We readers are marked forever by great authors—they are never really dead. We carry them around with us.
I write them letters.
Seventeenth-century French Literature and Proust scholar André Aciman (born January 2, 1951 in Alexandria, Egypt) directs The Writers’ Institute of CUNY and the doctoral program in Comparative Literature. The themes of memory, exile, assimilation, and desire find expression in his memoirs, essays, novels, and short stories. The recipient of several prestigious awards, Aciman has lived in Italy and France, and has written for the New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New Republic.
I’ve been slow to tell you about this book of Letters to Men of Letters that I have been writing, and the key role you have been playing in it. For one thing, you are way younger than Marcel Proust or Gustave Flaubert, and unlike most of the long-dead recipients of my letters, you are alive and, I hope, well. Furthermore, several of my letters to you were actually - sent and received replies, so you have a place of honor in my book (pun intended)!
Like those Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls, this letter contains a number of other ones. Let’s open the “Big Mother” doll first.
By the way, I’m sure that you are a great teacher. I am always learning things thanks to you. Here’s just one zany example. In trying to find an image that could convey what was happening with these letters within letters to you, I settled on the nesting dolls, which are part of my Russian heritage, but I had to verify the spelling. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I found out from Wikipedia that Matryoshkas are used metaphorically, as a design paradigm, known as the "matryoshka principle" or "nested doll principle," which denotes a recognizable relationship of "object-within-similar-object" that appears in the design of many other natural and crafted objects. There’s even a French connection: the first Russian nested doll set was carved in 1890, but the dolls were presented at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, where the toy earned a bronze medal. I was wondering what won the gold and silver, but all I could find was the astonishing fact that “Russian sparkling wine defeated all the French entries to claim the internationally coveted Grand Prix de Champagne.” Who knew? Russianlegacy.com (which would be happy to sell us some of these dolls) has an interesting marketing statement: “We can see dignity and humility, power and hope for the future, deep sorrow and boundless hilarity in the Russian painted nesting doll….” Somebody there deserves the gold medal for mixed metaphors. (And some letter writer probably deserves one for not getting to the point.)
Back to the subject at hand. I opened the 2011 New York Times Book Review, and then went in search of your essay on lavender, which swept me away. However, I didn’t want to buy your book, Alibis:Essays on Elsewhere, because I’m a cheapskate. So I asked the Yale Library to buy it and promptly checked it out. But as I’ve already confessed, I have a particular style of reading: I'm what writer Anne Fadiman calls "a cannibalistic reader" (not a "courtly" one)--I like to bend down pages and mark things up, so I ended up buying my own copy. I wrote a letter to you in praise of your work, but à la Kafka's unsent letter to his father, I didn’t send it. Some time later, my son interviewed you for his “How I Write” column in The Daily Beast, and he passed me your email address. I finally sent you my letter-in-waiting, to which you sent a kind reply, and we have had some nice exchanges. Here is the first of these, which comes with its own bit of preamble:
Cc: Diane Charney <email@example.com>
Subject: a long-delayed fan letter with early birthday wishes
This fan letter has taken its time getting to you. Just after I boarded the train today from Rome back to Orvieto, a message popped up from Facebook asking me if I wanted to wish you a happy birthday. As a baby boomer too old to understand Facebook, I am taking this as a sign that I should stop obsessing about whether the time was right to send you a fan letter I wrote last year. It was actually written by my Italian alter-ego, Donatella de Poitiers, who, at her son's suggestion, writes the blog, "In Love with France, At Home in Italy."
Unlike you, I am not such a fan of big cities like Rome, but I have to admit that reading your essay about it in Alibis has made me start to rethink that. And many other things, too, such as my relationship with lavender. The letter, like its writer, is not getting any younger, so I include it below.
I usually find myself writing only during Yale vacations when at home in Umbria, so the two latest blog postings also mention you. I spend the rest of my time helping others to write, and also trying to convince them they can speak French. Both can be an uphill battle, but very gratifying, tout de même. Let me close by wishing you a happy, healthy year, and offering sincere thanks for Alibis.
--best, Diane Charney, mother of Noah, to whom you gave a most gracious interview for his Daily Beast column
This is the weirdest kind of fan letter, but I know that you will understand. How many times have I read book reviews in the New York Times that made me want to run right out and read the book, yet I never follow up on it? Well, this time started out as only a minor exception.
I was cautious. I asked the library to buy the book so I could see if my instinct that we were meant for each other was right. As a so-called writing expert and specialist in French literature, I do not give my writing heart up to just anyone. But the evidence that you might be the one was there.
