by Jennifer Acker
Jennifer Acker: When you meet people for the first time and they ask where you’re from, what do you say? Would you answer differently if the question was, Where is your home?
André Aciman: Where are you from? is a tricky question for me. If an American or an Englishman asks me where I’m from, I’ll say that I’m from France. This prevents me from going into too many details by explaining that, although I was born in Egypt, I am not Egyptian but really a naturalized Italian who was born Turkish into a French-speaking family.
If I feel that the person asking the question knows French and might realize by my accent that I am not French, I’ll say that I am from Italy. Neither is really a lie. I am culturally French and I did acquire an Italian passport while living in Egypt. Sometimes, I’ll try to explain my foreign accents with a lie: that my mother is French but my father is Italian. Problem is—as happened one day—the person asking the question was a student whose mother was Italian and whose father was French and who happened not only to be totally fluent in both languages but to speak both with a perfect accent. Since he was unable to place my accent, I had to fess up and unload my catalogue of origins. People with complicated origins don’t like to go into many details about their family. They’re embarrassed.
Where is your home? is an impossible question. I remember when I was applying to college, there were always two sets of boxes: current address and permanent address. Current address was easy. Current address could be the two-week place where you summered with a friend. The problem for me is that I’ve never had a permanent address. Not only would it be the height of presumption for me to say that such-and-such a place is a permanent anything for me, but simply thinking that a place or, for that matter, any living arrangement is permanent might automatically invoke the wrath of the gods. Perhaps the correct way to phrase the question would be: Where is your provisional home? Because I’ve always seen everything about my life as provisional. Nothing ever lasts.
What no one asks me is: If you really have no home and have acquired provisional or makeshift homes along the way, where would a meaningful burial spot be for you? A burial spot is everyone’s way of staking a piece of earth and saying: whether people like it or not, this spot is mine forever! Ideally, I should be buried in a place that is meaningful, a place that is or could be or might have been my home: Alexandria. I like the weather there and I am used to the sounds of Alexandria. But here is the problem: when I look back, Alexandria was never my home. It became my “default” home only retrospectively, not when I was living there. So my permanent home is a fiction.
And burying me in Alexandria is a bit of a fancy. Who will come to visit me in Alexandria? What if someone wishes to visit me but can’t really make the trip?
And finally this: the day will soon come when the Egyptian authorities, citing a newfangled nonsensical ordnance, will decide to raze the Jewish cemeteries in Alexandria. So that I would have chosen the wrong permanent address. A permanent burial place is a fiction as well.
JA: The friendship at the heart of Harvard Square, between a Tunisian Berber taxi driver and an Egyptian Jewish graduate student studying literature at Harvard during the summer of 1977, is based on a similar, real friendship of yours. Could you have this kind of friendship now, as an adult? Or was there something particular about being young and single during the lonely years of graduate school that made this friendship possible?
AA: What made such a friendship possible was a confluence of factors. First, I was thoroughly lonely that summer. All my friends were in Europe. I ached to be in Europe. I didn’t have a girlfriend, and there was none in sight. Also I was starting to give up on my studies, particularly since I could no longer see where a Ph.D. (were I even lucky to obtain one) was going to get me. There were no jobs. I had never really wanted to be an academic; I always wanted to be a writer instead.
So, in 1977 everything was wrong. The myth of Harvard was wearing thin, belief in my vocation was totally frayed, and I was tired of longing for the Mediterranean. I wanted to go back, back to Europe, back to a way of life I was brought up to expect would be mine one day, back to what I hesitate to call my people, because I was starting to forget what or who my people were, back to something that felt real. Never before had I had the feeling I was living not just the wrong life but an unreal life. I was unreal.
Suddenly I hear someone speaking in French. He speaks with my accent, he isn’t French, he comes from the Middle East, and he’s been in Europe, and all he’s talking about are women. Here is someone who feels what I feel. That we’re so different doesn’t matter in the least. Just a glance, and we’ve already connected.
I was young enough not to know how to push people away when they started to intrude. I was desperate for a friend who seemed to understand me through and through. Today, at my age, I don’t need people so badly, nor do I allow them to get too close. I’ve put up the sort of wall a man like Kalaj deplored, because it was such an inhuman and ersatz thing to do. At the time, neither Kalaj nor I knew what “needing one’s space” meant. Today I know. I’ve bought in.
JA: You published your first novel, Call Me by Your Name, in 2007 at the age of 56, 12 years after publishing your first book, the memoir Out of Egypt. Was Call Me By Your Name the first novel you’d ever written? How did the experience of writing it differ from writing Out of Egypt? Was the writing of Harvard Square significantly different in any way from writing either of your previous two novels?
AA: I was always a novelist. My condition (to myself) for writing Out of Egypt was very simple: I would write my life and my family’s as factually as I could, but it would have to read like a novel and abide by all the conventions of the novel. The partition between memoir and novel never really existed. As I wrote in an article in the New York Times, the “furniture” in my life remains the same; but as a writer, I’ve just moved it around. Since I always write in the first person, readers have a tendency to believe (or to suspect) that I am writing autobiographically. They may or may not be wrong; but they always seem to forget that the furniture was moved. There are incidents in my novels that are irreducibly true; but they too have been “moved around.”
JA: In a 2007 interview, you describe your first encounter with American contemporary fiction—a mystery by Robert Ludlum you picked up in the back of a friend’s Camaro during graduate school. You then tried to reconcile yourself to writing in and for America. Can you describe this process? Are you still engaged in it? Or do you think this kind of intention is unnecessary now, either because you have developed an American audience or for some other reason?
