Author André Aciman is at home everyplace. Sort of.
The first night of Ramadan wasn’t much different from the rest of the winter nights on the Alexandrian Corniche. The air was cool and salty, overwhelmed by the crashes of water. Apart from the rare, white headlights passing by with recurring intermittence, the stones of the wall that separated the land from the sea were only lit by the feeble rays of night stars.
A 14-year-old boy walked along the coastline. He was a French-speaking boy, born into a Turkish family who spoke Ladino, living in Alexandria, and attending a British school where they were trying to teach him Arabic. The boy held a sheet of newspaper hiding a soggy pancake, a delicacy with which one of the street vendors had just granted him. The boy sat on the wall facing the sea. Behind him the city he never loved spread far and wide. It was the boy’s last night on the Corniche.
This time tomorrow his Turkish and Jewish family would be escaping Nasser’s anti-Semitic Egypt. They would be headed to Rome, Italy.
It was 1965.
Rome was the first stop for the boy’s family. Locked up in his room in an apartment in working-class Via Clelia, the boy spent three years hiding behind the pages of the novels that he wished his world resembled. There was no television in the house, no money, no friends, no relatives – there was only the #85 bus, from Via Clelia to the city center. On Saturday mornings, it took the boy 22 stops to get to Piazza San Silvestro, where he would get off and start wandering, stumbling into one bookstore after another. Via del Babuino, Via Frattina, Campo Marzio, Piazza Rotonda, Campo de’ Fiori – anywhere that would take him away from Via Clelia, where the boy hid his shame and his yearning for the worlds of Ovid and Dostoyevsky.
It was as if the boy was cursed to hate all the places, all the cities, all the streets. Rue Delta in Alexandria was first, Via Clelia in Rome then. But there was one city the boy thought he loved. It was a city he had only read about but never seen. It was Balzac’s labyrinthine city and Baudelaire’s splenetic metropolis. It was a place full of stores where the boy could buy Pelikan pens and cigarettes without questions asked. It was a city where the Seine would run adrift “scarcely seven minutes away” from the boy’s great-aunt’s apartment.
It was Paris.
When his family was still living in Alexandria, his Uncle Isaac teased him about his longing for Paris. “Wants to be a petit monsieur,” he used to say. “All he needs is a monocle, a top hat, and off goes our jeune flâneur through the grands boulevards de Paris.” His haggard, aging uncle asked him what he wanted to become when he grew up.
“An ambassador,” the boy said.
Uncle Isaac asked him of which country – “Which country are you a citizen of?”
“France, of course,” the boy said.
France, of course.
France was where his father, Henri, had taken a temporary job before losing his knitting factory and leaving Alexandria. So every Christmas, Easter and sometimes twice in the summer, the boy, now 15, would be boarding the 3:30 direttissimo at Stazione Termini and was off to Paris with his mother and brother. Each time, it took a lot of convincing to board the train back from Paris to Rome. As he said goodbye to the city he thought he loved, the boy was already missing it.
Aunt Flora knew it. Years later, long after the boy became a man, he would recall his asking her to play the Shubert again while they sat in the kitchen where she cooked, ate, wrote letters, read, watched television, corrected homework. In the other room of her ground floor apartment, two grand pianos sat side by side, making it hard for anyone to squeeze behind the first piano and reach the second one. The small window in the room was closed. Outside, the Venetian Grand Canal lay surmounted by bridges and crossed by gondole.
Aunt Flora would ask him if he really wanted to hear the Shubert. Shubert was what she played while the Germans stood outside Alexandria, and the whole family thought the end was near. Shubert was what she played when she did not want to think about what they were about to lose.
But Aunt Flora would play the Shubert for him, even if with all the music recalled.
“We let it happen, as Jews always let these things happen,” she would tell him. “Because, deep inside, we know we’ll lose everything we own at least twice in our lives.”
The boy’s family would lose everything they owned at least another time.
Three years after moving to Rome, the boy was headed to New York.
It was 1968.
