Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere
by André Aciman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
208 pages / Buy from Amazon
In his 2012 collection Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, André Aciman explores the elsewheres of his life. He contemplates the places he’s lived and traveled to—Cambridge, Rome, Alexandria, Venice, and New York—and ruminates about what his life was like there. Except Aciman isn’t interested in actuality. Throughout this collection, he pursues an imagined past. It’s a touching, at times, fusty perspective where the “what was perhaps and might have been has more meaning than what just is.” It’s the perspective of a man who’s read too many books.
Aciman is reflective in an exquisitely literary way. He calls upon his beloved books and authors to define his experiences. Venice is understood by way of Thomas Mann. Tuscany is seen through the lens of Machiavelli’s letters. There’s “De Quincey’s London, Browning’s Florence, [and] Camus’s Oran,” not to mention Monet’s Bordighera, Virgil’s Rome, and Lawrence Durrell’s vanished Alexandria. This mix of high culture and Old World geography makes Aciman’s writing quite pleasurable. It’s hard not to be charmed by descriptions of Italian farmhouses and unsalted Tuscan bread interwoven with references to Dante. Simultaneously, the constant invocation of canonical literature grows moldy and, over time, seems like an extremely fancy crutch, as though Aciman is unable to experience the world without first quoting Proust and La Fayette.
It’s a delicate snare, one most readers can relate to. As we learn about the world through books and movies, we want to visit that world. Who wouldn’t, after reading Benjamin, Balzac, and Baudelaire, want that Paris over the drab Paris of today—a Paris we know nothing about? The elsewheres Aciman longs for are mirages, and he admits it. But they’re such beautiful mirages it’s easy to believe they’re realer than what goes on outside his hotel room window.
Aciman’s elsewheres are geographically and temporally distant from his present writerly position in “a cork-lined room.” Yet it is only here, sealed away in this room, removed from the hubbub and uproar of regular life, that Aciman’s elsewheres can exist. In “Intimacy,” one of the longer and strongest essays in the collection, he recalls his teenage days living with his mother on Via Clelia, a working-class street in Rome. Aciman and his family are exiles. They escaped Egypt in 1965. And after three years in Italy, they’ll move to America, a country that even decades later Aciman does not consider home. “Home,” he writes in a later essay, “is all together elsewhere.”
When Aciman revisits Via Clelia many years later, he’s tense with anticipation. He wishes for something thrilling to happen, for something to pop out and scream, Remember me? “But nothing happened. I was, as I always am during such moments, numb to the experience.” As it turns out, the old street where he used to live is just that, an old street. The barbershop and plumber’s storefront are gone but the printer’s shop remains. Via Clelia means nothing more or less than it always has. And that’s no good. During the present moments of his revisiting, Aciman’s anticipation and memories are squandered by the “numbness” he inevitably feels, a numbness frequently encountered whenever he’s confronted by the present. Fortunately, what we botch in life, we fix with art.
“It is the craft that makes life meaningful,” Aciman claims, “not the life itself.” This claim is repeated throughout Alibis and in his earlier books as well. Aciman finds meaning not in the moment, but in his memory of the moment, a memory that’s envisioned only long afterward, in that cork-lined room. It’s a claim that sets art up against life, a false dichotomy to be sure, but one that over the course of Aciman’s writing career has calcified into truth.
While analyzing Proust, Aciman describes a “literary time filter” that coats the world. In other essays, this “filter” is called an “illusory film”, “happy film”, or just plain “film.” It’s the façade of art, of artifice, of craft, which makes our past experiences more pleasing, sparkling, and grand, because it allows us to grasp the scintillating details and crystalline moments that are apparent only when we look back, details and moments that, quite naturally, are created by the intensity of our looking back. Aciman writes, “it is not the things we long for that we love; it is longing itself—just as it is not what we remember but remembrance itself that we love.” In eulogizing his past lives, Aciman cherishes not what has vanished or died, but the eulogy itself.
This is an incredibly literary take on life. At times it feels like too much. Aciman values the inventions of memory, where everything glows with the amber light of nostalgia and the spellbound evenings are seeped in melancholy blue, rather than what he quotes Proust as calling the “tyrannie du particulier, the tyranny of [the] day-to-day.” Aciman is entirely unable to enjoy the present moment, the day-to-day-ness of life, with its ephemeral joys and nonstop micro-disasters. The numbness he feels when faced with the immediacy of every passing moment can only be overcome through imaginative, highly referential reflection. “Even the experience of numbness,” he writes, “when traced on paper, acquires a resigned and disenchanted grace, a melancholy cadence that seems at once intimate and aroused compared with the original blah.” It’s this blah that Aciman believes the artist must do everything to defy.
