[3 April 2013]
“School Days, school days / Dear old Golden Rule days…” or so the song goes. Harvard Square is André Aciman’s third novel. His first book, Out of Egypt, written in 1995, is the story of his multicultural, cosmopolitan upbringing in Alexandria and his journey to America. The book is lyrical and sensuous in its prose, not unlike that of the writer on whom Aciman is an expert, Marcel Proust. In her review of Out of Egypt for The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani praised the book and compared Aciman to Lawrence Durrell. Anyone who’s familiar with Kakutani and with how tough a critic she can be will realize that’s a big deal.
Aciman is a distinguished professor of Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of City University of New York. Clearly he’s a man who has spent the best years of his life in the halls of academia experiencing all its highs and lows. His new novel is an attempt to reconcile those experiences.
What’s academic life worth? Why does one put himself through the endless hours of study or subject himself to the occasional pettiness and vindictiveness that comes with scaling the academic ladder all for years of near poverty for the sake of a Ph.D.? The answers will be different for each person, but invariably they are deeply personal and heartfelt. For many graduate students the decision of what to study says something powerful about their identity, and the quest to keep learning, in spite of all its many setbacks, is its own self-sustaining reward.
Harvard Square, as the title suggests, is a novel about a young man’s personal growth during his postgraduate days at Harvard in the ‘70s. The young man is never named, but it’s clear that he’s based on Aciman himself. He’s from Alexandria, he’s Jewish, he’s studying comparative literature, and he desperately wants to blend into the fold of mainstream American culture while still holding on to his North African roots.
The book begins, in true Proustian fashion, as a flashback. The narrator takes his son on a college tour of Harvard only to be reminded of his own days there as a young man. It’s the late ‘70s and our narrator has just flunked his literature orals. His advisor, the colorfully named Llyod-Greville (code: Old Money WASP windbag—Aciman has a habit of painting some of his characters in broad strokes), is the source of his admiration, envy, and resentment—a father-figure substitute for this lonely, homesick Egyptian student.
The young man wanders into a local Mediterrenean/North African café just off of Harvard Square on Brattle Street called Café Algiers and strikes up an intense friendship with a charismatic, volatile Tunisian cab driver named Kalaj. Kalaj, as the reader will discover, becomes that father-figure the young man is looking for. He’s also a kind of Doppelgänger. While the young man is clean-cut, preppy, the picture of Ivy League academia, Kalaj is the stereotypical boisterous, earthy North African.
At first glance, this reads like a re-writing of Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek, which was turned into the hit film with Alan Bates, as the prim English writer, and Anthony Quinn as the irrepressible life-force, Zorba. Kalaj urges the bookish, closed-off young man to open himself up to his identity and a world of new experiences both romantic and professional. To be expected, Kalaj is a voluptuary:
“Without women he was nothing… He wanted women all the time… Women picked this up immediately… He felt passion first, love much later, but interest always. Being so visibly and so bodily desired made them desire him back, which stirred his desire even further. In this as in other things, there was no ambiguity, no hesitation, no shame, no running for cover. The moral couldn’t have been simpler: if you desired someone badly enough, and desired them in the pit of your stomach, chances were they desired you no less.”
Our repressed young man fears Kalaj’s vitality and his lack of inhibition, but at some level he’s in awe of him. Amid memorizing Chaucer and translating La Rochefoucauld, he finds some time for a few tender love affairs, one with a young Persian woman that ends badly, and another with his American neighbor which is sexual and casual enough to be rewarding without being too complicated.
Harvard Square is also about the quintessential immigrant dilemma of wanting to fit into America without completing relinquishing the culture of the country one’s left behind. Kalaj is an illegal alien who’s been living in the US for years. He’s cantankerous about American privilege and its occasional exclusivity but wants a citizenship more than anything just to stay in the country that he’s called home. The threat of his imminent deportation provides the novel with a note of tension and suspense.
