Lehman Today Online Magazine Lehman Today Spring 2016 - Page 26

Writing For the Ages Novelist and memoirist André Aciman (B.A. ‘73) still finds inspiration in the Classics he read as a young undergraduate at Lehman College. and yet everything I seek in my life is to reinstate whatever I lost there. I don’t like New York, but I can’t live anywhere else. I think I want to be in Italy but after three weeks I can’t wait to be back on the Upper West Side [where he lives],” he said. “All my friends make fun of me for constantly seeking what’s no longer or not quite there.” Proust is just one of Aciman’s many specialties. He edited The Proust Project, a collection of essays by writers such as Lydia Davis and Alain de Botton, and he teaches a class on Proust at the Graduate Center. “I first started reading Proust when I was at Lehman College, on the train back and forth,” from his home on the Upper West Side. “That train ride was long, let me tell you.” But beyond serving as a source of amusement to his friends, this ambivalence is, more importantly, what fuels his writing. “Many things I want I cannot have, but writing about them is having them. I either need to lose something in order to write about it or I have to want it badly enough to invent it. In both cases the reality exists wholly on paper, or the (computer) screen. I can create a mock home.” Aciman’s studies at Lehman began in the spring semester of 1969, soon after he arrived from Italy; he initially intended to major in business. “I was a refugee immigrant, so I wanted to make money and establish myself and all those things, but it turns out I was terrible at business.” In the Humanities, however, Aciman found a home. “When I was in Italy for those three years, all I did was read—only the classics. At Lehman I found that everything I had done for those three years was being nourished.” He had two professors in particular who encouraged him. Gary Schwartz taught him ancient Greek. “I was never going to do anything with it, and I never have, but it made me so happy. The universe of the greats is closed, but it has cracks in it, and this was like being handed a shoehorn to break through, just a little.” “I went to the Bronx every day on the 4 train. I was working three jobs. Yet I’d get to the Bronx and here we were—[Professor] Tusiani and I—two minds totally committed to what was timeless. You don’t always find that in the Ivy League. ” It’s perhaps not surprising that award-winning writer and Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature André Aciman turns his tender eye, time and time again, to the past. Forced in the early 1960s to flee his birthplace, Egypt, amid mounting antiSemitism there, Aciman landed in Italy aged 14 grieving the loss of the only home he’d ever known. He sought to steady himself by looking back even further in time—to the classics. “Everything felt so dissolute and broken up. I wanted something permanent, and ancient Greece was as permanent as you could get.” Nostalgia and a reverence for those enduring ancient works have in equal parts shaped Aciman’s oeuvre, one that very well may earn a place on library shelves alongside the author’s beloved classics. 24 Lehman Today His memoir, Out of Egypt, was called by The New York Times’ infamously severe critic Michiko Kakutani “remarkable,” “magical,” and “resonant.” His novel, Call Me by Your Name, won the Lambda Literary Award for Men’s Fiction, and his novels Eight White Nights and Harvard Square received critical praise as well (a new novel, Enigma Variations, is due out in winter 2017). Aciman, who earned his B.A. at Lehman College and his Ph.D at Harvard, and who now teaches in the Comparative Literature Ph.D program at the CUNY Graduate Center, is keenly aware of his relationship to nostalgia. “I’ve made ambivalence my capital. I don’t know that I like anything but if you take it away from me I’m going to miss it terribly,” he explained. “I hated Egypt when I lived there The two impulses collided in spectacular fashion in his muchlauded novel, Call Me By Your Name. “I woke up one morning and said ‘I want to be in Italy, and I want to have a love affair.’ I went to my computer and I started writing and I kept writing for three months.” That swiftly written book, called an instant classic of homoerotic literature by The New York Times, is now slated to become a movie. The actors Armie Hammer (The Social Network) and Timothée Chamalet (Homeland) have already signed on to play the lead roles (“But until the cameras start rolling,” Aciman said wryly, “it’s not happening.”) Despite his great love of the classics, Aciman has developed a style that’s thoroughly contemporary. “Writing by definition is a compromise between your inner soulful voice and the person who will read your writing; it has to be recognizable to that person or you’re just jotting down diary entries.” Then, too, he pointed out, “You’re being published by somebody who wants to sell your book, so they’re invested in you writing something readers can understand. If Marcel Proust were being published today by an American house, three quarters of the book would be cut. And that would make sense because those are the realities of the marketplace.” A second professor, Joseph Tusiani (see page 10), also played a significant role in helping Aciman to flourish as a student. “I went to the Bronx every day on the 4 train. I was working three jobs. It was so pedestrian and plodding; everything about me was so plebean. Yet I’d get to the Bronx and here we were—Tusiani and I—two minds totally committed to what was timeless, to what was great.” Said Aciman, who completed his Ph.D in comparative literature at Harvard after leaving Lehman College: “You don’t always find that in the Ivy League.” While the days of riding the 4 train to Lehman for impassioned discussions about “the greats” are long behind him, Aciman remains committed to the classics—and in fact, it is their power to endure that serves as the standard by which Aciman measures his writing and others. “You’re not talking to your contemporaries when writing—you’re talking to God. In other words, you’re trying to make nice with him, so that he’s impressed by you and says, ‘Ok, you get to stay here for another 50 or 100 years.” “I am always looking for a particular form of excellence that tells me, in a metaphorical way, that the world is not going out from under me. Unless something is going to be here forever I’m not interested.” —Laura Jamison Lehman Today 25