The streets of Boston call out for tales of explorers and settlers — especially the streets surrounding Harvard Square. Even though the cobblestones of the colonial era are now paved over, the promise of settlement and self-improvement is evident everywhere. The buildings set in copper-colored brick that manage to be both imposing and cozy and the pastoral setting within Harvard Yard carry with them the promise that education transforms environment. By entering the sacred ground of the university, you are entering a realm where books, information, can make the difference between a mediocre present and an extraordinary future. It’s interesting, therefore, with so much mythical promise in its most famous institution, that so few narratives about Harvard have ever been told from the non-elite, unassimilated experience.
Such a void is, finally and wonderfully, filled by Andre Aciman’s brilliant new novel. Harvard Squareis a novel of education and isolation, sad and funny and sure to provoke nostalgia for anyone’s college years. Though the narrative is framed in flashback, the majority of it takes place in the late 1970s, as our unnamed narrator, a Jew from Alexandria, struggles to complete his PhD in English literature at Harvard. (Aciman shares much of his narrator’s backstory.) He has already failed his graduate exams once, and though he wishes to complete his degree and become a professor in the States, he finds himself easily distracted by the lives around him, the neighbors he meets but dares not befriend, and the many beautiful young students to whom he’d never utter a word. While poring over his books at Café Algiers (a Middle-Eastern coffeehouse in Harvard Square, a real institution to both students and locals), he meets Kalaj (short for “Kalashnikov”), a hot-tempered, passionate cab driver from Tunis with a rapid-fire wit and temper, coming out in streams of French, Arabic, and English, depending on how much coffee or wine’s he’d had.
And what a figure to follow when you feel all alone: with Aciman’s florid descriptions and sharp, vivid dialogue, Kalaj quickly becomes the most compelling American cultural critic since Alex Perchov in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. Kalaj criticizes everything about American culture, lambasting everyone for being “jumbo-ersatz,” all artificial, worthless, and consumed in bulk. And yet Kalaj is not a naysaying Bartleby, but rather possessing of a keen wit and a charisma that puts everyone around him to shame. The narrator is immediately drawn to Kalaj as his brother in unassimilated arms, except that Kalaj expresses himself in all the ways the narrator thinks he cannot. He may not have a degree, or even a full-time job, but he’s not a phony. “He was in-your-face; I waited till your back was turned. He stood for nothing, took no prisoners, lambasted everyone. I tolerated everybody without loving a single one.”
In a neighborhood of overeducated elites, Kalaj is the wise fool whose skills can’t be learned by going back to Widener library. Kalaj knows how to win arguments, find cheap booze whenever necessary, make a fun afternoon on a few dollars, and most importantly, how to bait women, to pick them as if in a game of penny poker. With Kalaj, “seduction was not pushing people into things they did not wish to do. Seduction was just keeping the pennies coming. If you ran out, then, like a magician, you twirled your fingers and pulled one out from behind her left ear and, with this touch of humor, brought laughter into the mix.” Kalaj scoffs at the lauded literary history of Massachusetts, the art of leaf peeping, the isolation of Walden Pond. He finds beauty, and pleasure, in engaging with his fellow immigrants, in debating at Café Algiers with the narrator about woman, music, wine, what makes a man a man. Café Algiers becomes, in Kalaj’s words, Chez Nous, a respite from the university just a few streets away. “It was not always easy to step out of Café Algiers after such an interlude in our imaginary Mediterranean café by the beach and walk over to Harvard,” the narrator recounts. “But, on those torrid mornings with the blinding sun in our eyes, it seemed constellations and light years away.”
And yet the narrator never gives back to his teacher Kalaj — for, like all students, the teacher is merely a footnote in the greater education. While Kalaj’s charisma drives the story, Aciman gives us almost no details about what Kalaj wants except to impart his own wisdom; we only know him by what he means to the narrator. Kalaj drives his cab around Boston, clearing enough money to keep the nights at Café Algiers going, yet he pursues nothing permanent — even after the narrator sets him up with an adjunct professor gig teaching French at Harvard, he eventually argues himself out of the position. All the while, the narrator fears being found out for clinging to Kalaj as a convenient friend, a fellow immigrant in a strange town, making “fallback fellowship in a fallback city filled with fallback lives.” The narrator switches codes constantly, between touting his Harvard pedigree to attract potential girlfriend, and committing Kalaj’s philosophies of seduction to memory. Kalaj’s curriculum cannot be reconciled with the narrator’s professional goals. After breaking up with a woman he’d just begun to love, the narrator wonders:
Why had I even started with her? To be with someone instead of no one? To be like [Kalaj]? Or had I already always been like him, but in so different a guise that it was just as easy to think us poles apart? The Arab and the Jew, the ill-tempered and the mild-mannered, the irascible and the forbearing, the this and the that. And yet, we came from the same mold, choked in the same way, and in the same way, lashed back, then ran away.
In this friendship, simpatico and yet fundamentally unequal, Aciman has built a bildungsroman on what a university education might mean: equal parts lazy-day reading on rooftops, fevered debates in crowded cafes, one-night stands and unkept promises, half-learned lessons in masculinity, both academic and anarchistic. It should be no surprise that the novel is not called “Harvard,” but instead takes its name from the slightly larger realm of the square itself, encompassing both the academy and its side alleys. And Aciman seems to understand this better than anyone: that wisdom might be sought anywhere, so long as the mind is impressionable and there are long, argumentative, passionate teachers to hold forth. I had plenty of terrific professors in college, but never one quite like Kalaj, and upon closing Harvard Square, I had to wonder if I was at fault for never seeking out the teachers whose office hours were harder to find.