False Papers

I had long ago learned to prefer the imagined encounter, or the memory of the imagined encounter to the thing itself. Andre Aciman

There is the experience, but before that is the anticipation of the experience, and after that its memory, and don’t forget, there is also the place where the memory occurred, so that you often come to like the place where you recalled the experience, even more than the original experience itself.

This is the way Andre Aciman writes about his experiences in the 14 linked essays of False Papers. His subject is nostalgia and loss. Consider his essay “Letter from Illiers-Combray” (Combray is the fictional town created by Proust in In Search of Lost Time, while Illiers is where Proust’s father was born and where he used to visit as a child. To mark the centennial of Proust’s birth, the little town of Illiers officially changed its name to Illiers-Combray.) Aciman writes:

“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.”

Or in his essay “Shadow Cities” about a park (Straus Park) he discovered in New York. It was a small park, being restored in the Upper East Side. It reminded him of Alexandria in Egypt where he was born. He writes:

“I come to Straus Park to remember Alexandria, albeit an unreal Alexandria, an Alexandria that does not exist, that I’ve invented … Straus Park itself, now reminding me of something that is not just elsewhere but that is perhaps more in me than it ever was out there, that it is, after all, perhaps just me, a me that is no less a figment of time than this city is a figment of space.”

Or read this passage from another one of his essays. In it, he is speaking to a friend in Paris, while he is in New York, just before he is about to fly to Paris. He writes:

…I said I did not like traveling, I never found Paris relaxing, I would much rather stay in New York and imagine having wonderful dinners in Paris. “Yes, of course,” she agreed, already annoyed.” 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.”. Exasperation bristled in her voice. “When you’re in Paris, think of yourself in New York, longing for Paris, and everything will be fine.”

So it goes, from one essay to the next. I confess I rather like the Aciman’s roaming around, back and forth ambivalence and nostalgia. I also appreciate his view of the importance of putting this down on paper in order to record what is lost and what is recalled.

“Paper displaces place, the way writing displaces living.”