From the Archives: Fools in Love
By André Aciman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
Book criticism is an empirical study – the guiltiest, most self-effacing sort perhaps, but a science nevertheless. Books are things that people construct, and when critics assess them they use effectively the same standards as they would to judge the quality of a chair: is it well-designed or shaky, is it original, is it durable, and so on. Chairs have only a few basic models and rarely aspire to be more than comfortable and attractive (or neither, if they come from IKEA); the permutations of prose and poetry, on the other hand, outnumber the stars, and such creations span the diapason of human emotions. The material of language is infinitely more complex, but still: it is a material and can be used poorly or well. If you think making that estimation is a subjective matter, then book reviewing is not for you.
Its analytic nature, no matter how much it might be disguised by a brilliant wit or a beautiful prose style, has always made criticism the slightly resented outsider among the world of letters – the guy at the party who might be there to narc everyone else out. There is an important reason for the distrust: criticism is fundamentally useless to the artist. It does a writer no more good to have his book reduced to its inner mechanics than it does for a pastor to look upon humans as moderately evolved chimpanzees. (The fact that books are strictly mechanical and that humans are hairless chimps is beside the point.)
But book reviews can also foster discomfort in those who aren’t writers. The problem is that sciences dislike variables, and books are afflicted by the most damnably protean variable that exists: the reader. To a reviewer, the existence of readers is a misfortune that even the best attempts of postmodernism have not eliminated. The readers’ prerogative is to respond to books by their own lights, no matter how quixotic, obstinate, or irrational the reactions may be. If you think sitting down with a book is supposed to be a distant, dispassionate activity, then reading has probably not been for you.
Well, I exaggerate the divide. Critics are also readers, and readers critics, and indeed, the contrapuntal engagement of the heart and the mind is one of literature’s most sublime gifts. But I was reminded of those two sometimes incompatible gauges while reading André Aciman’s new novel Eight White Nights. I read this book with the intention of reviewing it, but within 20 pages it had awoken in me memories so vivid and consuming that I put away my calipers and compass and gave no more thought to primary diagnostics.
Which makes the leftover task of reviewing the book something of a challenge, but I can start by saying that Eight White Nights is about falling in love – or, better to say that the novel is more interested in recreating the feeling of falling in love than in examining it. It begins on Christmas Eve, when a 28-year-old man known to us only by the affectionate nicknames he comes to acquire goes to a swanky Upper West Side party and meets Clara. He falls for her instantly; even her first words to him – I am Clara – have an incantatory charm that seem to offer a key to her personality. In a matter of paragraphs, before you’ve had a chance to situate yourself, the besotted narrator is infusing that introduction with a lifetime of unspoken meaning:
It meant, I’m the Clara you’ll be seeing all year long here, so let’s just make the best of it. I am the Clara you never thought would be sitting right next to you, and yet here I am. I’m the Clara you’ll wish to find here every one day of every month for the remainder of this and every other year of your life.
It seems a bit much. And in truth, in the cold light of day about 95 percent of Eight White Nights seems a bit much. But Aciman’s refusal to allow in any of the emotional ambivalence that is the modern-day hallmark of realism is crucial to the spell he’s trying to cast. You quickly perceive, and more importantly, associate with, the fairy tale of flirting with the most beautiful person at the party – and having that person return your advances.
If this spell works on you as it did on me, the hundred pages that make up this first night will be one of the most pleasurable stretches of prose that you have read in a long time. When the dreamt-of encounter occurs, the narrator can’t quite treat it as anything other than a dream, so even as he frenetically calibrates his conversation to hold Clara’s attention he is protected by the assumption that she will eventually wander away and the fantasy will end. So long as it continues, though, he is free to construe an almost mythic glory in her every slightest gesture. Just as he adduces dozens of different meanings from the little greeting “I am Clara,” he discovers in her a spectacular range of traits, each exaggerated like the attributes of a goddess – she is cruel and condescending when she mocks the less suave members of the party but boundlessly compassionate after the narrator chokes on a spicy hors d’oeuvre; she is the femme fatale who sensually kisses another woman but also the guarded homebody nursing the wounds of a bad breakup. The narrator, a lonesome, poetic fellow, receives each of these intimacies – even those that cause him to suffer – with expanding joy because each adds to the tapestry of the fantasy. The tiny but pregnant interactions move in an exquisite and exhilarating slow motion. Aciman is a Proust scholar, and although I’d rather leave so obvious an influence unmentioned, his prose is like Proust’s in that it takes an unconscionably involuted, Möbius strip route to get back to its original point. Its effect is achieved by getting you lost in those minute involutions, and I have to quote Aciman at length to convey even a sense of this book:
Downstairs, she navigated the crowd and led me to a quieter spot by one of the bay windows, where three tiny cushions seemed waiting for us in an alcove. She was about to place the dish between us, but then sat right next to me, holding the plate on her lap. It was meant to be noticed, I though, and therefore open to interpretation.
