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Now in Paperback: Alibis

Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere

by Andre Aciman

Picador, 2012

“If I miss the last shuttle,” celebrated author Andre Aciman writes of Venice in Alibis, his collection of travel essays now out in paperback from Picador, “then, failing a water taxi, I’ll take the final vaporetto from Venice, sit back, and, as I did years ago, watch the moolit water-city sparkle in the dark. I’ll lean on the railing of the speeding ferry boat and stare at the lagoon and watch the Lido draw nearer, until it will be time to get of at the Piazzale Santa Maria Elisabetta, as I did the first time I came here looking for a bygone luxury of a bygone world. I’ll walk down the Gran Viale toward the beach, turn right along my beloved lungomare, and, if I’m in the mood, keep walking past the Hotel des Bains: the view of the quiet Adriatic Sea in the dark of night is nothing short of breathtaking.”

Which ought to give the reader all the warning necessary about the ever-present danger of camp in the battered, lowbrow sub-genre of travel writing. If that reader has already read the travel books of Somerset Maugham (surely the god of Aciman’s idolatry), such warning won’t be necessary, and in any case there are worse things than for a sub-genre to abandon itself to programmatic flights of ecstasy. Dyspeptic connoisseurs will perhaps prefer their vicarious ciceroni more gimlet-eyed (the single greatest travel-book is and always will be Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad), but there’s no denying that wonder is youthening.

Slow-cooked, gorgeously worded wonder is something of Aciman’s stock-in-trade; on its strength (and about as much plot as would fill a Dixie cup), he’s contrived two of the best novels written in the last decade – and a steadily-growing body of first-rate travel-writing as well, to which Alibis is an ultimately entrancing addition, a pleasure-garden that waits for the searching reader just past this collection’s opening essay, “Lavender,” which is so overwrought it would have prompted even Oscar Wilde to murmur, “Lawks, man, get ahold of yourself – you’re slipping onto the floor.”

It’s just possible that “Lavender” is, in fact, technically unreadable (it was thus 100 percent certainly the choice of the author himself to start to collection – Dorothy Parker was right: authors ought not to be allowed within ten feet of their own writings), but the rest of Alibis more than compensates. Here are languid and brilliant meditations on such destinations as Paris, Barcelona, and New York, with special – and very welcome – emphasis on Italy, every sensuous detail of which Aciman manages to convert into a dry, firm caress along a thigh under a table at an al fresco dinner. Like Keats, he finds even the roof-tiles of Rome arousing:

The city is beautiful in such unpredictable ways. The dirty ocher walls (fast disappearing under new coats that restore their original yellow, peach, pink, lilac) are beautiful. And why not? Ocher is the closest stone will ever come to flesh; it is the color of clay, and from clay God made flesh.

Some unwritten contract clearly exists, drafted at some Geneva Convention covering the ethical use of the vapors, that sanctions for travel-writing alone all that business about God making flesh out of ocher clay, or cities twinkling in the night, or, for that matter, this:

Every walk carves out a new city. And each of these tiny cities has its own main square, a downtown area all its own, its own memorial statue, its own landmarks, laundromats, bus terminal – in short, its own focal point (from the Latin word focus, meaning fireplace, hearth, foyer, home), warm spot, sweet spot, soft spot, hot spot.

Only a churl would mutter ‘out, out, damn spot’ to an aria like that, but churls aren’t welcome in these pages anyway. Alibis is for those well-moneyed vagabonds who, like our author, view travel as an exercise in hope. Hope and reading, that is:

And this is what I’ve always suspected about Tuscany. It is about many beautiful things – about small towns, magnificent vistas, and fabulous cuisine, art, culture, history – but it is ultimately about the love of books. It’s a reader’s paradise. People come here because of books. Tuscany may well be for people who love life in the present – simple, elaborate, whimsical, complicated life in the present – but it is also for people who love the present when it bears the shadow of the past, who love the world provided it’s at a slight angle. Bookish people.

Delightfully, he says the same thing about Moscow, Rome, Venice, and the godforsaken fleshpots of France. An author who’d so clearly be just as happy staying at home with his nose in a book is an author I’ll follow anywhere.

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