Sunday, April 19, 2009

The body of knowledge that will make you someone different

The Austrians call them “round birthdays” — the ones that end in zero. But they have never served as milestones for me. Well, turning ten might have; since I was by far the youngest in my school class, many of my classmates were eleven while I was still in single digits.

There were particular skills I wanted to acquire and bodies of knowledge to master, and if I could only be the person who did or knew that single thing, then I would be who I aspired to be.

Mismarried at 21 to the son of a wonderful cook, I yearned to make meat stock like hers. Patiently, my mother-in-law tried to help. She told me what she did. She wrote down her directions. She went food shopping with me so I could be confident I was getting the right bones. She sat in the kitchen while I cut up the onions and watched me brown them. Her son echoed her praises as we ate the final product.

In the decades since, I have made stock hundreds of times. I have read books on the subject and tested the efficacy of ways to remove the fat, to clarify the broth, to make it a richer brown. Ground pepper or whole peppercorns? Celery or not? You can always learn more about food chemistry. I have made soup for my parents, for my husband and child, for lovers, and for myself. And let’s not forget the Midnight Run! Soup by the five-gallon pot. I can say to myself: I know stock. There will always be surprises, but yes, I am a woman who makes good stock.

There was other knowledge I longed to master. Over the years, the poet Cavafy’s name would appear. Perhaps only as if going by on the breeze. I suspect Lord Peter Wimsey once spoke of Cavafy. (He would have.) I didn’t think about it much, but whenever the name Cavafy drifted by, I would realize that there is a sort of person who knows Cavafy but that sort of person is not me.

Then, ten or so years ago, the Literature Club of Hastings-on-Hudson chose Classics as its topic of the year. We told each other we would know what a classic was when we encountered it. We all had great fun that year choosing our subjects. There was a momentary possibility of a fight over Marcus Aurelius. [You will never read that sentence anywhere else.] Loving Daniel Deronda, I considered George Eliot, but then decided that exploring the unexplored is what Lit Club is all about. I can’t recall who I actually chose as my subject that year, but ten days before my program would open the Literature Club season, I changed my mind. I thought: Cavafy!

Too impatient to wait for interlibrary borrowing, I drove from branch to branch across the county, gathering information and books. I read Cavafy, and about Cavafy, obsessively, and fortunately, found this odd person attractive. At the Lit Club meeting we read Cavafy together, and Anna Cornwell explained why his language is almost untranslatable. And just like that, I became someone who could speak of Cavafy. If Lord Peter Wimsey comes into the Station Café, think of the conversations we could have!

Now a new translation of Cavafy’s works has been published. People have come into Bookstore C specifically looking for it! Herewith D.S. Loney’s musings on Mendelsohn's translation. Now dropping Cavafy’s name into conversation will no longer be the province of a few. His name and work will be on everyone’s lips but (like aspiring to designer lipstick) not on mine. Except for the intrinsic pleasure of it and come to think of it, with Cavafy, there’s a fair amount of that.

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