Wednesday, March 07, 2007

"People who read are hiders"

So this is why you must, must, must read Andre Aciman's novel Call Me By Your Name.

(Oh, and really you must do yourself a favor and get Out of Egypt also if you have not read it already, I remember being entranced by that book when it came my way during my last year or so of graduate school, I had it from the Yale library & even in all its library-binding-ness it was a magical antidote to the--what would I call it that's both truthful and polite?--provincial rootedness-in-space that comes from dissertation-writing at a New England university, your mind travels very far in time if you're working on eighteenth-century British literature but not really very far in terms of culture or geography, so that the lost Alexandria of Aciman's memoir had an even-more-intense-than-otherwise Proustian allure. NB he's got a great Chesterfield reference in that book, I quoted it in Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness along with another rather delightful one from William Boyd's Armadillo in order to show the longevity of the Chesterfield aura--the footprints of light reading...)

But I digress. (Teaching Tristram Shandy this fall had a terrible effect on my lecture manner, I somehow found in that novel license--if I had not taken it already, which I probably had long since without realizing--to put aside my notes completely and just riff for twenty minutes at a time on a related topic of interest--today I was teaching Shaw's Pygmalion for instance but found myself instead discursing in a way that may have been more enjoyable for me than for my students about Chomskyan generative grammar and the political and linguistic empowerment it offered non-standard English speakers. Lecturer's prerogative, and one of the many reasons that lecturing is more fun than being lectured to.)

Aciman's novel is just ravishing.

I am resistant to being ravished by beauty, also I have a soft spot for the underdog and something in me often digs in its claws & refuses to be moved in the presence of beauty in particular and awardwinningness of the literary-fictional sort more generally. (I am reflexively annoyed at the very idea of Cormac McCarthy for instance. And the word "lyrical" in a blurb or a review is likely to put me off reading a novel altogether.)

But I was reading this (I will not say lyrical, though it is, because the word usually means something absolutely horrible) book ravenously and thinking to myself in the back of my head "Oh, this is SO one for the best-of-the-year, it is going to sweep every award that exists for literary fiction" and miracle of miracles I was not thinking this with a sense of exasperation but of absolute delight in finding myself in the presence of such a superlative novelistic mind and prose stylist.

In fact the word delightful was made for this book! (And usually I read a good book and immediately pass it on, but this one I'm keeping so that I can read it again in a couple of months.)

The passage where I first knew I was completely entranced (it follows an exchange between the seventeen-year-old narrator Elio and the postdoctoral researcher who's come to stay with his family for a summer in Italy in which they repeat each other's phrases almost word for word ["'So you won't tell me?' 'So I won't tell you.' 'So he won't tell me,' he repeated, pensively, as if explaining to someone about me"):

How I loved the way he repeated what I myself had just repeated. It made me think of a caress, or of a gesture, which happens to be totally accidental the first time but becomes intentional the second time and more so yet the third. It reminded me of the way Mafalda would make my bed every morning, first by folding the top sheet over the blanket, then by folding the sheet back again to cover the pillows on top of the blanket, and once more yet when she folded the whole thing over the bedspread--back and forth until I knew that tucked in between these multiple folds were tokens of something at once pious and indulgent, like acquiescence in an instant of passion.

In the hands of another writer this sort of observation might simply annoy me, I am intolerant of what might be called flourishes--but here (and Proust has this quality too, I had a very funny and enjoyable session of Proust-reading the other day with a student & it made me resolve I must spend some time this summer reading Proust properly...) there is not even a single molecule of feyness or self-indulgence, it is beautifully observed as well as beautifully written and it's also psychologically persuasive coming from this rather unusual teenage boy (a boy whose passionate book-reading and thinking-about-things side made me strongly identify with him, but who will draw a kind of sympathetic identification from all sorts of different readers because his humanity is so transparently rendered).

That first line's almost an echo (at least in its patterning and repetition) of the famous line from Augustine's Confessions, and yet not, it is something quite different in its own right (and in general this is a wonderfully allusive novel, of the hospitable kind where you don't mind feeling an allusion's happening and not knowing it, in fact it's lightly enough handled that you probably don't even notice); the image of the folded sheets is erotic and chaste in a perfectly adolescent way...

