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Down and Out in Cambridge

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 to a rich Jewish professor of indeterminate nationality who invites American graduate students for prolonged stays in the summer. The narrator is Elio, the professor’s son. Like everyone in this novel except perhaps the servants, Elio is preternaturally learned; for the moment, he is busy transcribing for the guitar Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ. At the drop of a pin, he quotes from the Divina Commedia and plays Bach, with or without Liszt’s or Busoni’s gloss.

That particular summer’s visiting graduate student is Oliver, seven years older than Elio. With speed that may seem surprising, this being Elio’s first experience of homosexual love, he and Oliver embark on an affair, the carnal aspects of which are described with some precision, that they carry on at the family home and during a short trip to Rome. The pair are discreet but the father isn’t fooled, and toward the end of the novel, after Oliver has gone back to the US, he gives Elio advice of the “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” variety that in the circumstances seems both startlingly broadminded and banal. You had a beautiful friendship, he tells the son, remember that hearts and bodies are given to us only once.

The setting of Aciman’s second novel, Eight White Nights, is very different. It’s Christmas, and we are on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, among rich German Jews. Instead of the sudden and shared incandescent sexual passion of two young men, we have anomie. Otherwise, one is tempted to say, it’s pretty much the same deal: two ultra-cultivated characters engage in conversations peppered with graduate student puns and other linguistic inventions, disquisitions on musical form, and literary allusions caught on the fly; when the chatter stops, its place is taken by the narrator’s circular exegeses of what has been said and held back. An Eric Rohmer retrospective is in progress at a cinema on upper Broadway. The nameless twenty-eight-year-old narrator and the object of his stunted desire, twenty-two-year-old Clara, are in faithful attendance.

Their eight nights—white because of the snow, because of the exhaustingly late hours the couple keeps, and probably because of the Dostoevsky novella “White Nights,” the title of which the narrator conveniently drops—begin on Christmas Eve, when they meet at an opulent party given by Clara’s friends; it would seem that New Year’s Eve, the eighth night, will find them in the same apartment at a party given by the same couple. Will the narrator and Clara end up in bed? One thinks that he would like that, and that she would as well, but on the fifth night comes a bigger than usual bump in the road: invited by Clara to come up to her apartment, after a long evening of cinema, dinner, and many single-malt scotches, he tells her it’s “too soon, too sudden, too fast.” He doesn’t want to “mess this up.”

Curiously, after all the talk and the narrator’s efforts to analyze Clara, we know very little about either of them. She has a rich and beautifully trained voice, she has written a master’s thesis on a subject related to music, she is an orphan with lovely skin who wears daringly unbuttoned shirts, she drives a little silver BMW, she brings “nips” of Oban whiskey to the movies, and, like the narrator, she is unemployed. There is a studio in the narrator’s apartment and his cleaning lady has been told not to touch his papers. Perhaps he is a writer, but for the moment his occupations consist of having breakfast at a Greek diner, talking to Clara, and mulling over what they’ve said to each other and its likely consequences. Money is no problem for the narrator: when Clara and he picnic on the Oriental rug in his apartment she makes avocado, ham, and cheese panini for him, “but there was caviar too”; she insists on spreading it on the sour cream herself.

Marcel Proust being Aciman’s literary hero and avowed master, one may be forgiven for thinking of Call Me by Your Name, an elegy for a way of life reminiscent of Alexandria and for a real or imagined lost love, as a homage to Le temps retrouvé. But what is one to make of the self-consciously Proustian hithering and thithering of the narrator’s desires and abdications, synesthetic impressions, and allusions in Eight White Nights? For instance, the sound of ice crunching under the snow, as the narrator trudges up the service road off Riverside Drive,

made [him] think of Capra’s Bedford Falls and Van Gogh’s Saint-Rémy, and of Leipzig and Bach choirs and how the slightest accidents sometimes open up new worlds, new buildings, new people, unveiling sudden faces we know we’ll never want to lose. Saint-Rémy, the town where Nostradamus and Van Gogh walked the same sidewalk, the seer and the madman crossing paths, centuries apart, just a nod hello.

Or such similes as

I felt hurt, exposed, embittered, embarrassed, like a crawfish whose shell has been slit with a lancet and removed but whose bared, gnarled body is being held out for everyone to see before being thrown back naked into the water to be laughed at and shamed by its peers.

Is Aciman’s second novel intended on some level to be a retelling of the love of Proust’s narrator for Albertine? If so, one of Aciman’s successes is that, like Albertine, Clara is irresistible for the romantically inclined reader. Is the detachment from material needs and preoccupations the wish fulfillment of an exile remembering the lost affluence of Alexandria, or a strangely unironic pastiche of the French fin de siècle bourgeoisie satirized by Proust?

Aciman’s third novel, Harvard Square, is almost aggressively autobiographical. The narrator has been taking his seventeen-year-old son to visit liberal arts colleges and now, it being early summer, they’re in Cambridge, at the Harvard College admissions office, waiting for an official welcoming speech to the applicants. One supposes that because the narrator would like his son to attend Harvard he has made it the last port of call. The situation is complicated, because the son would like to “split”; he is “so not into this.” Moreover, the father’s “love” for Harvard is no simple business. He had a rocky time there, as an “outsider, the young man from Alexandria, Egypt, forever baffled and eager to belong in this strange New World.”

He finds that state of mind, loving Harvard after he had left it, even though his memories of it are not idyllic, hard to explain “to a seventeen-year-old without destroying the carousel of images I’d shared with him since his pre-school days.” Never mind the oddity of sharing college memories with a four- or five-year-old; the memories are at once hackneyed and strangely inauthentic:

Cambridge on rainy afternoons with friends, or in a blizzard when things went on as usual and the days seemed shorter and festive and all you wanted to imagine was tethered horses waiting to take you to Ethan Frome places; the Square abuzz on Friday nights; Harvard during reading period in mid-January—coffee, more coffee, and the perpetual patter of typewriters everywhere; or Lowell House on the last days of reading period in the spring, when students lounged about for hours on the grass, speaking softly, their voices muffled by the sounds of early summer.

Being taken by tethered horses to Ethan Frome places must be a first in Harvard and Cambridge annals, but there is much more that’s off-key in the account of this father-and-son visit. Perhaps the most comical exchange during this sentimental pilgrimage comes when they are at Lowell House, one of the river residences. As they contemplate the red-brick faux-Georgian structure, the father asks the son, “Didn’t [the house] remind him of a turn-of-the-century grand hotel on the Riviera?” The kid’s answer is spot on: “It’s a college dorm.”

The narrator does tell his son as they stand outside Café Algiers, a Brattle Street coffee shop that had been his hangout, that he ran into someone there one summer “who came so close to altering the course of my life that today I might not even be my son’s father.” The boy is “more than mildly miffed,” and the narrator explains that there had been days during his graduate studies when he would have wished to leave not just Harvard but the US:

  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!

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