Now 17, the boy was growing into a young man. In New York, he looked for a job. Two weeks after his arrival, he got one as a mailboy at Lincoln Center. Thirty streets below his parents’ house on 96th Street, the boy fell in love (if “love” is the word for it) with the city of art and culture which the place he worked for represented. In the mailroom, everyone liked him, and he liked everyone. In apparenza, he would later say using the Italian word, apparently, he had found a place where he belonged.
But this realization only came to him later, during his first few weeks of college. At Lehman College in the Bronx, the boy studied English and comparative literature. He had only gone there because it was a free college, though he was sure he wouldn’t like it. Then, it happened. The first snow came to dust over the city, and, while he walked across campus, the boy heard someone say loudly, “Fucking snow.” For the first time in forever, he felt comfortable in a place where people expressed themselves in a way that riveted him. For the first time in forever, he felt like he belonged.
Maybe he was a New Yorker after all.
In New York, the boy didn’t have to fake being a Christian. In New York, people were nice in the same way he was. In New York, people weren’t touchy in the same way he wasn’t. In New York, the traffic between possibilities and impossibilities and the constant shuffling of the city became the boy’s home.
That is, until he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
It was 1973.
Oxford Street, Ware Street, Concord Avenue, Prescott Street and Lowell House are all the places the boy lived in while earning his doctorate in comparative literature at Harvard.
During summers in an empty Cambridge, the boy divided his days between Houghton Library and the roof terrace of the Lowell House building where he was a resident tutor, armed with a folding chair, a bathing suit, cigarettes, music, a bit of booze and, of course, books. Right there on the fourth floor of a college dorm overlooking Cambridge, the young man from Alexandria, who felt unable to fit into the strange New World, imagined paradoxically to be lying by some beach on the Mediterranean.
Paradoxically because he didn’t just hate Alexandria, he also hated the beach. Back in Egypt, he would get paralyzing migraines from being in the sun for too long. On that terrace, with an equal amount of books and Tom Collins, the boy realized he wasn’t longing for the beach – he was longing for the sea, for those “quiet beach-day Sundays” right before the crowds headed out to the beaches in early summer. And, yet, he had never thought about those beach-days before. They had come to him, as memories, only once they stopped existing, during a stroll on Riverside Drive in New York City or during conversations with friends on the terraces in Cambridge.
Because every place in the boy’s life was nothing more than a throwback to Egypt, to a life he sometimes missed, mostly just remembered. Lawrence Durrell once wrote about Alexandria, the “capital of memory,” that “the city, half-imagined (yet wholly real), begins and ends in us, roots lodged in our memory.” The boy didn’t even love the city or the things he remembered about the city – he simply loved remembering. It was within his memory that Alexandria had started existing again.
And, on the terrace of his college dorm, the boy remembered the sea that had followed him from the tip of North Africa all the way to Italy, France and the United States. He remembered how the water looked, glimpsed through the trees on the direttissimo from Rome to Paris. He remembered how he grew to love the sun in New York. He remembered how he caught his old aunt staring at the Mediterranean in Alexandria, longing for the Seine. He remembered the summers spent in the town beaches on the Italian Riviera. He remembered the view of the Lido from Aunt Flora’s house in Venice.
It was Aunt Flora who had taught him to swim.
Suddenly, Harvard became too much for him and not quite enough. The boy moved back to New York and there, away from anything academic and completely immersed in the metropolis, he wrote his dissertation in six months and fell back in love (again, if “love” is the word for it) with a city he hasn’t left since.
It was 1980.
The boy is now 65. The body of a small, French child has turned into the short but slim body of a grown man. With thinning ivory hair, André Aciman has his mother’s eyes. Like Gigi’s eyes, his are almond-shaped, dark and Mediterranean in color. Like Gigi, he carries himself with a combination of elegance, grace and utter boldness.
His eyes have the confidence of a man who has spent his youth flirting with girls in bars, exploiting his French accent. But his eyes also seem doomed by the knowledge that that same accent has prevented him from fitting in his whole life.
Apart from the years, seven books have also gone by. The first one was Out of Egypt, an account of his last days in Alexandria, published 30 years after his exile, in 1995.
