Critic's Corner: A Review of "What's Left of the Night" by Ersi Sotiropoulos tr. by Karen Emmerich

Due out October 2nd. Trust me, you can't wait.

In a mini review on Instagram I described this book as a "Satisfying and sensual slow-burn." For a while, I struggled with whether or not calling this book a slow-burn was accurate. Sometimes people use that word to describe relationships that go flat over a long period time like a bike tire with a patient, yet insistent leak. But, then I remembered the crackle of an early Fall fire and how it feels to sit there, drunk off of too much rum and watch the fire go out at 5 minutes to dawn. How you know that your memories of the evening have already begun to diminish in glamor while somehow you also know more.. about yourself, or whatever. Just more. You're a fuller cup.

That's how you feel when you finish this book. The cover says, "A perfect book!"--some partial from Edmund White that I definitely shook my head at because how could someone brag so boldly and on the cover no less? Yet, here the book is. Whole enough to fill you up and perfect in that. 

On the surface, the book is just a story of two brothers on a trip to Europe. They're both poets and they've got a little rivalry going--though it's apparent they care for each other and that their bond is genuine. The main character, Constantine Cavafy (a real poet born in 1863) struggles with the notion that he's true to his poetry and his brother simply enjoys calling himself an arteest. This tension isn't the bulk of the novel however. Cavafy is a gay man. Just as real-life Constantine Cavafy was. And, he's just received his first poetic rejection from a writer he very much looks up to, not to mention, he's stuck hanging out with Mardaras, a sheep-like man who thinks name dropping = conversation. 

Of course, like any true bourgeois artist of the time, Cavafy complains. Alot. Despite the whining, he's truly a likable fellow. Sotiropoulos' portrayal of him is backed by her intense researching in the Cavafy archive, and while she could have chosen the colder academic side of the man, she illuminates a young, up and coming artist whose complicated relationship with his sexuality is keeping him from success. 

The book is compressed into the three days that free Cavafy from himself and allow him to truly access his work, even if he has to destroy every morsel of writing in the process. Cavafy and John traipse around Paris led by Mardaras and the elegant but cool Madame De and while everyone else is having a frighteningly good time eating at cafes and discussing whorehouses, Cavafy is splintered by the present moment, his work, and his attraction to a young, male ballerina. The novel builds in the "rupture" of the main character--both erotically and artistically. It does so in such an intense and satisfying way that by the end you just want to eat cold plums and smoke a cigarette. It also carefully curates the experience of the poet (or artist or musician) moving through daily life as a ghost for their passion, so entrenched in the creative process that even Theseus can't drag them from it. 

"...and again--to his poem, as if the poem were capable of crystalizing that circular flow, or rather of abolishing it, destroying all distance in a few short lines, allowing an unknown poet just setting out to conceive of this suspended world, to express it in the most economical of ways, because History with a capital H was comprised not of events but of stories--a wealth of new ideas crawled like ants in his head searching for words, for the beginning of a line, behind which lay his ambition, an unquenchable thirst, he couldn't deny it, so many ideas and words and ideas that hadn't yet found their words--it seems, I'll have to write another poem, he thought...and the free flow was broken and he looked ahead. There was no obelisk. This wasn't the Place de la Conorde."

It's real, it's raw, and it's so beautifully lyrical that you feel like you're reading aloud to yourself even when you're reading quietly in a crowded bar. 10/10 would recommend. 10/10 will reread.*

*10/10 is rare for me this book was just truly awesome. 

(the cover, Ersi Sotiropoulos, and the real Cavafy)

- Elysia