from André Aciman’s Work
On Time and Memory || On Proust || On Judaism || On Egypt
ON TIME AND MEMORY
A temporizer procrastinates. He forfeits the present. He moves elsewhere in time. Let me repeat these two definitions which I would like to propose at this time. He forfeits the present and he moves elsewhere in time. He moves from the present to the future, from the present to the past, or, as I’ve already suggested in my essay “Arbitrage,” he “firms up the present by experiencing it from the future as a moment in the past.”
It would take no great stretch of the imagination to draw intimate parallels between the two meanings of “temporizing” and apply them in the most superficial manner to my life. In Egypt, my family could easily see the storm brewing and hoped to wait it out, as Jews have always done throughout history; but like the Marranos in Spain, to win time, members of my family decided to convert to Christianity; others stopped going to temple. Unable or unwilling to leave, they too went under.
What I am trying to explore is not the historical temporizer, but for want of a better term, the psychological temporizer – who defers, denies, disperses the present, who accesses time – life, if you wish – so obliquely and in such roundabout ways and gives the present so provisional and tenuous a status that the present, insofar as such a thing is conceivable, ceases to exist, or, to be more accurate, does not count. It is unavailable.
“Session I: How True to Life Is Biography?” Partisan Review, 68:1 (2001), pp. 32-34.
The Seat of Nostalgia
“Palintropic” means that which “turns again – which keeps turning,” which loops back or “turns back on itself” or is “back-stretched” – a going back to oneself, a flipping back to oneself, a sort of systemic renversement reminiscent of the back-sprung reflex Homeric bow, which was strung in such a way as to counteract the normal curvature of the bow, reversing the curve to gain more power.
This, if I might suggest, is the seat of nostalgia, perhaps not its origin but certainly its end point. This is my home, my emotional, aesthetic, and intellectual home.
My home is a counterhome, and my instincts are counterinstincts. Yet this is my home, my emotional, aesthetic, and intellectual home. Exile, nostalgia, a broken heart, and other profound reversals mean nothing unless they induce a corresponding set of intellectual, psychological, and aesthetic reversals as well. I project these reversals on everything, because it is in finding reversals that I am able to find myself.
“Pensione Eolo,” in False Papers, pp. 139-140.
Why Do Memoirists Lie?
Perhaps writing opens up a parallel universe into which, one by one, we’ll move all of our dearest memories and rearrange them as we please.
Perhaps this is why all memoirists lie. We alter the truth on paper so as to alter it in fact; we lie about our past and invent surrogate memories the better to make sense of our lives and live the life we know was truly ours. We write about our life, not to see it as it was, but to see it as we wish others might see it, so we may borrow their gaze and begin to see our life through their eyes, not ours.
Only then, perhaps, would we begin to understand our life story, or to tolerate it and ultimately, perhaps, to find it beautiful, not that any life is ever beautiful, but the measure of a beautiful life is perhaps one that sees its blemishes, knows they can’t be forgiven and, for all that, learns each day to look the other way.
“Writers on Writing: A Literary Pilgrim Progresses to the Past,” New York Times, August 28, 2000.
That first time.
There are plenty of good reasons not to ask what we were doing, or who we were in love with, or what demons we were battling when we ran into Proust the first time. Such questions would tell us very little about ourselves, and less than nothing about Proust. Ask any literature majors in college and they will instantly remind you that the first two things to do when thinking critically about a work of literature is to banish all references to its author’s life and all references to ours.
But this is precisely the problem with Proust. The Search [A la recherche du temps perdu] is a novel about someone’s past that allows us – indeed, invites us and ultimately compels us – to graft, to “bookmark” our own past onto his. Just change the characters, we say, alter their names, change the scenery, and you’ve captured my life. Indeed, we are so stitched into his life, and his is so woven into ours, that when rereading his novel we are just as likely to run into him revisiting his past as into ourselves having visited and revisited this or that passage …in the past. In Proust’s own words: “A name read long ago in a book contains within its syllables the strong wind and the brilliant sunshine that prevailed while we were reading it.”
And here is the tricky part: any attempt to avoid this necessary fusion between Proust and us is not to avoid a pitfall; it is to fall right into it.