My other favorite thing: the word clementizing, which Aciman has kindly glossed in the comments to my post below. It's just such a good word, too, isn't it? (Reminds me of the Wildean Bunburying though I could not tell you exactly how the two are related--same sort of verbal formation, of course, but also a bit the same sort of hint of multiplicity in lives lived?) And the San Clemente sequence in the last part of the novel is almost my favorite thing in the whole book, not least because we get a latecomer to the party who's straight out of my beloved Symposium! So I leave you with the latecomer's words:

I think that all this clementizing is quite charming, though I've no idea how your metaphor will help us see who we are, what we want, where we're headed, any more than the wine we've been drinking. But if the job of poetry, like that of wine, is to help us see double, then I propose another toast until we've drunk enough to see the world with four eyes--and, if we're not careful, with eight.

I was reminded at points, for obvious thematic as well as stylistic reasons, of Alan Hollinghurst's The Folding Star (which struck me when I first read it as his great masterpiece, only I think it may even have been superseded by the achievement of The Line of Beauty). But the book it's really most like, perhaps, is a particular favorite novel of mine, Sybille Bedford's A Compass Error. (Which reminds me that I've got Bedford's memoir Quicksands unread in a pile round here, must dig it out and take a look; as a bonus here's a post I wrote a while ago on Hollinghurst's NYRB essay on Bedford, which I think is not available online to non-subscribers. But a great compliment I would like to bestow on Aciman's novel is that it makes me want to go and reread all the other books it alludes to or reminded me of...)

(And for a postscript, the sentence that gave me a painful moment of self-recognition. It's Elio describing Oliver at cocktails speaking with a visitor who is "busily listening to [his] description of his book on Heraclitus": "He had perfected the art of giving a stranger a five-sentence precis that seemed invented on the spur of the moment for the benefit of that particular listener." Hmmm--I will not say more--it is so well observed, almost enough so to make me stop doing exactly that thing--almost but not quite--it it is a necessary form of performance of the self of course, we teach our graduate students how to do it when they go on the job market, and yet one does not want to be captured as it were in the act of performing oneself, and more especially of offending the recipient of the sentences who may be hurt by this revelation of impersonality in the guise of the personal...)

(And for a second postscript, I was also delighted with the novel for a completely frivolous reason--it is a fantastic novel of swimming, cycling and running! Seriously, I'm not kidding--it gave me a sort of languishing and regretful fantasy of what a pity it is that I did not grow up in this way of swimming and bike-riding during adolescence, really I hit age ten and was too self-conscious for evermore to even wear a bathing suit in public, also pool access in the northeast is mostly for the quite wealthy--for better and for worse [I think it was good for my work ethic, in a slightly awful & still-can't-abide-the-smell-of-frying-beef kind of way!] the summer I turned seventeen I was, like, cooking cheesesteaks in a bunker-like poolside concrete grill pit for the country-club members rather than actually swimming myself! I had a depressing-but-in-the-end-uplifting swimming lesson yesterday wherein [a] it was immediately clear to the teacher--not the one I've been having lessons with most recently, who is amiable & convenient but much less skilled--that my stroke had actually become significantly worse since I last saw her a month and a half ago but [b] that this was fixable. By the end of the hour I was swimming magically better than I ever had before. I think I will probably lose it again and have to fight to get it back every single time I swim, but then it will be six months from now and I will be a far better swimmer. It is like the Pelagian heresy all over again--if I cannot be a good swimmer by an Augustinian act of grace then I will get it by a [mock-]heroic course of self-improvement. Of course the thing about swimming is that when it goes well it should feel like a state of grace itself, you move so easily and powerfully through the water; I think this is why, although I like being in the water very much, my temperament mitigates against giving myself over & relaxing in the way that's necessary to become a really good swimmer. But I will make it happen!)

(And since I am in a more confessional mode than usual, partly because Aciman of course spurred more reflection on adolescence than I usually care to indulge in--I am anti-nostalgia!--I will observe that I am about to go and have a supremely delightful sequence of things, I am anticipating spring break by a tiny bit--six more papers to grade tonight, and a few commitments Thursday and Friday during the day--but it is really almost here, thus the long session of blogging this afternoon & the attractive string of activities to come: an hour and a half of yoga, my injury-rehabilitation-allotted three miles of jogging [but on a treadmill due to dire weather conditions] and then a talk by Oliver Sacks on music and mind. I say this slightly laughing at myself, but the only thing that would be better would be if Sacks changed his mind at the last minute and lectured on swimming instead! He is one of the great writers on swimming that I've encountered, in fact I wonder if there is some sort of Faber Anthology of Swimming that I could read for inspiration...)


