March 2007

Drew Nellins


An Interview with Andre Aciman

Andre Aciman is a memoirist and essayist whose works include Out of Egypt and False Papers. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, he has also lived in France and Italy. Aciman serves as Chair of Comparative Literature at The CUNY Graduate Center and Director of The Writers' Institute at The Graduate Center. His first novel, Call Me by Your Name, is about a love affair between two young men. It was released in January, and is reviewed here this month. Aciman took my questions via e-mail.

I know you've written a lot about your personal history, but there’s not much out there about your background in writing and publishing. How did you get started?

I started writing in sixth grade, though I can remember already toying with the idea in fifth grade. By today's standards, a late bloomer. I started writing poetry and, until I was about 15, had never written a single piece of creative prose. As an adolescent I read voraciously, but I read the classics only. I refused to read Salinger, Orwell, Huxley, Sartre, and Hemingway, lesser writers in my book, partly because they were contemporaries and contemporary anything never appealed to me. In fact, the first time I read contemporary fiction was when I was in graduate school and picked up a book while riding to New York in a friend's crowded car; it was a spy novel by Robert Ludlum called The Scarlatti Inheritance. This is when it finally dawned on me that one couldn't write like Gogol or Stendhal or Proust in today's world, that the spirit of Classicism, which had shaped my sensibilities and which had been my escape, was simply gone. It's not that "one couldn't" write like them; it's just that there was no place, no purpose, and no tolerance for complex, rarefied voices. So you could say that my literary apprenticeship began in a friend's Camaro. I had to learn, not how to write, but how to unwrite -- or, to put it more bluntly, how to write down. It took me forever -- 15 years at least.

By then I was in my very late thirties. (Again, a late bloomer.) My first published piece was a book review which I submitted to Commentary. (By the way, the best way to start is to write book reviews -- not feature pieces or short stories.) Commentary asked me to propose another review after that, and another, and before long I asked whether they might be interested in my writing a little thing about growing up as a Jewish boy in Egypt who eventually moved to Italy and France. The editor said, "Yes, why not." He sounded too noncommittal, I thought. Perhaps he didn't mean it and was just being polite. But I decided to pretend he meant what he had said to me. To my complete surprise he loved what I showed him. Thus Out of Egypt was born.

But the story of my apprenticeship is a bit more complicated. My "induction" to the written page was via poetry, not prose -- and it was old poetry I liked, not new poetry, certainly not Beat poetry. I always felt that prose was a "concession" to our times, to modernity, to America, a way of "compromising" with the hard-and-fast, nuts-and-bolt, here-today-gone-tomorrow, fast-track, come-as-you-are, say-what-you-please world everyone took to be the real world. Prose was a demotion. I wanted poetry. Because in my pre-Camaro view of things, poetry was not entirely wedded to the real world, could turn its back to the real world, knew of a better deal. The Camaro, on the other hand, and the book I found in it, told me that if I wanted to be a writer I had to write with the cards life had given to me, not with those I'd designed myself, and that I had to play at the table history had placed me in, not in a Neverland of my own invention. I had to write for America, in America, because whether I liked it or not, America was going to be my home and I needed to learn to wet my throat with water from the Hudson, not from the Seine, the Tiber, or the Nile.  

It's a lesson I never quite learned and may never learn. The classics had been my ticket out of a world I couldn't begin to fit in -- and here I was being told that I had no choice but to fit in. The task was made more difficult when it occurred to me that what I wanted more than acquiring this new citizenship was to acquire it without giving up the old.

Your response reminds me of Paul Bowles, who wrote about being a “complete outsider" and the influence it had on his writing. In your case, though, the issue is not just being “out of place," but also in the wrong time. Do you still feel like an outsider? 

I do feel like an outsider. Let me explain: I’m an outsider who's learned to fit in. It always gives me great joy to know that everyone feels like an outsider. So I'm not alone, I'll think. Except that I'm not just an outsider; I feel like a different species, faking his way among humans. We look the same, act the same, speak the same -- but I'm faking it. You guys -- Earthlings -- aren't. 

Could your interest in literature be grounded in that sense of yourself as "faking it"? Do you read and write to feel less distanced from others or to learn how to fake it more effectively?

Literature is a civilizing medium. It gives polish, it covers up, but it also reveals and emphasizes. At times the task of a writer consists in playing off the face with the mask. So, yes, writing allows me to dig in very, very deeply and to be quite frank and public, sometimes even shameless, about what I've dug out... provided that in whatever I say there are built in "mini-shelters" and "loopholes." Sometimes the shelters and loopholes are precisely what make people say: "Wow, this is so beautiful, this is so true, this is so well written." In fact, truth itself can be both the revelation and the protective screen.

You mentioned to me that you wrote the book very quickly. How long did it actually take you, and what was that process like?

