Down and Out in Cambridge

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Magnum Photos
A café in Tunis, Tunisia; photograph by Harry Gruyaert

“For a child in love with maps and engravings,” Baudelaire wrote in “Le Voyage,” “the universe is equal to his vast appetite./Ah, how the world is great by lamplight!/Through the eyes of memory the world is small.”*

That is not how it has usually been in the work of André Aciman. His lost childhood, lovingly and subtly evoked in his memoir Out of Egypt (1994), far from diminishing over time, only grew richer in color and texture and more desirable. Aciman’s large family, Jews of Turkish and Italian origin established since 1905 in Alexandria, had prospered in their Egypt, their eccentric members leading lives of charmed privilege. As described by Aciman, their world invites comparison with that of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.

Home, wealth, and privileges were swept away by the paroxysms of virulent anti-Semitism unleashed by the Nasser revolution and the military intervention by the United Kingdom, France, and Israel that followed in 1956 after the nationalization of the Suez Canal. Like almost all Egyptian Jews, the Acimans went into exile, expelled or strongly nudged to leave, some members of the family taking refuge in Italy, others in France. Aciman and his parents were among the last to depart. They left in 1965, initially for Rome, their sojourn there intertwined with visits to Paris where the father found employment. At the beginning of the 1970s, they settled in New York City. Aciman graduated from Lehman College and went on to obtain a Ph.D. at Harvard University. He is now a distinguished professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, teaching among others courses on the literature of memory and exile and on Marcel Proust.

Aciman has been a prolific writer of essays, continuing to chart in them, as in the collection False Papers (2000), his chosen territory of nostalgia and loss. In addition to Harvard Square, his new novel, he has written two others: Call Me by Your Name (2007) and Eight White Nights (2010). The first begins as a sort of reconstitution of the lost easeful world of Alexandria. Readers of Aciman’s essays—for example, “In Search of Blue,” “Square Lamartine,” or “Pensione Eolo”—know how wrenching it was for the teenager to find that his parents and he had fallen on hard times, and how much he missed the Mediterranean douceur de vivre: the days spent at a beach easily reached from the terrace of the parental house, the salt flavor to be showered off one’s skin after a swim in the sea, the spicy foods, the well-trained and discreet servants, a society in which money was not mentioned in quotidian discourse for the simple reason that it was quietly and abundantly available.

Call Me by Your Name is a return to that world, transposed and reimagined. We are in a luxurious seaside villa, complete with family retainers, in an unnamed Italian seaside town, belonging …

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  1. *

    Pour l’enfant, amoureux de cartes et d’estampes,
    L’univers est égal à son vaste appétit.
    Ah! que le monde est grand à la clarté des lampes!
    Aux yeux du souvenir que le monde est petit!