Interview with André Aciman
Harvard Advocate Staff
In his new novel, Harvard Square, André Aciman revisits the place he called home as a Harvard Ph.D. student in the 1970s and ‘80s. On April 26, 2013, during one of his physical returns to the Square, The Harvard Advocate’s fiction editor emeritus, Patrick Lauppe, sat down with Aciman for an original interview. An Egyptian-American memoirist and novelist, Aciman has written numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, including Out of Egypt, Call Me by Your Name, and Eight White Nights. His most recent novel, Harvard Square, was released in April. Here is the transcript of The Harvard Advocate’s conversation with him:
You mentioned in your book that Harvard Square is a much different place than it was back in the 1970s, so could you elaborate on some of those differences and what you think they reflect?
It used to have a lot of oldish stores. Sometimes almost bric-a-brac stores. Now, they are very much mall stores. All the stores are nice, chic, and expensive. In the old days, it was more rundown. You had a sense that age had caught up with Harvard, especially in the area around Mount Auburn, which was really dilapidated at times. Now, it’s perfect. The old post office disappeared. It had a bad smell. Now there’s a new post office and it’s absolutely lovely.
You received your Ph.D from Harvard in the 1970s, in Comparative Literature. Could you perhaps elaborate on the importance of that degree and of studying Comparative Literature on your career? And how that’s influenced your writing?
I started in ’73, but by 1980 I was disenchanted. I never finished in the ‘70s. I taught a lot. I taught in all kinds of places. I taught a lot at Harvard and had fantastic undergrads. But at some point in time I got so disenchanted that I abandoned the Ph.D and went to work for brokerage firms and moved to New York, where I worked in advertising. Then, eventually, I decided to come back to my Ph.D. I had done all the research for it, so the writing was easy. I wrote the Ph.D dissertation in six months. Having an advanced degree, in my case, allowed me to get a job at Princeton, which eventually led to Bard College, and then to the Graduate Center in New York. So having been a grad student at Harvard worked out very well for me in the end.
So you mentioned this disenchantment. One thing that I found particularly interesting and resonant about the main character of Harvard Square, the narrator, is his constant ambivalence toward graduate school and the prospect of academia. He seems to think it’s his perfect place, or the place that’s made for him, but at the same time, there’s an antipathy toward it.
Yeah, it’s a love-hate relationship, if you want to put it in those bleak terms. I came to Harvard not because of Harvard, actually. I came to Harvard because I wanted to study literature. And Harvard and Johns Hopkins and NYU had accepted me, but Harvard gave me more money. So I went to the money; that was the simple answer. Also, I liked Cambridge. It was different from New York, which I knew. I had no idea that studying literature meant that you would end up almost hating it by virtue of what they did to it. In other words, the professionalization of the personal loves of literature, the loves of books, was such that it almost took the soul out of it. So I needed to get away. And having come back to my graduate work a few years after leaving helped a great deal. Writing a dissertation in New York in an environment that was entirely metropolitan, totally divorced of anything academic, was very helpful for me.
Why do you think so?
Because staying in an academic mode was stultifying and choking me; I couldn’t stand that anymore. And you can see this in the book. Cambridge was extremely hospitable to anything having to do with books, but only if you discuss books in very specific terms. Not in the terms that I wanted to discuss books. So I had to learn to discuss books in a professional manner, which I’m very grateful to. At the same time, being away from Harvard allowed me to rediscover that love of books that I used to have, and that I’ve now made my profession. In fact, it allows me to say things, when I write book reviews for instance, that are extremely pointed in that they are written by a man who is very belletristic but who knows how to discuss literature on an academic level. You find that most people who are academics today do the academic side, but they don’t really know how to handle the belletristic aspect of it, which means finding out whether something is good or bad, beautiful or stupid. Everything is interesting, as you know when you study cultural studies. Everything is interesting. But that’s not the point of literature. Some of it is very good; some of it is just interesting. And I’ve always been committed to finding out how you pass on the love of literature unadulterated, in a highly professional manner.
What were the terms in which you wanted to discuss literature originally that clashed with the professional mode?
I remember being interviewed by the chair of the department, and I saying, “I want to write about the Byronic hero.” I was all into Byron and I was interested in the Byronic hero, not realizing that the Byronic hero is a platitude of the first order. And he looked at me with a pensive look, almost jaundiced, and I said, “Well, what’s wrong with that?” So I went back home and thought, “Okay, well, let’s think again.” Then, I had a teacher called Edward Said who was very smart, although I have lots of problems with Edward Said. I always thought that there was something unfinished [about his approach]. He got the stuff. He got it, but he didn’t know how to discuss literature qua literature. It was always qua something else. I always thought that was really cheating students and cheating the task of a man of literature. You have to discuss it as literature. What is it that makes it good? There’s no other way to explain it. So I was ultimately disenchanted. But I needed to be exposed to this in order to be able to speak about the things that mattered to me in such a way that at least I could give them a greater degree of depth and meaning than they had when I came here wanting to write about the Byronic hero.