As I think back to that article I'm trying to recall just what it was that snared me. Was it the lavender? I never actually thought I liked its scent, but now that I have become a newborn in Italy, I have a special relationship with this flower whose relaxing and sleep-inducing properties I have come to appreciate.
Or was it all of those references to Marcel Proust? Well he and I have had a thorny relationship ever since as a graduate student, I was forced to swallow every word of his novel.
No, it was the loving references to La Princesse de Clèves that nailed it. She and I have had a rocky relationship for a long time. I used to be very angry with her for the way she seemed to allow her cult of self-abnegation to run roughshod over her incomparable suitor. I could see how her 17th century scruples would have led her to refuse the Duke while her husband was still alive. But le Duc was so patient and perfect that it is hard to imagine why she would deny both of their chances for a happy life, once the man she never loved was out of the picture. Over the several decades of our relationship, however, I now see that that was, on my part, a youthful and rash rush to judgment. And now, here you are finding in la Princesse a soulmate.
I had a wild idea about writing a modern love story with her as the inspiration. I am wondering if she, during this age of the Internet, would have eventually reconsidered what she did: Run away to a convent in order to preserve her equanimity and fulfill her need to punish herself for having had intense feelings for an irresistible someone other than her aged and then dead husband. Maybe le Duc de Nemours was just one click away on Google.
The way you describe your own imaginary relationship with the gypsy girl at the supermarket--all the elaborate feinting on both sides--have made me rethink the whole thing.
But the clincher was the way you describe your relationship with the feelings expressed by other authors--how you treasure the flash of recognition that comes from meeting in print a kindred spirit. That is the kind of writing I love to read, and that I encourage myself and my students to seek.
I am very excited to have found you.
As you can see below, my own first letter to you “incubated” (to quote your great choice of word) for many more moons than your perfect response.
Date: March 16, 2013
To: Diane Charney
I have been incubating a response to your fabulous email for months—too many. Now that I’m trying to carve a moment I find that I am speechless. This always happens to me. I plan a fabulous reply, and then, once I find the moment, the reply turns into both an apology and an avowal of an unfulfilled promise to respond in kind.
All I can say is that I totally loved the way you peeled away the various reasons for our spiritual/aesthetic consanguinity. From Proust, to LaFayette, to the gypsy girl and finally to that luminous moment where we discover not only that we “get” other people and are therefore never as lonely or as odd as we feared we were, but that the crossing over to others in that very intimate, bookish manner is not only legitimate but—to use horrible words—mandated by the author and the reading experience. One of the very few things I admire about myself—and I probably don’t even admire it as much as writing about it now seems to lay claim to—is my sheer gumption to I assume that I “get” a writer… and then to take an extra step and think that I got them since I was 15. Bold and presumptuous, but in rereading a dissertation on The Idiot this week, I suddenly recall that I had already “gotten” the art with which Dostoyevsky framed so many psychological insights into his characters and that, in fact, if there is one thing I learnt from him at 15, it was precisely to admire the craft of insight over any other intellectual/mystical “idea” in his books. I have always thought that Dostoyevsky’s ideas were kind of… well, you know what I mean: weak. How he saw into others, however, was an induction into literature.
For me, Rome was the birthplace of two things: Books and libido. Now, almost a half-century later, I can feel the stirrings of how the two were born, linked, as always. I remember taking a walk by myself to meet a reporter in Rome around 4 years ago; I had just had lunch with my family and had left them at the restaurant to meet a reporter by the Pantheon. This was the first time that I ever walked alone in Rome since 1971. I’ve been to Rome numberless times since 1971, but never alone. As I walked by myself, eager to meet the reporter who said he was a fan of my work, I was not only back to being 15, 16 or 17, filled with a love for this city that suddenly belonged to me as it had almost 50 years ago, but I was right in my own skin again, myself again, as if all my clocks, scattered throughout the world, were synchronized to a Greenwich Mean Time that was just my own, right for me… and me alone. I knew the feeling wouldn’t last, because I belong to NY; still, knowing that I was a “resident” here gave me a tremendous lift. Until, that is, it occurred to me that being a resident might also mean that I might still be living on Via Clelia, that I hated Via Clelia, that I couldn’t wait to get out.
I did not mean to bore you with all this.
How I envy you Orvieto. When I think of the cathedral I think of magic. What a joy to walk those streets on an early spring day when crowds of tourists are weeks away still. Just the image of that amazing opera house which I paid to visit told me that a part of me lives in Italy.
