Monday, May 27, 2013

Longing for the underside of oneself (Books - Harvard Square by Andre Aciman)

Andre Aciman is a contemporary voice of longing - longing for home while in exile, longing for lost love.  I really enjoyed his Eight White Nights, a retrospective story of an intense romance.  Harvard Square I found more difficult to enter, but not in a bad way.  What I mean is that I had to work at it, particularly because one of the main characters is so unlikeable.

A father and son visit Harvard for a tour, as the son is about to apply to college.  Harvard is the father's alma mater and the visit to his old stomping ground kicks up the dust for the old man.  He remembers the final year of his graduate studies there: his classes, his girlfriends, but particularly a cab driver he meets at a cafe - Kalaj.  Our narrator is Egyptian, Jewish, literature student, a sensitive intellectual like Aciman.  Kalaj is Arab, by way of Paris, obnoxious, volatile, a sponger.  They share a love of speaking French and drinking coffee and cheap wine.  While our narrator tries to help Kalaj from completely destroying his own life through impulsivity, Kalaj tries to teach our narrator how to take the risk to live ferociously, honestly.

It began with the prologue, which I found unnecessary.  I know that Aciman wants us to see which kind of man the father has become, but there was something obvious about the excuse he creates to visit his memories.  I would have preferred something more integrated into the story proper.  And Kalaj is intensely dislikeable, so to begin with I didn't want to spend much time with him, but knowing the rewards of an Aciman novel, I stuck with it.  What unfolds is putatively the a story of friendship between two very different people but really, it's the story of two potential ways of living life that are present in everyone.  Aciman makes no bones about it:
One of the things that drew me to Kalaj at first had nothing to do with his mischievous sixth sense, or his survivor's instincts, or his cantankerous outbursts that had strange ways of wrapping their arms around you till they choked you before they turned into laughter.  Nor was it the mock-abrasive intimacy which put so many off but was precisely what felt so familiar to me, because it brought to mind those instant friendships of my childhood, when one insult about your mother followed by another about mine could bind two ten-year-olds for a lifetime.

Perhaps he was a stand-in for who I was, a primitive version of the me I'd lost track of and sloughed off living in America.  My shadow self, my picture of Dorian Gray, my mad brother in the attic, my Mr. Hyde, my very, very rough draft.  Me unmasked, unchained unleashed, unfinished: me untrammeled, me in rags, me enraged.  Me without books, without finish without a green card.  Me with a Kalashnikov.
That's what I ended up liking about this book.  It's all out there. As Kalaj becomes more and more recognizable as the flip side of, well, just about anyone who might pick up an Andre Aciman novel, the story grows compelling and, finally, quite touching. Here Aciman seems to be writing about longing for the underside of himself. His lost (or perhaps never found) ferocity. The story is honest and elegantly told, and its encompassing vision of the sides of human nature present in everyone that aren't simple or easy is compassionate.   


Thomas Hogglestock said...

I wasn't a huge fan of Call Me By Your Name. I think I was in the mood for something a little more direct and less impressionistic. Your review makes me think I might need to give Aciman another chance.

Ted said...

There is something about his elegance that is a little...evasive. In a way, I think he does battle with that side of himself here. If you end up reading it, I'll be curious to hear your reaction.