  1. Now I really really have to read this novel. And just by chance I'm poring over The Folding Star - almost more pencil marks now than ink. I don't think Hollinghurst is capable of writing a bad sentence - and his understanding of social contracts and nuances! But I do think you're wronging Cormac McCarthy.

  2. oo ooo you make me want to be where you are. so i could listen to you lecture about shandy!! and to listen to sacks. ooh, that would be heaven, I think.

  3. Well, clearly this is a book I cannot miss! I'm adding it to my list of things to read. I was won over early on, but completely so when I got to the part on swimming, cycling, and running.

  4. Ah, too much to love here, from the book review to the swimming and everything in between. I surrender, and add Call Me By Your Name to my must-read list. If I love it half as much as I loved this post, I'll be very happy indeed.

  5. A rather funny segment from an Ali Gi Show interview with Gore Vidal

  6. actually, i was there at the lecture this morning, and this may not be the most appropriate space for student comments, but i really enjoyed the digression.

  7. You guys all gotta read the novel...

    Anonymous 1: Thanks for the link.

    Anonymous 2: Not at all inappropriate! I don't think I would digress on something totally random, it always seems to me relevant at the time, and yet I do sometimes have a lurking sense that I am enjoying myself more than is quite suitable...

  8. jenny said"I do sometimes have a lurking sense that I am enjoying myself more than is quite suitable..."

    peep says -- as a former student I can say that I don't ever recall resenting a lecturer for seeming to be enjoying herself excessively.
    What I do recall resenting were the many times lecturers gave the impression that they would rather be doing anything else other than be stuck speaking to us.

  9. Dear Jenny,

    Though this is kind of general, I would like to know your view: do you think writing, at any level, is actually teachable? I don't mean fiction, but even academic writing. I'm currently in a writing workshop at my university and am rather disheartened every time I try to incorporate principles but somehow mess up in the implementation.

  10. Certain aspects of writing are deeply teachable. It's funny, I was just at this swimming clinic thing this evening, & I was struck by hearing the teacher talk about the different problems swimmers have & recognizing exactly my own feeling about academic writing (both for undergraduates and graduate students): that there's a relatively small set of problems into which almost all the difficulties you see can be placed, and that there are very practical strategies for dealing with them, just as a swimming teacher gives you a drill that will address the particular weaknesses of your own swimming style but that also would probably be more generally useful for all swimmers seeking improvement. A common problem I see often, for instance, including in the writing of some of my best students, is a tendency to approach a topic in a more geographical or spatial than temporal sense--it leads to muddle in organization and often also to an overly abstract language or approach (and sometimes also to the reader having an annoying feeling of the essay-writer playing his/her cards close to the chest, i.e. withholding relevant information in a way that makes you feel cheated in the ways readers of golden-age detective fiction get irritable if the narrative does not note the "clues" necessary to solve the mystery). I work with students all the time on this sort of thing--I find it intellectually fascinating--but I think that many academics of course are not so particularly interested in this stuff. See if you can find a professor who's got a feel not just for the writing itself but for how to see in your writing its best self and help you attain it, eh? It really can be done, don't be discouraged.

    (I shouldn't criticize third-hand like this, but the workshop may not be very fruitfully or sensibly led if they're suggesting you approach implementation by way of principles--I do of course sometimes explain the overriding principle if I think it will be useful or striking in some way, but I believe that actually working with individual sentences--i.e. implementation--is the best way of showing principles. Indeed, I am often sitting next to the student with a pen and showing how the editing works on a sentence so that they can do it themselves & then write it deeply into the muscle memory, so to speak.)

  11. As a follow-up to my question Jenny, have you ever been in the position of having to accept people's criticisms of your writing? I mean in the situation of say, getting a paper grade you didn't like, and sitting with the professor, and having them explain to you "flaws." I find a lot of professors have no experience with sitting in the other chair and don't quite see how upsetting it can be.

  12. Yes, I think professors should remember their own experience of sitting in the other chair! Good editing/commenting is a luxury, but sometimes a painful one. I feel, though, on my own account, that really thorough and detailed comments with suggestions for revision are infinitely more valuable than general praise...