False Papers

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Journeys to the Past: André Aciman’s Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere

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André Aciman is, by training, a scholar of Comparative Literature. He is part of the Comparative Lit faculty at the City University of New York Graduate Center, and he assembled The Proust Project, a volume comprised of prominent writers’ insights on passages from In Search of Lost Time. But Aciman is perhaps better known as a novelist, memoirist, and essayist. Memory, its endurance and mutability, rank high among his running concerns, which is fitting given his affinity for Proust. And while memory can seem stale when taken up by a lesser writer, in Aciman’s hands it seems fresh and complex once again.

Alibis follows one previous collection of essays by Aciman, False Papers, and a memoir, Out of Egypt. Early on in Alibis, he refers to himself as, “an exile from Alexandria, Egypt.” This exile began at fifteen, when his family emigrated to Italy, and continued one remove further at age nineteen, when they moved on to New York. On the occasion of Alibis, his project is ostensibly the result of his travels, and he does indeed treat readers to lengthy reflections on Rome, Barcelona, Paris, Tuscany, and New York, among other locales. But these are not simple city guides. They are personal, searching efforts, prompted by places which hold some mythic quality for the author, places which have figured prominently in his life. On traveling with his wife, Aciman writes, “I have no tolerance for monuments…I care nothing for small picturesque hill towns…The last thing she wants is to be reminded of home; I can’t wait to pick up remnants of mine.”

In fact, Aciman views the places he visits not with the wondering, landmark-seeking eye of a tourist, but with the speculative, assessing eye of a potential resident. In “Place de Vosges,” he writes, “I come to the Place de Vosges to make believe that I belong, that this could easily become my home.” A similar impulse is revealed when he writes that the “peculiar spell” of “this dreamy Tuscan landscape” is “to make you think that it’s yours forever.” He examines this habit at length in “The Contrafactual Traveler,” and concludes that, “I ‘connect’ not by saying, ‘Isn’t this lovely, picturesque hill town beautiful?’ but ‘Do I see myself living here?’” Curiously, he steps outside himself when considering New York (“New York, Luminous”), where he has lived for many years, instead imagining the reactions Walter Benjamin might have had, if only he “hurried and crossed the Pyrenees before the Nazis closed in on him.”

Place itself is a door to other concerns for Aciman – the role of memory in particular, as well as how we form our identities across years and experiences. If his concerns sound weighty, he balances them against a fluid, engaging style, one equally suited to handling painful memories and dear ones alike. He opens with “Lavender,” a memory piece organized around his relationship with scent. “Life begins somewhere with the scent of lavender,” he writes. “My father is standing in front of a mirror. He has just showered and shaved and is about to put on a shirt.” From there, Aciman traces his life through the scents he has worn. One fragrance recalls an evening when he met his mother downtown in Manhattan, while another is all he remembers of the woman who offered it as a gift, years earlier. Places return to him: Brattle Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts on a snowy evening; a tiny shop in Florence, where the walls are lined with tiny drawers, each holding a different scent. The fragrances also point up how far he has come and how much he remains unchanged. “Me at 16 and me at 32: twice the age and yet still nervous about calling a woman,” he writes, and later, “I had so much going for me at 34, why then was I longing to be who I’d been at 17?”

Throughout Alibis, Aciman uses his chosen subject matter as a means to examine himself. He is not a famous man, but his treatment of his assets and shortcomings is never less than even-handed. At times it verges on the hyper-critical. The most remarkable outcome is that this course of deliberate reflection on how we form memory prompts the same impulse in the reader. Aciman determinedly unravels the thread of memory, questioning even the factual accuracy of his own previously published accounts.

This course of questioning is perhaps the most curious, and initially the least felicitous, part of Alibis. Aciman refers to his own, previous work on several occasions, even quoting from it once, a choice which is initially jarring. In “Rue Delta,” he refers to an episode from Out of Egypt, his last walk in Cairo, which he had written previously as a time he shared with his brother. His retelling in the memoir casts him alone on the walk. This is not the first time Aciman has explored the dueling versions of the tale, but he goes a step further this time, teasing out the inventions common to each version. The snack he claims to have had? A fabrication, either as falafel sandwich or Ramadan pastry. His brother disappears from the latter version of the story, but a more significant revelation emerges – the walk so minutely examined, never occurred, alone or in company. But because Aciman’s control is so total, he manages to render irrelevant the question of whether he is lying in his first two accounts of the night; instead, the matter of how he fashioned his memories of Egypt ends up far more compelling. He recalls a return visit to Cairo in the mid-1990s, and a trip down Rue Delta, and finds himself unable to summon an image of the street at night without his brother in it. His “true” memories of the street are lost, and the fictionalized version now holds all the piquancy once contained by the storefronts and scenery which surrounded him daily in youth.

Alibis is a slim volume, but this is testament to Aciman’s economy of language, and the preciseness of his observations. Whether exploring the limitations of his faith in “Barcelona” and “Reflections of an Uncertain Jew,” or reflecting on the changed circumstances after his sons have all left for college in “Empty Rooms,” Aciman’s work is consistently thoughtful and unsentimental. Maintaining that tone, particularly on a series of journeys to the past, is no small feat. But André Aciman is a writer in full command of his powers. He meets these demands deftly, without breaking stride. Alibis is a quiet, unassuming triumph. All that’s left is to wonder where Aciman will take us next.

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