Readers familiar with André Aciman’s work may be forgiven for assuming that the writer, a teacher of Proust, after all, is a nostalgic and sentimental man, and that his books, from the 1995 memoir Out of Egypt to the new novel Harvard Square, are an attempt to recapture and recast cherished moments from a well enjoyed life. For the Egyptian-born Aciman, though, it is more complicated than that.
“It’s easy to say I’m nostalgic for Egypt or nostalgic for my childhood, but I didn’t like Egypt, and I didn’t like my childhood,” Aciman says, laughing. “So what am I missing?”
It’s a good question to savor while reading Harvard Square, which explores the unlikely friendship that grows between two distinct men on the university campus in the late 1970s. The main character is an Egyptian Jew who is hyperaware of his outsider status as a foreign-born graduate student on a campus adorned with privileged students. The cab driver he befriends is Kalashnikov, a Tunisian Arab who holds court at high volume in a coffee shop, ridiculing and berating consumerism, the chase after women, the U.S. itself. “Rat-tat-tat” is how Aciman describes Kalashnikov’s speech in the novel, and it is an apt description of Kalashnikov’s relationship to his surroundings: he approaches as if for assault.
What the two have in common, though, is that they are both, as Aciman describes it, “two displaced human beings,” which is something that the author understands on a fundamental level. A foreign graduate student himself at Harvard in the 70s, he speaks with some degree of marvel and awe about Americans born and raised in the social class that has access to such institutions, those who are the undisplaced, let us say, or as he describes, from “some other order of humanity” entirely.
“There is nothing shaken about them. And I am not that way,” he says. “They will never understand who I am because on the evolutionary scale, I am closer to monkeys than I am to them. Kalashnikov is like this.”
For Aciman, a man who carries this sense of the displaced, of belonging to a different order of humanity in this American existence that Kalashnikov assails as “jumbo-ersatz,” the experience of writing is a means of making sense of this world.
“Once you have a narrative, it is very difficult to go back to the chaos. Once it’s been ironed out, that’s it. To write is to alter the past and to forget the past,” he says.
Lucky reader, though, who has the good fortune of being in the hands of an expert craftsman whose novels shock with their lyricism, surely, but with a sense of brutality as well. Think of the stunning passages in Call Me By Your Name, perhaps (which began, he says, as a “coming of age bullshit” story before developing into its final form). With this ordering of the past, it may be easy to think of figures like Proust when imagining Aciman’s passions, but it is Stendhal who causes him to light up. Stendhal’s work, Aciman says, is “cold, it is lucid, it cuts with diamonds.”
What Aciman learned at an early age from Stendhal and from his love of the classics was not how to craft a convincing plot or structure a novel; as a student, he developed instead a keen sense that what makes a book worthwhile has nothing to do with mechanics.
“I knew what a great writer was by the genius of his style,” Aciman explains. “I knew what a classic was, I knew what a good book was…and I knew that there were bad books.”
As a young man, this passion for style and reordering of the experience lead him to devote his work to poetry, a pursuit he now describes as “failed.” However, this training in verse is evident in the rhythms of his fiction and in the lyricism with which he handles the topics of alienation and belonging.
“I don’t think my rhythms are entirely what you would call native, but it means something to me,” he says.
A non-native rhythm is a defining quality of Aciman’s work, and in Harvard Square, it is also at the center of Kalashnikov’s character. Throughout the novel, one gets the seductive notion that Aciman, fascinated with displacement, writes about Kalashnikov not just to reorder a part of the past, but to become him for a moment as well. Both Aciman the writer and the student in the novel are in awe of the charismatic Tunisian.
“He was an unfinished me,” Aciman says. “Me without the patina that I had added over the years.”
Ultimately, there is a pervasive longing that is both universal and unique throughout Aciman’s books, whether it is in the character Elio’s gaze upon Oliver’s body in Call Me By Your Name or the desire of the characters in Harvard Square to be someone else. “I am nostalgic for something, something that goes back to my childhood,” Aciman says. “I miss it, but I don’t know what it is.”David Garza lives in New York City. He was taught intermediate French at Princeton University by André Aciman in the spring of 1995. To Garza’s great relief, the author did not recall this when they met for this interview 18 years later.