Life will always be insufficient to art. That’s because so much more time and effort go into art, whereas life, comparably, is rather a pell-mell affair. Proust spent weeks working on a single sentence so it’s no wonder a paragraph of his is superior to most of our mediocre days. Life is spastic, messy, terrifying, and ruthlessly inconvenient, to say the least. But it seems escapist to rely solely on art as a means of navigating the world, particularly when the artist prefers the world he spends most of his time in to be an imagined one. Proust is a beautiful writer, no doubt, but he might not be the best guide to life—unless you want to be locked away in the land of lovely elsewheres, a land where everything is delicately arranged, gorgeous, and un-smudged by life, where you’re trapped in a cork-lined room or canopied bed, numb to the present and cut off from other people.
Aciman mentions his sons, mother, and wife briefly but never introduces them to us. The only supporting characters in Alibis are adumbrated figures from Aciman’s past, people whom he longs for but rarely talks to. The only other characters are the revered literary dead. It is unsurprising that in almost all these essays Aciman is alone. He can’t write about other people because other people—instead of literary ghosts, historic cities, and well-regarded books—are demandingly, obnoxiously alive. Living people with their foibles, ticks, loud laughs, petty complaints, awkwardness, and delightful frivolity would wreck havoc on his manicured fantasylands like cold water splashed on majestic daydreams. Perhaps Aciman doesn’t discuss his family because they’re too recent. They lack literary-historic value. Or perhaps these other people would interfere with his craft, which is why they sometimes need to be excised.
In the final essay “Rue Delta,” Aciman delves into the manipulation inherent in the contemporary memoir by discussing a scene from Out of Egypt, his first book, published in 1995. In this memoir, a young Aciman spends his last night in Egypt alone, walking along the coast road in Alexandria. He’s given a pastry from a vendor. Five years before the publication of Out of Egypt, in an essay published in Commentary, Aciman makes this same stroll on the same night, only this time he’s accompanied by his younger brother. Instead of receiving a free pastry, they purchase a falafel sandwich. “Removing my brother from the evening walk turned out to be embarrassingly easy,” Aciman admits with a hint of glee, “almost as getting rid of him had been a lifelong fantasty.“ It’s an excision that makes for an easier, more personal, more isolated narrative, allowing Aciman to plagiarize his brother’s emotions, which are certifiably stronger than Aciman’s own.
With a wink, Aciman later tells us that the walk itself is a fiction. The Aciman family stayed home that night. It was too dangerous for a Jewish boy to be wandering about Alexandria in 1965. Yet it’s the omission of the brother, rather than the invention of the walk in the first place, that Aciman treats as the criminal act. It’s an act that aligns with his overall aesthetic. In the land of lovely elsewheres, other people must be removed because they can’t be managed elegantly enough. They’re messy. They’re troublesome. They don’t fit into majestic daydreams. And this omission of other people makes Alibis a lonely book. Reading it, you wander through a beautifully constructed cross between a literary mausoleum and Aciman’s own private museum, eventually tiring of the sterile beauty.
Ultimately, the title Alibis describes not only the different identities Aciman has used to mask his exile and the different ways he’s maneuvered through his personal and cultural isolation, but the present tense itself. For Aciman, the present is an alibi. It’s where he seems to be but never is. Instead he’s elsewhere, imagining up better versions of life, versions that are free of people, where “numbness” and “ordinary blah” are replaced by the “radiant resonance” of a writer’s well-crafted reflections. It’s a relatable desire. Wouldn’t it be something if all our days were as meaningful and perfected as the great novels we love? We are benefited by art, which allows us to imagine these lovely elsewheres, magisterial realms, halcyon days, fictions from our past, that act as consolation against the cosmic disorder of every passing moment. Yet these elsewheres are, and always will be—to use Thomas Mann’s description of Venice, which Aciman quotes—“half fairy tale, half snare.” It’s the mercy of imagination intertwined with memory that lets us create these delicate, unblemished fantasylands where the “what was perhaps and might have been” can finally shimmer. But to live in these fantasylands for too long leads to a life that’s stale, cramped, stuffy, and dull. Sometimes we need the blah of the day-to-day, the intrusion of other people, “the joust of life,” as Joyce called it, to remind us that these fantasylands are a kindness and a curse, that there’s so much more out there, that elsewhere exists in longing but not in life.
Alex Kalamaroff is a 26-year-old writer living in Boston. He works on the administrative team of a Boston Public Schools high school. You can read his other writings here or follow him on twitter @alexkalamaroff.