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To understand André Aciman, try reading Thucydides

If this interview aired on television, André Aciman would have earned himself a perfect score on Room Rater.

The novelist, memoirist, essayist and scholar greeted me from the Upper West Side study where he spends most of his time. It’s the kind of home office about which most of us only fantasize: an Oriental-carpeted study lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves housing his “basic” collection of English literature. (Books in French, Italian, and several other languages are exiled to his office at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, where he teaches). Appealingly disordered, with no cloying color-coordination or conveniently displayed copies of his own work, it was the kind of background that garners kudos from the viral Twitter account famous for dunking on the chattering class’s interior design skills.

But I don’t think Aciman was trying to win the Zoom aesthetics game. He avoids television, tweets infrequently, and is one of the only people to ever tell me that work is “going apace” during the pandemic. He spends most of each day writing, with occasional breaks for interviews. Ours was his third of the day.

Things weren’t always like this. Born in 1951 in Alexandria, Egypt, to a Sephardic Jewish family, Aciman fled the country as a teenager when the government began to systematically expel noncitizens. After living for some time in Italy, Aciman moved to America, where he eventually received a doctorate in English and comparative literature from Harvard and established himself as a scholar of Marcel Proust. Besides academic work, he published novels, essays, and the critically acclaimed memoir “Out of Egypt.” But it was the film adaptation of his debut novel “Call Me By Your Name” by director Luca Guadagnino that made him a household name.

Aciman’s latest book, “Homo Irrealis,” takes its title from the linguistic category of verbal moods, including the conditional, subjunctive and imperative, used to discuss events that have not and may never occur. Touching on the work of writers like Cavafy, Sebald, and Pessoa, the collection explores the way memory, even when it represents a constructed or altered version of the past, controls our perception of the present and future. A moody and deeply introspective collection, it initially seems like a departure from the lush Mediterranean tableaus that made “Call Me By Your Name” a cultural touchstone.

Yet the ineffable and surprisingly forceful character of nostalgia is a constant preoccupation of Aciman’s, hovering at the fringes of even his most sensual novels. In a way, “Homo Irrealis” functions as a guidebook to the perspective that has informed the author’s storytelling for decades.

I spoke with Aciman about human psychology, the case against contemporary literature and what lessons Proust’s life has to offer us. (Spoiler: None.) The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tell me a little about how you’ve been working during the pandemic.

André Aciman.

André Aciman. Image by Chris Ferguson

Well, I basically exist on Zoom at this point. I teach on Zoom. My physical therapist is on Zoom. You’re on Zoom. It’s very hard to have anything going on that’s not fundamentally displacing, even though we’re all remaining in place.

It’s funny you mention feeling displaced, because that’s such a prominent theme in your work — although not precisely in this sense.

Well, one is displaced because the places one goes to have folded or closed, or one doesn’t want to go there because one is afraid of running into others. I feel like I’m in one place, and yet at the same time the places I normally go to are not open to me. As far as writing is concerned, this is ironically a blessing, all distractions are rescinded.

Is there anything you need to have on hand while you’re working?

I used to have dictionaries: French, English, Italian, even a thesaurus. And I used to have an encyclopedia. All this is gone now because I can get it online. So provided I have internet access, I’m OK.

You’re a scholar of Proust, who is famous for (among other things) staying home a lot. Have you taken any pandemic-era lessons from his life?

No, because he did nothing but write for the last 15 years of his life. He didn’t live. We don’t know much about his private life, if there was one. He was basically trapped, and I don’t like that feeling. I don’t think there’s anything to learn from that.

I am very Mediterranean, I like the things life gives us. At the same time, as a writer I am very withdrawn and I examine myself all the time. I’m sure that once I’m dead, people will look at my books and say, “This guy didn’t live at all.” So there’s a contrast between the life I live and the life that appears to have been lived in my books.

What parts of your life would surprise people who only knew you through your books?

That I have wonderful friends, that social moments are very important to me. That I like to party. This is something that isn’t transparent in my books. It seems more that I’m isolated, that I’m not friendly, that I don’t cultivate people.

Maybe we should go back to Proust in that respect. Here was a man who was extremely social, who had entrée into all kinds of clans and milieus, and who at the same time wrote one of the most private novels ever written. He had to stop being social because he found it was getting in the way of his other life, his scriptorial life. But I’ve never had to make that compromise.

