Adrift in Harvard Square

Gerald Sorin
Gerald Sorin
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Gerald Sorin
Gerald Sorin

Harvard Square, by André Aciman
W.W. Norton and Company, 292 pages, $29.95

Several years ago, writing in the New York Review of Books, André Aciman, a Jewish exile to America from Alexandria, Egypt, by way of Rome and Paris, admitted doing what all exiles do: to look for their homeland in their new world and to rewrite the present so as not to write off the past.

He was describing in effect what so many uprooted and transplanted migrants do, whether expelled or "persuaded" to leave (as Aciman's family was, from a virulently anti-Semitic Egypt in the wake of Israel's involvement in the 1956 Suez crisis), or motivated by the search for opportunity, or in flight from political oppression, or simply on the lam from the law.

In almost every case, in each of these categories, there is an attempt to hang on to something ethnically distinct, and richly and romantically remembered, as well as to accommodate in one degree or another to one's new place.

But Aciman's Egyptian Jewish narrator in "Harvard Square," an unnamed and virtually undescribed graduate teaching assistant in English literature in the late 1970s, seems excessively torn between keeping his Mediterranean past and giving up part of his "humanity" in order to join "modernity" by grafting himself to Harvard and America's unsettling values and behavior.

Aciman told an interviewer that "Harvard Square," like his previous novels, "Call Me By Your Name" and "Eight White Nights," is "quite autobiographical," or as one critic put it, "aggressively autobiographical." Of course, Aciman explains, somewhat defensively, in the same interview, while a novelist may borrow everything from lived events, it is how he or she "rearranges and highlights" what is borrowed "that distinguishes fact from fiction," and allows actualities to "acquire a meaning and a resonance" they could "never have in real life."

Though not particularly enlightening, these remarks allow us to assume that the narrator in Aciman's latest novel is more or less Aciman himself. Readers of the author's beautifully written memoir, "Out of Egypt" (1984), will quickly discover this for themselves, and will understand, too, why Aciman, a distinguished professor of comparative literature at the City University of New York, specializing in Proust, was, like the narrator in "Harvard Square," not yet ready to give up the places he thought he had lost -- "the Middle East" or Paris, or more likely, his constructions of them.

Studying, sometimes feverishly, for comprehensive exams he had already failed once (there are no third strikes at Harvard), Aciman's doppelganger spends almost as much time in the underground Café Algiers drinking Turkish coffee, listening to French songs and gazing dreamily at Mediterranean posters, as he does in the library or in his apartment reading 17th-century literature (but also all of "Beowulf," for some reason). It is at the café that our narrator encounters Kalaj, a French-speaking Berber (indigenous North African) from Tunisia who is on the run after jumping from a navy ship vessel docked in Marseilles.

Kalaj is actually short for Kalashnikov, because he spits out verbal bullet shells, rat-ta-tat-tat, in an unrelentingly critical prattle bordering on the hysterical. He is constantly surprised that Americans love all things "ersatz" and jumbo-sized, and in an assertive, often brutally reckless style, he indicts everyone and everything -- blacks, whites, women, Jews, Arabs and gays, as well as NATO, Unesco, Nabisco, Ceausescu, Tabasco and Lambrusco.

An "undocumented" Cambridge cab driver, Kalaj waits for a "green card" while he pontificates and denunciates from "his" seat at the cafe. The outbursts are authentically hostile, but also apparently seductive. Women patrons pay attention without seeming to, and often shift closer to him, as he knows they will.

Whatever Kalaj's allure, it apparently also touches our narrator, who, himself not yet a citizen and ordinarily a diffident, quiet man who savors solitude, interrupts his reading to reach out to the blusterer across the way speaking a North African-accented French.

And quickly, a nostalgic love for French and for an idealized France which never would have opened its doors fully to either of these colonials had they stayed in Europe, strengthens the connection between them. That same nostalgia transcends the differences between intellectual and cab driver, Egyptian and Tunisian, Jew and Muslim. It helps, too, that neither of them takes religion seriously.

It also helps that both are in several ways "aliens" adrift. Among Arabs, Kalaj was a Berber, among French an Arab, among his own "a nothing"; just as the narrator had been a Jew among Arabs, an Egyptian among Americans and now an unfamiliar among WASPs – "the clueless janitor trying out for the polo team."

For all the differences between them, the two key protagonists (nearly everyone else, including a series of "girlfriends," are drawn with even less substance than the narrator) are also alike in their shared love-hate-fear relationship with America.

Kalaj, desperate for his green card, fulminates fiercely against his adopted country as his way of rejecting America before it has a chance (imminent and inevitable) to reject him. And the narrator, along with Kalaj, drifts: from bar to bar, café to café; and unable to commit, also from one woman to another, apparently wanting to "lose" Harvard and the America it represents before the university has a chance to toss him out for failing his exams a second time.

'Massive state of panic'
The tamed and curbed narrator knows that he is allowing the unfettered Kalaj to distract him from his work; he knows there will be a price to pay – "[P]erhaps I even wanted to pay that price. But the thought of losing Harvard would wake me up at night and stir up a massive state of panic."

