Navigate to Arts & Letters section

André Aciman’s Quiet Bliss

A brilliant and charming new collection of essays, ‘Homo Irrealis,’ starts in Egypt, travels to Rome, and ends on the other side of an Eric Rohmer film, by way of Billy Wilder, Fernando Pessoa, and W.G. Sebald

David Mikics
March 04, 2021
Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images
Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images
Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images
Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images

Jews frequently specialize in nostalgia—a tricky business since the time of Moses, whose Israelites gloss over the cruel facts of slavery so they can yearn after the lost culinary delights of Egypt, the garlic and the onions. These biblical hunger pangs strike a particularly rich chord with André Aciman, novelist, essayist, memoirist and Proust scholar. He caresses his memories, but he knows the risk of being too wispy, too wistful, too comfortable with the bittersweet—and he realizes that memories can deceive.

Aciman’s new book of essays, Homo Irrealis, starts from his birthplace, the patchwork city of Alexandria, the core of Jewish Egypt, a place where the tawdry and the sacred rubbed shoulders. He lived there until age 14, when his family, escaping their harsh Egyptian taskmasters, departed for Europe.

When Aciman was born, in 1951, Alexandria was an international city, where (he says, exaggerating slightly) everyone had four native languages and a second home elsewhere. Jews dominated the city’s business world. But then came Nasser, and Egypt’s Jews were increasingly in peril. Aciman confesses that “as an adolescent living in Egypt in what had become an anti-Semitic police state, I grew to hate Egypt and couldn’t wait to leave and land in Europe, preferably France.” His longing, he says, “was not so distantly related to sex, which, in my mind, I was confusing with the longing for France.”

During the weeks when the Acimans packed their suitcases and talked about the journey, desire and memory became a Möbius strip. The teenager still in Egypt pictured himself already in Paris remembering the boy back in Egypt longing for France. And the 70-year-old Aciman remains nostalgic for the youth who imagined from the shores of Egypt what Paris might be like.

In Homo Irrealis Aciman patiently works out an algorithm about love, memory, and desire: The older man looks back at the boy fantasizing about his future. This is irrealis nostalgia, and Aciman, as his title indicates, is irrealis man. Irrealis moods, Aciman explains, are counterfactual, hinting at “the might-be and the might-have-been”; they suit his life story exactly. Aciman is an exile with no actual home, but instead a string of unreal ones, beginning with Alexandria. Then came Rome, Paris, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and at last New York. (Aciman is a distinguished professor of comparative literature at CUNY.)

Aciman’s diffidence has its roots in the French novel as it passes from Balzac to Flaubert and then on to Proust. Balzac’s typical young man from the provinces, newly come to Paris, thirsts after glory. He wants to acquire a mistress, defeat his rivals, and be crowned a brilliant success. Flaubert’s Frédéric Moreau in Sentimental Education, by contrast, savors his frustrations, even preferring a hopeless love to fulfillment. You educate your passions, Flaubert implies, when you deflect and analyze them. Flaubert opens the way to Proust, who makes a whole world out of the subtle disjointed affairs of the heart.

In Homo Irrealis, Aciman discusses jealousy in Proust, that dire, endless craving for disappointment, contrived by the lover out of flimsy or absent evidence. Manifold Proustian pleasures stem from the same inventiveness, when the mind takes a tiny germ of reality and stretches into lustrous reverie. Invoking Berma’s acting or Elstir’s painting, Proust shows how the artist stirs within us a response that is “maybe more in us than in the work itself,” something telling and intimate. We become dissatisfied, suddenly unwilling to take life as it is. As a result, things will forever be what we thought they could or should be—the irrealis mood. This is not wish fulfillment but the amending of reality by illusion.

As a blues singer might put it, Aciman thinks not of his old time used to be, but of his might have been. He dwells on erotic encounters that almost, or sort of, happened, and therefore have a staying power far superior to more blatant fulfillments. “Getting what one wants takes it away,” Aciman says, channeling Proust, and as Freud reminds us, there is no satisfaction in satisfaction. Better “to rehearse, to defer, to ritualize,” than to consummate.

And if you do have a love affair, you need to keep your imagination working. Aciman charmingly invokes “the first week of a new love,” when “everything about the new person seems miraculous, down to the new phone number, which is still difficult to remember and which I don’t want to learn for fear it might lose its luster and stirring novelty.” In an essay on his fellow Alexandrian, the Greek poet Cavafy, Aciman writes that “the senses are too canny not to know that something like disquiet and loss always await lovemaking.” Haunted by loss, we try to keep a new love fresh, even though we know it will eventually fade.

Homo Irrealis contains two fascinating essays on Rome, that palimpsestlike, many-layered city. Aciman reminds us that Freud was obsessed with Rome and regarded it as an image of the unconscious. Aciman quotes Freud: “What is primitive is … commonly preserved alongside of the transformed version which has arisen from it.” Freud’s love for antiquity, described by scholars like Richard Armstrong, is, Aciman speculates, “a stand-in for his lifelong penchant for buried, shifty, undisclosed, primal, feral stuff.”

