Aciman, André 1951(?)-
Aciman, André 1951(?)-
Born c. 1951, in Alexandria, Egypt. Education: Lehman College, B.A.; Harvard University, M.A., Ph.D.
Princeton University, assistant professor of French, beginning 1990; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, associate professor of French, beginning 1997; City University of New York Graduate Center, chair of comparative literature and director of The Writers' Institute. Has also taught at Harvard University and New School University.
Whiting Foundation Writers' Award, 1995; Guggenheim fellowship, 1997; New York Institute for the Humanities fellowship, 1998; New York Public Library's Center for Scholars and Writers fellowship, 2000.
Out of Egypt: A Memoir, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1994.
(Editor and contributor) Letters of Transit: Five Authors Reflect on Exile, Identity, Language, and Loss, New Press/New York Public Library, 1999.
False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory, Farrar, Straus, 2000.
(With Steven Rothfeld) Entrez: Signs of France, Artisan (New York, NY), 2001.
(Editor, and contributor) The Proust Project, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2004.
Call Me by Your Name, Farrar (New York, NY), 2007.
Contributor to books, including The Best American Essays, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1998-2000, 2003, and 2005; and The Best American Travel Writing, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA). Contributor of articles and reviews to periodicals, including Condé-Nast Traveler, Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Paris Review, New Republic, Partisan Review, and New York Review of Books.
Now living in the United States, where he teaches comparative literature, André Aciman has charmed readers with reflections on his childhood in Egypt and on the ramifications of being exiled from one's homeland. His 1994 book, Out of Egypt: A Memoir, and his 2000 collection of essays False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory have earned him a reputation as a skilled writer and as a careful, engaging observer on the subjects of home and family.
The events described in Out of Egypt span the greater part of the twentieth century, beginning with Aciman's family's arrival in Egypt and ending with his visits to aged aunts and uncles in England, Italy, and France many decades later. The author draws a multi-faceted picture, one including the complex web of his extended family, individual characters, and the lifestyle of the wealthy in Alexandria while the family lived there. His family is carefully scrutinized, revealing both their greatest faults and their smallest kindnesses. As a result, the memoir is filled with social, cultural, political, psychological, and personal analysis.
When members of Aciman's family moved from Constantinople to Alexandria in 1905, they were led by his great-uncle Isaac, who was a friend of Fouad, who became king of Egypt. The family's connection to affluence gave Aciman childhood memories of basking in the sun at a seaside villa and of waiters bringing lavish trays of pastries and hot chocolate. Such memories are crowded with aunts, uncles, and grandparents, a supportive but often bitter group. Aciman tells many stories from before his birth, such as his parents' courtship and the ensuing love-hate relationship between his grandmothers. He tells of his Uncle Vili—who at age ninety was living as an English gentleman on a country estate—but was at once an admirer of Mussolini, as well as a spy for the British. And Aciman describes how in 1942 the family listened to a young woman named Flora, who would become his aunt, playing Schubert on the piano while the sounds of Rommel's tanks attacking the city boomed in the background.
As a child Aciman did not consider himself Turkish or Egyptian. He describes family members as Anglophiles who spoke of French or Italian roots. They preferred not to proclaim their Jewishness. However, their identity as Jews could not be denied in the coming years. After the Suez war in 1956, the family was exiled from Egypt amidst growing anti-Semitism. The members moved to Italy, France, and England, having lost much of their great wealth. Aciman's father lost his wool mill in 1964 and was expelled after having tried to convert to Christianity.
While Aciman's sometimes eccentric family provided him with interesting material, their experiences alone are not what made Out of Egypt appealing to reviewers. As New Republic critic Marc Robinson explained: "At the outset, Out of Egypt promises to be simply a book of vignettes and character sketches—a distinguished personal history in an overcrowded field. Before long, though, it is also a book about the difficult work of memory itself." Robinson further praised the author for his ability to balance nostalgia with truth telling. He found that this "elegant memoir is full of cucumber lotion and Schubert melodies, Parmesan cheese and the clatter of backgammon chips" at the same time that a "clear-eyed (and dry-eyed) detachment freshens Aciman's prose. He is fond but not wistful, just as he is penetrating but not cold."
Robinson asserted that Aciman managed to successfully walk the border separating memoir from fiction, as did Barry Unsworth in the New York Times Book Review. "It is one of the several fascinations of this book that we are conscious as we read of the narrow line between facts of experience and memory and facts of imagination," said Unsworth. "If Mr. Aciman were less sensitive and less accomplished as a writer, this occasional uncertainty we feel as to sources might seem a fault.…He has a marvelous eye for detail and a subtle sense of psychology. However he came by the knowledge, I believe him." He concluded, "It is Mr. Aciman's great achievement that he has re-created a world gone forever now, and given us an ironical and affectionate portrait of those who were exiled from it."
The memoir was also commended by Los Angeles Times Book Review writer Richard Eder, who said: "Out of Egypt is beautifully remembered and even more beautifully written. Aciman writes of a dazzling time and place populated by lavish and theatrical characters. His book is written in fact, like a musical variety act. Each of its six chapters tends to single out one or two characters out of the ensemble." A Publishers Weekly reviewer enthused that Aciman "recalls with a magical sensibility streaked with antic humor. A marvelous memento of a place, time and people that have all disappeared."
