From the acclaimed Egyptian-born author, gorgeous musings on longing and memory fueled by travel.
A virtuoso in literary criticism, memoir and fiction (Eight White Nights, 2010, etc.), Aciman revisits themes that have obsessed him since his youth growing up in Alexandria, when he and his family were waiting for years for visas to migrate to Europe, then the United States. Anticipation—and all the longing it held—proved the ideal, romantic, satisfying state, rather than the actual delivery. For example, longing for America all those years proved much more delicious and lasting than the actual naked reality of living there. In each essay, Aciman elegantly palpates these themes of place and displacement (“dispersion, evasion, ambivalence”). In “Lavender,” the myriad scents of aftershave he will discover over the years mark milestones in his life, but hark back essentially to the first, significant scent of his father’s lavender aftershave. Initiating his young sons into the memories of his youth, in “Intimacy,” involves taking them back to Via Clelia in Rome, where the author 40 years before lived in limbo with his family for three years while waiting for their visas to America. For Aciman, who was poor, speaking Italian self-consciously with a foreign accent, it was a time of shame, yet writing about it helps unlock the “numbness” and encourages “dream-making.” In “Temporizing,” through the personal exploration of his family’s Marrano roots, the author fashions a brilliantly subtle excursus on the craft of a writer such as Proust, who avoids the tyranny of the particular, the day-to-day, by circumventing pain and sorrow at all costs, and passing all experience through “the literary time filter.” Aciman’s own travel essays—on Venice, the Place des Vosges, Tuscany, Barcelona and New York—filter the present through an ever-shifting palette of sensuous memory and impression.
These essays sing with bracing clarity.
Alibis. Essays On Elsewhere, by André Aciman
André Aciman’s reputation as a writer of deep and fine prose is, I discover, well established in the USA, but I am not sure that his work is so well known in Britain. I think it was reading Tony Judt’s wonderfully moving collection of essays The Memory Chalet that helped me recognise a taste for beautifully crafted, lapidary short form writing. Sometimes, it is just the sort of reading pleasure I need. André Aciman’s layered, concentrated perception and supremely elegant prose style deliver about as much reduced food for thought and imagination in one of his essays as I am able to feast on in one go. This is the first work of his that I have ever read, and it tempts me to find more. This review, therefore, is the untutored impression of a reader unprepared for Aciman by prior knowledge either of his work or his reputation. I do recommend that approach, if you have not found him before – I found it quite exhilarating to dive right in.
Aciman’s approach is deeply personal; he writes from the standpoint of someone who is an exile from his native country, whose ancestors were in turn exiled from theirs. He has found a vocation, a home and a family life in New York, travels widely, with the layers of his heritage and his own experience of exile as the lens through which he sees what is around him. He could be described as a travel writer, and indeed, the descriptions of the places that spark his explorations of the present, the past, history and memory, are vivid and alluring and make me want to visit them too, in the light of his insights. But the uncharted territories he really explores are his own mind, memory and heritage and he brings his unique approach to a sense of place.
If this book of essays is the reader’s introduction to Aciman, he plays a subtle game with us. The first essay, Lavender, is so dense, so Proustian, so elusive and allusive, that it almost made me give up, though I found myself intoxicated by his prose. It is an extended meditation on memory (his father’s lavender cologne and his quest to find it) and self (his attempt to find a scent that represents the essence of himself). The second essay, Intimacy, is an equally extended exercise in recall not just of the details of his life, but of how it felt to be him, in the three years he spent as an adolescent in Rome, en route with his family from their old home in Alexandria to their new one in the USA. What he reminds me of in these two essays is a watchmaker, taking apart memory and experience, laying all the little pieces and parts before us, then putting them back together again. It’s quite an experience. Throughout the book, we are sharing the experience of Aciman being Aciman exploring these memories or visiting these places. He talks of ‘films’ – overlays and filters in front of the scene that he’s writing about. Gradually we can piece together what a uniquely layered heritage he brings to these essays. Right at the end, in his Afterword Parallax, only then does he lay out for us his own and his family’s history, all of which comes together to give him the cosmopolitan sensibility that infuses these essays. The easy thing for me would be to give you the potted version here, but it seems to me that there is such a deliberate structure to this collection that it would be inappropriate. I think he wants to reveal all this over time and the course of the book, then give us ‘the answers at the back’.
Aciman’s sensibility is multi-dimensional, made up of place and time. One of his filters is history, including his own heritage, and this makes his essays on places beautifully dense. An essay on Paris concentrates on the Place des Vosges, and through his eyes we see not only the modern day Parisians enjoying its beaty and atmosphere, but also its 17th century inhabitants, such as the aristocratic bluestockings les précieuses, with their philosopher, libertine, (failed) revolutionary lovers. Their disputations and duelling resonate down to the present day for Aciman. One evening, he sees a group of daring young men, roaring through the square on skateboards in the dark, scattering everyone with their acrobatic moves. He thinks of 17th century young bloods erupting into the square, swords drawn for a notorious duel.
I can hear the ring of rapiers being drawn, the yells of the frightened, everyone on the Place suddenly alert, peering out of their windows, petrified. I look out and try to imagine how the torches of the four swordsmen must have swung in pitch darkness that cold night in January 1614. How very, very long ago it seems, and yet – as I look at the lights across the park – it feels like yesterday. And like all visitors to the Place des Vosges, I wonder whether this is an instance of the present intruding into the past or the past forever repeated in the present. But then, it occurs to me, this is also why one comes to stay here for a week: not to forget the present, or to restore the past, but to forget that they are so profoundly different.
I love these little essays on different places in Europe, which have me seeing something new about them through his unique Aciman lens. He follows Monet to Bordighera on the Italian Riviera and finds with difficulty the shadowy remains of what he painted in the modern town. He returns to Barcelona with sadness, and reflects on how completely Spain had effaced all sign of its Jewish past, such that contemporary attempts to recover them misfire. When he goes to Venice he reflects not on the usual treasures of the archipelago, but on the 20th century phenomenon of the Lido, and he looks outward to the Adriatic, rather than inward to the Lagoon. Always there is something new to look at and share with Aciman.
So, Aciman’s essays were not easy reading at first, and it took a while to attune to his deeply personal style, but they are a wonderful new discovery for me. Another pleasure is that my paperback edition has the most elegant cover, attractively textured as well as illustrated, and the text is printed on lovely, flexible cream paper in an elegant font. It is only right that such a beautifully crafted and deeply thought writing has an appropriate setting.
André Aciman: Alibis. Essays On Elsewhere. Paperback edition New York: Picador, 2012. 200pp
ISBN 13: 9781250013989