I didn’t know what she meant.
All I could think of was her collarbone and its gleaming suntan. The lady with the collarbone. The shirt and the collarbone. To a collarbone. This collarbone in two hundred years would, if it was cold in the icy silence of the tomb, so haunt my days and chill my dreaming nights that I would wish my own heart dry of blood. To touch and run a finger the length of her collarbone. Who was this collarbone, what person, what strange will came out to stop me when I wished my mouth on this collarbone? Collarbone, collarbone, are you not weary, will I be grieving over collarbones unyielding? I stared at her eyes and was suddenly speechless, my mind in disarray. The words weren’t coming. My thoughts were all tousled and scattered. I couldn’t even put two thoughts together and felt like a parent trying to teach an unsteady toddler how to walk by holding both his hands and asking him to put one foot before the other, one word before the other, but the child wasn’t moving. I stumbled from one thing to the other, then stood frozen and speechless, couldn’t think of anything.
Still seems a bit much, doesn’t it? This ode to Clara’s collarbone provides about as much as we know of her appearance. She is beautiful, but in a shimmeringly indistinct way, and if Aciman’s spell is working on you, you will be superimposing on that form a face and body flowing directly from your memories. And if that is happening, you won’t roll your eyes at the clichés and superfluities of the prose and you won’t falter over the simile – you won’t even notice any of this. You’ll simply respond in line with the narrator to the lavishly emphasized prompts to agony or exaltation.
A similar sense of identification may be needed to fully enjoy Aciman’s first novel Call Me by Your Name, about a teenage boy’s affair with a visiting male scholar in a seaside paradise in Italy. This is a summery fairy tale – a kind of raspberry aimed at the mortuary romanticism of Death in Venice. The love between Elio and Oliver is almost completely uninfected by guilt or loss. It is also consummated by extraordinarily graphic sex. These scenes are simultaneously rhapsodic and anatomical, and I have spoken to a few people who cringe at their earnest, stylized eroticism. Indeed, the scenes are coated with a certain stickiness – both sentimental and, alas, seminal – that makes them sound merely puerile when summarized. Yet once again, reading them accessed memories in me so deeply-vaulted that I rarely have cause to relive them over the course of a year. The lovers in Call Me by Your Name make their spoken vows, but they also forge a kind of physical covenant by exposing their bodies – even by abasing themselves – to their beloved in acts so intensely private that most people will go their whole lives without describing such moments to another living soul. These are precisely the moments that Aciman does describe, with unnerving candor and detail. Nor does he fail to capture the wretchedness and mortification that can follow such absolute vulnerability, as well as the unmatched bliss that comes from finding that your offering has been requited.
I may reveal something of my own character when I say that my favorite part of Eight White Nights comes when the narrator leaves the Christmas Eve party in the small hours and sits in a nearby park experiencing a euphoria so strong it could melt the snow around him. The novel’s title and premise is evidently borrowed from an early Dostoyevsky story called “White Nights”; but here I thought of Tolstoy. After Levin learns in Anna Karenina that Kitty loves him, he wanders Moscow in dizzy ecstasy, transfiguring all the mundane, even grubby, sights with supernatural radiance: “Two children going to school, some pigeons that flew down from the roof, and a few loaves put outside a baker’s window by an invisible hand touched him particularly. These loaves, the pigeons, and the two boys seemed creatures not of this earth.”
There is a similar sanctification of commonplaces in Call Me by Your Name: the hammering of a workman during afternoon siestas and the sight of twisted olive trees and old scarecrows leave Elio feeling “restful and at peace with the world.” In Eight White Nights the narrator has a brief run-in with a beggar and a police officer, and he knows as well that he is going to immortalize every minor detail of the encounters, and that the park itself will exist as a monument to that night, and will “echo with Clara’s presence.” I think Aciman hits on something very true in this scene – we are often most in love when we are alone, and free to perfect our feelings with our imaginations. But for the reader there is a doubly narcotic effect: the idealized memory of an idealized memory. This is how the chapter ends, and as the reader remembers his own memorials to love the narrator returns home with a hundred touchstones – the spicy hors d’eouvre, Clara’s puns and inside jokes, a certain way to tie a scarf, the frozen twigs in the park – that he can use to transport himself back to that night.
