Progress through Enigma Variations, André Aciman’s fourth novel, is best calculated not by the number of pages read, but by the strength of readerly connection with the narrator. The project is one of recognition and revelation within the reader: the book wants nothing less than the dissolution of your consciousness into its pixellated moments of psychological precision.
The novel opens with Paul, at 22, returning to the small Italian island town San Giustiniano, where he and his family had spent his childhood summers until he was 12 and where, crucially, he first fell in love. The object of his affection was an older man, a carpenter named Giovanni, or “Nanni,” a name that “meant far, far more” to Paul “than it did to anyone else.” During his visit Paul investigates the mysterious burning of his family’s summer home by the locals and in the process uncovers an open family secret, a revelation that resituates his feelings toward his father, Nanni, and himself. “We love only once in our lives,” Paul’s father told him as a boy, “sometimes too early, sometimes too late, the other times are always a touch deliberate.” Through Aciman’s smooth layering of time, we witness both Paul’s pure first love and how it has aged. This initial section also sets the stage for what’s to come: four sections, each centered on a different lover in Paul’s post-San Giustiniano life.
The novel’s title refers, at least in part, to Edward Elgar’s opus 36, Variations on an Original Theme — popularly known as the Enigma Variations — in which the composer sketched a series of variations on a theme, each representing some aspect of a real-life friend from within Elgar’s inner circle. It’s a subtle way of toying with genre, of puncturing the fictional membrane — or suggesting that’s what’s happening — to let in some nonfiction. Maybe the characters are pulled from Aciman’s life, maybe not, but the title invites such speculation, which, if anything, amplifies the novel’s photorealism. Other writers have played with this conceit (one of the most thrilling recent examples I’ve read is Laurent Binet in HHhH), but the literary progenitor here — and not just in this respect — is, of course, Marcel Proust.
Loneliness, fear of shame, unrequited love light these pages. At a dinner party in the third section, beset with desire for Manfred, a man Paul sees at the tennis courts and in the locker room but with whom he’s hardly shared a full sentence, Paul thinks, “what if each of us at this very table is a monsoon-ravaged island trying to look its best, with all of our coconut trees bending to the winds till hopelessness breaks their back and you can hear each one crash,” because, after all, “we’re each waiting for someone’s voice to tear us out of our bleak and battered husk and say, Follow me, Brother, follow me.” Here and throughout, the minute mapping of Paul’s shifting emotions convinces and compels. What Wyatt Mason in The Proust Project, a collection of essays inspired by In Search of Lost Time and edited by Aciman, has said of Proust holds true for Enigma Variations: “[E]ven as we move forward, we grow no closer to the end than we were at the beginning.” Depth, not breadth, is the treasure, and grasping after the ungraspable present along with Paul becomes the point of the quest itself.
That said, the third section, “Manfred,” grows a little tedious. Unlike Aciman’s steamy first novel Call Me by Your Name, most of the skin-to-skin contact in Enigma Variations occurs in the narrator’s head, and in “Manfred,” Paul wallows longwindedly in the agony of delayed avowal. But this section also reveals something at the heart of Paul’s character: he’s happiest in the throes of yearning after new love because he knows that acquisition never leads to contentment. Obsessing over his feelings for Manfred, Paul thinks, “The circuit is always the same: from attraction to tenderness to obsessive longing, and then to surrender, desuetude, apathy, fatigue, and finally scorn.” Familiarity is the come-down; Paul’s drug is feeling itself, the more intense the better.
When Paul finally screws up the courage to come out to Manfred, he pulls out his phone and shows the man a picture of his 12-year-old self and says, “This is who is speaking to you now. Earnest, horny, so scared.” Love, infatuation, desire — these most powerful of feelings, this novel says — reduce and enlarge us in ways that are wonderfully juvenescent, at once simplifying and magnifying the world.
And complicating Paul’s romantic desire is his need, seemingly always, for two others — that is, if character A, the new inamorato, is seen as the destination, and he himself is B, then there seems always to be a need for C, an old lover, as the necessary starting point. What Paul becomes is the span between them. The cuckolded catalysts all seem okay with their status (Manfred in particular moves surprisingly smoothly from A to C), and in this manner the novel defers any overused tension around infidelity. Paul’s focus isn’t on the repercussions from leaving an old lover as much as it is on savoring the possibilities of new love.
Intriguingly, as we witness Paul repeatedly rearrange his life around a new magnetic north, it becomes clear that his bisexuality abets his serial monogamy. “I’d grown to love serving two masters,” he thinks, “perhaps so as never truly to answer to either one.” Yet Paul’s state isn’t a dilemma in search of an answer. We go with him the way we go with Anton Chekhov’s characters, enmeshed in the humanness of the drama. When Chloe, an on-again, off-again lover since college, confronts Paul, asking about his new lover, “Did you tell her you’ll always want something else and something more?”, we see it for the tender inquiry it is.
In the A-B-C equation, Paul is the bisexual bridge between A and C, and this metaphor is mined to profit—subtly in the first section when a San Giustiniano local says that all that happened to Paul’s family is “acqua passata,” water under the bridge, and elegantly in the scene of the New York City dinner party. As the partygoers admire the view of an East River bridge, Paul thinks, “what I really long for this evening is neither to be on this side of the river nor on the other but on the space and transit in between.” Aciman has captured Paul’s bridge life delightfully well.
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.