I began on April 7, 2005. By July was already going over the manuscript. Which means it was more or less done. For me the hardest part is getting the plot right; once this is taken care of, the rest is easy. The French playwright Racine used to say that it would take him forever to come up with the right plot; the actual versifying was done in a matter of days.

Four months to finish a novel is incredible. Do you always write that fast?

No, I seldom write that fast. It could take me two months to write a 10-page essay. But maybe because this was different, or because I wasn't taking it too seriously, or because it felt so contemporary (to me, at least) and never classical enough, or because it felt so slangy, so down-to-earth... each sentence wrote itself on my screen in no time. I was writing fast, very fast, the way you might write an e-mail, or a letter, or a journal entry. I was writing as if questions of style and form weren't even being addressed. I was writing for myself, for the fun of it, because no one was ever going to read it. Or maybe it's just that I was writing because I was having a ball. Having a crush on someone, or watching two individuals falling in love with one another, or simply living in Italy for four months by the beach was so spectacular that perhaps I also fell in love with the act of writing itself. I couldn't wait to be done with dinner to get back to my computer.

When you read the finished novel now, does it still strike you as too contemporary?

No, it feels right. Not too contempo, nor too archaic. All I know is that I was trying to capture certain emotions and psychological states as precisely as I could without, however, naming them -- I guess that's where the whole question of style comes in.

I just read the review in the New York Times Book Review. What did you think of it?

This is the review that you're extremely lucky to get once in a lifetime. It was luminous. It "got" the book. And it also established some vital parallels with my other books, so that a reader could draw a cumulative sense of an "Aciman" vision.  It invoked the usual suspects -- exile, nostalgia, loss -- but it invited them provided they behaved and didn't talk too much. This, after all, is more a book about desire than about loss. It's about skin-to-skin contact.

Other reviewers have also brought up my essays. All of them are aware that an experience is incomplete unless it's able to anticipate the memory of that experience. Returning is already embedded in departure.

What I find strange is how some reviewers have reacted to the very frank and graphic intimate scenes. We're in 2007. But no: people like sex, but they like it missionary. Yet the sex scene are no more trenchant and honest than are the psychological scenes. The two go together.

D'Erasmo's review was tactful and exceptionally classy. But she never flinched when things got hot.

That's funny. I had a completely different reaction. Her review struck me as excessively fascinated by the sex. I didn't think it was that big of a deal in the book. It actually made me wonder if the amount of sex in the book might seem exaggerated because it takes place between two men -- if it gets some sort of added value for being edgy sex.

What I meant was that she is fascinated by the sex, but in a very tactful manner. Perhaps because she isn't fazed by or guarded vis-a-vis the sensual excesses of the novel. But her interest in the sexuality of the novel is in every line; in fact, her review is not only about the novel's sensuality, but it itself is (to use her own word) "exquisitely" -- sensuously -- written.

But when you think of it, the book is about one thing: intimacy. Can one even begin to be intimate with others unless one has explored their body as if it were our own? Can one even explore someone's body without being curious about our own? Finally, can you really draw a line between body and soul? I can't.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a novel that begins on Christmas Eve and ends on New Year’s Eve. A man meets a woman at a party -- actually she more or less picks him up, but he doesn't see it that way -- and for the next seven days they keep meeting every day or every evening. He is totally smitten, but he is too insecure to think she may be as well. He assumes this is another one of those male-female friendships that could last a lifetime but that, by their third week, makes every chance of relationship seem quasi incestuous. On New Year's Eve, as he approaches the apartment building where the Christmas party was held and where he knows he will find her, he asks himself whether he should go upstairs or simply head home. Suddenly he sees the fork in the road. I think he'll go upstairs -- but I'm not sure. What do you think?

What do I think of the premise? Or what your character will do?

What will he do?

The characters in False Papers all chicken out; they prefer to savor the memory. The character of Call Me by Your Name forces himself to knock at Oliver's French window. What a shame if he hadn't.

My guess is he'll do whatever creates the greatest drama. Isn't that the way it works?

No, he has to make a choice. Shy, insecure people are notorious for avoiding making decisions. They usually leave decisions to others because, among other reasons, they'd hate to make a decision that might annoy or inconvenience someone else. Shy people seldom decide which film to see on a date; they prefer their partner to choose to avoid being blamed for choosing the wrong film. And so on. But on New Year's Eve, while surveying the windows of an apartment where a party is already in full swing, the man in question has to decide whether to go upstairs. He remembers standing outside in much the same way before heading upstairs on Christmas Eve. Now he wants a repeat performance. Will he do it?

Does the reader get to make these choices a la Choose Your Adventure, or are you asking for advice?

Advice? No, not really, I've made up my mind. But there are days when I vacillate.

That’s a relief. Should readers expect this next book to be finished inside of four months as well?

No, this is a totally different book -- far, far more ambitious. It is about insecurity and is written from insecurity. It should be ready in a year.