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.
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.
But as Aciman’s couple agrees at one point: Who says art needs to be realistic? And of course, for the freshly enamored, the wide world really is reduced to the self and the other. Alas, though, the solipsistic narrator clearly suffers as his consciousness short- circuits his feelings. He’s always planning, always playing games, striking attitudes, wondering whether, on meeting Clara, he should “hide the joy—show the joy—show you’re hiding the joy—show you’re showing every last strain of joy.” It’s no accident that he takes her to Eric Rohmer films. As he tells Clara:
Rohmer’s men talk a good game around love, the better to tame their desires, their fears. They overanalyze things, as though analysis might open up the way to feeling, is a form of feeling, is better than feeling. In the end, they crave the small things, having given up on the big ones.
Overanalysis, vacillation, ironic role-playing (whether as pallid Werther or rakish Don Juan), an obscure air of self-pity—such is the romantic’s agony. Living so much in his head, the narrator prefers to face the world through dreams, vague hopes, wishes, and, more often than not, literary quotations. For instance, he doesn’t talk about a former love affair directly but instead refers to it as the time he spent in the “rose garden.” While Aciman expects his reader to pick up the associations of that phrase—mainly, but not entirely, T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets—he also means for us to recognize that its speaker is using poetry as a way to distance himself from life and emotion.
At one period of crisis, the verse-allusions proliferate, so that over the course of four pages, one keeps bumping up against them:
They just glittered like party sparklers across the city, bringing neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.
All these words words words….
Hieronimo doesn’t know. Hieronimo won’t tell.
floors measureless to man….
These bits and pieces—and there are others—derive from, respectively, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” Hamlet, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (perhaps out of Eliot’s The Waste Land), and Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” In their original contexts, they are all associated with moments of the deepest despair.
Any good English major—our narrator was doubtless an A student—would know these references and might naturally turn to them for solace in a time of pain. Nonetheless, those who read a lot must occasionally wonder whether these characters have ever experienced an unmediated emotion or had an original thought in their lives. Aciman’s protagonist draws on Spenser’s “Sweet Thames, run softly,” Keats’s “sedge has withered by the lake,” Hopkins’s grieving Margaret of “Spring and Fall,” and any number of other passages that can be found in The Norton Anthology of English Literature. At times one wants to shout at this self-tormenting, palely loitering knight to take to heart the lines of Wordsworth he does not mention:
Enough of science and of art;
Close up these barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
And then there’s Proust—a dangerous model for any writer. Too often his shadow falls between the reader and Aciman’s story. His distinctive style has such power that even a hint of its ghostly presence can overwhelm any other prose. Sometimes we feel the master’s vampire touch or hear his languid voice in just the rhythm of Aciman’s sentences:
The inadvertent misspelling on a paper napkin, the name hastily plunked down in the cold, the intentional absence of a surname to show we’re not so sure we’ll call—all these are not just mark- ers of inner diffidence and hesitation along the twisted path to others, they are also loopholes in every exaltation, the shallow wetlands we leave behind for speedy backtracking.
Compare that passage, especially the opening phrases up to the dash, to its briefer analogue in the Scott-Moncrieff translation of In Search of Lost Time:
An absence, the decline of an invitation, an unintentional coldness, can accomplish more than all the cosmetics and beautiful dresses in the world.
When does homage become fealty? When do echoes risk drowning out an author’s own voice? Aciman once wrote in an essay on Proust, “Where else but on paper does a man, desperately seeking a woman among millions in Paris, actually bump into her on the streets very late at night?” Near the end of Eight White Nights, the narrator—desperate to see Clara—almost literally bumps into her in front of a Starbucks on 60th Street and Broadway Aciman then packs this coffee shop with all the major characters in his book and a few minor ones, rather as if it were a Big Apple version of the final Guermantes party at the end of In Search of Lost Time.
Aciman’s rhetorical figures, though, are the most troubling aspect of this Proust-suffused novel. While the French master uses his “like” and “as if” comparisons with tender grace, as Vinteuil uses the “little phrase” in his music, Aciman’s metaphorical turns all too often seem excessive, pretentious, rebarbative. Here are just three representative examples:
Staying put like Hopper’s people, sitting upright at a slight distance from things like jittery lemurs scoping out an all-too-familiar landscape called life with neither interest nor indifference.
How serene and silent the snow—candid snow, I thought, thinking back to Pokorny’s reconstruction of the Indo-European root of the word: *kand—to shine, to kindle, to glow, to flare, from which we get incense and incandescent. There was more candor in snow than in me.
I was devastated. 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.
This last, improbable as it may sound, appears at the emotional climax of the novel.
Could such similes be intended for laughs? Is Aciman mocking his dilatory intellectual hero, likely, at least in some aspects, his younger self? Certainly Eight White Nights is full of quips and repartee, but at heart there’s nothing inherently comic about it. Yet how then should one react to the following: “He was merely responding to her tongue, swooning under its fierce, invasive fire, like a baby bird lapping its feed from its mother’s bill”? To be kind, that’s certainly vivid, if a bit surreal, even as the following is abstract and a shade pontifical: “She had spoken of him with a grievance that seemed to reach into the present from a past tense that could any moment claim to have a future.”
