Andre Aciman
Stanford Humanities Center


André Aciman: Alexandria on My Mind

André Aciman portrait
André Aciman - Photo © Sigrid Estrada

Alexandria, the capital of memory! All the writing which I had borrowed from the living and the dead, until I myself had become a sort of postscript to a letter which was never ended, never posted ...

Lawrence Durrell, Clea (1960).[1]

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighbourhoods, turn grey in these same houses.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.

From Constantine P. Cavafy, “The City” (1910).[2]

Siamo o non siamo

“Are we or aren’t we?”  This is the riposte that André Aciman received from his great-uncle Vili, in Surrey, when he “tried to speak to him of Alexandria, of time lost and lost worlds, of the end when the end came…”  Vili’s dismissive response:  “‘That was rubbish.  I live in the present,’ he said almost vexed by my nostalgia. ‘Siamo o non siamo?’”[3]  In other words:  Look where we are now and at what we have made of ourselves.

Yet, memory and its discontents – above all, nostalgia and “nostography” – reside tenaciously at the heart of Aciman’s lifelong preoccupation with what is / seems / isn’t / was (perhaps and might have been).[4]  For him, “the present is an arbitrary fulcrum in time…  And frequently, what we look forward to is not the future but the past restored.”[5]  This perspective colors virtually all of his writing, across genres:  memoir, novel, short story, literary criticism, review, journalistic reportage, travelogue, feuilleton, and op-ed essay.  Aciman’s oeuvre is informed by a consuming desire to regain “lost time.”  This Proustian formulation supplies the scaffolding for his memoir Out of Egypt, his novel Call Me by Your Name, the essays in his collection False Papers, and to be sure The Proust Project (which he edited).

Behind Aciman’s desire to inhabit and reconstitute the past there lurks an enduring sensation of displacement (experienced, threatened, or perceived), which transcends the customary longing for the vanished universe of one’s childhood.  The displacement is symbolized by Alexandria, the multiethnic Egyptian port city where he was born in 1951 and from which he and his family were exiled in 1965 – an event that looms very large in Aciman’s writing.

In Out of Egypt, Alexandria provides the backdrop for a complex and often troubled family dynamic.  André Aciman’s father, Henri, owned a knitting factory that provided his household with a comfortable livelihood, in a setting where everything else was precariously balanced.  The family was spared the mortal threat posed by Rommel’s army in 1942 (when it was turned back at El-Alamein, sixty-five miles to the west) only to be confronted with the increasing hostility of successive Egyptian regimes in the wake of the 1948 and 1956 Arab-Israeli wars.  By 1965, when the Egyptian authorities expropriated Henri’s factory, the Acimans were among the last members of an ancient – and once numerous – Jewish community in their city.  They departed for Rome and, three years later, New York City.

Soon after arriving in the United States, Aciman enrolled in New York City’s Lehman College, where he received his B.A. in English and Comparative Literature in 1973.  He continued his studies at Harvard and received his doctorate in Comparative Literature in 1988.  Aciman has since taught at Princeton University, Bard College, and the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, where he currently serves as Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and as Director of the Writers’ Institute.  At CUNY he teaches the history of literary theory, the work of Marcel Proust, and the literature of memory and exile. [6]

“All Memoirists Lie”

In the concluding chapter of Out of Egypt, André Aciman writes about a stroll that he took after his family’s final Passover seder in Alexandria.  (The seder is a holiday meal commemorating the Biblical exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, and one toward which Aciman harbors a deep ambivalence – not least because to him departure from Egypt has come to symbolize not the exodus from slavery but rather an irretrievable loss.[7])  The fourteen-year-old André’s post-seder promenade took him to Rue Delta, “brimming with people” on the first night of Ramadan, and from there to the Corniche by the seafront.  A street vendor offered him a piece of fried dough, which – in violation of the strict dietary rules of Passover – André eagerly consumed.  As he returned to his family’s apartment, he imagined that no one he encountered en route “would ever know, nor even guess, that this was our last night in Alexandria.”[8]

This episode relates the unwelcome and premature truncation of the boy’s childhood; at the same time it serves as Exhibit A for Aciman’s remark (which appears in an article that he wrote for The New York Times) that “all memoirists lie.”[9]  Out of Egypt offers richly textured depictions of the author’s parents’ and grandparents’ generations (and even a well-rounded portrait of his great-grandmother), but he is silent about his own age cohort.  There are no cousins or siblings in his book; he writes as if he were the last surviving member of a once sizable extended family.  But in the original version of the memoir (in the journal Commentary[10]), André was accompanied on this final Alexandrian walk by his younger brother – and instead of being given fried dough the two of them purchased falafel from the street vendor.  Yet even this scene turns out to be contrived:  “The night walk on Rue Delta on our last night in Egypt, with or without my brother, never did occur.”[11]  And, from today’s vantage point, Aciman states that he is unable to remember anything about Rue Delta other than what he imagined and wrote about it fifteen years ago, in his memoir Out of Egypt.  Moreover, he now attributes to his brother many of the observations and sensations that he previously presented as his own.  “Was I lying then?” he asks.[12]

“Do People Still Read This?”