There was False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory in 2000, a collection of essays on cities, memory, Marcel Proust and exile. False Papers is also the book that narrates his return to Alexandria, the capital of memory. “This, I realize, is what happens when one finally comes home: one hardly notices, and it doesn’t feel odd at all,” he wrote. In Alexandria, the boy realized the city was dead, Egypt was dead and even he was not alive anymore. He vowed never to return. But he forgot to kiss his grandfather’s grave.
“Maybe next time,” he wrote.
Then, in 2004, The Proust Project was published. It was a collection of essays he had edited from 28 writers about their favorite passages from In Search of Lost Time. The year of his first novel, Call Me by Your Name, was 2007. Even this work of fiction was created because of the boy’s longing for a place he couldn’t have – Italy. He fantasized about the country, the Riviera, the town beaches, the villas and the days by the sea. So, Elio, a slightly younger version of the Alexandrian intellectual educated in those bookstores in Rome, was born.
The protagonist of Harvard Square (2013) was also another version of himself, if not simply himself as a graduate student at Harvard. In Cambridge, at his favorite hangout spot, Café Algiers, the boy met a Tunisian cabdriver called Kalaj, short for Kalashnikov. Kalaj reminded the boy of Henri, his father. Like Henri, Kalaj was a misogynistic womanizer with North African values but also with an earthy love for France and anything French.
But there is only one book Aciman is proud of. It’s the work that “every author wishes to be able to write at least once in his life.” Eight White Nights was published in 2010. The novel was a journey through an asexual romance between two upper-middle-classers in New York City.
Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere came in 2011. A collection of travel essays and trips down memory lane, Alibis was also where he wrote,
“I am an exile from Alexandria, Egypt.
Like the nomad, an exile is someone who has no home to go back to. He has lost his home; it’s no longer there; there is no going back – Odysseus just got wind that Ithaca was entirely destroyed by an earthquake and that every person he knew there is gone. Unlike the nomad, though, an exile is not resigned to homelessness; perpetual transience feels as unnatural to him as it would to any tourist who’s lost his return ticket. An exile wants a home, not a provisional rest stop. But having lost his home, he hasn’t the foggiest notion how to go about finding a new one. He is even wary of having to ‘choose’ a new home. Can one choose one’s home any more than one can choose the color of one’s skin? Anyone can build a house – but is it ever a home?”
New York should be his home. Sometimes, it’s not. Because, sometimes, André Aciman dreams of being in Italy, sunbathing on the poolside of a beautiful Mediterranean mansion, or in France, strolling in a narrow cobble lane street, or in Egypt, longing to be out of there. But New York should be his home. That’s where he’s a professor at CUNY. That’s where he lives with his wife Susan, also a Harvard graduate he met at a former student’s party. That’s where his firstborn, Alexander, and the twins, Michael and Philip, were born. That’s where Gigi and Henri are buried.
Sometimes, though, the boy had to flee New York. Paris, Barcelona, St. Petersburg, Jerusalem, his return to Alexandria. Intermittently over the years, he left New York, longing for other places.
It happened in 2000 in Paris. During his stay in Place des Vosges, the boy sat in his hotel room, thinking about every corner of the square he had experienced. The grocery stores, the bookstores, the art galleries, the tiny synagogue and the nursery school underneath the arcades – after a few days, everything had grown more and more familiar, including the faces. He thought he was ready to write about it. But he didn’t. He wanted to be back in New York. He knew that, only once he was no longer in Paris, he could begin to remember it, pretend to be there still, long for it.
It happened again in 2003, this time in Tuscany. At Il Leccio, one of many timeless villas in central Italy, the boy realized that the way he traveled was also the way he lived. It wasn’t about being in a place, it was about planning the itinerary for the next trip. Wherever he wasn’t, that’s where he was. That’s where they all were, David Ostwald said. A lawyer with an optimistic attitude, Ostwald didn’t even know how he had ended up becoming Aciman’s best friend. He just knew he was, probably because they were so different. Ostwald saw the glass half full. Mr. Quicksand saw it half empty. That was Ostwald’s nickname for him. Sometimes he called him Mr. Somewhere-I’m-Not. Sometimes, Mr. On-the-One-Hand. Other times, Mr. On-the-Other-Hand.
