Sometimes I wonder if there isn’t a variant of Gresham’s law at work in the arts and letters of the digital age: Is bad writing driving out good? The sheer volume and velocity of the blogosphere, for example, seems to hide the moments of discernment and reflection.
Now and then, however, we are offered a reading experience that reminds us of the gold standard in literature, and one such book is “Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere” by André Aciman (Farrar Straus and Giroux: $25). Aciman, who teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, first attracted attention and praise with a memoir of his childhood in Alexandria, “Out of Egypt,” and then with two novels, “Eight White Nights” and “Call Me By Your Name.” He aspires and deserves to be called a writer’s writer.
His new book is a collection of 18 essays, most of which previously appeared in various distinguished journals, ranging from The American Scholar to Condé Nast Traveler. The subtitle suggests that “Alibis” is a book about the experience of exotic locales, and it’s true that he writes about not only Alexandria and Rome but also Paris, Venice, Tuscany and Barcelona, among other places. But it is not a travel book, or perhaps I should say it is not just a book about travel.
“One reason I think I make a terrible travel journalist is that, as soon as I visit a place, I am totally unable to write about it,” Aciman writes of himself in an essay titled “Temporizing.” “If I want to write I must pretend to remember.”
So “Alibis” is more accurately described as a book about the intricate workings of memory in the mind of a writer. Aciman is the editor of “The Proust Project,” and he shares with Proust an ability to plumb the depths of memory and meaning in the observed details of ordinary life. In the essay titled “Intimacy,” for example, he writes about a return visit to the street in Rome where he had lived four decades before, and he reflects on the power of writing to crack through the numbness of the experience itself.
“Writing might even bring me closer to this street than I’d been while living there,” he muses. “Writing wouldn’t alter or exaggerate anything; it would simply excavate, rearrange, lace a narrative, recollect in tranquility, where ordinary life is perfectly happy to nod and move on.”
Aciman is describing here the writerly craft whose tool marks can be detected in each of the essays in the collection. My favorite example is “Reflections of an Uncertain Jew,” which opens with Aciman’s ruminations on a series of formal portraits of famous figures: Freud, Einstein, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt. Ostensibly, he is deconstructing the inner meanings of the portraiture, but he is also working his way toward “a disquieting question, which reflects my own very personal worries and anxieties, not Freud’s or Einstein’s. Didn’t they know they were Jewish?”
The essay suddenly turns confessional. He likens the struggles of these famous European Jews to make sense of their Jewishness with his own family’s experiences in Alexandria, and the lens of observation suddenly becomes a mirror. “I am a provisional, uncertain Jew,” he writes. “I am a Jew who loves Judaism provided it’s on the opposite shore, provided others practice it and leave me to pursue assimilation, which I woo with the assiduity of a suitor who is determined to remain a bachelor.”
Indeed, “Alibis” includes what is, for a writer, an intimate and shattering confession. You will find it in the essay titled “Rue Delta,” which appears toward the end of the book and serves as a kind of climax, and I won’t spoil the experience for Aciman’s readers by revealing it here. Once again, he is pondering the tension between memory and imagination, the choice between an empty truth and an artful lie, and he allows us to see how he has resolved the inner struggle.
“The Egypt I craved to return to was not the one I knew, or couldn’t wait to flee,” he writes, “but the one where I learned to invent being somewhere else, someone else.”
Indeed, the whole book can be seen as an exercise in dialectics. “I was born in Alexandria, Egypt,” Aciman writes in an afterword to the collection. “I am African by birth, everyone in my family is from Asia Minor, and I live in America. Unlike my ancestors the Marranos who were Jews claiming to be Christians, I enjoy being a Jew among Christians as long as I can pass for a Christian among Jews.”
Aciman resolves the contradictions that he embodies — “This feeling of being cut off from oneself or of being in two places at the same time” — with a simple credo: “Art is nothing more than an exalted way of stylizing distortions that have become unbearable.” The statement surely applies to his own book, a work of alchemy that turns lead into gold.