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Wake Up and Dream

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Dominique Nabokov
The statue of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, in Straus Park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where the narrator of André Aciman’s new novel pauses every night to think about his elusive friend Clara

1.

Eight White Nights certainly possesses what one might call the courage of its aesthetics. André Aciman is an award-winning novelist (Call Me by Your Name), a memoirist of distinction (Out of Egypt), and an essayist known for his lush, evocative prose. He spent his early childhood in Alexandria, Egypt, before his cosmopolitan Jewish family moved first to Rome and Paris, and then Manhattan. Now a teacher of comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Aciman specializes in the work of Marcel Proust.

This will hardly surprise anyone who reads the opening paragraph of Eight White Nights:

Halfway through dinner, I knew I’d replay the whole evening in reverse—the bus, the snow, the walk up the tiny incline, the cathedral looming straight before me, the stranger in the elevator, the crowded large living room where candelit faces beamed with laugher and premonition, the piano music, the singer with the throaty voice, the scent of pinewood everywhere as I wandered from room to room, thinking that perhaps I should have arrived much earlier tonight, or a bit later, or that I shouldn’t have come at all, the classic sepia etchings on the wall by the bathroom where a swinging door opened to a long corridor to private areas not intended for guests but took another turn toward the hallway and then, by miracle, led back into the same living room, where more people had gathered, and where, turning to me by the window where I thought I’d found a quiet spot behind the large Christmas tree, someone suddenly put out a hand and said, “I am Clara.”

Of course, long sentences alone don’t necessarily shout Proust. But a certain kind of elaborate simile is characteristic of In Search of Lost Time—and of Eight White Nights. Consider, as a template, this concise example from Aciman:

I…was forced to set the bottles down as furtively and as timorously, next to the swinging kitchen doors, as if they were twin orphans being deposited outside a rich man’s doorstep before the guilty mother skulks away into the anonymous night.
After reading a succession of these sometimes charming but often labored analogies, unsympathetic readers are likely to grumble, “My dear Professor Aciman, you’ve been spending too much time on The Proust Project. You really should get out more.” But carry on past the first chapter. Give the novel a chance. After all, one sign that a work of art may endure lies in its author’s refusal to play it safe. The laurels go to the audacious, and Aciman is certainly that.

Eight White Nights is a bravura re-creation of all the feints and counterfeints, yearnings and frustrations, of modern courtship. It possesses the psychological acuity and intensity one associates not just with Proust but also with Dostoevsky (its title and serial structure pay homage to “White Nights,” his story of overly tentative love).

The first chapter opens on a bibulous Christmas Eve party among well-to-do young people on Central Park West. Nearly a hundred pages long, it recalls the similarly detailed accounts of Madame Verdurin’s soirees in Proust. In the course of those pages our hero and Clara trade quips, tease each other, use made-up words (“pandangst,” “otherpeoples,” “amphibalent”), and cuttingly mock the more bourgeois guests. Soon our hyperconscious narrator is utterly smitten. Clara’s feelings are more…uncertain. She’s clearly flirting with him, but to what end? He obsessively parses the secret meaning of her every word and action, while already daydreaming about how he will one day think back upon this moment and remember how Clara’s suede shoe looked when she kicked the snow from the terrace. This is worrisome.

Like characters in an early Woody Allen comedy, the two agree to meet the next evening at a movie theater, where an Eric Rohmer festival is playing during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. They will, in fact, keep meeting there, then adjourning to a local bar, evening after evening after evening, as their relationship deepens and evolves.

Not that just a few hours at night is enough for either of them. They drive out to the country in Clara’s BMW to spend an afternoon with an elderly musicologist and his wife. Another day they lunch at an Italian restaurant. They constantly leave voice-mail messages when, as often happens, their cell phones have been deliberately turned off in either anger or despair. Our narrator eventually visits Clara’s apartment and she visits his. They have tea. There are quarrels and he mopes and they reconcile and then he mopes some more.

Clara, who has recently broken up with a boyfriend nicknamed Inky, keeps insisting that she is “lying low,” code for not yet ready for a serious new relationship. So every night after walking her home, the nameless hero—racked with either yearning or jealousy or both—pauses in Straus Park on the Upper West Side next to the statue of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, to moon over this elusive, vexatious woman. With each day, too, the sexual tension between them grows ever more intense: Is tonight the night? Will they or won’t they? Will they ever?

That, in essence, is the plot of Eight White Nights. While other characters appear, such as the narrator’s widowed mother and his divorced friend Rachel, the book never swerves for long from its microscopic examination of the protagonist’s psychology and the dynamics of this strangely tentative relationship.

