Benjamin Balint and André Aciman
This year’s Albert and Vera List Lecture in Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School was a conversation with the author André Aciman. On October 3, 2018, Benjamin Balint sat down with Aciman to discuss themes of exile and homecoming, of time, place, and identity.
Benjamin Balint: André, I thought perhaps we could start actually pre-Alexandria. Your family’s ancestry, your family’s experience of exile began even before Alexandria. They left Spain, they went to Italy, from Italy to Turkey, I think. Maybe you can speak about the pre-Alexandra history, and whether that’s part of your own heritage of exile.
André Aciman: I don’t think that my family loved Spain, the way it has come down to us. They liked to speak Ladino, which they called Spanish, and no matter how many times I corrected them they still called it Spanish. They didn’t really like Italy much, and they certainly hated Turkey, where they’d been housed for 500 years. They could have called it their home, but they didn’t, and they certainly did not like Alexandria or Egypt either. So, essentially, they have a long history of hating every single place they’ve been to.
That is what I inherited as a child. It was a sense that wherever you are, you’re supposed to hate, or not like it, and certainly don’t call it home because it won’t last that long anyway. That has been the experience of my grandparents, of my father, and, of course, of myself as well. Wherever you call home won’t last, which explains why in Out of Egypt I had one of the characters say something which people quote all the time, though I just made it up along the way: “As Jews, you lose everything at least twice in your life.” It’s the story of loss, and a loss that you mourn. In other words, you mourn losing the thing you hated, and it’s that insipient little paradox that percolates throughout everything I do.
Balint: Did your father consider himself to be an exile?
Aciman: No, because he had a citizenship which at the time was called stateless. He was stateless. He was born in Turkey, so he was a Turk, but he hated the Turkish language, which he never learned very well because they were all busy learning French and speaking Ladino at home. So, he never considered himself a Turk and he never considered himself an Egyptian. We became Italians by sheer happenstance, but he never considered himself Italian. He didn’t even like Italians. And when he came to America, where he lived for 40 years, he hated America.
Balint: What did he like?
Aciman: See, this is an unfair question. People ask me that question all the time: “What do you like?” “I hate that food, I hate that cuisine, I hate this, I hate that.” “What do you like?” I don’t know. He didn’t know what he liked, but that’s, I think, part of the problem, that he started his life and lived his whole life for 93 years, and taught us to feel the same way. In other words, whatever is given to you is not good enough and does not really stick. You do not stick to a place, a place does not stick to you. The culture of a place is never yours.
My father was born Jewish. I was born Jewish, but I was never bar mitzvahed, and as far as I know he was never bar mitzvahed because he was busy going to churches, and I’ve gone to more churches than I’ve gone to synagogues. Not out of perversity—it just happens that way. And my grandmother knew the catechism. Why did she know it? Because she was Jewish and she sat in the back of the class while the nuns were teaching, and for years she had to listen to the catechism, so she learnt it. But, in essence, nobody felt at home, and that is part of the trajectory that I tried to trace in my own life, and afterwards as well.
Balint: There’s an element in your memoir Out of Egypt, I would say, of dissatisfaction, the dissatisfaction of displacement. What you just said reminded me of the old Jewish joke: How do you know that you’re in a Jewish restaurant? It’s when the waiter comes over to you and says, “Is anything okay?”
So, I understand this Jewish dissatisfaction quite well. I wonder if you, growing up, experienced Nasser’s Egypt as an anti-Semitic place. On the one hand, you write about Alexandria in the most beguiling way—as a polyglot city of many languages. On the other hand, I wonder if you may be able to share with us some of the dark undersides of that polyglot experience.
Aciman: Well, when I started school, it was fine. Everything was okay. Everybody was there… there were Italians, Brits, French people. All languages were spoken—mostly French, though. However, as I was growing older and everybody was being kicked out or was leaving, it became increasingly what the main language was: Arabic. It’s an Egyptian country. Everybody is Egyptian. Eventually, the culture became so dominant that most of the subjects were taught in Arabic. So, history, sociology, and geography were taught in Arabic.