You never had trouble balancing?

I think I had trouble when I was a graduate student, I had to read, I had to work on my dissertation, I had to study. But frankly, as soon as I got a call — “We’re at such-and-such a place, would you want to come and join us” — absolutely I would drop everything to go.

I want to go back to Proust. You’re both fascinated with memory and nostalgia. Were you drawn to Proust because he shares this interest? Or did you develop it by studying him?

When I was 14 years old, my father bought me my first volume of Proust. I immediately sensed it was too close, too intimate. It was my voice. That’s the genius of Proust, whenever you read him you feel it’s you speaking, not him. I liked that a lot, it made me feel at home. But I felt that Dostoevsky gave me more space, and allowed me to encounter sensibilities besides my own. Eventually, I went back to Proust and found I was reading him as if I was reading myself.

So, yes, Proust allowed me to justify who I was. And I acquired skills I didn’t know I had; the moment I saw them in Proust I said, “Yeah, I know how to do this.” The whole bit about memory, I had lived that long before knowing the word Proust. I also had this ability to examine people. I always wanted to understand why people were the way they were. Of course, I was an incurable gossip and would criticize people all the time behind their back — not because they were malevolent, but because I found something about them missing. I think that is true of Proust: He’s constantly excavating who the real person before him is, because he doesn’t trust that other person. How many of us truly accept others the way they are? Wouldn’t we be saints if we knew how to do that?

You’ve said you don’t watch movies, go to plays, or read magazines, which sets you apart from writers who see artistic production and consumption as symbiotic. Why do you think that is?

There’s something about contemporary culture which I feel is facile, easy. Whereas I find I’m drawn to that which is bygone, older, classical. I’m always drawn to older writers, writers who are not even alive. Fundamentally my favorite writer is Thucydides. I don’t accept contemporary society yet because it’s too present, it hasn’t been ratified by time. I always feel that I should wait some more before I accept someone. For example, the French critic Roland Barthes was writing a lot of books in the late 60s and early 70s. Everyone was consuming him, and I said, “No, I don’t want to consume him just yet.” When he died, that’s when I discovered him. I always feel that a piece in a magazine bears its time stamp on it. You wrap fish with it at the end of the day.

How do you square that skepticism with the fact that you yourself are a contemporary writer, and a popular one at that?

When people tell me, “I loved your book,” I say “You are an educated person. Why aren’t you reading Edith Wharton instead?” In other words, it doesn’t square with me that someone writing today should be read by people today. I should be read in 40 years. But of course I want to be read today. I’m in a state of total contradiction.

Do you think we’re in a uniquely bad cultural moment, or that art now will be more rewarding to consume in a few decades?

When a new book comes out and is very successful, people are buoyed by it. Everyone wants to read the book that has been raved about in the New York Times Book Review, because that book tells a story that speaks to us today, it deals with issues that are germane to today’s issues. I don’t want to read something that’s germane about today’s issues. I’d much rather read something that’s totally not germane to any issues. I’d much rather read about two individuals on a beach who are having an illicit affair, and experience some of their pangs and timidities, than to read a novel about two guys who are attracted to each other but are in danger because of intolerance in the society they live in. I’m interested in human psychology and motivation, the inner life of people, as opposed to the outer life.

Can’t you write about the individual relationships and “outer life” at the same time?

It is possible, I think many people are doing it. It’s not that I don’t know how to do it — although that’s a good claim to make — it’s that I’m not libidinally moved by it. There’s a kind of creative libido that has nothing to do with sex. What arouses my creativity is what goes on between two individuals. The social aspect of it does not arouse me. I can’t even dwell on it for more than two sentences. “Out of Egypt” is about a social catastrophe for Jews, but you barely sense that. What you’re dealing with is personalities, the wills of people, the stupidity, the spite. That’s what interests me.

What is it you like about Thucydides?

Oh gosh. In an undergraduate class we were made to read the beginning of “The History of The Peloponnesian War,” and I was bowled over. Every speech that was given, I’m on that side. Even if two people are arguing with each other, I’m always persuaded by the first speech and the contrary one. I know of no other writer who has cut open the human motivation, and human spite, and idiocy and fanaticism like Thucydides.

Irene Katz Connelly is a staff writer at the Forward. You can contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @katz_conn.

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