There’s an amusing bit later in the novel when Kalaj, the young man, and their respective dates, go on a picnic to Walden Pond. For a student of literature, like our narrator, Thoreau’s haven is hallowed ground. But after Kalaj has had too many beers and there’s no bathroom anywhere in sight, he has no choice but to relieve himself in one of the world’s most famous literary sites.
The novel is the strongest in its focused, intense passages of psychological description, especially when it conveys the narrator’s longings and ambitions. He not only wants to be a promising professor, but he wants to be let into the fold of the Establishment. Aciman is very good at describing the nuances of people being slighted and rejected. Running into his advisor and his wife at a posh restaurant, he describes how as a lowly graduate student the narrator was overstaying his welcome:
“‘Would you like a glass of wine?’ asked the professor, almost standing up to make room for an extra chair in case I was going to be gauche enough to accept. I hesitated, and was practically tempted to give the matter a second thought, when I caught Mrs. Llyod-Greville slicing a corner off her artichoke heart, as though she had totally failed to notice her husband’s gesture and was already assuming I would turn down the offer… they returned to their appetizers… Then it hit me: I was being congédié, dismissed. Very cordially, the little clan had bolted its door in my face.”
It’s a wonderful, riveting passage that’s laced with the right amount of astuteness and anger. Academia is a hierarchy, and often a hierarchy of privilege, and to a certain degree, of race. Now after being a successful professor and writer, Aciman can look back on his early student days of neediness and ambition and how desperate and intense he might have seemed to his professors. He can exact his grad student’s revenge on those in power who were callous and may have dismissed him as an upstart.
In another brilliant scene, Kalaj has been given a job as a French instructor thanks to the narrator’s help, but after a time his services are no longer needed and he’s once again on the verge of being deported.
“Kalaj was not surprised. ‘For the past few days every time I crossed Llyod-Greville in the corridors, he looked away.’ He knew that look. ‘It’s the look of people who have already signed your death warrant and can’t look you in the face…the look of treason, not after it happens but while it’s still incubating.”
Aciman also excels at expressing nostalgia and desire in that distinctly Proustian way. A beautiful passage occurs in the very beginning of the novel about the décor and ambience of Café Algiers, and we realize that underneath his preppy Ivy League façade, the narrator is terribly homesick for Egypt:
“[In the mornings, Café Algiers] would let a few us—regulars—who spoke Arabic and French—in to wait for the coffee to brew. One look at the poster of Tipaza and your body ached for sea water and beach rituals you didn’t even know you’d stopped remembering. All of Café Algiers took me back to Alexandria, the way it took Kalaj back to Tunis, and the Algerian to Oran. Perhaps each one of us would stop by Café Algiers every day to pick up the person we’d left behind in North Africa, each working things back to that point where life must have taken a wrong turn, each as though trying to put time on splints until the fracture and the cracks and the dislocations were healed and the bone finally fused. Sheltered from the morning sun and wrapped in the strong scent of coffee and of cleaning fluids, each found his way back to his mother.”
Reading this novel I longed for more dialogue in addition to the dense passages of first person narration. As a novelist, Acimen tells us more than he shows us. Also, Kalaj’s fate at the end is thuddingly thrust upon us without much build-up or explanation. It’s as if he existed as an imaginary friend only to help the narrator come to terms with certain anxieties and once those anxieties were resolved he promptly disappears. The Doppelgänger vanishes. Nor does Aciman tie in his narrator’s present (his son, his new life) with his past with seamless fluidity. The present is there, but it doesn’t have the magic that those past memories have.
Harvard Square is a very enjoyable, beautifully written novel. It’s a pleasure to read especially if you know something of what it means to be a grad student in the humanities yourself. It captures the tenderness and evanescence of youth and ambition. Anyone who’s lived in Boston, and particularly in Cambridge, will also enjoy the descriptions of this famous college town.
To Aciman’s narrator, Harvard Square is more than just a physical place—it’s a state of mind. It’s where longing, talent, and ambition coalesce and dreams and career ambitions are realized. As you can see from the novel, the present is never as seductive as our memories of the past and our vision of what we think it was to us is often what holds us aloft in later years.