Andre Aciman is an uncommonly gifted essayist. His work in that form is quiet and subtle, searching and longing and improbably engaging, given its abiding concern with memory, a dead literary horse if ever there was one. “Lavender”, the first piece in his last collection, Alibis, is a great essay; no other descriptor will do. As an essayist, Aciman handles these matters deftly.A novel with that same sensibility could be a dicier affair. The great strength of collections like Alibis and False Papers is that the essay form allows Aciman to linger just long enough to convey a particular pang to the reader before departing.
His latest, the novel Harvard Square, attaches those concerns to a middle-aged man whose son is applying to colleges. The book opens with the unnamed narrator and his son on a visit to Harvard, a visit the son wants to end immediately. The father wants to summon up the magic of the place for his son, but when asked if he loved his time at Harvard, reflects and concludes, “I learned to love Harvard after, not during.” This is a cut to look backward, to the Harvard Square of 1977, when the protagonist has just failed his comps and has the nagging sense he’s on the verge of being outed as a fraud, wholly unqualified to study literature at Harvard. He wrestles with his attraction to the world he has reached the fringes of, facing the urge to reject it before it can reject him:
I hated almost every member of my department, from the chairman down to the secretary, including my fellow graduate students, hated their mannered pieties, their monastic devotion to their budding profession, their smarmy, patrician airs dressed down to look a tad grungy. I scorned them because I didn’t want to be like them, but I didn’t want to be like them because I knew that part of me couldn’t, while another wanted nothing more than to be cut from the same cloth.
Enter Kalaj, a Tunisian cab driver who frequents Café Algiers, a modest establishment the narrator views as a sort of oasis, a tonic to his pangs of dislocation. Note that Kalaj is short for Kalashnikov, for the rapid barrage of wit and opinion the man keeps up. The nickname seems silly and labored at first, though Aciman manages to dull this impression as the man’s character is revealed further. The two form an unexpected bond, centered initially on the café, which is characterized as “our imaginary Mediterranean café by the beach.” So begins his sentimental education at the hands of Kalaj, a man who is “the perfect cross between desert seer and street hustler.” He dispenses wisdom on subjects ranging from the ersatz nature of all things American to techniques for picking up women. Looking back, the narrator finds that these lessons shaped him far more than his readings in literature, which he treats briefly and at times dismissively. Still, there is a tension between the two men which remains largely unspoken:
He was proud to know me, while, outside of our tiny café society, I never wanted to be seen with him. He was a cabdriver, I was Ivy League. He was an Arab, I was a Jew. Otherwise we could have swapped roles in a heartbeat.
For all his wrath and dislodged, nomadic life, he was of this planet, while I was never sure I belonged to it. He loved earth and understood people. Jostle him all you wanted, he would find his bearings soon enough, whereas I, without moving, was always out of place, forever withdrawn. If I seemed grounded, it was only because I didn’t budge. He was temporarily unhinged yet forever on the prowl; I was permanently motionless. If I moved at all, I did so like a straddler standing clueless on a wobbly raft in the rapids; the raft moved, the water moved, but I did not.
There is a faint echo of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland here (this is an asset rather than a hindrance or distraction) They understand each other intuitively from their very first meeting. Aciman opts to portray this (and Kalaj’s bond with the café waitress Zeinab as well) through interactions which can run several lines, made up only of gestures and looks, translated for the reader. For instance,
He’d look up at Zeinab, brandish the croissant on a saucer, and give her a nod, signifying, I’m paying for it, so don’t even think of not putting it on my check. She would nod back, meaning, I saw, I understood, I would have loved to, but the boss is here anyway, so no favors today. A few sharp shakes of his head meant, I never asked for favors, not now, not ever, so don’t pretend otherwise, I know your boss is here. She would shrug: I couldn’t care less what you think? One more questioning nod from Kalaj: When is coffee ready? Another shrug meant: I’ve only got two hands, you know. A return glance from him was clearly meant to mollify her: I know you work hard too. Shrug. Bad morning? Very bad morning. Between them, and in good Middle Eastern fashion, no day was good.
It’s an infelicitous choice, one it’s initially puzzling Aciman insists upon so frequently. In time, though, we watch him realize that he’s not alone in quickly sizing up the meaning behind people’s words and actions. Despite wanting to subscribe to Kalaj’s dim view of Americans, he’s forced to admit that at least some of them are able to take his measure, and quickly.
The heart of the matter here, though, is his relationship with Kalaj. The cab driver can be maddeningly brash, but he’s also largehearted and vital, the sort of man with “the life I was desperate to try out.” Instead he settles for hours across the table from him, and the formation of a bond which endures, though he tries on numerous occasions to dissolve it. Aciman builds their relationship in tiny increments, one cup of coffee and glass of wine and modest outing at a time. This all unfolds over a span of five months, though it’s to Aciman’s credit that the reader is left with the impression of far more time having passed. His callow narrator has matured considerably by the end, a change wholly credible thanks to the cumulative effect of Aciman’s reflective, unflinching narration. Few scenes of friendship between men are as affecting as the two of them alone on the night of the dinner party they throw. Kalaj is moody and withdrawn. He leaves the proceedings and the narrator finds him in another room. “I wanted to reach out to him with my hand and touch him to comfort him,” he says, “maybe even to show compassion and solidarity, but we’d never touched more than fleetingly, and it felt awkward doing so now.” Yet they bridge the gap, and though they grow more distant as their paths diverge, it’s scenes like this which ensure that Harvard Square lingers in the reader’s mind.
Aciman’s style is lush, a seamless fit for the gauzy, wistful tone he aims for, and the fact that he maintains it over the course of a book-length narrative without it feeling cloying or claustrophobic is a feat in itself. The structure of the novel is imperfect. The prologue and epilogue would tacked-on, if not for the book’s final tableau, which is reminiscent of the close of The English Patient. Harvard Square gives us a season of nostalgia, and an affecting portrait of the brief, intense friendships we encounter in youth. It is a quiet, mature achievement and a perfect complement to Alibis and False Papers.
– John McIntyre