On top of that, all the poems that we had to learn were nationalistic poems, and they were all virulently and viciously anti-Semitic. There was absolutely no difference made between Israel and Jewishness. They were totally confused and, if you can think about it, it’s a very convenient confusion to make…. In England, [this happens] on a daily basis today-- confusing Jews, Zionism, Israel. It’s all the same thing.
But you began to realize that the atmosphere was against you, and you felt isolated because I was the only Jew in a class of about 25 kids, and every time the word “Israel” was mentioned—and it was mentioned quite frequently—the class would turn and look at me because I was the only Jew. The characters in Dostoyevsky, when they’re cross-examined, always feel a chill running down their spine. When I read Dostoyevsky, I said, “Oh, God, this is the chill-running-down-the-spine thing!” because I recognized it in hindsight, that this is exactly what I felt every time the word “Jew” or “Israeli” was mentioned in class. You felt it because everybody looks at you. They turn around and they make you very uncomfortable No one wants to be stigmatized that way? That was growing up.
And, of course, politically it was very hard to be Jewish in Egypt. My father suffered, we were followed by the police and there was always a series of phone calls, constant phone calls,… They were not obscene phone calls. They were sort of harassing phone calls that you knew were coming from the government. They didn’t want us there, so eventually they kicked us out.
Balint: You left [Egypt] in 1965, with your family, and then you came back 30 years later. What was it like to come back to Alexandria after 30 years? Did it feel like a homecoming, or something else?
Aciman: For those of you who have gone back to a house that you used to have as a child—and I think most of us have had that experience—it was extremely disappointing…. I’m back there, I recognize the buildings, nothing is eloquent enough, and nothing speaks to you as in, “Remember me? I’m the building where you…” There was nothing like that. At some point, as I say in the essay, I called my parents up. I said, “I’m in Alexandria. I made it safe.” And they said, “How is it?! How is it?! How is it?!”
“It’s Alexandria.” That’s all you can say.
So, there was absolutely no thrill of recognition—because, most importantly, the people were different. I was used to walking the streets of Alexandria and meeting some people who knew my parents, or people who spoke French, or people who spoke Greek, or Italian. And suddenly, everybody spoke Arabic, and so you ask yourself: what am I doing here? This is not my home….
The first night I got to Alexandria, I did the walk. It took me about 20 minutes. I was ready to go back, except I was stuck in Alexandria because the next plane was going to leave in five days. So, I had to do something with those five days though there was nothing that basically necessitated my staying more than a few hours.
Balint: One of my favorite passages in the book is [when] you’re in Egypt and you describe being overcome by a sudden yearning for New York, of all places, for West End Avenue… You write: “I was in Alexandria, homesick for a place from which I had learned to recreate Alexandria, the way the rabbis in exile were forced to reinvent their homeland on paper, only to find perhaps that they worshiped the paper more than the homeland.” In this case, would you say New York is the paper, is the recreation, I mean–the homeland that’s being created in the text?
Aciman: No, I think that I moved from one metaphor to the other. New York used to be the over-text, and the subtext is Alexandria, and because I lived in New York for so long, I used New York in order to remember Alexandria. But actually, as a writer—and that’s where the second metaphor comes in—writing about Alexandria makes the writing more special than anything about Alexandria. In fact, I prefer my essay on Alexandria more than I will ever like Alexandria. It’s better written, first of all.
Balint: Speaking of which: When and how did you resolve to write Out of Egypt?
Aciman: I started writing it when I was a grad student…. Anything I remembered about Alexandria, I put it down on paper, and it was a narrative that began from the first moment to the exile. And then I reread it and I said, “Oh my God, this is absolutely dreadful.” I put it aside, but people would occasionally say, “You should write about what it is that you experienced in Egypt,” because of the political tension, to write what it was like being a Jew in Alexandria in those years. Eventually, I met somebody who was an editor—and this is going to surprise you—but I had just quit smoking, and I wanted to write a guide on how to quit smoking.
