Urbane essays in pursuit of a self.
Reprising themes he explored in his most recent collection of nonfiction, Alibis (2011), novelist, memoirist, and cultural critic Aciman, at 70, offers elegant meditations on time and memory, longing and desire, being and becoming. Whether writing about his childhood in Alexandria, visiting Rome with Freud’s ghostly presence, searching for Dostoevsky’s 19th-century milieu in St. Petersburg, reading Proust, or watching Éric Rohmer’s movies, Aciman finds himself “caught between remembrance and anticipated memory.” The feeling is a swirl of moods he calls “irrealist,” where “boundaries between what is and what isn’t, between what happened and what won’t,” disappear, and where “what might never, couldn’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t possibly occur” may well happen. Nostalgia imbues many essays with ruefulness, if not regret. In Rome, he discovered “the birthplace of a self I wished to be one day and should have been but never was and left behind and didn’t do a thing to nurse back to life again.” All of us, he writes, “seek a life that exists elsewhere in time, or elsewhere on-screen, and that, not being able to find it, we have all learned to make do with what life throws our way.” Past and present, for him, are “continuously coincident,” and memories that have apparently vanished continue to exert their presence. Those memories include encounters with works of art—John Sloan’s portraits of New York in the 1920s, Monet’s Poppy Field, the “muted lyricism” of Corot’s French landscapes—that hover enticingly in his imagination. Art, writes Aciman, “sees footprints, not feet, luster, not light, hears resonance, not sound. Art is about our love of things when we know it’s not the things themselves we love.” Reminiscent of the writings of W.G. Sebald and Fernando Pessoa (both subjects of his essays), Aciman’s latest conveys with grace and insight his longing to apprehend “myself looking out to the self I am today.”
A resplendent collection from a writer who never disappoints.