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BOOK REVIEW

Essays on the magic and poetry of art and place by André Aciman

André Aciman
André AcimanChristopher Ferguson (custom credit)/Christopher Ferguson

A slow stroll through entrancing capitals, a tender remembrance of rare old films, a fresh contemplation of Modernist literary giants — this describes the material of André Aciman’s new assortment of essays, but not the magic. The opening pieces in “Homo Irrealis,” for instance, meander through fascinating old downtowns: Alexandria, Rome, and New York. Reading each takes no more time than a small pot of tea — brevity counts among the book’s charms — but none would prove much use as a guidebook. Even a landmark like Rome’s Forum provokes Aciman to meditations more far-reaching, more profound: “Rome is immortal not because there is so much beauty that no one wishes to see perish but because time is everywhere and nowhere, nothing really dies…. Rome is a palimpsest written over many times.”

Wherever this author wanders, the poetry of the place is what matters, a poetry with room for grandiloquence like “palimpsest.” Ancient Alexandria, “pluralistic, multiethnic,… multi-everything,” offers “an imbrication of layers and tiers.” Yet these many elements undergo a miraculous distillation in the essay “Cavafy’s Bed.” The poet of the title, an Alexandrine, evokes his entire complicated city in a few unadorned lines cited toward essay’s end. Deceptively simple, the poem’s confined to a single empty room — a former lovers’ getaway. It’s a séance, summoning spirits now dispersed which nonetheless “last forever.”

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Certainly the essay’s a standout, but more than that it’s central to the text, a spot-on embodiment of the ruling mood and true subject, namely, that strange word “irrealis.” A Wikipedia entry serves as Aciman’s epigraph, and thereafter the word comes up often, each time further clarified. In linguistics, “irrealis” constructions express possibility, even dream, often relying on the loaded word “if.” The subject may be “removed from the real course of events,” but it’s nonetheless alive, “wished for, hoped for.” To look at a nondescript room and thrill at the thought of a long-gone bed, to recall not just the clutches and sighs but also the love that might have been — this is the irrealis moment. It is “the shadow of something” that “continues to pulsate and crave existence.” Aciman’s contribution is to place that shadow in context: “Alexandria is an irrealis city…, like Ithaca or Byzantium, [it] has always been and will always never be quite there.”

Note the references, too: Ithaca from Greek myth, Byzantium part actual and part myth, and both touchstones of high European culture. “Homo Irrealis” travels in rarified circles, sharing Rome with Freud, St. Petersburg with Dostoevsky. Its selections have a distinguished pedigree, adapted from publications in places like “Harvard Review,” and its notions of grandeur embrace the silver screen of old moviehouses. “I want to list all these vanished theaters…,” the author sighs, thinking of Manhattan, “the Paramount, Cinema Studio, the Embassy, the Beacon….”

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When he looks back on an adolescent crush, he falls into a heady trio of essays on the films of Eric Rohmer. Among the book’s longest, these pieces underscore how a movie like “Claire’s Knee” (1970) depends on erotic tension, not eros. The dialog eschews smut for crackling savior-faire — not unlike that of Aciman’s own fiction, in particular his darksome love story “Call Me By Your Name,” itself successfully converted to film. In “Homo Irrealis,” and the Rohmer essays especially, the cultured ambience invites mention of Pascal, his famed dictum about the heart and its “reasons.” Indeed, the author of “Pensées” comes up often, as “Homo Irrealis” turns from cities or celluloid to literature.

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The essay on Proust achieves subtle, splendid insight into both the deluded lover Swann and the novelist’s discursive style. In both cases, we learn, ordinary consummation is “beside the point,” and “irony… always takes away what might have been straightforward.” As for the closer, “Unfinished Thoughts on Fernando Pessoa,” I’d say it ends the book with a bang — except this is no place for anything so loud and definitive. Aciman’s tribute to a poet “inhabited by the irrealis mood” wraps up a text that argues, as a whole, for “ambiguity in art:” for showing us something “other than what is in ‘the real world.’”

Naturally, there’s a risk in honoring that “other,” full of possibility but also awfully vague. A blurry passage or two, fogged by abstractions, broke the spell of the reading. Happily, such cases were infrequent indeed, and more than that — paradoxically — “Homo Irrealis” stands on a bedrock reality. It develops as a kind of memoir, whether walking the streets, watching the flicks, or opening a book. Alexandria and Rome, after all, are the cities of Aciman’s youth, and incidents out of early experience inform his writing on both places. Something similar deepens the pleasures of the Rohmer essays, as they return repeatedly to his thwarted desires for a certain girl, and recapture the lost enchantment of an afternoon at the movies. These recurring elements create a figure-eight design, a pattern significant in the book, but it’s an artifice composed by passions. So too, the closing thoughts on Pessoa are prefaced by a resonant story about growing old. This winning book may salute the arts for how they “aren’t quite there,” but in many ways, guileful and touching, it embodies its maker and how he was all there.

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Homo Irrealis: Essays

Andre Aciman

Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 256 pages, $27

John Domini’s next book will be a memoir, “The Archeology of a Good Ragù.”