I said to her, “Do you think this is an interesting book?” She said, “Yeah, that would be great, a book about how to quit smoking from a confirmed smoker. Why don’t you write this book.” And she said, “Do you have any other ideas?” I said, “Well, there’s this other thing I’m toying with, and it’s about writing about my childhood as a Jew.” She said, “Do that!”
So, the book on cigarette smoking never got written.
Balint: Something to look forward to. Before we leave Alexandria, a final question: How have you superimposed the Alexandria of your memory on other cities that you’ve subsequently lived in? Have you felt that these other cities are as unreal, as untenable as your Alexandria?
Aciman: Yes, they are untenable. They’re unreal. In other words, the disease called “Alexandria lost” afflicts every other city that I know. In other words, every city becomes a city that is about to be lost, or that is in fact being lost as you’re living in it. So, you’re constantly mourning something that hasn’t even happened yet.
But, of course, I’m very interested in how time morphs and alters itself vis-à-vis this sense of the loss that is about to happen and that you foresee with a degree of lucidity that is almost startling, because you know you won’t be here for a long time, and so you anticipate the loss. This becomes a form of being in the present. You are in the present provided the present itself is already slipping away from you, and you know it is. You learn to anticipate loss even when you are in possession of something.
I do that with cities. I do that with many things. You go to a restaurant and you have a fantastic meal, and tomorrow it’s going to be even better as a memory. That sort of thing…. For example, I love Paris, though I can’t stay in Paris for too long because then I get annoyed. And Rome is my favorite city of all cities, but then again, after a month in Rome you just want to go back to New York. New York is a place from which you anticipate being in Paris or Rome. It’s a vicious circle, if you want, and nothing is permanent. And if I make the mistake of saying that this is a Jewish trait, it’s because [of] this profound sense of—whatever you want to call it—preannounced loss, or this sense of irony that you bring to everything that is seemingly stable and real.
Balint: I want to ask you about this idea of return before we get to exile…. You write: “The Jewish rite of passage, as Passover never tells us, is also a passage back to Egypt, not just away from it.” I’m interested in how the theme of return, or even return to something that no longer exists, informs your sensibility.
To put the question in another way, if I can…I was thinking about the biblical figure of Abraham. Abraham, of course, heeds the call of God and leaves his own land to journey to a foreign one. Unlike Odysseus, Abraham does not return home. Why is that?
Aciman: Oh, why doesn’t he? [Laughs] Well, let me tell you.
I mean, Moses never even goes home. Abraham never returns home—in my book, in my vision—because he’s going to find it extremely disappointing. And the people who came back from the Babylonian captivity, I still need to know exactly what their chronicle is, what they felt when they came back to this thing that they were longing for—how many years? Hundreds of years, was it? There’s a sense [that] the return is your rendezvous with fate. This is where you’re going to be. Your life means something if you eventually will return home. But as Cavafy…has us know, Odysseus returns a disappointed man. He has learnt a lot because of the voyages. The return home is incidental and, as we all know from Homer, the next thing that Odysseus will do, as he knows he will do, is leave….
In Out of Egypt, there’s a little poem that I attribute to Cavafy, which poor Cavafy never wrote because he couldn’t write this badly. But it’s a poem about Odysseus, who decides that… Calypso is a very nice woman, and she is giving him immortality in the bargain. If you stay here, you’ll never die. You’ll live forever. And we’re in love and we’re happy. And Odysseus is tempted. In my version he decides, OK, I’m going to stay here. This is a good enough deal. The rest, the going back home, is definitely going to be disappointing.
Returns are…nice in books, where you have the hero returning home to visit his whatever, or visiting the house, the famous house—Brideshead Revisited, Howards End, all these wonderful mansions that are homes to which you need to return and you’re pulled to return. In fact, they’re always disappointing and you always leave them.