“Preface,” The Proust Project, p. xi.
Marcel Proust, Time, Tense, and Memory
… What is should always be turned into a what seems; what seems must become what isn’t, and what isn’t, what was. This is how things acquire meaning – not vis à vis the real present, but before the higher court of something I’d like to call the imperfect-conditional-anterior-preterit: what was perhaps and might have been has more meaning that what just is. This is where Proust wishes to lodge all experience, and this is where la vraie vie occurs. Memory and wishful thinking are filters through which he registers, processes, and understands present experience. With temporizers, experience is meaningless – it is not even experience – unless it comes as the memory of experience, or – which amounts to the same – as the memory of unrealized experience. For Proust, it is only retrospectively, long after the present has slipped away, that one finally sees the bigger picture. It is only when it’s too late that one comes to understand how close one came to bliss…or how needless our sorrows were when they drove us to despair.
“Session I: How True to Life Is Biography?” Partisan Review, 68:1 (2001), p. 37.
Seeking Answers to the Jewish Question
Although most Jews did practice Judaism in Egypt and were proud of being Jewish, I was always torn. 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 am 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 remain 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.
“Reflections of an Uncertain Jew,” in The Pushcart Prize 2002, p. 294.
IDOL MONGERS. The ultimate compromise: I open my arms to you and embrace you, says Mother Church, I owe you everything I am;
but because I owe so much more than I can every repay, I must strike you at every turn. The pope never forgave his Jews; they
never forgave him. So they've worked out this deal: Jews will corner the Eternal City’s trinket market — icons,
images, statues, postcards, guidebooks, maps, bracelets, key chains, you name it — and for this they turn the other
The paradox is lost on no one. The Jews, the Church, the pope — could the line be straighter? Underneath these
cobblestones lies Simon the Jew, Saint Peter himself. Yet Freud, who read mankind’s saga in the twisted tale of Oedipus,
said that Rome was no less tortured a maze of catacombs and buried chambers than the human psyche. In this one piazza, where
slithering contradictions coil together like earthworms in a tiny jar, the lonely sundial rehearses each day the most
harrowing tale of the Western world. This time as parody, tomorrow, who knows.
From “Voices,” in Frédéric Brenner, Diaspora: Homelands in Exile, vol. 2, Voices, p. 76.
The Jews of Discretion
But it was the gold necklace and the Star of David with a golden mezuzah on his neck that told me here was something more compelling than anything I wanted from him, for it bound us and reminded me that, while everything else conspired to make us the two most dissimilar beings, this at least transcended all differences. I saw his star almost immediately during his first day with us. And from that moment on I knew that what mystified me and made me want to seek out his friendship, without ever hoping to find ways to dislike him, was larger than anything either of us could ever want from the other, larger and therefore better than his soul, my body, or earth itself. Staring at his neck with its star and telltale amulet was like staring at something timeless, ancestral, immortal in me, in him, in both of us, begging to be rekindled and brought back from it millenary sleep.
What baffled me was that he didn’t seem to care or notice that I wore one too. Just as he probably didn’t care or notice each time my eyes wandered along his bathing suit and tried to make out the contour of what made us brothers in the desert.
With the exception of my family, he was probably the only other Jew who had ever set foot in B. But unlike us he let you see it from the very start. We were not conspicuous Jews. We wore our Judaism as people do almost everywhere in the world: under the shirt, not hidden, but tucked away. “Jews of discretion,” to use my mother’s words. To see someone proclaim his Judaism on his neck as Oliver did when he grabbed one of our bikes and headed into town with his shirt wide open shocked us as much as it taught us we could do the same and get away with it. I tried imitating him a few times. But I was too self-conscious, like someone trying to feel natural while walking about naked in a locker room only to end up aroused by his own nakedness. In town, I tried flaunting my Judaism with the silent bluster that comes less from arrogance than from repressed shame. Not him. It’s not that he never thought about being Jewish or about the life of Jews in a Catholic country. Sometimes we spoke about just this topic during those long afternoons when both of us would put aside work and enjoy chatting while the entire household and guests had all drifted into every available bedroom to rest for a few hours. He had lived long enough in small towns in New England to know what it felt like to be the odd Jew out. But Judaism never troubled him the way it troubled me, nor was it the subject of an abiding, metaphysical discomfort with himself and the world. It did not even harbor the mystical, unspoken promise of redemptive brotherhood. And perhaps this was why he wasn’t ill at ease with being Jewish and didn’t constantly have to pick at it, the way children pick at scabs they wish would go away. He was okay with being Jewish. He was okay with himself, the way he was okay with his body, with his looks, with his antic backhand, with his choice of books, music, films, friends.