In 1995, Aciman revisited Alexandria for the first time since the family left three decades earlier.  He had little difficulty navigating through the streets of a city that he had not seen since his mid-teens, but once there he paradoxically found himself drawn back to memories of places on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that reminded him of Alexandria!  Indeed, New-York-as-Alexandria is an Aciman trope; during his 1995 sojourn Alexandria proper did not really exist in his mind even when it surrounded him.  Taking a leaf from the pages of Marcel Proust, he visited a familiar pastry shop in an attempt to reenact a moment from his childhood, but the exercise proved pointless:  “The idea of eating cake to summon my past seems too uncanny and ridiculous.”[13]

The penumbra of Proust hovers over all of Aciman’s work, whether the discourse revolves around pastry in Alexandria or his late father’s lavender-scented aftershave.  It is not a question of literary style – for who other than a parodist would seek to recreate those long and leisurely drawn-out sentences, with their “compulsive oscillations between imperfect, present perfect, simple past, and future anterior”?[14]  Rather, it is a matter of sensibility.  For Aciman, Proust is – and has always been – “this writer, who I am ready to swear knows me better than I know myself…”[15]  Aciman’s attachment to Proust is intensely personal and bears a potent emotional valence.  He argues against an overly scholastic reading of Proust’s masterwork, A la recherche du temps perdu; in the end “it is we who are the novel’s honest-to-god subject” and “it is revelation that matters.”[16]

This is not to say that Aciman is indifferent to Proust’s technique – quite the contrary.  As is suggested by his delineation of the complex tense structure that the reader encounters within the flowing sentences of A la recherche, he is acutely sensitive to the importance of Proust’s approach – and that of his translators – to time in his narrative.  Aciman has closely compared the different English translations of A la recherche and makes the argument that the translator must

[understand] how the Proustian sentence works, how it advances all the while anticipating an unavoidable undertow, which takes the sentence, which the reader has just read, and “illuminates it” – to use Proust’s own words – “retrospectively.” … [This] retrospective tow needs to be remanufactured by the translator.  Without it, all you have is… prose. [17] 

Aciman’s work-in-progress on this subject is his forthcoming book Proust’s Sentence:  A Study in Style.

Aciman has been a devotee of Marcel Proust since he was a teenager.  In his 2000 article “In Search of Proust,” he relates that he was first introduced to that writer while visiting his father in Paris, during the years of the family’s Roman exile.  André was fifteen, and Henri had taken a temporary job in France:

We were taking a long walk, and as we passed a small restaurant I told him that the overpowering smell of refried food reminded me of the tanneries along the coast road outside Alexandria, in Egypt.  He said he hadn’t thought of it that way, but yes, I was right, the restaurant did smell like a tannery.  And as we began working our way back through strands of shared memories – the tanneries, the beaches, the ruined Roman temple west of Alexandria, our summer beach house – all this suddenly made him think of Proust.  Had I read Proust? he asked.  No, I hadn’t.  Well, perhaps I should.

So, his father brought him to a book shop and there they picked up an inexpensive paperback of Du côté de chez Swann ([Swann’s Way], the first volume of A la recherche).  The following day, after “open[ing] Proust for the first time,” André found to his utter astonishment that “in the eighty-odd pages I had read that day I had rediscovered my entire childhood in Alexandria…”[18]

Elsewhere, Aciman reminds us of the spell that Proust cast upon not only his father but at least one other member of his family as well.  As André unpacked his bags upon arriving at his great-uncle’s English estate, the cynical and worldly Vili “stared at my things, looked over my books, picked one up with something like mock scorn on his face.  ‘Do people still read this?’”  Nevertheless, the very sight of the Proust volume in question conjured up poignant memories in Vili of his mother, André’s great-grandmother.  “He smiled, placed the volume back on my nightstand, and, perhaps meaning to surprise me, began quoting in French the long, sinuous prose of the first few sentences.”[19]

“I Longed to Be Like Them”

Part love story, part Bildungsroman, André Aciman’s first novel, Call Me by Your Name (2007), treats the brief but intense romance between the musically precocious narrator Elio, who is seventeen at the time of the events related here, and a young American professor named Oliver.  Elio’s parents are Italian academics in a town on the Mediterranean shore, and each summer he is displaced from his bedroom by a tenant, a visiting scholar from the United States (Oliver, this particular summer).  The mutual attraction – physical, intellectual, cultural – between Elio and Oliver plays out, at first hesitantly and then passionately, over the book’s 248 pages. 

