Magazine Top Ten 2018: André Aciman On Doubt and Honesty

Posted by: yetheart, December 27, 2018 6:47 pm
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André Aciman (Photo credit: Sigrid Estrada)

André Aciman is an award-winning, bestselling, and prolific author of four novels, two essay collections, and a memoir—but it’s his first novel Call Me By Your Name that has captured the public’s heart in conjunction with the release of the film.

This May, an enthusiastic crowd gathered at Queens Central Library to hear André Aciman in conversation with Queens Library President and CEO Dennis M. Walcott at a Culture Connection event. The two spoke about Aciman’s teaching and writing before Aciman engaged with the audience’s questions.

Audience members asked the author about topics ranging from questions about specific moments in the book to his involvement in the film to whether there will be a sequel—he says there may be one a few years away.

Aciman, who teaches literature including Marcel Proust at CUNY Graduate Center, was candid, answering one question about whether he feels lonely because he does not read contemporary literature by saying he feels disconnected but not isolated.

Style is what interests him most as a reader and a writer, and for that he goes to canonical texts as well as writers like Dostoyevsky and W.G. Sebald and what he calls psychological novels—those that deal not with plot, but with interiority and characters who are trying to assess each other’s motivations.

He loves to focus on contradictions and does not care for details, but for a character’s energy. While he laments the lack of a contemporary writer who inspires him in terms of lyricism, style, intelligence, insight, and learning, and wishes there was one who had these qualities, he says he is content to re-read Ovid.

Aciman admits he is radical in his view that none of the writers currently publishing interest or compel him, but says that the canonical classics have always drawn him in. Long sentences that offer surprises, clauses whose cadences you are caught up in—this is what appeals to Aciman.

Call Me By Your NameLibraries played an important role in nurturing his interest in ancient Greece during the three years he spent as a teenager in Italy—he frequented an American library across from the American Embassy in Rome, going there at least three times a week to research his papers.

Today, he visits libraries when he wants to read a book from the 17th century, his specialty. “I love old books. It is a great privilege to read the only volume they have in the United States or the only volume they have in France.” Reflecting on his college and graduate school days, Aciman says, “I love the quiet of a library…there is something very welcoming and safe about the lights of a library at night; when you spot the library in the snow, it’s a wonderful feeling.”

“There’s a continuous traffic between my own work—my academic work, the scholarly stuff I do—and at the same time the work I do on my own, my fiction, my nonfiction, essays— eventually they sort of bleed into each other quite frequently.”

When teaching a seminar on Proust, “I will find myself speaking of Proust, but I’m really speaking about my experience of Proust. Students love when they’re not getting straightforward vanilla scholarship, when they’re getting a writer reading another writer. I’m a very good teacher and I’m a very good reader…students are getting a very privileged view of what it is a writer is doing really.”

Aciman discovered Proust by reading his father’s diary and noticing that his father, who copied sentences that he liked, was copying numerous sentences by Proust. He read all of Proust in his late teens and early twenties. He describes reading his work as meeting someone who will tell you who you are—when you read Proust, you are opening doors into yourself and reading about yourself. In fact, his experience of reading Proust sounds remarkably like what readers of Call Me By Your Name describing happening to themselves. In this way, perhaps Aciman has succeeded at developing a style that is kindred to one of his literary heroes.

Dennis Walcott and André AcimanYet Aciman never anticipated such a response, thinking that the book, which he wrote almost on the fly, might not even be published and that when it was, it would die, as some books do. Today he continues to receive a steady stream of correspondence from people who share, among other personal revelations, that Call Me By Your Name has told them who they are, changed their life, reminded them of things they could have done and of things that happened and have been lost. “They write to me all the time…many people were teenagers once upon a time; the book stirs up both good and painful memories.”

What about himself is reflected in Call Me By Your Name? “My fundamental ambivalence as a human being. I am ambivalent about everything. I know that I desire certain things. The closer I come to them the more I become reluctant to go through with it or the more I begin to have doubts. I’m always about doubts.”

About why readers are so affected by his work, he says, “Usually I am quite bold in putting what I think is going on in me out into the real world on paper. What I find very satisfying on one level is because I’ve been so honest, they don’t say, ‘Thank you for being honest.’ They say, ‘Your honesty has been a mirror for me. I go through the same thing myself.’”

Yet he also says he cannot believe what he puts on paper can have such a great effect on others—and even finds that almost scary. Still, as a reader, he likes “the traffic between me and an author.” In the spirit of contradiction, he believes the real purpose of reading is to “on the one hand, take us away from ourselves, and at the same time force us to look into ourselves as well.”

Pictured above: Queens Library President and CEO Dennis M. Walcott with André Aciman at Central Library.

Photo of André Aciman by Sigrid Estrada.

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Queens Library Magazine.

Read the Other Stories in the Queens Library Magazine Top Ten of 2018.