Born in Alexandria on the second day of 1951, when it was still the cosmopolitan port city of Alexander Durell’s Alexandria Quartet and Constantine Cavafy’s elegies, André Aciman wrote a remarkably un-self-pitying memoir of his family being forced to sell out at a pittance and get Out of Egypt (the book was published in 1995).
What we now call “ethnic cleansing” of non-Muslims (including Arab ones) began with the creation of Israel and the 1948 war in which Arab armies failed to annihilate it and escalated after the 1956 “Suez crisis.” The world of wealth the author’s family had enjoyed in Alexandria for half a century eroded very rapidly before he and they left in 1956. Out of Egypt (like the more recent memoir of extrusion from Iraq of Ariel Sabar and Marcel Bénabou Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun: A Family Epic) is a vivid reminder that if Israel is an apartheid state, so are all of its neighbors, including even the officially secular state of Turkey from which I just returned. Jews were forced out of places they had lived for generations, and their assets looted across the Middle East. Christians have not fared much better in post-WWII Arab or Turkish or Persian nationalist pogroms (Coptic Christians are much persecuted in contemporary Egypt and Syraic Christians forced out of Turkey are far worse off than they were under the rule of early Ottoman sultans such as Suleiman the Magnificent; Turkey is now 99% Muslim having driven off or slaughtered Armenian, Greek, and Syraic Christians.)
Aciman is not a political writer, a Zionist in even the blandest sense, nor a religiously observant Jews. His essay “In a Double Exile” in False Papers records his discomfort with Passover seders and keen sense of irony about celebrating flight from Egypt, something he did not want to repeat millennia later. Even writing about a visit to Alexandria in “Alexandria: The Capital of Memory” (the appellation is Durrell’s) Aciman does not write with bitterness about the rarely visited cemetery where one of his grandfather’s is buried (I remember from Out of Egypt that his grandfathers did not get along with each other and that neither had much interest in Egypt).
False Papers collects eleven essays and three “tales.” The latter, of which “Arbitrage” seems to me the best, strike me as nonfiction, though each involves a story Aciman tried to imagine and write (including one of visiting his grandfather’s grave, as he imagine it years before he actually made the visit).
Among the essays that I found particularly strong was “Becket’s Winter,” with which I could readily identify, having also been fascinated by the movie starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole; “A Late Lunch” in which the author takes a son to a meeting with the author’s aged father and speculates about how his son will remember it and him in the future; “Letter from Illier-Combray” in which he finds the house written about by Marcel Proust smaller than he expected; and “In the Muslim City of Bethlehem,” an account of preparations for Christmas with its influx of Greek, Armenian, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Christians who despise each other in the town that had in 1996 just been ceded to Palestinian control.
Of three essays about changing features of Manhattan, the one that seems to me the strongest (for someone with no nostalgia for any of the tree foci) is Straus Park on the upper West Side (“Shadow Cities”). Aciman is hyper-aware of his Proustian tendency to imagine time lost (and Albertines vanished) while storing away memories to be written later and not much living in the moment and enjoying any pleasures except those of anticipating mourning their loss. With a focus somewhat more on a person, though still very much a person in particular places, “Counterintuition” analyzes Aciman’s Proustian and Stendahlian pathologies.
“Counterintuition” also includes a pattern central to Aciman’s first novel (published in 2007) and inscribed in its title Call Me By Your Name in that tale of a very different (in time, place, gender, and mutuality) attempt at intimacy. The novel drips with poignant memories of love in the past, but seems to me to invoke less cerebral pleasures, as well as a sharing of memories of a passionate relationship from the past that is quite unlike the mournfully ironic Les Temps retrouvé (The Past Regained) that concludes Proust’s vast roman fleuve.
Aciman’s syntax is not asthmatic, and is easier to read (though quite beautifully crafted) than Proust’s. Aciman is a keen analysis of the workings of memory, including Proust’s, Stendahl’s, and his own. He is also a keen analyst of exile, involuntary diaspora, not just from Egypt but from Europe (particularly Paris, but also Rome when he longed to be in Paris if he could not be in an already vanished Jewish world of Alexandria).
©2011, 2017, Stephen O. Murray