This novel treats love not only between two young men (and their romance scarcely lasts past the summer of its consummation) but above all between Elio and the literary vocation that will become his own.  Toward the end of the book he and Oliver visit Rome, and attend a late-night dinner hosted by a publisher celebrating the launch of a collection of poems:

Something… suddenly told me that, without a doubt, this evening I’d stepped into a spellbound world indeed.

I’d never traveled in this world.  But I loved this world.  And I would love it even more once I learned how to speak its language – for it was my language, a form of address where our deepest longings are smuggled in banter, not because it is safer to put a smile on what we fear may shock, but because the inflections of desire, of all desire in this new world I’d stepped into, could only be conveyed in play.

Everyone was available, lived availably – like the city – and assumed everyone else wished to be so as well.  I longed to be like them.[20]

Call Me by Your Name offers a striking parallel between Elio’s magical season and one that Marcel Proust enjoyed nearly a century earlier, which Aciman has described elsewhere:

Proust’s happiest days were spent not when he was a child in Illiers but as a young man of twenty-four, in the very late summer of 1895.  He was accompanied by Reynaldo Hahn, a man he must have adored, and with whom he spent an idyllic vacation in the small sea town of Beg-Meil, on the tip end of Brittany.  Here, Proust, who was about to publish a collection of short stories, spent days reading Balzac, Madame de Sévigné, and Carlyle.  Better yet, in no time, he started writing a novel.  The novel, entitled Jean Santeuil, was much later abandoned, but it was a young draft of what would become his masterpiece.  That summer, everything – love, writing, friendship – had come together.

Of course, such happiness was too good to last.  “No sooner had it come together than it was lost,” Aciman observes.[21]

“Why Spurn My Home When Exile Is Your Home?”

Aciman experienced an epiphany regarding his own calling not during a summer of love but (by his account) when he was a child of about nine.  Accompanied by his governess Roxane and his Italian tutor Mario Dall’Abaco on a Sunday morning outing in Alexandria, he recounts, “I looked up into the morning’s crystal glare…  I had only to lift up my eyes, and there would be the sea.”  And then:

“The sun burst on the flawless brimming sea into a sky all brazen.”

It was Signor Dall’Abaco quoting Homer in Greek and then translating into Italian.  This, I suddenly realized, must be the sunlight of ancient Greece, of translucent Aegean mornings where glinting quartz extends for miles until it touches the sea, and the sea touches the early-summer sky, and the sky touches every tree and every hill and every house beyond the hills.

Thus was André introduced to the Odyssey.  “Signor Dall’Abaco told us how Ulysses’ companions, after eating of the forbidden lotus, had lost all desire to go back to Ithaca and refused to wander more.  After twenty years, he said, Ulysses was the only one who made it back alive.”  The tutor proceeded to offer an exegesis of Homer’s epic:

“Dante teaches that, after returning to Ithaca, he went on to explore other lands.  Many agree.  But I think it is Cavafy, the Alexandrian, who is right.  He says that Ulysses wavered, unable to decide between going back to his wife or living as an immortal with the goddess Calypso on her island.  In the end, he opted for immortality and he never went back.  As the goddess pleads,” and Signor Dall’Abaco began to recite,

Why spurn my home when exile is your home?
The Ithaca you want you’ll have in not having.

André was transfixed:  “For the first time in my life I knew exactly what I wanted to do this summer, and every other summer after that.”  Signor Dall’Abaco agreed to teach the lad Greek, even though “it might take years.  ‘But then, who knows,’ he said with a smile, as we opened the old gate to our garden.”[22]  (This Proustian reminiscence bears comparison with Aciman’s discussion, in The Proust Project, of the young Marcel’s moonlit walk with his family around Combray, ending up at the back gate of his family’s garden.[23])

Of course, having read Aciman’s observations regarding the artifice of the memoir, we cannot help but conjecture that his latter-day account of this long-ago excursion amounts to a retroactive – and intentional – foreshadowing of his future calling as a student of the classics, a Proust scholar, and a writer whose chosen leitmotif is the quest to recapture what is irretrievably lost – except through memory (and even then?).  As the stanza recited by Signor Dall’Abaco concludes:

Your home’s in the rubblehouse of time now,
and youre made thus, to yearn for what you lose.[24]

