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.