There are, of course, seven more of these nights to go, and that fact is a little bit dismaying, through no fault of Aciman’s. If you haven’t liked what you’ve read so far, you can give up the book with a clean conscience. But if you have been entranced by the spell of reminiscence, then you know – and have instinctively known from the start – that bad things are on the way. When you breach the ramparts to memories like this, everything rushes out, and though the narrator experiences further joys with Clara, and jubilant reconciliations, mostly he is bound up in a cycle of longing, fearful hesitation, mopey self-pity, panic attacks, and jabbering, insensible jealousy. Aciman dilates upon each of these phases with remorseless hypersensitivity, revealing two people terrified of giving away anything of themselves that might be rejected – terrified that what has happened between them will transform into signifiers of heartbreak. A baroque emotional gamesmanship strongly resembling psychological torture underlies their every email or phone call:
I knew there was no point in checking my e-mail or even expecting a call from her. She wouldn’t call, because she knew I wouldn’t have called either, and I didn’t call because I knew she wouldn’t. But I knew she had thought of calling, because I myself had thought of it. She’d want me to make the gesture first, if only to hold it against me, which is why I wouldn’t call, which is also why she wouldn’t call either. It was this twined and tortured shadow-thinking that both paralyzed us and drew us together.
It is all difficult to read, but only because it is done so well. The hardest part of Eight White Nights for me comes when the narrator, in the grip of grieving mania, walks back and forth past Clara’s apartment – he calls it his passacaglia, invoking another joke between them – hoping that she’ll see him, hoping that she won’t see him and he won’t care, angry that she doesn’t see him, indignant that she might see him and think he’s been thinking of her, and on and on, the street-pacing mirroring, and made more tormentingly potent, by the endlessly recursive prose:
I could not stay on the sidewalk too long. She might look out of her kitchen and catch my eyes glued to her windows. For all I knew, she might have been looking out of her window and staring straight at me. Or perhaps the two of them were [Clara and her ex-boyfriend]. So I walked by in a rush. But having reached the end of her block too soon, I realized that there was nowhere to go, and rather than go the long way around to Broadway and back, I started walking back on Riverside, slowly, then once back to 105th, went up again to 107th, back-and-forth, again and again, always affecting a busy air, not realizing that there wasn’t a reason in the world why anyone should walk by eight times on Riverside Drive and look so busy at such an ungodly hour of night.
Virtually every facet of a long relationship is compressed into Eight White Nights, and I found that the eight or so hours it took to read the book matched the amount of time it took to relive the important memories such relationships have left. Aciman has a unique understanding of how sinfully pleasurable it is to reenact your past like this. Even the terrible memories, while still painful, afford a sublime sort of indulgence because our imaginations have invariably gone to work on them and invested them with tragic splendor.
Eight White Nights is itself fuzzed and distorted by its narrator’s romanticized projections. This makes it, like the swain declaring his love, more than a little vulnerable to mockery. Clara and the narrator are not likable if you look at them as an outside observer; their sweet nothings are cloying and their inside jokes mean-spirited; they strike you as the kind of couple you’d hate to be around, the kind in which each person enables the other’s worst, most egotistical qualities. And they’re spoiled! Surely the most absurd thing about this book is the lack of any mention of gainful employment, despite the fact that Clara and the narrator live in the most expensive neighborhood in America and spend approximately one thousand dollars on wine and coffee alone during their week together.
But even as I noticed these things, I cared about none of them, and I’m left to conclude that Aciman knows what he’s doing. Day jobs have no part in daydreams. I loved reading this book, and yet I am paradoxically hesitant to recommend it to anyone. I would typically set my judgments on a book against anybody’s: they are based on learned, earned, and reasoned standards. But I put so much of myself into Eight White Nights, I’m afraid that if someone doesn’t like it, I’m going to take it personally.
Sam Sacks is an editor for Open Letters. His book reviews have also appeared in Commentary, The Wall Street Journal, The Barnes and Noble Review, The Quarterly Conversation, and The New York Press, among other places. He lives in New York.