And so I envy you spring in Italy, and particularly in Rome. I read so many books sitting on the stairs of the Spanish Steps with April’s potted plants all around me, watching the midday sun turn into sluggish afternoons and into early sunsets, books that, as Proust would say, have trapped the light and person I was back then on their pages, so that it’s no longer possible to tell the book and the person apart. Which brings me back to Lavender: one day someone will pick up a book I read on those very steps and if they’re lucky, really and truly lucky, they’ll be able to hear another voice behind the printed words say: Thank God you've heard me!
All my best to you.
(From Orvieto, August 23, 2016)
I was so dazzled by your response that until now, more than three years later (could it be?), I hadn’t noticed many lovely details about it.
First, I admire the confidence you display in that second paragraph, where you are able to talk about the feeling of “getting” what an author has to say. I often feel that way, but then there’s the problem of getting others to understand what I instinctively know. What I feel is my brilliant insight can be hard to articulate, which can be frustrating on all sides.
Maybe it’s safer to write directly to authors who are long gone? You, of course, are the exception. At this writing, only two of my letter recipients besides you are still with us: Christo who is 81 is no doubt busy at work on his next project; and nonagenarian Roger Grenier, who I hope is well, but who surely has other things on his mind. (When I began writing these letters, there were three besides you, but Michel Butor died at age 89 just as I was writing to him.)
But back to the letter you wrote to me. Your third paragraph is the one! Memory can be so swervy (even “furbo” or “louche,” to use two practically untranslatable words from our favorite languages). Here’s the part that is pure “you,” but that speaks to the rest of us:
As I walked by myself…I was not only back to being 15, 16 or 17, filled with a love for this city that suddenly belonged to me as it had almost 50 years ago, but I was right in my own skin again, myself again, as if all my clocks, scattered throughout the world, were synchronized to a Greenwich Mean Time that was just my own, right for me… and me alone. I knew the feeling wouldn’t last, because I belong to NY; still, knowing that I was a “resident” here gave me a tremendous lift.
To write my letters for this book has at times felt uplifting, but often disorienting because, like you and Marcel Proust of whom you are such an adept reader, I have been transported to various iterations of my younger self. I started to write “older self,” but as you so eloquently put it, there’s a Greenwich Mean Time synchronization effect that makes the distinction between young and old quite irrelevant. I may be nearing 70, but in a flash, I can be that 16-year-old Verlaine-reciting future lover of Camus walking the streets of exotic Montreal. But unlike you, I don’t have the comfort of knowing “I belong to New York.” Do I belong to New Haven where I’ve lived since 1976, but that has always felt like a transitory place? Do I belong to France that has been my intellectual home for as long as I can remember? Or do I belong to my adopted country of Italy, which has felt like a rebirth? The best I can answer is “all of the above.”
Another purely “Aciman” way of thinking shows up in your remark that as exciting as it might be to be mentally transported back to your youth in Rome, “it occurred to me that being a resident might also mean that I might still be living on Via Clelia, that I hated Via Clelia, that I couldn’t wait to get out.” I’ve noticed in so many of your books your impulse to long to be where you are not, and vice versa. This is an area in which we really differ. I abhor transitions: wherever I am, that’s where I want to be. You say that your thing has always been, “how do I get rid of this thing I wanted so badly?” Ever the hoarder, when I get something I wanted badly, my impulse is to hang onto it for dear life. I love the word “plenitude,” and feel lucky to have on occasion found it here in Italy. You say, “When you have total plenitude, you don’t know what to do with yourself.”
I know you take this issue of the ambivalence of desire very seriously, but your sense of humor saves you from driving yourself and your friends crazy. At the end of the New York Public Library event, “Landscapes of Eros and Loss,” Colm Toibin interrupted your reference to a place that you never really liked, by saying, “Yes, but it was the rich way of disliking it that really mattered.” And everybody laughed along with you both.
As for the last paragraph in your message, I love your allusion to “books that, as Proust would say, have trapped the light and person I was back then on their pages, so that it’s no longer possible to tell the book and the person apart….” What you say here so succinctly may be what I’ve been trying to say throughout the course of this book.
Your last comment raises another issue that has preoccupied me and most of my other letter recipients: The question of audience. From my own notes over the years in connection with writing projects, I see questions like these: Did I just waste precious time? Would I feel more relaxed and satisfied if I had just read for enjoyment and not subjected myself to someone else’s deadline and topic? I find intriguing and optimistic your comment that an author’s voice might appear from behind the pages of the book you are reading to say, “Thank God you've heard me!” It is very hard not to fall prey to self-doubt. To varying degrees, all of my favorite writers did, and in the course of their writing, many suffered without ever knowing if they would have an audience. In many cases, there was none—at least during their lifetime. Even the often swaggering Nabokov expressed his worries about how his art would be perceived by dolts too ignorant to recognize its worth. But he quickly adds that such doubts are destructive and must be destroyed. According to him, great literature is a comfort that offers wonderful toys that help us transcend the “awful troubles of everyday life.”