Balint: I’d like to ask about how the fault lines of exile run through your writing. Something you just said strikes me as very significant. I think there’s a distinction in your writing between exile as reality, as lived experience, and literary exile, you might say, as metaphor. I’d like to embarrass you again by quoting another one of your essays. You say: “Expatriation, like love, is not only a condition that devastates and reconfigures the self, it is like love: a trope, a figure with which we try to explain to narrate profound psychological disruptions in terms of very measurable entities—a person, a place, an event, a moment.”
I was struck that, particularly after the Second World War, Jewish exile has been subject to a kind of dichotomy in thinking—either negative or positive. The real exile is quite negative. It’s a source of suffering, of punishment, humiliation, powerlessness. But then, metaphorically or in the literary lens, it often appears in a quite positive way, as an exemplary instance of anti-nationalism—I detect some of this in Out of Egypt, too—or as an antidote to the so-called blood and soil ideologies. Are we stuck in that kind of dichotomy of the real versus the metaphorical exile? Can we escape that? Is there a third term? How do you think about the experience of exile and its use as a metaphor in a quite positive way, as a noble rootlessness?
Aciman: I don’t think I’ve ever written about it as noble. There’s nothing triumphal about exile and it doesn’t ennoble you. If anything, it’s the other way around. To begin with, the notion of exile is not a willful act of displacement, of immigration, of emigration elsewhere. Exile, by definition, is something that is foisted on you. You’re forced to do it. You’re forced to lose whatever it is you have. You have no choice. It is taken away from you. You’re pushed out. In many respects, you can never say that Odysseus is in exile—he’s just coming back home and it’s taking him too long. Maybe he wants it to take too long because Penelope is trouble, too. I’m making this joke, unfortunately.
The other thing about exile is that, in my case, it has become a very seminal way of understanding anything. In other words, the fact that you are losing, sometimes against your will, a place, or a style of life, or a partner, or whatever it is—that you are dislodged the way that certain electrons can be dislodged or planets are dislodged from their orbit—suddenly you find yourself flailing around and you need to find some sort of order because you’re not dead yet. So, you have to adapt to this dislodgement. The dislodgement, for me, is not a pleasure, but it is a position from which I write. In other words, I can write only from dislodgement. If something is sequential or consecutive, or if everything is rooted, I have nothing to tell you.
I realized this when I was once asked to write a piece on a particular square in Paris. So I went to the square in Paris. It’s the Place de Vosges, for those of you who know it. It’s a beautiful square. It has a long history that is fascinating, and I went and studied every single building on the square. Each one has a fantastic history. And I ate at every single restaurant because I had to also create a travel box for which restaurants to avoid and which to go to. But I also wanted to write about what it felt like to be in that square. So, I couldn’t write it. Essentially, I had to come back to New York, and from longing to be back there to take better notes—because I’m always sloppy—and longing to revisit it just because I didn’t do a thorough search, didn’t do a thorough visit, the very fact that I needed to go back, that I needed to write of Place de Vosges as something that happened to me and then was taken away, produced the kind of essay that I didn’t know I wanted to write.
And I realized this happens every single time. I used to be a travel writer, so whenever I write, I need to basically not write in the place itself, but having lost the place. In other words, looking at it retrospectively as something that happened and that has become like a vision, a cloud that is soon about to dissipate. That’s the only way I can write. So, whenever I write about love, it’s the same way.
Balint: You seem to be speaking about loss as something that enhances your own vision of things, that clarifies your own vision of things, even as a necessary ingredient. Let me, with that, pull us back to the idea of Jewish exile as somehow the embodiment of a kind of heroic homelessness that corresponds to the human condition as such. There are people who speak in those terms. Are you sympathetic at all to this idea?
