In the summer of 1897, two aspiring Greek poets, who were also brothers, ended their brief tour of Europe by spending three days in Paris. For the younger brother, Constantine Cavafy, those three days would constitute an unforgettable and liberating experience, while for the elder, John, they were little more than a pleasant distraction from the tedium of family life back in Alexandria and the excessive demands of their needy mother, Haricleia, whom they referred to always as the ‘Fat One’. It was in Paris, Ersi Sotiropoulos implies in this engaging and original novel, that Constantine abandoned the scented lyricism and antiquated ‘poetic’ diction of his early writings and began to think about finding a voice that sounded natural. She imagines him recalling the death of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in War and Peace, which he has recently read, and thinking to himself:
Would he ever be able to write with that kind of force, to achieve the loftiness of Tolstoy’s prose? What he desired above all was to shake his poetry free of lyricism and ornamentation, to uproot the unnecessary, to cut as close to the bone as possible. Would he be able? So often, reading a volume by another poet, he felt a kind of physical irritation at all the adjectives, the flights of fancy, telling himself with disdain that the poet simply made the language indigestible – but could he identify the same flaws in his own poems?
He could and he did, which is what Sotiropoulos draws on in What’s Left of the Night, a fictionalisation of a crucial episode in Cavafy’s life. In Paris, far away from the smothering attention of Haricleia, who loved her youngest child with intense possessiveness, Constantine felt free – as