I have a dear elderly friend who is an exquisite writer and artist in many media, but a very discreet, private person far too modest about her abilities. She asks, “Why try to write something when there are so many brilliant people around? Who ever is going to read it?” Maybe these are legitimate questions since, given the limited time we have, it can be hard to live life and write about it. But something makes us do it. I’m having a JD Salinger-flashback to what big brother Seymour told Franny and Zooey. As a child star on “It’s a Wise Child,” Zooey refused to shine his shoes because he thought the people running the show didn’t deserve any respect. Seymour told him to shine his shoes for the Fat Lady, which made sense to him. Ditto for Franny when Seymour told her the same thing—that she should be funny for the Fat Lady: “I’ll tell you a terrible secret--Are you listening to me? There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady.”
Maybe today’s political correctness police wouldn’t even allow a statement like that, but we who write regardless of who may or may not be reading, “get it.” With respect to the question of audience, I hope you will believe me when I say that your letter really deserves a wider audience than just myself.
I see that the next thing I sent you is a birth announcement in April 2013.
Subject: From Annunciation to Announcement
As an art history-loving family we've found ourselves over the past nine months shifting our obsession with Annunciation scenes to those of mother and child.
With E's due date on the horizon, Great-Grandma Edith, age 88, and Diane have had bellies on the brain. So when a favorite student invited them to the Yale Belly Dance Society's benefit show, "Hips for Hunger," the two grandmas-in-waiting jumped at the chance to go. In fact they were so jumpy that they arrived at the performance a week early. Did they think that it odd that on Good Friday no one seemed to be around the Medical School auditorium to let them into the show? And weren't they suspicious that the only bellies in evidence that night were their own? Duh... Of course not!
Flash-forward a few days: E made her debut, and Edith and Diane made it to the Yale Belly Dance show. Afterwards they sat in the car admiring all the photos and videos of what came out of a belly in a faraway land at 4:44 AM.
As we hum "For unto us a child is born," we consider ourselves very blessed.--xxx, Diane
My most heartfelt congratulatons.
This next letter, which was actually written and SENT in a timely fashion, still arrived too late for its intended purpose. But it’s having another chance now.
From: Diane Charney <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: October 17, 2014 at 3:26:47 PM GMT+2
Cc: Diane Charney <email@example.com
Subject: Disappointed to have missed your talk
Ciao from the Orvieto branch of your Fan Club,
I've been on leave this fall for the first time in decades, and was excited to get the invitation to your Tuesday event, and to realize that you were at the American Academy in Rome. Unfortunately that was the day we were driving back after a visit to our son, daughter-in-law, and our 1.5 granddaughters.
Although I do not yet understand Facebook, by coincidence, on the day I saw the post to you about "the Tito-vintage cafe in Ljubljana," we were walking the streets of that very beautiful city.
Since it took me quite a while to send you my first letter, I was pleased to think that you might be in Rome all fall, where my husband commutes every Wednesday to teach his "Madness at the Movies" course (or "Psychopathology in Film" as alliteration-deaf Yale forced him to call it: the Psychology Dept. says "you can't say "madness"; the Film Dept. says the word "movie" is déclassé; at Yale we teach "film." Jim and I say, OY! Who'd want to take a course with such a pretentious name? Well, as it turned out, everyone did).
I figured that even with my usual foot dragging, there would be time to make contact with you. But then I just saw your photo from your favorite Rome cafe along with the note that in just a few weeks, you would be missing that view. I hope not, but does that mean that you are soon going back to the States? Is your schedule full until then?
I also noticed in the Yale French Dept. Newsletter that you had been at our Proust-a-thon, so that was another missed opportunity to shake your hand.
Please let me know your schedule. With you being so nearby, I would love a chance to say hello in Rome, or for you to visit us in the Orvieto countryside.
We do have a lovely bookstore here that hosts authors, so it could even be a sort-of business trip. My 85-year-young Writing Partner, Erika, was just there telling them about your being in Rome.