Aciman: No. No, because I don’t think there’s anything heroic about homelessness. I think it’s a painful thing. It’s something to be avoided. On the other hand—because there’s always another hand—I have taught my children one thing that they have to cultivate. And they have it –not that I did it intentionally, but by being in my presence. They always have irony as a way of living. In other words, for me, irony is perhaps the most powerful motive for anything we do. It sets us in motion as opposed to forcing us to withdraw. It gives us two faces, two texts, two ways of seeing something that do not necessarily coincide, they’re just antagonistically present at the same time. That is, more or less, where I come from. So, to turn homelessness into something that’s triumphal or heroic—or transcendental, to use that term—doesn’t work for me. I can understand that some people feel this way, but I don’t understand them.
Balint: When I was working on my own book, I came across a wonderful essay by Judith Butler. It’s called, “Who Owns Kafka?” and there she says that the exilic is proper to Judaism, and even to Jewishness as such, and she does so in the context of correlating Kafka’s mode of writing as a kind of poetics of nonarrival. And that’s what I keep coming back to, is whether, as a writer, this nonarrival—you might say alienation, you might say obsession with loss—is a necessary ingredient for you.
Aciman: Maybe it is. I don’t know if it’s necessary, but…the inability to arrive home—maybe, if you want, the reluctance to come home—is there, it’s always present. I don’t start writing by saying this character must never make it home, but I find that I find every kind of impediment to his arrival.
I mean, it makes perfect sense, since I wrote a book which has not met any success whatsoever. It’s called Eight White Nights and it’s about a couple that meets at a party, and they are totally, I think, attracted to each other. And clearly the only thing they need to do is to go to bed together, but they meet each other at the movies every night, they have a drink together, they have dinner together, but he deposits her at home every single time. And it’s clear that I’m trying to make this last longer than it’s possible. And people, of course, have written to me saying, “Come on already! It’s the fifth night! How many more nights do they have to go. Eight? God, this is terrible. Make it happen!” Of course, I was having a great deal of fun in dilating the abeyance of the actual night in which they will sleep… And when it happens, I don’t actually let you know that it has. I realize that there are other ways of doing these things, and usually when you resort to fruit, it becomes much more simple.
Balint: Speaking of which: Is deferral, delay, important to you?
Balint: How so?
Aciman: Deferral, in psychological terms, for me, is the avoidance of the facts, of truth, of arrival, of ‘now we have to contend with things as they are.’ When you defer, you avoid being in the here and now. And the here and now, because of exile, you can say, or the condition that is foisted by exile, deferral becomes a home… As the poet says, in my poem, “Your home is in the rubble house of time.” You just don’t have a home in time. It is outside of time that you have it.
That explains why my next book is a collection of essays on the conditional, the subjunctive, the optative, because those are my moods. Those are the moods in which I write. In other words, the might have been that never happened but might still happen, though you fear it might not, and hope it does. So, you’re just: Where are we? We’re nowhere.
Balint: Can you share with us a bit more about this next book? We were talking about it earlier. It’s called Homo Irrealis.
Balint: What’s the unreality that you’re getting at? Who do you treat in this book and how do you approach them?
Aciman: They’re all a series of essays. Two are on Freud, one is on Cavafy, one is on Proust, one is on Sebald—who was a writer that I think is far more important than we give him credit for—and there are other characters. One is on Éric Rohmer, the film director, where sex does not happen, okay, for those of you who need to know. A very inspiring film director for me. These are all writers, or whatever it is, movie directors, painters—John Sloan is another one—people who essentially are tussling with the present. They’re not happy with the present. They’re looking for another tense, and the tense they’re looking for is not in the past—though that is the thing that is easiest to believe—and it’s not in the future, nor is it in the future that is being anticipated and is going to be looked at as a thing in the past once it happens. It is really a different…
It’s not a tense; it’s a mood. It’s elsewhere. It’s in another dimension of time, or as I like to say, elsewhere in time. I think that most of us—and this is where you can all disagree with me and call me an idiot—I think most of us live in our fantasies, and our fantasies may not have anything to do with reality. There are “might have been” moments in your life that you kind of wish might happen, but you hope they don’t. And that is where we live. We live there. Certainly I do. Not altogether, because I have a family and I love my children and I like to eat lasagna, but that has nothing to do with it. As a writer, when I retreat into my hovel and I write, I am really in a different zone. It’s a totally different area, where I’m really struggling with the other life, the other dimension, the one that is also being lived, but not quite, and that you don’t really want it to happen.
