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The curving Alexandria shore
(Photo: Jeff Werner )
When André Aciman returned to Alexandria after 30 years in exile, he imagined what his life would have been like had he never left. He wandered around the city in a daze, halfheartedly taking in the landmarks of his youth, stumbling from bakery to cemetery, bewildered and overwhelmed. What gave him the most pleasure during this visit, as he recounts in his 1994 memoir, Out of Egypt, was musing on some future time when he might recall the sensation of being back in Egypt, pondering his inability to immediately appreciate the significance of this return trip. It is this longing to remember, this restlessness with experience, that characterizes Aciman’s entire body of work: a memoir, a collection of essays, and now, a novel.
Widely praised for its lush rendering of a vanishing world, Out of Egypt depicts Alexandria as colorful and cosmopolitan, with Arabs, Jews, and Europeans living side-by-side (though the categories were not necessarily mutually exclusive). Aciman’s large Sephardi family thrives through a combination of wile, wit, and adaptability. Memorable and often eccentric, Aciman’s aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents, live at the intersection of several cultures; at home, they speak French, Italian, and Ladino (a Spanish dialect descended from the language spoken by 15th-century, Inquisition-era Jews). Again and again, Aciman’s relatives seek solace in their supposed European past, finding, for example, in the music of Schubert an emotional anchor, a reminder of life outside of Alexandria, “an echo of an old world we believed we belonged to because we belonged nowhere else.”
Israel’s triumph in the 1948 war caused Egypt to take a sharp nationalist turn, bringing anti-Western and anti-Semitic tensions, on the rise since the 1930s, to a boil. All children were forced to learn Arabic in school, streets were renamed for Egyptian patriots, and eventually, life became impossible for the thousands of Europeans and Jews living in Alexandria. Many fled the country. By 1956, the expulsion of Westerners and Jews had begun in earnest. Assets, businesses, and homes were seized. For families like Aciman’s, who waited as long as possible to leave, threatening phone calls, surveillance, and arrests had to be endured.
After Aciman’s father was threatened with arrest, in 1965, the family was given a week to leave Egypt. They decided to head to Italy, where earlier generations of Aciman’s family had lived before making their way, via Turkey, to Alexandria. On their final night in the city—in the midst of packing, selling their possessions, and other logistical matters—the family gathers for a rushed, somber seder, full of tears and reminiscences. Aciman, then 14, escapes to the beach, where he scans the stars, “sensing that what made leaving so fiercely painful was the knowledge that there would never be another night like this…. If only for an instant, I had caught myself longing for a city I never knew I loved.”
For Aciman, who spent several years in Italy and France before settling in New York City, home is an elusive concept. All places turn into shadow cities; like Alexandria, “you cannot leave, but you already long for the place from which you intend to leave.” He adores Paris, for example, but can only fully enjoy being there if he imagines himself in New York missing Paris. He haunts a café in Greenwich Village, the site of the beginning of a doomed love affair, grateful for the pain caused him by the existence of the place. He is mute before the sight of a perfect Mediterranean Sea, because nothing inside him is capable of appreciating instant, unmediated beauty. As a Jew in Bethlehem on Christmas, he feels at home only insofar as he is in a “land awash with memory, driven by memory.” At the heart of Aciman’s work is a twist on the much-loved Elizabeth Bishop poem, “One Art”—..so many things seem filled with the intent/to be lost that their loss is no disaster—where nothing exists except that which can be lost.
Call Me by Your Name, his first foray into fiction, is no exception. From the very first page, we know that the story will be told from the point of view of an older narrator, and most of the novel’s action will be set in the past. The narrator, Elio—17, bookish, Jewish, Italian—lives in a village on the Italian Riviera. During the summer, his parents house graduate students in exchange for administrative help with Elio’s father’s own academic research. When Oliver, a 24-year-old American, steps out of the taxi, shirt billowing around the Star of David that hangs from his neck, Elio experiences intense pangs of longing that will forever alter his life.
It is the Star of David that first draws Elio to Oliver: He’s immediately attracted to a man who announces his Jewishness so proudly. By contrast, Elio’s family “wore [their] Judaism as people do almost everywhere in the world: under the shirt.” Communion with Oliver would be a kind of return to religion, Elio imagines, like the sensation he gets on Yom Kippur of being “united with a nation that is forever dispersed, but which, from time to time, comes together again when one being and another wrap themselves under the same piece of cloth.”
Yet Elio’s Jewishness, not unlike Aciman’s own as described in Out of Egypt, is inextricably interwoven with his European background. At the start of the novel, Elio transcribes Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ for piano, just as at the end of the memoir, the author’s family eats its Seder meal to the strains of Beethoven’s Song of Thanksgiving. In Aciman’s world, there is no contradiction here; European culture is as ingrained in his characters as their Jewishness. In Alexandria, the Aciman family may be ambivalent and circumspect about their Jewish identity but they never renounce it, just as they keep a firm hold on their beloved Schubert. After all, Aciman’s work implies, aren’t all Jews exiles?
If the book is short on plot, it’s long on Aciman’s favorite motifs: memory, yearning, and nostalgia. Aciman succeeds in extending one long moment of exultation, but as always, the idyll has an expiration date, all the sweeter for the fact of its eventual demise. Will Oliver relieve Elio’s obsessive lust? If so, what will be the consequences. “Time makes us sentimental,” the wiser, older Elio tells us. “Perhaps, in the end, it is because of time that we suffer.”
Aciman understands that the concept of home is a mirage, that the center lies in the self, despite any shuttling between multiple worlds. In all his work, Aciman excels at capturing the essence of exile, of eternal paradox, of constant oscillation, of not fully inhabiting one’s crooked existence. In Out of Egypt, Aciman’s Aunt Flora admits, “I am a citizen of two countries but I live in neither…. I don’t even think I know who I am, I know myself the way I might know my neighbor. When I’m here, I long to be there; when I was there, I longed to be here.” For Aunt Flora, exile offers nothing but pain. But for Aciman, the pain is mixed with pleasure—the process of retrospection, of looking back constantly, almost pathologically, is as productive and rigorous as the act of living in the present.