While Aciman’s models, Proust and Dostoevsky, are both expert at depicting and skewering social dynamics, their real power derives from the intensity of their regard. They sink us deep into the troubled psyches of their obsessed and fanatic heroes. Many readers have observed that one may start by reading In Search of Lost Time or Crime and Punishment, but one ends up by living them.

This, too, is Aciman’s triumph. His portrait of the narrator recreates all the sweet sickness of desire and jealousy, of boundless uncertainty and procrastination that is Proust’s special province. One thinks naturally of Swann and the Botticelli-like beauty Odette de Crécy or Proust’s narrator and the unfortunate Albertine. Yet Clara, it turns out, is far less elusive than our narrator, as she gradually reveals herself as a woman who is brutally honest with herself and others, knows her own mind, and speaks it. What she sees in the protagonist is never quite clear, though as Marilynne Robinson wrote in her novel Gilead, with an insight that Proust would have approved: “Love is holy because it is like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.” Clara goes at life with gusto, while her muddled suitor doesn’t seem to know what he really wants; she does. When they go to the country, she drives.

2.

Surely Aciman also knows what he wants as a novelist. But some readers will need to make a concerted effort to sympathize with his idiosyncratic artistry. His prose, while not difficult, is rococo: sentences unwind like pythons, there are far-fetched and overextended similes, tenses shift frequently from the present to the future conditional to the past perfect to the future anterior. Look again at the opening paragraph, in which the speaker recalls the past and speaks of remembering how he knew he would look forward to the moment when he could look back on this first meeting with Clara. Such a style convincingly recreates not just the usual roil of consciousness, but also the hyperconsciousness of a young man who persistently fails to live “in the moment.” For the reader, such prose can lead to momentary confusions—probably intended—in distinguishing among the actual, the imagined, the hoped for, and the remembered.

Aciman takes a second risk in making his hero and heroine seem, at least initially, spoiled, smug, and unlikable. Neither appears to have a job, and theirs is a world where hallways are lined with Athanasius Kircher prints and people are named Hans, Orla, Tito, Olaf, and Rollo. The mysterious Clara is described by the man in her thrall as “flighty, arrogant, prickly, caustic, mean, dangerous, maybe perfect.” By contrast, the narrator comes across as a sad sack dreamer, out of Clara’s league, as well as “a visibly self-tormented, insecure, prone-to-self-hatred, depressive type you’d never think of leaving alone before an open window on the eleventh floor.”
Fans of Aciman may quite understandably wonder how much the protagonist is a portrait of the artist as a young man. In several autobiographical essays, in particular “A Celestial Omnibus,” “Shadow Cities,” and “Pensione Eolo” (all in False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory), Aciman explicitly alludes to many of the very same details and events used in his novel—Straus Park, its statue of Memory, the M5 bus, and a woman he met at a cocktail party in precisely this neighborhood. In his life of Proust, George Painter interpreted In Search of Lost Time as enhanced autobiography, as a roman à clef. Should the narrator of Eight White Nights be called André, just as Aciman in his scholarly essays refers to Proust’s all-but-nameless narrator as Marcel?

Whatever the case, Aciman’s protagonist is extremely well read and his hoped-for girlfriend not only stunning but also something of a bluestocking, a former music major who at one point casually launches into Monteverdi’s “Pur ti miro.” Showing off one’s intellectual bona fides at a party is certainly common enough and even typical of the young or insecure. But the twenty-four-year-old Clara and her twenty-eight-year-old admirer sometimes talk as if they had never left the confines of the library, concert hall, museum, and art-house cinema, except for their sojourns in Europe. They often sound like a pair of competitive, middle-aged college professors. They know Handel sarabandes and that both Nostradamus and Van Gogh once lived in Saint-Rémy, and they can identify “a false, chamfered pillar with a Corinthian-style topstone,” and they can casually recall the number of Don Giovanni’s lovers according to Leporello’s aria. Not just those in Spain—that would be too easy.

Yet Eight White Nights contains no mention of current—or any other—politics, no reference to popular songs or television programs, and no examples of contemporary slang, apart from Clara’s refusal to answer “Door number three” questions. No one uses e-mail or the Internet, though people carry cell phones: at one point Clara even sends the paradoxical text message, “One day I’m going to have to send you a text message.” So are we or aren’t we in the twenty-first century? I suspect that the events of the story, though supposedly contemporary, are actually drawn from the author’s memories of thirty or forty years ago. But even then would a young man have referred to a young woman as a “floozy” or a young woman grumble, in frustration, “Hang it”? The novel seems to be set in a rarefied Neverland New York, largely populated by the rich, idle, and sophisticated—who are, believe it or not, watched over by kindly Irish cops.

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