Essays on Elsewhere

The Egypt I craved to return to was not the one I knew, or couldn’t wait to flee, but the one where I learned to invent being somewhere else, someone else. Andre Aciman

Andre Aciman wanders around the labyrinth of his mind like a person who can’t find his way out of the Hampton Court maze. He tries one direction, it is blocked, turns around, goes back over the same route only to come to another dead end. Meanwhile, he wishes he was on the path over the next hedge and when he finally reaches it, he yearns to be back on the one he just left.

This is the way his essays are written. You have to enjoy this way of meandering around your synapses to enjoy them. His latest collection, Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, consists of eighteen partially linked essays about memory, place, exile, and identity.

Aciman says he always begins his mental meanderings by writing about place. “Some do so by writing about love, war, suffering, cruelty, power, God, or country. I write about place, or the memory of place. I write about a city called Alexandria, which I’m supposed to have loved and about other cities that remind me of a vanished world to which I allegedly wish to return. I write about exile, remembrance and the passage of time. I write—so it would seem—to recapture, to preserve and return to the past, though I might just as easily be writing to forget and put that past behind me.”

In Alibis he writes about New York, where he lives, Paris, where he always dreams of being, Rome where he lived for three years with his family after leaving Alexandria which he also writes about, as well as Tuscany, which may be the one place where he doesn’t dream of being elsewhere-- Barcelona, Cambridge, a bookstore someplace or the Tuscany that he dreamed of being in while living in Egypt.

“And this is what I’ve always suspected about Tuscany. It is about many beautiful things—about small towns, magnificent vistas, and fabulous cuisine, art, culture, history—but it is ultimately about the love of books. It is a reader’s paradise. People come here because of books. Tuscany may well be for people who love life in the present—simple, elaborate, whimsical, complicated life in the present—but it is also for people who love the present when it bears the shadow of the past, who love the world provided it’s at a slight angle Bookish people.”

How I wish I had written that for it is precisely the way I feel when I am in Tuscany.

Aciman is Jewish which is to say that his parents were Jewish, the reason they had to flee Egypt. But also like myself, he is and isn’t Jewish. Neither of us wants to be anything but Jewish provided we don’t have to practice it, learn its rituals, or accept its religious tenets. At times he also wonders what it would be like to live in a place where everyone is Jewish but at other times knows it would not be easy.

Aciman cites an exchange or imagined exchange he had with a woman he was hoping to see in Paris, an exchange that is a perfect reflection of the manner in which he thinks or at least writes about the way he thinks or imagines he does. “Since you’re going to Paris, you don’t want to go to Paris. But if you were staying in New York, you’d want to be in Paris. But since you’re not staying, but going, just do me a favor. When you’re in Paris, think of yourself in New York longing for Paris, and everything will be fine.”

All the essays in this collection are written in this manner. Oddly I am one who greatly enjoys reading them, their contradictions, paradoxes, ambiguities, questions, uncertainties, backtrackings, recollections, sometimes true, sometimes false, or partially false, that become true in the writing. I think that is the way my mind works sometimes, but not all the times or the way I might like it to work, since it rarely works that way at all.