Call Me by Your Name, pp. 19-20.
New York City, Straus Park, Alexandria, and Memory
[Editor's Note: Straus Park is a tiny, very obscure park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.]
New York is my home precisely because it is a place from which I can begin to be elsewhere – an analogue city, a surrogate city, a shadow city that allows me to naturalize and neutralize this terrifying, devastating, unlivable megalopolis by letting me think it is something else, somewhere else, that it is indeed far small, quainter than I feared, the way certain cities on the Mediterranean are forever small and quaint, with just about the right number of places where people can go, sit, and like Narcisssus leaning over a pool of water, find themselves at every bend, every store window, every sculptured forefront. Straus Park allowed me to place more than one film over the entire city of New York, the way certain guidebooks of Rome do.
Straus Park, this crossroad of the world, this capital of memory, this place where the four fountains of the world and the four quarters within me meet one another is not Paris, is not Rome, could not be London or Amsterdam, Frankfurt or New York. It is, of course, Alexandria.
I come to Straus Park to remember Alexandria, albeit an unreal Alexandria, an Alexandria that does not exist, that I’ve invented or learned to cultivate in Rome as in Paris, so that in the end the Paris and the Rome I retrieve here are really the shadow of the shadow of Alexandria, versions of Alexandria, the remanence of Alexandria, infusing Straus Park itself now, reminding me of something that is not just elsewhere but that is perhaps more in me than it ever was out there, that it is, after all, perhaps just me, a me that is no less a figment of time than this city is a figment of space.
“Shadow Cities,” in False Papers, pp. 46-47, 49.
Egypt as a “Deviled Egg”
Egypt is just the grid, the matrix, the cavity into which I “devil” my life long after leaving Egypt. My present is meaningless unless it is bedeviled with Egypt. One could say that all of my impressions of Egypt are no more than scattered pieces of my life out of Egypt strung together and bedeviled into a narrative thread I’ve decided to call Egypt. Seeing Egypt, not America, is how I see America. I see the present provided it’s like the past, becomes the past. When I went back to visit Egypt after publishing Out of Egypt, all I could think of, kept trying to think of, was New York – a place that used to loom like a distant future for me when I was a boy but that had suddenly become my present only when I wasn’t present in it! Egypt, however, the Egypt I had for so many decades dreamed of, was not once before me.
“Session I: How True to Life Is Biography?” Partisan Review, 68:1 (2001), p. 40.
Ramleh Tram Station, Alexandria, Egypt (ca. 1950). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
A Portrait of Great-Uncle Vili
I tried to speak to him of Alexandria, of time lost and lost worlds, of the end when the end came, of Monsieur Costa and Montefeltro and Aldo Kohn, of Lotte and Aunt Flora and lives so faraway now. He cut me short and made a disparaging motion with his hand, as if to dismiss a bad odor. “That was rubbish. I live in the present,” he said almost vexed by my nostalgia. “Siamo o non siamo?” he asked, standing up to stretch his muscles, then pointing to the first owl of the evening.
It was never exactly clear what one was or wasn’t, but to everyone in the family, including those who don’t speak a word of Italian today, this elliptical phrase still captures the strutting, daredevil, cocksure, soldier-braggart who had pulled himself out of an Italian trench during the Great War and then, hidden between rows of trees with his rifle held tightly in both hands, would have mowed down the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire had he not run out of bullets. The phrase expressed the hectoring self-confidence of a drill sergeant surrounded by sissies in need of daily jostling. “Are we man enough or aren’t we?” he seemed to say. “Are we going ahead with it or aren’t we?” “Are we worth our salt or what?” It was his way of whistling in the dark, of shrugging off defeat, of picking up the pieces and calling it a victory. This, after all, was how he barged in on the affairs of fate and held out for more, taking credit for everything, down to the unforeseen brilliance of his most hapless schemes. He mistook overdrawn luck for foresight, just as he misread courage for what was little more than the gumption of a street urchin. He had pluck. He knew it, and he flaunted it.
