Saturday, October 8, 2011

The impermeability of love - an Upper West Side romance (Books - Eight White Nights by Andre Aciman)

A twenty-something man meets a bold and unusual woman named Clara at a christmas party and a spell was cast. For the next week they spend hours of each day with each other, drink at all hours of the day and night, attend Eric Rohmer films, and invent a playful language all their own. In some ways one could say there is nothing new about this spell. It is called love and it has happened to billions of people before these two. What is distinctive about Andre Aciman's Eight White Nights is the way in which reading it echoes the isolation of such a romance.

Halfway through dinner, I knew I'd replay the whole evening in reverse - the bus, the snow, the walk up the tiny incline, the cathedral looming straight before me, the stranger in the elevator, the crowded large living room where candlelit faces beamed with laughter and premonition, the piano music, the singer with the throaty voice, the scent of pinewood everywhere as I wandered from room to room, thinking that perhaps I should have arrived much earlier tonight, or a bit later, or that I shouldn't have come at all, the classic sepia etchings on the wall by the bathroom where a swinging door opened to a long corridor to private areas not intended for guests but took another turn toward the hallway and then, by miracle, led back into the same living room, where more people had gathered, and where, turning to me by the window where I thought I'd found a quiet spot behind the large Christmas tree, someone suddenly put out a hand and said, "I am Clara."


In someone else, I am Clara would have sprung like a tentative conversation opener - meek, seemingly assertive, overly casual, distant, aired as an afterthought, the verbal equivalent of a handshake that has learned to convey firmness and vigor by overexerting an otherwise limp and lifeless grip. ...

Here, I am Clara was neither bold nor intrusive, but spoken with the practiced, wry smile of someone who had said it too many times to care how it broke the silence with strangers...

I am Clara
. It barged in unannounced, like a spectator squeezing into a packed auditorium second before curtain time, disturbing everyone, and yet so clearly amused by the stir she causes, that, no sooner she'd found the seat that will be hers for the rest of the season than she'll remove her coat, slip it around her shoulders, turn to her new neighbor, and, meaning to apologize for the disruption without making too much of it, whisper a conspiring "I am Clara." It meant, I'm the Clara you'll be seeing all year long here, so let's just make the best of it...

It was a cross between a ribbing "How couldn't you know?" and "What's with the face?" "Here," she seemed to say, like a magician about to teach a child a simple trick, "Take this name and hold it tight in your palm, and when you're home alone, open your hand and think, Today I met Clara."
Aciman's tone is elegiac. He writing is urbane, contemporary, and can be colloquial, but it can also be precious. It's not that phrases like "no sooner she'd found the seat" doesn't have lovely music, but they call attention to the writing and removed me from the spell that is this novel's focus. Set in Manhattan's Upper West Side, now a privileged enclave of Banana Republics, Starbucks, Whole Foods, the restaurants of Power Chefs, multiplexes, and Equinoxes - it's basically a high-end mall dotted with expensive highrise coops and vestiges of its old self in simpler, family-owned restaurants, the neighborhood branch of the public library, and more stolid, old-world apartment buildings - it comes by its urbanity honestly. The characters spend a good deal of time at Rohmer's films. Aciman liberally references literature and music, particularly opera, often without preamble. Boris Godunov, Feodor Chaliapin, Don Giovanni, and the final duet of L'Incoronazione di Poppea, all make appearances. For example:
"Without wasting another second, Clara smirked back and, out of the blue, shook her hand and made a totally obscene gesture. "Printz Oskar to you, dickhead!" The man seemed totally trounced by the gesture and raced ahead of us.

"That'll teach him."

Her gesture left me more startled than the driver. It seemed to come from an underworld I would never have associated with her or with Henry Vaughan or with the person who'd spent months poring over Folias and then in the wee hours sang Monteverdi's Pur ti miro" for us. I was shaken and speechless. Who was she? And did people like this really exist?
Any reader can appreciate that this paragraph conveys something about Clara's duality - the rarefied areas of knowledge to which she has access coupled with an impulsivity that is coarse and close to the surface. I directed opera productions for over a decade, so the first line of the duet pur ti miro immediately starts the music playing in my mind's ear. The result is an enveloping experience mixing the sexual anticipation that is the engine of the novel, with pictures of New York roadways in winter, and a gorgeous baroque soundtrack. This perfectly conjures the exclusivity of the world that these two characters create, however, it is a world that Aciman seems willing to risk excluding readers from. Now, maybe I'm being snooty in imagining I can follow this story better than other readers. If Aciman has created the same sense that this novel speaks especially to me for all his readers, he has succeeded in ways I cannot assess. However, it bothered me that Aciman's first-person narrator is every bit as ready with classical literary allusions and lines from opera as she, but that we never know how he came by his knowledge. Aciman spends many, many pages establishing the origin of his narrator's reticence to take a risk - a key character trait that establishes him in opposition to Clara. However, he doesn't question for a minute the fact that he can burst into Leperello's Act I aria from Mozart's Don Giovanni. I know nothing of the origin of this side of his character. I don't know what he does for a living, if, indeed, he needs to hold a job at all, since he is able to take an entire week off from work, yet inhabits a building with a doorman and eats out constantly. The strength of this choice is the way in which it evokes the impermeable fantasy of the early days of intense romance. The flip-side, however, is it makes me wonder who the hell he is. The implication I came away with is that maybe he was Aciman himself, only younger, but not possessing this knowledge distracted from abandoning myself to the narrative at times. That was especially true in that the main action of the novel was about his learning to be himself. But I only learned about one side of this character, the side that needed to be "fixed," the rest of him remained a cipher.

The quality I most enjoyed in Aciman's writing is its spaciousness. You need to give this novel time, not in that it takes long to read, it actually accumulates quite a bit of momentum, but that requires an investment in the relationship. The opening chapter doesn't merely establish the details of meeting Clara. It is an extended riff on the phrase I am Clara that went on for tens of pages. If you enjoy steeping yourself in words that slowly conjure a feeling, you will eat this book up. If you like cutting to the chase, this is not the novel for you. I identified with the world of these two characters, so wondering what would happen to them created suspense for me. I found my investment in it warmly rewarding.


Anonymous said...

I am pleased to see this review of Aciman's book. It reflects much of what I felt as I read it. I admire his writing -- but his characters are sometimes mystifying. Though I enjoyed this book -- and, even more, his Call Me By Your Name -- I think my favorite of his books is his memoir Out of Egypt -- his wonderful prose telling the story of real people.

Ted said...

The only other book of his I have read is "False Papers." I've heard a number of other people speak about his memoir, it might be interesting to read that one next.