Confused and troubled, the narrator suffers a severe identity crisis -- a crisis exacerbated by his being a stranger in a strange land, but also familiar to many of us who often feel like extraterrestrials even in our own bewildering countries and alienating cultures.

The narrator admits he envies Kalaj, and wants to learn from him. He is convinced that Kalaj is authentic, but "wasn't sure what I was" – knowing only that his Tunisian friend was "the voice, the missing link to his past, the person I might have grown up to be if life had taken a different turn."

If the deracinated Egyptian were stripped of every habit he had acquired in school and every concession he'd made to America, he tells us, "then you might have found" Kalaj, "not me." And in the most moving, most believable set of passages in the book (there are far too few), Kalaj, at a party in his own apartment, terrified that he will be deported, shuts himself in the bedroom.

The narrator checks up on him and finds Kalaj, whom he considers a "real man," on the bed crying. In an unexpected gesture, the narrator confesses, "I lay down right next to him, and put one arm across his chest. Only then did he reach out to hold my hand, and then, turning to me, put a leg around me and began to cradle and hug me, both of us entirely silent except for the muted sobbing. We said nothing more."

The homoerotic attraction expressed here is not as powerful as that between Elio and Oliver, two young men who have a short but passionate affair in Aciman's "Call Me By Your Name," a lyrically rendered novel about coming of age and coming out. But it is real enough. Still, the more Kalaj's fondness for the narrator grows, "the more desperately" does the graduate student cling to what he calls "the small privileges" and "tentative promises" Harvard holds out for him.

What the narrator sporadically recognizes, but never fully grasps, is that he and Kalaj are not so different after all, that Kalaj is "the life I was desperate to try out"; indeed, that Kalaj is a deeply ingrained part of himself.

Ultimately, but erroneously, the narrator believes he must keep his "Ivy League" world, his "American voice," separate from the world and voice he shares with Kalaj. What he, and Aciman too, fail to understand, tragically I think, is that to trust any one voice as definitive and everlasting is a betrayal of all the other equally authentic voices that reside in us.

Even Kalaj, in one of the most bizarre and unrealistic episodes in the novel, when given a taste of Harvard (teaching and socializing, no less), is tempted enough by the university world he once characterized as the "Satan of ersatz" to yield, as the narrator admits he himself "had yielded. As everyone does."

But except for one fleeting moment, in a hospital bed, recovering from a gall bladder operation, when the "clever partitions" the narrator had constructed between his universes seemed to collapse, our no-name protagonist fails to recognize that yielding can mean something more nuanced than total surrender to "Harvard" or betrayal of a friend – that one might make a home in America without being swallowed up by it entirely.

The narrator remains torn between being ashamed of Kalaj and ashamed with himself for being ashamed of him. So lost is he between these distant poles, that he fantasizes about, if not genuinely wishes for, the death of those he wants out of his life (Kalaj and an upper-class girlfriend the narrator has hurt).

But for reasons he says he doesn't understand he tries, unsuccessfully, to prevent Kalaj's deportation, and then, wittingly or otherwise, becomes an agent in that expulsion. In the meantime, he begins to avoid the cab driver (who has now lost his license), wanting above all to avoid tearful separations and "messy feelings."

He continues to hover between unbearable shame and insufferable sadness. "I had done this," he says about banishing Kalaj from his life. Never had he "sunk so low." But he knew all along he'd feel this way and that there was no chance he would have behaved differently in order to avoid either separation or wretchedness.

It took someone like Kalaj, the narrator says, to remind him that for all his impatience, indeed his disgust, with members of his department and fellow graduate students, and their "mannered pieties," "monastic devotion" and "smarmy, patrician airs," part of him wanted nothing more than "to be cut from the same cloth."

It took someone like Kalaj to remind him that for all his yearning for the Mediterranean, he "had already moved to the other side." Again we are served up the same mistaken assumption that there are only two sides – that the game of aspiration and acculturation is all or nothing.

The Egyptian Jew was "one of them now, perhaps had always been, was always going to be, but had never known it, or was reluctant to own up to it," until he met Kalaj and then "lost" him. "Rejected him" is the more honest term. The narrator's "instant guilt" is followed, he says, by an "unavoidable shrug."

The shrug seems disingenuous, however, especially in light of the sentimental, quick-fix rationalization with which the novel ends. That André Aciman needed to write this book suggests that he may not yet have purged his own guilt about the choices he made in his late twenties. Kalaj, even in this self-referential novel, may never have existed; indeed, Aciman may have thought he had to invent him -- this stand-in, this primitive version of himself -- in order to exorcise him. In the end, I suspect he wasn't entirely successful.

Gerald Sorin, a professor of American and Jewish studies at the State University of New York, New Paltz, is author of the newly published "Howard Fast: Life and Literature in the Left Lane" (Indiana University Press), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Credit: Courtesy
André Aciman. Credit: Sigrid Estrada