Out of Egypt, pp. [3-4].
A Visit to Rue Delta, Alexandria, 1995
I had only to look at the way Rue Delta led to the shore and I instantly remembered writing the scene [in Out of Egypt] about my brother and how he and I had walked there on our last night in Egypt. All I remembered was not what happened here decades ago but simply the fiction I’d written. I remembered something I knew was a lie. We had stopped here, purchased something to eat, and then crossed the coast road and heaved ourselves up to sit on that exact same spot on a stone wall along the seafront, watching the Mediterranean by night with its constellation of fishing boats glimmering on the horizon. I could see my brother as he was then and as he is now, gazing at the wild procession of Egyptian children waving their Ramadan lanterns along the sand banks, disappearing behind a jetty, reappearing farther off along the shore. I tried to remind myself that he was no longer present in the final version of this very scene, that I’d removed him from it and that I’d sat overlooking the sea by myself. But however I tried to reason with the memory of that first version, he kept popping back on Rue Delta, as though his image, like a Freudian screen memory, or like an afterimage, a shadow memory, no matter how many times I suppressed it, were a truth that it was pointless, even dishonest, to dismiss, even though I knew I had never been on that walk with or without him.
“Rue Delta,” in Tell Me True, pp. 200-201.
Alexandria: We’ve Already Seen That Film
I stared at the flicker of little fishing boats far out in the offing, always there at night, and watched a group of children scampering about on the beach below, waving little Ramadan lanterns, the girls wearing loud pink-and-fuchsia dresses, locking hands as they wove themselves into the dark again, followed by another group of child revelers who were flocking along the jetty past the sand dunes, some even waving up to me from below. I waved back with a familiar gesture of street fellowship and wiped the light spray that had moistened my face.
And suddenly I knew, as I touched the damp, grainy surface of the seawall, that I would always remember this night, that in years to come I would remember sitting here, swept with confused longing as I listened to the water lapping the giant boulders beneath the promenade and watched the children head toward the shore in a winding, lambent procession. I wanted to come back tomorrow night, and the night after, and the one after that as well, sensing that what made leaving so fiercely painful was the knowledge that there would never be another night like this, that I would never eat soggy cakes along the coast road in the evening, not this year or any other year, nor feel the baffling, sudden beauty of that moment when, if only for an instant, I had caught myself longing for a city I never knew I loved.
Exactly a year from now, I vowed, I would sit outside at night wherever I was, somewhere in Europe, or in America, and turn my face to Egypt, as Moslems do when they pray and face Mecca, and remember this very night, and how I had thought these things and made this vow. You’re beginning to sound like Elsa and her silly seders, I said to myself, mimicking my father’s humor.
On my way home I thought of what the others were doing. I wanted to walk in, find the smaller living room still lit, the Beethoven still playing, with Abdou still clearing the dining room, and, on closing the front door, suddenly hear someone say, “We were just waiting for you, we’re thinking of going to the Royal.” “But we’ve already seen that film,” I would say. “What difference does it make. We’ll see it again.”
And before we had time to argue, we would all rush downstairs, where my father would be waiting in a car that was no longer really ours, and, feeling the slight chill of a late April night, would huddle together with the windows shut, bicker as usual about who got to sit where, rub our hands, turn the radio to a French broadcast, and then speed to the Corniche, thinking that all this was as it always was, that nothing ever really changed, that the people enjoying their first stroll on the Corniche after fasting, or the woman selling tickets at the Royal, or the man who would watch our car in the side alley outside the theater, or our neighbors across the hall, or the drizzle that was sure to greet us after the movie at midnight would never, ever know, nor even guess, that this was our last night in Alexandria.
Out of Egypt, pp. 339-.