Andre Aciman is a master of longing. He can long for the place where he is currently located. And he can long for the place he just left the moment he arrives in the place he had been longing to go to in the first place. And then the reverse, once he returns to the place he had originally left. Is this a journey familiar to you? At times, it has been to me.
I now reside in the town where I had dreamed of living for years. At the same time, I yearn for the town I left, one where I had lived for most of my adult life. Yet, I only long for certain elements of it, not its dominant feature, well known to anyone who has lived through its very long and cold, and very wet winters.
Aciman is also the master of ambivalence. His mind is a constant journey of shuttling back and forth between one idea and the next. In Pensione Eolo he writes:
"By missing Manhattan, I learn to long for it, to love it, though I am now conscious that I’m losing Manhattan because I’m about to revisit a place I’ve always suspected I loved more than Manhattan but will not really allow myself to think I’ll be able to revisit unless it, too, like Manhattan, becomes a site of nostalgia, something I can lose, might lose, have lost. Place, in this very peculiar context, means something only if it is tied to its own displacement. I posit one point, but then I posit a second, which sends me back to the first, which then sends me back again to the second, and so on."
In a way, Aciman is the Ingmar Bergman of the page. He seems to have a special pass to inner workings of the mind, at least to his mind and the way it swirls around from one pole to another.
He is also a student and admirer of Proust whose influence is unmistakable. That should be evident from the following passages I recorded from his Letter from Illiers-Combray: In Search of Proust:
"…the Proust who perfected the studied unveiling of spontaneous feelings. Proust invented a language, a style, a rhythm, and a vision that gave memory and introspection an aesthetic scope and magnitude no author had conferred on either before."
"It reminded me of the way Proust’s sentences roam and stray through a labyrinth of words and clauses, only to turn around—just when you are about to give up—and show you something you had always suspected but had never put into words."
"Illiers itself was simply a place where the young Proust dreamed of a better life to come. But because the dream never came true, he had learned to love instead the place where the dream was born."
And then there is the ever-present nostalgia that underlies so many of Aciman’s recollections. Longing, Ambivalence, Nostalgia, the three features that characterize so much of his writing, including his tale Pensione Eolo from which I made note of the following passages:
"…I continued to purchase French and Italian magazines so as not to let go of Europe knowing all along, however, that I’d unavoidably lose touch and that despite my promises to hold on to the old, the new invariably had ways of demoting old things."
"In this state of anticipated nostalgia, which is how those who fear homesickness try to immunize themselves against it—by experiencing it in small persistent doses beforehand…"
"…the confused, back-and-forth, up-and-around, congested nature of ambivalence, of love, and of nostalgia."
"…nostalgia is his (Ulysses) home, the way that, in exile, only paradox makes sense. He finds his home in the purely intellectual realization that he has no home. The site of nostalgia is nostalgia itself. The site of nostalgia is writing and speculating and thinking about nostalgia."
"Ultimately, the real site of nostalgia is not the place that was lost or the place that was never quite had in the first place; it is the text that must record that lost."
"I never went to Italy that year. Pensione Eolo remained a whirlpool of fictions and fantasies and of the memory of an imagined winter spent with a defrocked nun, a marine biologist, and a Hungarian musicologist. I remember as though it were yesterday the day I pictured myself running to the ferryboat one evening to get my mail, only to find that none had arrived that day. The woman in New York whose letter I would have craved to read in Italy was in the next room sulking, while I, in her living room, would look outside over to Riverside Park like a prisoner imagining his imminent liberation, envying those lucky enough to be alone in the park that weekday evening. I hadn’t even told her I had applied for a job abroad. I simply wanted to get away, and kept looking for the slightest pretext to tell her that we couldn’t live together, that she should look for someone else, that I couldn’t wait to be back where I thought I’d be among my own."
"That winter, when it was all over, I would walk or ride a bus past her building. Sometimes I’d think how lucky I’d been to have spent a year with her there and how gladly I would give everything now that I had been back with the same woman, staring out those windows whenever she went sulking into the other room, imagining and envying those strolling outside, never once suspecting that one day soon I might be a stroller, too, looking in, envying the man I’d been there once, knowing all along, though, that if I had to do it over again, I’d still end where I was, yearning for those days when I was living with a woman I had never loved and would never love but in whose home I had managed to fall in love with an ex-would-be-nun whose presence was indissolubly fused to an apartment on the Upper West Side that became dearer to me and made me love New York because from these rooms I had looked out windows facing the Hudson and invented a woman who, like me was neither here not there."