ecstasy,” he receives a vision of a rather funny, somewhat gross image that becomes “a symbol worthy of worship,” reigniting his desire to write. Ironically, then, Constantine doesn’t find his muse in the light of a new experience, but in his mind’s dark interior, which is the same in Paris as it is among the blackened ruins of Alexandria. What, then, was this pilgrimage to Paris for? Did it succeed?

Maybe it did: as far as we know, Cavafy’s 1897 adventure was his last beyond Alexandria, aside from a brief stay in Greece in the 1900s. Maybe it didn’t succeed and was never supposed to. Cavafy has been called a poet of processes rather than of outcomes, and the same is true of this novel. More than a künstlerroman, What’s Left of the Night is a meditation on the writer’s process, and this book is, unpretentiously, a “text” that invites writers, especially, to return and reexamine what’s hiding under its prose. Down in the muscles of this book, the incitement to write what you know wrestles with the insecurity that, perhaps, you don’t know enough worth writing about. Can poetry that lives forever come from an ugly, short life at the edge of the world, one “standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe,” as E. M. Forster said of Cavafy in 1923? What’s Left of the Night seems to suggest, with Cavafy’s mixture of despondency and determination: you’ll never know enough anyway, and the world is only as wide as your will. For Cavafy, as for Sotiropoulos, arriving at Ithaca is not the point.


Niko Maragos is a freelance writer. He is not a classicist.

LARB Contributor

Niko Maragos is an independent writer whose work has appeared in Mask Magazine, The New Inquiry, and Electric Literature.


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