As editor and contributor, Aciman published the collection Letters of Transit: Five Authors Reflect on Exile, Identity, Language, and Loss. The authors of the other original essays are Eva Hoffman, writing about losing the use of her native language after moving from Poland to Canada; Bharati Mukherjee, describing her assimilation into a new culture as a self-described "mongrelizer"; Edward Said, writing on changing identity and conflicting allegiances during post-colonialism; and Charles Simic, with recollections on moving from Belgrade to Manhattan as a sixteen-year-old. In the New York Times Book Review, Daniel Zalewski commented that as a group the writers "suggest that an uprooted life can, paradoxically, become a more fertile one." A Publishers Weekly critic found that the "distinguished contributors … agree that a homeland tends to be a nostalgic, imaginary place."
Aciman's own essay reflects on his inability to live in the United States without seeing disturbing resonances to other places. Sights in New York City, such as small park set in a traffic island, trigger memories of Alexandria, Rome, and Paris. As Zalewski noted, Aciman "laments that his remembrances of cities past … have infected his vision of the United States." A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that "Aciman beautifully captures the role that imagination plays in one's experience of ‘home.’" Writing in Booklist, Mary Carroll described Aciman's piece as commentary on "the lack of roots that seems to be a modern condition."
False Papers, a collection of fourteen essays about exile, explores how memory becomes more desirable than fact. Wendy Lesser in The New York Times Book Review, calls Aciman: "The poet of dissapointed love.…The poet of the city." National Post critic Kathryn Morris wrote: "When Aciman writes directly about his past, he writes beautifully," and called Aciman's "singular life a fascinating subject." Donna Seaman described the essays in Booklist as "piquant and confidently ambiguous travel stories." "Such insights illuminate the most shadowy corners of memory and motivation," added a reviewer in Publishers Weekly. Library Journal reviewer Nancy P. Shires concluded that "Aciman dissects his feelings so thoroughly that many readers will recognize themselves."
Aciman served as editor for The Proust Project, a collection of essays inspired by French author Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Writers such as Louis Auchincloss, Susan Minot, and Alain de Botton contributed to the volume, offering their perspective on a favorite passage from Proust's epic work. "What emerges is unusually serious," observed Spectator critic Anita Brookner, noting that it "sheds additional light on the structure of the text, which is not principally about memory, as is so often claimed, but about introspection and what it has to teach." "This title is full of intriguing moments of appreciation, ripe for sampling by seasoned Proustians," a Publishers Weekly reviewer stated. "The Proust Project is an admirable companion for the addict, and an ideal introduction for those who remain to be converted," Brookner concluded.
In 2007 Aciman published his debut novel, Call Me by Your Name, described by a contributor to Kirkus Reviews as "a quiet, literate and impeccably written love story." The work concerns the relationship between seventeen-year-old Elio, a professor's son who is spending the summer at his family's Italian villa, and twenty-four-year-old Oliver, an American scholar who accepts an invitation to the mansion from Elio's father. "What begins as a casual friendship develops into a passionate yet clandestine affair," noted Heidi Dolamore in School Library Journal, and Library Journal critic Sarah Conrad Weisman remarked that Aciman "describes Elio's anxiety, uncertainty, awkwardness, and, later, passion in incredibly vivid detail, leaving no thought process unexplored." "A coming-of-age story, a coming-out story, a Proustian meditation on time and desire, a love letter, an invocation and something of an epitaph, Call Me by Your Name is also an open question," wrote Stacey D'Erasmo in the New York Times Book Review. "It is an exceptionally beautiful book that cannot quite bring itself to draw the inevitable conclusion about axis-shifting passion that men and women of the world might like to think they will always reach—that obscure object of desire is, by definition, ungraspable, indeterminate and already lost at exactly the moment you rush so fervently to hold him or her."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Aciman, André, Out of Egypt: A Memoir, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1994.
Booklist, May 15, 1999, Mary Carroll, review of Letters of Transit: Five Authors Reflect on Exile, Identity, Language, and Loss, p. 1661p. 1661; August, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory, p. 2102; November 15, 2003, Molly McQuade, "The Nostographer, André Aciman," p. 571; October 15, 2004, Molly McQuade, review of The Proust Project, p. 379; November 15, 2006, Brad Hooper, review of Call Me by Your Name, p. 23.
Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 2006, review of Call Me by Your Name, p. 1087.
Library Journal, July, 2000, Nancy P. Shires, review of False Papers, p. 88; November 15, 2006, Sarah Conrad Weisman, review of Call Me by Your Name, p. 54.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 15, 1995, Richard Eder, review of Out of Egypt, pp. 3, 8.
National Post, August 26, 2000, Kathryn Morris, "Author Gets No Satisfaction, Not in Paris, Not in New York," p. B8.
New Republic, March 27, 1995, Marc Robinson, review of Out of Egypt, p. 37.
New Statesman, November 1, 1996, Boyd Tonkin, review of Out of Egypt, p. 45.
New York Times Book Review, February 5, 1995, Barry Unsworth, review of Out of Egypt, p. 7; July 18, 1999, Daniel Zalewski, review of Letters of Transit, p. 18; February 25, 2007, Stacey D'Erasmo, "Suddenly One Summer," review of Call Me by Your Name, p. 11.
Publishers Weekly, November 7, 1994, review of Out of Egypt, p. 54; April 5, 1999, review of False Papers, p. 232; July 10, 2000, review of False Papers, p. 57; August 16, 2004, review of The Proust Project, p. 49; October 9, 2006, review of Call Me by Your Name, p. 33.
School Library Journal, March 1, 2007, Heidi Dolamore, review of Call Me by Your Name, p. 243.
Spectator, July 2, 2005, Anita Brookner, "An Experiment in Old Acquaintance," review of The Proust Project, p. 34.
Bookslut,http://www.bookslut.com/ (March, 2007), Drew Nellins, "An Interview with André Aciman."
City University of New York,http://www.gc.cuny.edu/ (July 1, 2007), profile of the author.