Awed by Aciman

Aciman’s new essay collection examines his ambivalent attitude toward his family and his Jewishness.

Andre Aciman's Alibis 521 (photo credit: Courtest)
Andre Aciman's Alibis 521
(photo credit: Courtest)
Reading Andre Aciman’s body of work, both his fiction and his exquisitely rendered essay collections, often feels like falling into a dangerous love affair. Aciman seduces you with his angry intelligence, his obsessive quest for personal happiness and his endless regrets about opportunities he feels he has lost.
Aciman wears his existential angst on his sleeve, flaunting it as a badge of honor without the faintest hint of shame. He often has trouble imagining another person’s perspective; his thoughts revolve continually around himself. He is not a man driven by heroic impulses, or a religious seeker or zealot of any kind. He worships Proust, who he believes uniquely understood the relationship between style and vision, and possessed an aesthetic sense Aciman continually strives for.
The author seems to draw most of his nourishment from the physical world; he is enthralled with light, sound, scent and color and his writing soars when he shares his exhilaration with us. He is most transfixed by the way our minds alter our memories, frequently blending fact and fiction into a blurry narrative from which we try to draw comfort. He approaches life mostly through his memories, admitting that he has always preferred “the imagined encounter, or the memory of the imagined encounter, to the thing itself.”
Readers may recall his superb memoir Out of Egypt. It was there that we learned about his Jewish paternal grandfather, who was a cigarette manufacturer in Constantinople before moving the family to Alexandria, where his business prospered.
There were times when the Aciman family considered leaving Egypt as things grew more ominous for the Jews, but they remained until forced to flee when Nasser took power. The Aciman family wound up in a working-class neighborhood in Rome where they struggled to regain their footing. There were other troubles in the young boy’s life. His parents had an unusually tense marriage that was unhappy from the very beginning. His father often strayed and for many years was involved with a special woman who stole his heart. His mother was left adrift, forced to deal with her husband’s clannish relatives who often excluded her, and her congenital deafness which embarrassed young Aciman; particularly when she would utter strange sounds in an attempt to communicate. Still, she was a loving mother who tried to comfort him through his many ordeals. He was a shy and awkward child, bookish, and prone to psychosomatic illness.
In “Lavender,” one of the essays in his new book Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, he recalls tenderly his mother trying to distract him from the pain of a migraine headache with a handkerchief that smelled of lavender, and the euphoria he felt when it seemed to alleviate his distress. He explains that from that moment on, “smell lavender and I was sheltered, happy, beloved. Smell lavender and in came good thoughts – about life, about those I loved, about me.”
In another fine essay in the collection, called “Reflections of an Uncertain Jew,” Aciman simultaneously mocks and mourns his Jewish family’s attempt to assimilate. He discovers a 1921 photograph of his grandfather standing elegantly attired with a neatly trimmed white beard and notices that his grandfather is holding, somewhat selfconsciously, a cigar.
While admiring how successful his grandfather looks, Aciman can’t help but notice that there is something about the way his grandfather is posing that disturbs him. Aciman wonders: “Didn’t they know they were Jewish? Or to turn it around, didn’t they know that even if all of Europe posed this way it would never wash, that they could never pass, that part of what made them so odious to anti-Semites was the very fact that they presumed they could pass. Didn’t they know that, while others posed with a cigar to suggest they weren’t posing with a cigar, such a pose, when it came to Jews, was a double pose and as such came close to a form of imposture that brought out the killer in every anti-Semite?”
Yet in the very same essay, Aciman reveals his own ambivalence and confusion about his Jewish identity: “I was proud of being Jewish, but I could just as easily have been mortified by being Jewish. I wanted to be Christian. But I didn’t want to be anything but Jewish. I was a provisional, uncertain Jew. I am a Jew who loves Judaism provided it’s on the opposite shore, provided others practice it and leave me to pursue my romance of assimilation, which I woo with the assiduity of a suitor who is determined to be a bachelor. I am a Jew who longs to be in a world where everyone is Jewish, where I can finally let down my guard. But I am a Jew who has spent so much time defining himself in relation to non-Jews that I wouldn’t know how to live, much less who to be, in a world where everyone was Jewish.”
In the end, you ache for Aciman; for what he feels and for what he is unable to feel. And you are awed by his talent.