Eight White Nights
By André Aciman
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 368 pages, $26
‘Halfway through dinner,” says the unnamed narrator of “Eight White Nights,” “I knew I’d replay the whole evening in reverse.” Thus begins André Aciman’s snow globe of a novel, which attempts to follow up on the success of his debut novel, “Call Me by Your Name” (Picador, 2008). In “Eight White Nights,” a young man of an uncertain age and background appears at a party on Christmas Eve at a luxury building at the corner of Riverside Drive and West 106th Street, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He’s come uninvited, a stranger to everyone — including himself. He doesn’t even know who is giving the party, but he is dazzled nonetheless by the bounty and wealth surrounding him, and seems to have stepped right into a fairy tale; only later does he discover that the hosts of the party are a wealthy couple called, fittingly, Hans and Gretel. Outside, a snowstorm is brewing, blanketing the streets and lending a magical and dreamlike quality to the city.
Then, in a flash of coincidence and grace, a beautiful and captivating young woman comes up to him and, unbidden, introduces herself: “I am Clara.” Three simple words, which suggest both a boundary and an eternity; three simple words that teach him how impassive he has been to the beauty of the world; three simple words that the narrator will spend the rest of the novel — and perhaps even a lifetime, if he is fortunate to be so blessed/cursed — trying to decode and reply to with as simple and declarative a statement of his own. Yes, this is a love story. And Clara, taking him in hand, will proceed to shake up the narrator as if he were transparent and as if his life, thoughts and emotions were little more than the flakes inside the globe.
Over the next week, very little happens: The narrator and Clara attend a number of films in the Eric Rohmer retrospective at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side; they take a drive to visit the grandparents of Clara’s old boyfriend. The history and background of the characters are offered up in thimblefuls: the death of Clara’s parents in a car crash; the death of the narrator’s father a year prior to him meeting Clara; the origins of the characters and their families as refugees from Europe, Germany more specifically; the strange aching for Kultur, or culture, and gemütlichkeit, good will, that clings to those Jews fortunate enough to have escaped from the war; the faint and annoying Jewishness that scratches at the characters’ throats, greeting them each morning like some forgotten, unwanted, annoying stubble, and finally, the narrator’s endless ambivalence — or “amphibalence,” as the quality is dubbed by Clara.
But in order to give oneself up to the premise of the novel’s opening lines, which is that the reader, along with Aciman’s narrator, will spend the rest of his life replaying the events of these white nights, much more than “amphibalence” must be at stake. In great romances, the external world — history, religion, sexuality — stands as a barrier to be breached: Montagues and Capulets, blacks and whites, Jews and gentiles. And it is against those barriers that love, with all its many doubts, uncertainties and sleepless white nights, engages in struggles, always failing in the beginning, yet triumphing ultimately by revealing the stupidity, narrow-minded meanness and pettiness of the external world. Too little is at stake in “Eight White Nights”: Mere romance is not sufficient to sustain a novel of this length, which is not to say that a novel of this length can never sustain a love story. What’s missing is the obsession, the compulsion that drives the characters out of their minds and skins and makes them prepared to risk everything for love.
To his credit, Aciman struggles with and anticipates this criticism. Early on in “Eight White Nights,” the narrator points out that the Rohmer films “were about not life but the romance of life. Just as they’re not about France but about the romance of France.” The same point can be made about “Eight White Nights,” which one might argue is not so much a novel as it is a meditation on and infatuation with the notion of the Proustian novel.
This is not simply a hedge on Aciman’s part. Along with the influences of Proust and Rohmer, Aciman is channeling the spirit of Dostoevsky here, in particular, “White Nights.” That story, similar in structure to Aciman’s novel but a fraction of the length, takes place in St. Petersburg in the summer, when the sun never sinks low enough for the sky to grow dark. It is during one of those white nights that Dostoevsky’s pathetic narrator, a man who has lived in St. Petersburg for eight years and yet “hasn’t managed to make a single friend,” sees a young girl along the embankment and is drawn to her despite his spitefulness, his sickness, his envy.
Standing on the terrace that Christmas Eve, the narrator imagines Dostoevsky’s “stranded lovers straining ever so wistfully to catch a glimpse of both Clara and me as we longed to alight on their gaslit Nevsky Prospekt.” The moment is a poignant one, as Aciman’s narrator is speaking of a fictional galaxy that he looks upon from the terrace that night with a mixture of longing and nostalgia, a time and place when people still could ache for other people, when magic, romance, glitter and mystery were still possible.
There is much in this snow globe of a book to commend it to readers. “Eight White Nights” envelops one in a blizzard of sensations, thoughts and images, recovering emotions that one had forgotten one even possessed. And if Aciman is to be faulted for not having written an unforgettable romantic novel and for painting an unrealistic portrait of this city and modern life, he is to be credited for having made his readers revisit white nights of their own.
Robert Rosenberg, a freelance journalist and story writer, is at work on a novel.