Balint: As I’m hearing you talking, I’m wondering if exile can be understood also as a kind of escapist fantasy—that is, someone who doesn’t live in exile and has responsibilities not shared by the exile, by definition…
Balint: …someone who is not an exile, maybe has a different relationship with the present tense and the obligations of the present tense than an exile who lives in someone else’s country and defers to someone else’s rules. Is that…?
Aciman: Yes. I mean, that is a wonderful explanation. Thank you.
No, I do believe that, in a sense, people who are in the what I call “here and now” and have obligations in daily life—which we all do, by the way—it’s not that we live in a fantasy world. They have obligations and those obligations do not permit them to stray and look elsewhere. Whereas the exile, who is having trouble with the present or doesn’t quite adapt to the present, always has the perfect excuse: Well, I’m not really from here. I’m not really one who eats this kind of food. I don’t speak English good, as they say, because it’s not my language. You can make up all kinds of excuses to justify the inability to adapt into the present. I don’t know if that’s a Jewish trait, to be honest. I don’t think it is.
Balint: Is there something particularly Jewish about your understanding of exile, something that is particular to Jewish exile that characterizes it in a way that separates it from other kinds of exile?
Aciman: I’m not familiar with others. Every nation has a diasporic narrative…. I understand only my own, and it happens that mine is so easily inscribed into the Jewish tradition that I have to say…because I suffered for being a Jew, I am automatically affiliated to the kind of Jewish exile that exists. But I think—as I think you know, as everybody knows—the fact that Abraham was enjoined to leave his land means that whatever land he was going to settle in was never going to be his land. His land was left behind.
Somebody once told me this, and I don’t know if it’s true or not, but the very etymology of the word “Hebrew” means “those from the other bank,” and I always live my life as if—I see my life; I don’t live it, but I see it—as basically I’m the version that’s across the bank. The real version is on the other side of the river, and that’s where real life happens, and mine is just a rough draft, a mock copy of the thing that is supposed to happen. Of course, you never know what the real life is, and as I like to say—and I’ve had one of my characters say—we are given two lives. One is the one that we experiment with; the other one is the better one, and that’s gonna come next.
Balint: One of my favorite stories about exile and homeland, or diasporan homeland, is one that Saul Bellow tells, where he goes to Jerusalem in the early ‘70s. His first meeting is with Shai Agnon, who in 1966 shared the Nobel, and he goes to Agnon’s house and Agnon says, “I only have one question for you, and that is: Have your novels been translated into Hebrew?” And Bellow says, “That’s a strange… I mean, why? It’s such a small, insignificant language. I don’t know. I don’t think so.” And Agnon says, “Only if they’ve been translated into Hebrew do they stand a chance of achieving immortality.” That’s the perfect encapsulation of the relationship that Agnon, as a minority writer, had to, in this case, the diaspora, or someone he saw as a diaspora writer.
Aciman: Yeah, I’m translated into Hebrew.
Balint: You’re safe, then. You’re safe.
Aciman: I’m safe. Well, I mean,…Hebrew is a language I never learned, and maybe was testily refusing to learn. However, the fact that Hebrew is a language… It is the language of God. God speaks in Hebrew, and that language is not given to me, so I sort of banished myself from that. So, I’m not only a Jew who lives across the river, but I’m also a Jew who lives out of the fold of those who live across the river. So, I’m twice removed, and I kind of consolidate my condition of double exile, which I think is another typically Jewish thing, is that you’re always in double exile, not single exile. There are serial exiles behind you.
André Aciman is the author of Enigma Variations, Call Me by Your Name, Out of Egypt, and False Papers, and is the editor of The Proust Project (all published by FSG). He teaches comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Benjamin Balint is a library fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and Die Zeit, and his translations have appeared in The New Yorker. He is the author of Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018).