AA: For me, writing for America is like writing in a foreign language. It is not a language that comes naturally to me. It is always a crafted idiom, and therefore a touch artificial—call it, if you wish, a prosthetic tongue. I am not sure I get American English—and with it what I’ll call the American mindset. Writing in my approximated American also exacts a price: that I conceal my own idiom, that I camouflage what continues to pulsate beneath the English I’ve mastered and, underneath that English, the mindset, the culture, that peculiar “way of being” I was born into. There may be nothing underneath my American English, but I always feel there is some garbled, incomprehensible tongue muttering stuff beneath the English I finally write.
I once defined style as the compromise language between what we have going on inside us (what I’ve also called our inner nerve, and what Proust called vision) and the world of those who’ll read us. Style is how writers modulate their voice so that others can hear it.
Because I am a foreigner, my compromise takes on two peculiar forms:
(1) The first is easy enough; if I don’t have cadence in what I write, I don’t write. Cadence is what gives me the impression that my sentence is the best it will ever be. Cadence is how I know I’ve got the English right. Cadence may be the ultimate mask; but cadence could just as easily be my real face.
(2) Nothing irks me more than spotting a foreign “accent” in something I write. Worse yet than a foreign inflection is the English of the child in me who was trying to master English but hadn’t quite succeeded in doing so until he was in his late twenties. Writing—which for me means rewriting—consists in erasing every trace of anything foreign in my writing. Without erasures—which means going against oneself in order to uncover a hitherto unknown, undisclosed self—one crafts nothing, least of all one’s language. What comes spontaneously to me as a writer is not feeling, but afterthought… and compromise. Or to put things a bit more radically: what comes naturally is not truth, but erasure. I don’t write; I whiteout.
JA: Are there any other writers who are as important to you as Proust? Do you urge all your students at the Writers’ Institute at the Graduate Center at CUNY—a one-year professional program that introduces aspiring writers to top editors—to read him?
AA: I would be fired from my job if I asked people to read Proust in a writing workshop. I normally recommend that people read Thucydides during the summer. Thucydides understood style, understood tragedy, paradox, nonsense, blunders, spite, cruelty, but above all he was a historian who was totally disabused about mankind, which is why he understood human psychology.
JA: In a recent interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books, you say, “I hate realism as a literary culture.” Why? Is it that realism, or the effort to create it, limits or distorts fiction in some way?
AA: Realism is not about truth, it is about what mimics and ultimately counterfeits truth. Realism is the catalogue of life-like things, not what is true to life. What is true to life happens in our minds, or at least it springs first in our minds and then wanders into the “out there.” But what’s out there is almost always incidental and provisional: a collage of hard-nosed, bare-knuckle, in-your-face factoids strung together in a manner that one finds in the New York Post or the Daily News.
Think of those portraits of rainy afternoons on the boulevards of Paris as they are mass produced by gifted painters in what I’m told are prison camps in China: they’re real enough, down to the glistening macadam sidewalks and the turn-of-the-century horse carriages. And then think of a narrow side alley by Van Gogh. Both are real enough, but one transcends reality, the other is mired in it. One is after something other than the out-there. The other is only about the recognizably stereotypical “street scene.”
JA: In that LARB interview, you elegantly said, “When we avoid writing something, we are not avoiding because it’s dangerous or might hurt us or we don’t want to confront it; sometimes it’s because we fear we will concretize it once and for all, and lose the beautiful incandescence it has when it hasn’t been worded yet.” Does the same fear of “concretizing” grip you when writing, or thinking about writing, both fiction and nonfiction? Are there moments you have preserved for yourself and left “unworded”? If so, what are they?
AA: There were many moments in Eight White Nights when I felt that if I “went to language” I would definitely have to distort and cheat the essential and much-needed ambiguity between the characters. When you’re not bad at your craft, the first thing you learn is to find ways of leaving an important ambiguity in place. You don’t want to spell things out; you prefer to suggest something that simply can’t be said. Translators, who are professionally fastidious, always stumble on these cleverly concealed ambiguities and need to expose them. What was shrewdly airbrushed in English, needs to be outed in German. In Harvard Square, there is a moment when the narrator wakes up in the middle of the night and suddenly realizes he must leave his girlfriend’s apartment. I wanted to convey the oppressive, stultifying feeling that brims over at night without giving too many specifics for fear of making that feeling sound too clinical, too obvious, for fear of losing its totally undefined yet compelling nature. What does a man feel when he wakes up at night and looks at his partner, who is sleeping, and suddenly knows it is all wrong and that he must leave?
When I described the first night that Elio and Oliver spent together in Call Me by Your Name, I wanted to be as explicit as possible, but I did not want the reader to cradle specific images of how the two made love. I wanted the awkwardness of the moment between them to last longer than it normally does; all I did was describe how Elio reaches out with his toe and touches Oliver’s toes. It is not the snapshot of the recognizably real that readers want; what readers want is the revelation of the real. And revelation is always enchanting.
Click here to read Jennifer Acker’s feature piece on André Aciman.
Jennifer Acker is the founding editor of The Common, a new print and online literary magazine for which she writes monthly essays about travel, landscape, and literature called “From the 17th Floor.” Other essays, translations, and short fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Harper’s, Ploughshares, Ascent, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Acker teaches literature, editing, and creative writing at Amherst College and NYU Abu Dhabi.
Homepage photo credit © Sigrid Estrada
Photo of Ras-El-Tine-Palast, Alexandria courtesy of Wikipedia
Among the best interviews of Aciman I have read.