Such unnatural, overdecorated prose can be challenging, to say the least. Yet in spite of the literary quotations, the elaborate syntax, the Proustian shadow, and the desperate originality of its figures of speech, Eight White Nights keeps the reader utterly transfixed: How will it all turn out? Clara, in particular, wins our esteem as far more than the pallid Eurotrash version of Odette de Crécy she at first seems to be. She’s genuine, true to what she feels; she demands respect and honesty; she gives back passion and loyalty and love. In a magnificent speech she bluntly compares her feelings for the narrator with his for her:
I care for you. Call it what you will—love, if it pleases you. You, however, just want to get me out of your system, and if mistaking this for love helps you, you’ll call it love. I want you in my system, not out. I know what I want from you and I know what I have to give for it. You haven’t got the foggiest idea what you want and certainly not what you’re ready to offer. You haven’t thought that far, because your mind isn’t really interested—your ego, yes, and your body, maybe, but the rest of you, not a clue. All you’ve been giving me so far is the hurt, sorry puppy face and the same unasked question in your gaze each time there’s a pause between us. You think it’s love. It’s not. What I have is real and it’s not going away. That’s what I have to say. Now can I go?
The narrator, however, remains problematic to the very end. Strip away his soppy romanticism and he often seems fundamentally no different from other young men: he’s eager for a good time in bed with an attractive female body. But Clara wants to be valued for herself. As she rightly complains, “It’s never really me men want, just someone like me.” In a way, then, this novel is about the education of the protagonist, how he is given the chance to learn to appreciate another as she deserves, to treat Clara as an end in herself rather than as a “belle dame sans merci” or casual bedmate.
And he does need such teaching: on the very night that he meets Clara, he doesn’t hesitate to fondle a virtual stranger while in the cloak room. Even near the end, he starts to flirt with a woman in a toystore, who he concludes would be far more docile than the whirlwind Clara. In between these two mini-betrayals, the preening narrator reveals that after a night of sex with Clara, he’ll just coldheartedly depart the next morning. Ciao, cara, it was swell. That too is part of the paradox of Proustian love: what one possesses, one no longer desires.
Worse yet, as Clara observes, our narrator may actually prefer self-centered adolescent pining to either sex or true companionship. As she says, “You grew to love the waiting more than the love you waited for.” Little wonder that when he analyzes his favorite Beethoven quartet, Aciman’s protagonist emphasizes that the music suggests to him “deferral and distended time, a grace period that never expires and that comes like memory.” This self-absorbed ninny even wonders “which part I liked best, spending the entire day with Clara or coming all alone here to think of the Clara I’d just spent the entire day with.” He admits that he likes his “fantasies more than the people I fantasize about.” Eventually, though, this mixed-up young man experiences what anthropologists call ritual death, and from it seems to be reborn, finally beginning to recognize that this extraordinary woman is worth more than passing lust or picturesque Sehnsucht or anticipatory wistfulness. He starts down the path to putting an end to his “counterfactual” life.
In Barry Targan’s superb short story “The Rags of Time,” an aging professor reads Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” to his undergraduate mistress. He then asks her what the poem is about and she sweetly answers “sex.” No, the weary-hearted teacher answers, it’s clearly about death, about the poet’s fear of his own mortality. The obvious plot of Eight White Nights focuses on a nascent love affair, yet throughout, like a barely perceived ostinato, there’s been sounding quietly the theme of old age, missed opportunities, mortality. Clara’s parents were killed in a car accident while she was in college; her elderly mentor is worried about upcoming surgery; the narrator’s unhappy, dissatisfied father has died only the year before. As his son honestly confesses, “I don’t want to end up like my father with dreams of love and of a better life he’d been robbed of.”
Following his moment of existential crisis, the narrator goes to see his widowed mother, who reveals that she is about to renew contact with a man from her past, clearly the love of her life. What was the bond between them? he asks. Laughter, she says. “Laughter. That’s what we had.” This breaks down the final dam within, for from the very beginning Clara and the narrator have laughed together, joked, and carried on at times like children. From this point on our new-born hero realizes that he can finally speak of love, the word he has hitherto dodged time and again.
In the best books, faults are soon forgiven. As Stendhal famously observed of love, once we fall for a woman, even her tics and flaws seem beautiful. A novel, too, may foster a similar kind of crystallization. By the second or third of the white nights, I could still see all the things that bothered me about Aciman’s writing, but they began to seem increasingly unimportant. I was caught up by the unfolding story. The narrator’s anguish was my own. Clara grew more and more wonderful. In short, there was no resisting the book’s artistic power and truthfulness and intensity. In a sense, André Aciman has written what one might call a high-maintenance novel, demanding that the reader submit to its recondite fancies and petulant ways, but in return giving back all those unforgettable nights.
June 10, 2010