Andre Aciman is among the most aware writers I know. And by “aware” I mean in touch with layers and layers of his internal life--emotions, fictions, and feelings. He describes this world with extraordinary sensitivity and insight. It is his world and impossible to know if anything comparable belongs to anyone else.
But in reading his work, I find myself realizing how often I have felt the same and how rarely have I been aware of it. He is in touch with himself to a remarkable degree and in his essays he lays a path for his readers to discover the deeper layers of their own world.
Aciman grew up in a Jewish family that lived Egypt and eventually moved to Italy, then France, and finally the United States. He has written about his early days in Egypt in Out of Egypt and has also published a good many book reviews, memoirs, and essays, some of which are collected in False Papers.
In Intimacy, published in the Summer 2008 issue of The American Scholar he writes about visiting with his wife and three sons the neighborhood of his youth in Rome. The visit unleashes a cascade of reflections and feelings that took him by surprise.
The neighborhood as he saw it then, and as his family surely saw it too, was not the neighborhood he remembered. More importantly it was never his neighborhood in the first place. For the neighborhood that he lived in during those three years of his youth was entirely a world of his own creation. He writes:
“In that room on the Via Clelia, I managed to create a world that corresponded to nothing outside. My books, my city, myself. All I had to do then was let the novels I was reading lend their aura to this street and drop an illusory film over its buildings…”
“It dawned on me much later that evening that our truest, most private moments, like our truest, most private memories are made of just such unreal, flimsy stuff. Fictions. Via Clelia was my street of lies.”
Perhaps you have also experienced a desire to return to the neighborhood of your youth. Maybe it was also an ambivalent one as it was for Aciman. After leaving the town where I was born, I have returned to it on several occasions but never once visited the neighborhood where I lived, nor have I ever wanted to. But after reading Aciman’s account, I am giving second thought to that decision, although I dread the inevitable disruption of all that I recall.
You will get a glimpse of Aciman’s prose and an appreciation of the moods he brings to it from a few of the passages I noted in Intimacy:
…to settle into the experience [visiting the Roman neighborhood of his youth], gather my impressions, and unlock memory’s sluice gates, one by one.
Does writing, as I did later that day, seek out words the better to stir and un-numb us to life—or does writing provide surrogate pleasures the better to numb us to experience?
Could parts of us just die to the past so that returning brings nothing back?
The romance of time had fallen flat. There was no past to dig up here…I might as well never have lived here at all.
But then, coming back from the West, perhaps it was I who was the shadow, not this street, not my books, not who I once was.
So why shouldn’t Via Clelia feel dead now? It had never been alive.
The walk from one bookstore to the other without paying attention to the city itself became my way of being in Rome…
I’d grown to love this Rome, a Rome that seemed more in me than it was out in Rome itself, because, in this very Rome I’d grown to love, there was perhaps more of me in it than there was of Rome…
It would take decades to realize that this strange, shadow Rome of my own invention was everyone else’s as well.
We seldom ever see, or read, or love things as they in themselves really are, nor, for that matter, do we even know our impressions of them as they really are. What matters is knowing what we see when we see other than what lies before us.
Ultimately, I wanted to peer into books, places, and people because wherever I looked I was always looking for myself, or for traces of myself or better yet, for a world out there filled with people and characters who could be made to be like me…
What my favorite authors were asking of me was that I read them intimately—not an invitation to read my own pulse on someone else’s work, but to read an author’s pulse as thought it were my own…
I told my wife and sons I was happy they had come with me. I told them it was good to come back, good to be heading back soon, good they didn’t let me come back alone. But I spoke these words without conviction, and would have thought I hadn’t meant them had I not grown used to the notion that speaking without conviction is how I hope to be honest. What roundabouts, though, for what others feel so easily. Roundabout love, roundabout intimacy, roundabout truth. In this, at least, I had remained the same.