BTW, Donatella de Poitiers, my Italian alter-ego, loved your son's NPR piece, and wrote about it on her "In Love with France, At Home in Italy" blog. Here's the link: http://franceoritaly.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/alex-aciman-on-le-grand-meaulnes-back.html
A presto?--best, djc
On Mon, Oct 27, 2014 at 6:25 AM, Diane Charney
A "mieux-vaut-tard-que-jamais" proposal: Donatella de Poitiers is trying to get her alter-ego, djc, La Reine de la Procrastination, off her derrière--an uphill battle
On Wednesday, Donatella has to be in Rome for the day, en route to Firenze via the 6PM Frecciarossa. She'll be accompanying djc's husband, biding her time, probably reading an André Aciman book, while James conducts a morning consultation at St. Stephen's School and then teaches his afternoon, "Madness at the Movies" class at Arcadia College. A Country Mouse and no fan of Rome, she might, if not afraid of getting lost, check out Eataly, which apparently is not too far from either of Dr. Charney's destinations. Her main task will be to make it back to Termini on time to catch that train--no easy matter for someone who can't read a map and has no sense of direction.
Although djc herself would never have had the chutzpah to try to arrange a meeting on short notice, she's trying to reform and carpe one of those diems that her son is always talking about. Donatella says she should get off her duff and give it a go.
Ever since we got the invitation from the American Academy to your talk, Donatella has been fantasizing about a meeting for lunch, tea, or just to say hello. If this Wednesday is not good, the other d would gladly make a special trip on another day. It's possible that you are no longer in Rome or are entirely booked, but I am resisting my natural impulse to hide under the covers and behind the written word, in case you are free. Che ne pensi?--best, djc
From: Andre Aciman
Date: October 27, 2014
To: Diane Charney
What a lovely email! Purtroppo, as they say in Rome when Romans wish to prep you for bad news, I am already in NYC. I arrived 2 days ago, totally nostalgic for Rome, craving to be back. We still have to find a way! Best to Noah.
So, although our paths have not yet crossed in person, I still think we are on the same wave length. If you’re one of those courtly writers that Fadiman makes fun of in her essay from Ex Libris “Never do that to a book,” however, remind me never to show you what I’ve done to your books. Some, like Alibis, have swollen to twice their original size thanks to all the pages whose corners I have turned down. Even if you do think this is a desecration, I’m proud to say that I have only made very discreet check marks alongside favorite passages, so I do have some scruples.
It would take forever and a whole other book to mention all the passages I have marked and that have left their mark on me, so I will limit myself to just a few. Your essay, “Intimacy” contains several. Here’s one: I learned to read and love books much as I learned to know and to love Rome: not only by intuiting undisclosed passageways everywhere but also by seeing more of me in books than there probably was, because everything I read seemed more in me already than on the pages themselves….
I am definitely with you here, especially with respect to the mirroring aspect of what you read and the role of intuition. But the next bit gives me pause:
I was after something intimate and I learned to spot it in the first alley, in the first verse of a poem, on the first glance of a stranger. Here again, I envy your confidence in your first impressions. But you’ve also said, in the epilogue to Alibis, “You write not after you’ve thought things through; you write to think things through.” My approach has always been circumspect. If I don’t at first “get” what I suspect I should, I keep at it until I’m more sure that there’s “no there,” there. I picked up the phrase “rush to judgment” in Shoshana Felman’s classes, especially her “Literature, Testimony, and Judgment.” For me it’s been a good reminder that I’m not that astute in knowing what’s at stake in a work of literature, or maybe anything else, for that matter, but I like to observe others to whom this comes more naturally.
My family is full of artists, and I like to watch them as they do not hesitate to draw an unwavering line. I like what you say about the power of artists who can make us feel as if we have seen, felt, or lived through what they have: “The artist converts us; he steals and refashions our past, and like songs from our adolescence, gives us the picture of our youth as we wished it to be back then—never as it really was. He gives us our wish film back. Suddenly, the insights nursed by strangers belong, against all odds, to us as well. We know what an author desires, what he dissembles; we even know why.”
OK, maybe I can’t claim to know all that, or even to wish consciously that my sheltered youth could have been closer to that of my literary heroes. Yet when you talk about your childhood in Egypt (which is nothing like growing up in Middletown, New York), your love of the beach (for someone who doesn’t like to put her head under water), and all the subsequent losses you experienced (to someone who was lucky not to have had to give up everything to go into exile), I am transfixed. And I’m not the only one. The Kirkus reviewer said of Alibis, “these essays sing with bracing clarity.” Teju Cole of the “New York Times Book Review” calls the book “an extended aria on the sense of smell.” Right now on my Orvieto property, the lavender is having its peak moment; the figs and white peaches warming under the cloudless sky and pre-autumn sun are giving plenitude a good name that maybe not even you could resist. But even if you did, I wouldn’t love you any less.