How did you make the transition between academic writing and an academic context to writing your own memoir and writing your own novels? I feel like that’s often a difficult transition to make.
It is. It’s very difficult. Let me tell you what some of the difficulties are. First of all, your colleagues. They hate you. If you write a book that flops, they love you. But if you write a book that’s very successful, as Out of Egypt was, in its time, it really made them very envious. That’s the only thing I can say. Here’s a book that’s actually almost a bestseller, and it’s written by somebody who’s decided, as I had when I was at Princeton, that I was not going to write an academic book. I was going to put all my eggs in this book called Out of Egypt. I had to make a decision. It was almost suicidal, because I knew what the price was going to be. They were not going to give me tenure. It’s that simple. They didn’t give me tenure, and that was their revenge. Of course, then they became my friends. It was good that they didn’t give me tenure, because I would have choked to death at Princeton. I was very glad that I came back to New York. This was a place for me. New York is a very hospitable place for people who are many things, not just one thing. But that’s only one aspect of the answer you’re looking for.
Academic writing is fundamentally dead. You can make it interesting; you can make it fun. But it’s dull. Some people cheat this by writing magazine articles. That’s a way of writing as an academic for the popular reader or the mainstream reader, who’s educated, by the way. That’s the only way you can do it. Nobody really cares about three jargon words strung together in a title. Nobody wants that. I just think everybody should be discouraged from doing that. But writing a memoir, or writing a piece of fiction, as a person who is trained in literature, presents new problems and fantastic opportunities. You begin by writing for the classroom. You write stuff that’s deep and complicated because it’s going to be taught in such a way that students are going to discuss it in this and that way, and they’re going to see the symbolism and the patterns and the message. That’s a vow to demolition. You’re destroying yourself by doing that. You also have to step back and say, I’m writing something that is obeying the conventions of fiction, but it may not be fiction. It will sound like fiction. It is going to have some intellectual component that’s never, and should never, be visible, because if it’s visible, then it’s trite and stupid. So it has to be there because it matters. It matters to the writer. Me. But it must not be visible, so there’s never, in anything that I write, I hope, a message or an ideology or something that you can string together and say, “This is what the problem is.” I make certain that you never get that.
How do you go about hiding the seams, then?
It’s not a question of hiding the seams, as much as it is the concept of making sure that you tell a story, and that the story always has prevalence. If I was writing Oedipus Tyrannus, I would write it exactly as Sophocles did. There is no message in Oedipus. What is the message? Don’t kill your father and don’t marry your mother? There’s no message. Oh, you want to discuss faith. Well, we can do that for a while. Basically, you can’t extract a meaning. One of the ways in which I do that is by thinking of plot, but it has to be plot that’s internalized, because otherwise it’s just story à la anybody. It has to be a story that matters to the narrator. It has to be a story that derives of an experience that has already been thought about and does not need to articulate its meaning because its meaning is in plain sight.
The story, in Harvard Square, revolves around the interactions between the narrator and the character Kalaj. I found this to be a satisfying center for the novel, similar to the center of many novels. The Great Gatsby comes to mind, in which a passive narrator comes into relief through interaction with a dynamic and controversial character. How did you come to realize that that was the kind of dynamic you wanted to develop here and that was what you wanted to use as your vehicle for themes like exile?
I was fascinated by someone who claimed he had no regrets. He didn’t understand regret. He was always moving forward, almost scuttling and falling apart most of the time. There was no going back. There was always going forward. I was temperamentally more thoughtful, more meditative as a person. So I would look back, or at least not step forward that far ahead. I was interested in the contrast. I was interested in his [Kalaj’s] success with women. How does someone sleep with a different woman every single night? I want that! Or at least I did want that at some point. I found that he had his feet on the ground, whereas my head was always in the clouds. I was a student of literature. He was a student of life. I’ve always envied that. I’ve always felt like I didn’t get life very well. I understood people. In fact, the way I study him is the result of how he taught me to study people. I’m constantly reading how he reads me, but I got that by watching him read so many other people. He’s always reading people, always sizing them up. And he was always sizing them up because he was after something that was fundamentally authentic. He didn’t trust people, and he couldn’t trust anyone, partially because he was paranoid, but partly because it was something about people, that they were always making a compromise with the way things are, and he never did. Not out of heroism: he just didn’t know how to.
Do you think this way of looking at people that you’re referring to has taught you how to characterize and make the characters come off the page?
No, because there’s no craft there. I do have a very jaundiced view of humanity. I never trust anybody, and I always suspect that somebody has, not just some hidden motive, but they themselves are lying to themselves. Half the time I spend talking to people, I’m telling them that they’re not seeing what is happening to them because they’re not willing to see how things are. This ability to see what is actually going on, and articulating what the dynamic is between them and others, them and life, and them and other people is a craft that allows you to understand human beings.
You talk about Kalaj as if he were based on a real person. Is that the case?