“Parallax: Exile as Metaphor” is the title that André Aciman has adopted for his Presidential Lecture at Stanford University.  “Parallax” is most commonly employed as an astronomical term and the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as the “difference or change in the apparent position or direction of an object as seen from two different points.”  Many other scholarly disciplines incorporate this familiar understanding of parallax into their methodological toolkits, in a metaphorical sense, and it offers one way of interpreting the sense of disorientation that pervades Aciman’s work.  But the dictionary offers a second definition of “parallax”:  “Distortion; the fact of seeing wrongly or in a distorted way.”  This returns us to Aciman’s recurring preoccupation with what is / seems / isn’t / was (perhaps and might have been).  For, in the course of erecting his metaphorical monument to Lost Alexandria, Aciman has “invented another Egypt, a mirror Egypt, an Egypt that stood beyond time…”[25]



[1] Laurence Durrell, Clea (London:  Faber & Faber, 1960), p. 11; quoted by Fatemah Farag in “Alexandria of the Heart’s Mind,” Al-Ahram Weekly Online, no. 537 (7 - 13 June 2001). Accessed at:

[2] Constantine P. Cavafy, “The City” (1910), translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, in C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems (Princeton University Press, 1975), pp. 50-51.  Accessed at:

[3] André Aciman, Out of Egypt (New York:  Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994), p. 3)

[4] “Session I:  How True to Life Is Biography?” [interviewer:  Edith Kurzweil], Partisan Review, 68:1 (2001), p. 37.

[5] André Aciman, “Rue Delta,” in Tell Me True:  Memoir, History, and Writing a Life, edited by Patricia Hampl and Elaine Tyler May (St. Paul:  Borealis, Books, 2008), p. 193.

[6] From the faculty pages on the CUNY Comparative Literature website:  “Although his specialty is in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English, French and Italian literature (he wrote his dissertation on Madame de LaFayette’s La Princesse de Clèves), he is especially interested in the theory of the psychological novel (roman d’analyse) across boundaries and eras.  In addition to teaching the history of literary theory, he teaches the work of Marcel Proust and the literature of memory and exile.”  Accessed at:

[7] André Aciman, “In a Double Exile,” in False Papers, pp. 107-110.

[8] Out of Egypt, p. [340].

[9] André Aciman, “Writers on Writing:  A Literary Pilgrim Progresses to the Past,” New York Times, August 28, 2000, p. E2.

[10] André Aciman, “Out of Egypt:  A Memoir,” Commentary 89:5 (May 1990), pp. 43-51. Available to Stanford readers from The Periodicals Archive Online .

[11] “Rue Delta,” pp. 198-199.

[12] “Rue Delta,” p. 196.

[13] André Aciman, “Alexandria, the Capital of Memory,” in False Papers (New York:  Farrar Straus Giroux, 2000), p. 9.

[14] André Aciman, “Preface,” The Proust Project, edited by André Aciman (New York:  Farrar Straus Giroux, 2004), p. xiv.

[15] “Preface,” The Proust Project, p. ix.

[16] “Preface,” The Proust Project, pp. xii, xviii.

[17] “‘Proust’s Way?’:  An Exchange,” in The New York Review of Books 53:6 (April 6, 2006).  Aciman’s reviews of the new translations of two parts of A la recherche, “Proust’s Way?” and “Far from Proust’s Way,” are found in The New York Review of Books 52:19 and 52:20 (December 1 and December 15, 2005).

[18] André Aciman, “Letter from Illiers-Combray:  In Search of Proust,” in False Papers, p. 68.

[19] Out of Egypt, pp. 38-39.

[20] André Aciman, Call Me by Your Name (New York:  Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007), pp. 185-186.

[21] André Aciman, “Proust Regained,” in the New York Review of Books, 49: 12 (July 18, 2002).

[22] Out of Egypt, pp. 289-290. 

[23] “Preface,” The Proust Project, pp. xii-xvi.  “I know this scene too well,” Aciman comments.

[24] In “Pensione Eolo, Sites of Nostalgia” (False Papers, p. 141), Aciman offhandedly remarks that he invented this scene. Perhaps he invented the stanza as well: he concludes this chapter in Out of Egypt by remarking that “Some of the poems I had never seen before; others were familiar; the one on Ulysses was Signor Dall’Abaco’s, not Cavafy’s.” See p. 292.

[25] André Aciman, “Arbitrage,” in False Papers, p. 160.


Text by Zachary M. Baker, Reinhard Family Curator of Judaica and Hebraica Collections.
Stanford University Libraries & Academic Information Resources ©2009


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