In Volpaia, the wine village in the Chianti region that Aciman adored, walking with Ostwald and their wives, Mr. Quicksand thought he was there, but he really wasn’t. In reality, he was already longing to be back in New York. He ran from one place to the other, one street corner to the next.
“Why don’t you just slow down?” Ostwald urged him.
His friend stopped and said, “I can’t, I want to see this whole town.” But he wasn’t seeing it. He knew that the only way he could see it was to be back in New York, remembering it.
So he went back to New York.
On a freezing Saturday afternoon, André Aciman left his apartment on the Upper West Side and biked to the intersection of Broadway, West End Avenue and 106th Street. It was a route he had known since his college days, when he would ride his way to and from the Bronx.
The sun tried desperately to heat up the hazy laziness of the after-lunch hours in empty Straus Park, shining weakly on the back of Mnemosyne, mother of all muses, whose bronze body lay before an inscription, “In memory of Isidor and Ida Straus / who were lost at sea in the Titanic disaster April 15, 1912 / Lovely and pleasant were they in their lives and in / Their death they were not divided.”
In memory of. Mnemosyne. The personification of Memory.
Aciman was drawn to this place. He used to walk here when he needed a break from writing his dissertation in the somber stacks of Columbia University’s Butler Library. Every day for a summer, at noon, he would come down Broadway. He did it mostly for the statue of the muse because she, like him, was doomed to be stuck in a place halfway between places, on an island in the middle of another island, in the accidental quietness among the traffic. Mnemosyne didn’t really have a home address. She lived at the intersection of four different addresses. Just like he always had. That was why, in Straus Park, he felt at home.
He grew so fond of the place that, in 2007, unaware of the restoration the park was undergoing, he panicked at the thought of its imminent demolition, believing that a part of him, imprinted in that oasis in the middle of a city, would have died with it. Aciman held tight to his affection for the park for years, to the point where his friends and family made fun of him each time he told them he was going there.
“Are you sure you’re where you are?” David Ostwald asked him.
“Not Straus Park again,” the twins said.
But it was Straus Park, again.
He secured his bike to a bench to the right of Mnemosyne. He took off his bright green helmet and sat down on the edge of the bench, elbows on knees, fingers intertwined. This time, he had gone there almost reluctantly. Then he started looking around, and he saw it again. Home.
He fixed his eyes on the intersection between West End Avenue and 107th Street but didn’t see West End and 107th. Instead, André Aciman saw townhouses, coffee shops and old lampposts along the canal. He saw Amsterdam. His gaze followed the Dutch canal south, to West End Avenue and 106th Street. And there it was, London.
He stood up impatiently. He turned around and faced the bench. Narrowing his eyes to block out the sight of the Manhattan traffic, he fixed his gaze on 106th Street as it continued east toward Central Park. His imagination traveled faster than the blink of the streetlight. The paved road of a town on the Italian Riviera lay before him. He saw the row of Mediterranean poplars, the colors of the beach ombrelloni, the pavement slowly turning into sand and then, finally, he saw the blue of the sea.
He sat back down. Suddenly, he felt Paris on his skin. It seemed that, if he followed the crisp breeze passing through the park all the way west on 106th Street, it would lead him to the bank of the Seine, flowing quietly behind Riverside Park.
Just sitting there, on that bench, trapped in a transitional place of remembrance, would make him think of all those nearly abandoned but unexplainably snug parks in Rome, where he used to rest his feet on his Saturday morning walks.
But it was just Straus Park, again.
It was just New York, the city he didn’t love – the one he preferred to others.
He thought about leaving New York.
But where would he go? Paris? Too many tourists. Rome? God, no. He laughed. New York was his home, a place where he could be everywhere – Amsterdam, London, Paris, Rome, St. Petersburg – in all of his shadow cities.
Of course, Aciman knew he was going to leave New York someday. There’s a small cemetery in Rome in the shadow of the Egyptian-style pyramid that Gaius Cestius forced his heirs to build for him in 330 days. Officially, it’s called Cimitero Acattolico, but the locals know it as cimitero degli artisti e dei poeti. The hill-like greenery is the final resting place of Percy Shelley, John Keats, William Story, Antonio Gramsci.
It will also be home to André Aciman.
Or, at least, to one part of him. The rest remains a mystery.