You began your career with a memoir, but this is characterized as a novel. Can you explain?
I don’t understand the difference. Because I don’t think there’s any difference between a memoir and a novel. There’s an article I just wrote in The New York Times that says more than what I can say here. You move the furniture around to make the story gel. In order to have meaning, you need to have a chronology. Sometimes, something happened way later that should have happened far earlier. If you refashion the order of events, then your story begins to make sense. It resonates with meaning. Ultimately, that’s what counts: the meaning of the story. So yes, sometimes something happens in January as opposed to March and you shift them around and suddenly everything makes sense, because all that needed to change was not the events, but the weather. So, in essence, for me, memoir is a novel. It reads like a novel; it’s supposed to read like a novel. It has the fun of a novel. It basically means that the facts are all real that have been taken from your life, but the order has been changed, or let’s say some things have been removed because they were of no importance. For example, in the memoir, I removed my brother because he really didn’t make any difference. He was a part of my life, but he didn’t really matter as far as the story was concerned. In fact, the story makes more sense without him.
You’ve spent many years studying and teaching Proust. I know that Proust is someone who toed the line between novel and memoir.
Totally. Rousseau did too; he lied about his own life.
Very convincingly! So did Montaigne. One does that, all the time. We’re not in a court of law. We’re not on trial. We’re telling a story that matters to us. The way I phrased it in my article was: because I’m more interested in the person I am today, thinking of these events, than the person that I was then. I don’t care about myself thirty years ago, forty years ago. He’s not that interesting. But I am interesting to myself right now, and if I’m delving into the person I was forty years ago, it’s because of who I am today. I couldn’t have written that story when I was your age.
One parallel I found in Out of Egypt and Harvard Square is between the characters Kalaj and Uncle Vili. They had a very similar energy as characters. Could you remark on that kind of character? Earlier you said that’s the kind of character that has no regrets.
I consider myself a bookish person, i.e. withdrawn, dysfunctional: whatever you want to call it. I’m not on planet Earth; I’m somewhere else. I’m constantly faking being on planet Earth in order to survive on planet Earth. That’s all it is. There are some people who belong to Earth and are committed to Earth and to life and they love it. I envy them. I couldn’t really envy them that much because I would die if I had to be them, but I envy their commitment to risk, to challenge, to the boldness with which they throw themselves into life. The fundamental characters in all my works have always been the Vili type and the Kalaj type. Of course there’s also a character called Oliver, who’s totally in the present. And there’s a woman called Clara in one of my novels: She’d go up to you and shake your hand and say, “I’m Clara. Who are you?” I love people like that. I’m not like that. But I think the contrast is important because it is a contrast between literature and what I consider the opposite of literature: life. I don’t think one has anything to do with the other. Many people will disagree with me. I think art and life are two separate departments, and one imitates the other; that’s about it. But life could care less about literature. Literature is envious of life. People who can’t read don’t care about reading. They’re not losing anything, as far as they’re concerned.
I mentioned exile earlier. I think one of the most interesting parts of the book is watching the narrator navigate his feelings of belonging to the two or perhaps even three nations—counting France—between which he’s divided. Could you remark on that theme?
They’re both exiles. Exile is not just a condition of being without a home. It also means that you’re outside your body, too. Your home allows you to have an identity. If you’re not in your home, if you’re not living in a place with which you’ve grown to identify yourself, even if you hate it, then you yourself are in question. You are not in your body. I cannot explain it any other way. So you were brought up in the states, I take it?
So you’re totally grounded. You may feel you have some issues with California, with the States: You’re angry at this and that, you disagree with this and that. But, fundamentally, you’re American: This is where you belong. This is where your home is going to be, unless you choose otherwise. When you don’t have the choice, you’re displaced; you’re like a plant that has no roots. You don’t even know if you’re a plant any longer. You’re faking being alive. Basically, they cut your arm off, and then they send you away, and so you’re a body without an arm and you manage to live without an arm. Except, there’s a mistake in the metaphor: You are just the arm. The body stayed behind. You are just an arm trying to do the work of a whole body, and you can’t. I’m sorry that I’m piling on the metaphors, but it’s the only way to do it. So you are deracinated.
What I was interested in doing [in Harvard Square] without trying to be too sententious about it was to show two different versions of exile. One basically has a ticket in. He can become a student at Harvard. He can become an American eventually. He can have a professional life. He can belong somewhere given his interests. The other person has no ticket. He has no free pass anywhere. He’s just here freeloading, as it were. And eventually he’s going to lose all he’s got. Both of them, however, feel that they don’t belong here. One feels that America is a strange country. It’s not really his home. The other feels that Americans belong to a different order of mankind. Mankind comes in many versions; not just cultures. Versions. So you have two people who don’t belong here, and who have this imaginary home in France. They know it’s imaginary, because one escaped it and the other doesn’t really want to go there because he knows he wouldn’t really belong there anyway. So they’re all free-floating in this place called Cambridge, where they don’t feel welcomed or at home.