On William E. Jones’s “Fall into Ruin” [LA Review of Books]

The best art dealers all have a fictitious quality as if slyly tiptoeing from the pages of a novel, ideally long and untranslatable, their very presence, their mystery, their history a rich mélange of whispered anecdote and cruel rumour.

— Adrian Dannatt

IN HIS POEM “Dangerous Thoughts,” the gay Greek poet C. P. Cavafy invoked the voice of a Syrian student in Alexandria:

Strengthened by study and reflection.
I won’t fear my passions like a coward;
I’ll give my body to sensual pleasures,
to enjoyments I’ve dreamed of,
to the most audacious erotic desires,
to the lascivious impulses of my blood …

Born in 1863 in Alexandria, Egypt, Cavafy grew up in poverty before attaining a modest clerk position at the Irrigation Service of the Ministry of Public Works. Cavafy’s poetry — fiercely original and defiantly, erotically gay — made for radical, fin-de-siècle balladry, although his work mostly only circulated among friends and relatives while he was alive. Almost 50 years after Cavafy’s death, in 1982, the American artist William E. Jones, who was just 19 years old at the time, met Alexander Iolas, one of the most important art dealers of the 20th century. They met in Iolas’s bedroom: two bronze horses guarded the edges of the bed, a chandelier dangled over it, and a painting by Harold Stevenson hung on the wall behind it, which portrayed a man splayed out with a towering antique column in place of his penis. Iolas was just waking up, and his lover was nearby, getting ready for the day. The first thing that Iolas said to Jones was whether he knew the work of Cavafy. “I had no idea who [Cavafy] was — none,” Jones told me.

Iolas then said to him, “He is one of us.”

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published in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Sept. 22, 2017

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