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Friday, April 18, 2008

Andre Aciman's memoirs

Andre Aciman's new novel got such good reviews that I decided to read his memoir, Out of Egypt, published to great fanfare, reviews, awards in 1994. A thoroughly enjoyable family story full of "characters" and bygone customs and competing narratives and a sense of oncoming not-exactly doom. I was in college with an Alexandrian Jew named Andre Bernard, his father an Egyptian Sephardi, his mother French (fled to Egypt when the Vichy regime took over in France), who had themselves fled Egypt when King Farouk was overthrown by the nationalist regime eventually headed by Nasser. (1953) Aciman's family stayed on a few more precarious years, as one by one their property was sequestered (British and French nationals in 1956, others later - Aciman's father claimed Turkish nationality, and held out till 1965). The Jews who had lived in Egypt since at least the fourth century B.C.E. were finally expelled from the land, as they were from all the Arab lands (where, as in Egypt, they had often lived for longer than the Arabs had) in the wake of the independence of Israel, too bitter a pill for any Arab regime to swallow. The Christian communities are not doing so well in these lands either - they are also more ancient than the Muslims in such nations as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Yemen, but it isn't helping them. The Christian Palestinians are in no higher favor with the Israeli authorities than the Muslim Palestinians - a difference is that the Christians are more likely to have relatives to take them in abroad.

It is all part of the sad rise of nationalism around the Mediterranean that has been a tragic part of the history of the 20th century. The Med used to be surrounded by transnational cities like Alexandria - Constantinople, Barcelona, Algiers, Beirut, Smyrna, Thessalonika, Trieste, Split, Durazzo, Venice. Now only Marseilles (and perhaps Napoli, with its African and Chinese immigrants) remains a great cosmopolitan metropolis. The others are monuments to one nation each. (Splendid article on this by Jerry Miller in the current Foreign Affairs, by the way.)

One thing surprised me in Out of Egypt was the author's careless reference to the Muslim holiday of Ramadan - Ramadan, he tells us, was a spring holiday, always a sign that the summers at the beach were about to begin. And I can easily believe this was true in the last year or even two of his life in Alexandria, years that would imprint himself on his careless memory in all the years that followed, but Ramadan is not a fixed holiday on the solar calendar - the Muslim calendar is lunar, and its holidays move steadily backwards year by year, falling ten days short of our calendar. This year Ramadan was in October; next year it will be in September. It seems surprising that someone who grew up in a Muslim country did not remember this. But then, as he subtly points out (he never states it), Alexandria was not a Muslim city, it was a polyglot city, a polynational city, a polyreligious city - until Nasser gradually cleansed it, of Brits and French (after their failed war for the Suez in 1956), of other Europeans later on, of Jews steadily, and ultimately even of Copts, the aboriginal inhabitants of Egypt (insofar as anyone is). Andre's family spoke Ladino among themselves, French as a common tongue, English or German or Italian in separate family groupings, Hebrew only when it had to be remembered for prayers, a sort of pidgin to the servants (Arabs all) - but Arabic never. At his great-grandmother's hundredth birthday party, she fondly says she's lived in Alexandria fifty years, half her life, and doesn't know more than fifty words of Arabic. Andre is ordered to study Arabic by his father (who fears government spies), but he flunks the class steadily, unable to take any of it seriously, even to learn the letters. He recites suras from the Koran, but cannot translate them or understand them. Conversational Arabic is out - his friends are all Jews or Christians anyway.

More controversial, I gather, is the question of how much of this story Aciman remembered and how much he invented, or varied. Some writers insist the star figure of the first chapter, his scoundrel greatuncle Vili, confidence man, auctioneer, secret agent, womanizer, demagogue, professor is not in fact a real relative but a notable Alexandrian distantly related (most of his scenes in the book take place before Andre is born, and are so presented) but not quite the man Aciman writes of. Some writers express outrage that the book won a non-fiction prize.

But ... it's a memoir. Memory is a tricky thing. Memoirists make things up, add details, subtract others, enhance the portrait (it's a portrait, not a photograph), omit a color or a defect, or underline one to get a heartier laugh. Vili is a great character. No writer could resist inventing him, enhancing him, building him up. I'm on the side of the writer in this one.

Too, as Aciman admits (and we know his academic credentials), his favorite novel is Proust's, and Proust's novel is pieced together from many an unforgettable character devised from enlarging upon the characteristics of real people Proust knew. He never said his novel was anything other than fiction, but the boundaries where Marcel leaves off and "Marcel" begins are seldom clear-cut. This is how writers work. We may read a novel and wish we knew what genuine experiences produced it ... but if it is a real work of imagination, then the experience was only the nugget of what appeared on the page ... and in any case, even in the factiest non-fiction, the writer's viewpoint is never objective ... it is not what another person would have seen or said ... it is not what god (whichever) would have noticed.

I was thinking of that, unoriginally enough, when I wrote a poem last weekend (which appears in a post on my other blog, urbanepagan) and sent it to several friends, and a few of them asked who the love affair remembered romantically in it had concerned. The answer surprised them: I made it all up. Or no, that's not true or fair, I took bits of this event and that affair and this imaginary moment and put them together with sentiments long saved to produce the poem. It is what writers do. They don't just list the facts. How dull that would be.

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