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 …
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