The undisclosed, furtive stuff behind Aciman’s writing has much to do with bisexuality, which Freud insists is inherent in everyone. Aciman cites Freud’s description of Leonardo da Vinci’s “pretty boys of feminine tenderness,” with their eyes “mysteriously triumphant, as if they knew of a great happy issue concerning which we must remain quiet”—no doubt a “love secret,” Freud adds.

Aciman goes on to describe his own love secret, a chance incident when he found himself pressed together with another young man on a crowded Roman bus. Not sure whether the fleeting contact is intentional, accidental, or both, the young Aciman makes it the substance of his fantasy life.

A god rules over the Rome section of Homo Irrealis: Apollo Sauroktonos, Apollo the Lizard Slayer, whose image Aciman adores, first as an adolescent in Rome with a postcard of the androgynous smiling deity on his wall, and then as an aging man searching for the original statue in the Vatican Museums. From the young stranger who may not have intended any sensual overture at all, but was merely trying to steady himself as the bus rocked back and forth, Aciman moves to Apollo’s statue, untouchable, implacable, and alluring. “I was able to spot a touch of languor behind his mischievous smile,” Aciman says of Apollo, “almost a willingness to surrender.” (Almost is one of Aciman’s key words.) Aciman improvises a dialogue with the statue, where he sounds like the elderly boy in Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. “You’ve grown old now,” the statue tells him, teasingly, and like Rilke’s Apollo, challenges him: “I am not alive, but look at me, I am more alive than you are.”

“I don’t know, and may never learn, how to reach out and touch,” Aciman admits. Such reticence, wrapping itself in words of desire, yet hesitant about approaching what we’re told is the real thing, leads him to the films of Eric Rohmer, the subject of three essays in Homo Irrealis. Rohmer loves temptation more than surrender. For Rohmer talking about desire is desire itself, a better and more memorable life, since (as Aciman puts it) ”we remember best what never happened.” Rohmer, a forgiving and humane artist whose movies are surprisingly full of suspense, makes the case that thinking and talking about sex can be more sensual than sex itself. He adores what Aciman calls the “grown-up savor” of gêne, the untranslatable French word that conveys “the undertow of desire,” the hiccup or speed bump that interrupts our desire when we wonder whether, and why, we want what we say we do.

Against those who think that sex is where it’s at, Rohmer insists (in Aciman’s words) that “speech undresses us; passion can be a cloaking device.” Speech, not sex, is the path to art, which is a fragile bubble, it’s true, but “what’s inside this bubble and what we learn from walking through it is better than life.”

It’s not surprising that Rohmer was one of the first serious critics of Hitchcock, because both filmmakers love finely constructed games, preferring them to the mess we call reality. Both value desire more than its object. Claire’s knee, in Rohmer’s masterful film of that title, is a classic MacGuffin, as dull and unappealing as Claire herself. But when the hero Jérôme and his friend Aurora talk about what he thinks that knee might mean to him, it becomes a vehicle of art akin to Proust’s madeleine.

When he was in college Aciman identified with Rohmer’s men, who are frequently reformed playboys. “They, as I, balked before temptation,” he writes. “But they balked because they chose to fight it; I balked because I didn’t know how to yield to it.” Rohmer’s universe of candor and amiable self-deception appeals as well to the older Aciman, who tells of going to Rohmer’s Chloe in the Afternoon with an old almost-flame.

Aciman’s Harvard Square, my favorite among his novels, gains from his depiction of a character counter to the Aciman-like narrator, the robust and freewheeling lothario Kalaj. There are few such contrasts in Rohmer, where the middle-aged men resemble the teenage girls, all of them much too sure about the meaning of life and love. Rohmer’s perpetually adolescent cosmos reminds us that adolescence pretends to maturity, and that the older we get the more we yearn to recapture that awkward precocity. Miraculously, Rohmer makes this irrealis dynamic touching, and even hopeful, rather than ridiculous.

Aciman moves on from Rohmer to W.G. Sebald, the great meditative German author who died tragically early in a car crash. Sebald ruminates, says Aciman, on “how things never go away but aren’t coming back either.” His characters are forever displaced and homeless; the wrongness of life is his basic message. Sebald the non-Jew is obsessed with Jewish subjects. The Holocaust, the ultimate wrongness, always lurks behind his writing. Sebald’s permanently disjointed realm is very different from Aciman’s world of pleasant disquiet; benefiting from the contrast, he produces one of his best essays on the German writer. Aciman also includes in Homo Irrealis pieces on Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg, Billy Wilder’s film The Apartment, and the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, but Sebald feels closer to him.

Perhaps Aciman identifies with Sebald because he likes the idea of history shadowing the writer’s work rather than taking it over. His quiet writing gives back to us the inwardness we fear has been ripped away by the endless news cycle that now colonizes our heads. Homo Irrealis never once mentions the internet, smartphones, climate change, neoliberalism, race, the white working class, Donald Trump, or COVID-19. The reader might as well be in an Eric Rohmer movie, able once again to breathe and to think. The result can be summed up in one word: bliss.

David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.