Alibis We Live By

James Polchin explores how writing can reshape what we know about our past and ourselves in his review of Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere by Andre Aciman.

What happens after the essay is written?

This was the question that André Aciman raised a couple of weeks ago in a talk at The Jewish Museum in New York City. While it was on the occasion of his recent collection of essays, Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, Aciman prefaced his comments by saying that he was going to talk about “after Alibis”: what happens after the essay is written? It was a curious concern, and, like his essays, he took hold of the question with his usual subtlety and complexity, his thinking taking us along winding roads we never knew existed but happy for the ride.

At the beginning of the talk he asked who in the room has read his essay “Shadow Cities.” I put my hand up and, near the front, a lone frail hand of a woman rose as well. That was all. I was surprised at how few had read this essay that was originally published in The New York Review of Books in 1997, and republished in his first collection of essays False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory. “Shadow Cities” anchors itself on a small triangular space in Upper Manhattan called Strauss Park. In this space, Aciman comes to imagine and remember a host of other cities and places that have shaped his life, a life abruptly uprooted at the age of fourteen when he and his family were forced out of Alexandria, Egypt, swept away by the pro-Arab nationalism of Nasser in the 1950s, which included the purging of Jews. This exile constantly haunts so much of Aciman’s essays, for no matter where he travels, no matter what he writes about he is writing about that loss of Alexandria. Because of this element in his essays, it is easy to define his writing by all that is absent from it, naming it “exile” or “memoir” and as an effort to recover what has been lost. But then, after the talk he gave at the Jewish Museum and considering these essays in Alibis, I realize that we have so often misread his essays. They really have little to do with loss or exile. Rather his essays strive to give order to one’s life, to give shape to an imagined past, which, for Aciman, is all we can grasp in the end. His essays are not so much about recovering the past, but in imagining a present.

That earlier essay “Shadow Cities,” which he reexamined in his talk, is conceivably about New York, but ultimately, and intoxicatingly, it slips into a meditation on the ways that this little park comes to evoke Paris or Rome or London, other landscapes in his early exile years where he learned to write poetry and figure out what it meant to remember the places he came from. But even then, New York as a shadow city of those others places finally leads him back to . . . well, Alexandria, as the end of the essay demonstrates:

I come to Straus Park to remember Alexandria, albeit an unreal Alexandria, an Alexandria that does not exist, that I’ve invented or learned to cultivate in Rome as in Paris, so that in the end the Paris and the Rome I retrieve here is really the shadow of the shadow of Alexandria, versions of Alexandria, the remanence of Alexandria, infusing Straus Park itself now, reminding me of something that is not just elsewhere but that is perhaps more in me than it ever was out there, that it is, after all perhaps just me, a me that is no less a figment of time than this city is a figment of space.

Shadow of shadows is perhaps the best way to approach Alibis where the essays return to earlier places and times and stories recounted elsewhere in Aciman’s work. The word alibi evokes an excuse, a defense against criminal accusations. It is an explanation that you were elsewhere at the time of an event, or more properly, a crime. It is, in essence, a kind of explanation of one’s absence from a place, an excuse for your whereabouts. This shadowy allusion to crime, echoed in that earlier collection’s title False Papers, underscores something more than a metaphorical play. Rather, writing as alibi evokes how each essay, each story told, each travel experience and memory rendered with details and particularities, offer an explanation of the writer’s absence. Soon you begin to see that it’s the writing, the telling of the experience that matters more than the experience itself.

These essays offer up a kind of placed displacement with much more urgency than False Papers, for they so often feel like mere fragments both in form and content. While the collection is slim, it takes us easily across time and space, from Tuscan hills to Paris parks, from Roman alleys to the Alexandrian seafront, and even back to Straus Park. Some essays, like “The Contrafactual Traveler,” seem like only the beginning of an essay, the idea of an essay, which is engaging and frustrating. But then Aciman is a writer in love with paradox.

The first essay, “Lavender” reflects on the scent of his father’s cologne that leads to a series of memories of scents and pharmacies that conjure up places in Italy and New York. Near the end of the essay, on returning to a pharmacy in Cambridge, Massachusetts that he hadn’t been to in decades, he stops and wonders: “Here, at twenty-five, I had conjured the life I wished to live one day. Now, at fifty, I was revisiting the life I’d dreamed of living.” In this sparse phrasing, Aciman delivers a compellingly complex conundrum of time and space that threads through many of these essays: his remembering of an imagined future of the past, which enlivens memory with its own, layered experience. Aciman is so often caught within these moments, as these essays repeatedly demonstrate. Whether he is walking in Rome or Barcelona or searching for the precise town where Monet created a certain painting in the south of France, he turns to the ephemeral nature of memory itself–that even when we are placed on the hard stone and dirt of a city street, we are caught in the moment of remembering the past as an imagining of the future. For Aciman, the act of recreating the past holds enormous power over how we experience the present, forcing an odd time warp where the past is the future, where imagination and memory collide.
It would be too easy to call these essays nostalgic. We often define his writing with terms like “memoir” or “exile.” We may want to refer to these essays as travel writings. Yes, Aciman does write about places, cities mostly. But they are far from travel writing. To call his essays travel writing is like calling Dickens’ novels histories of Victorian London. Aciman writes about places, but the intent has little to do with the place itself. You don’t go looking for geographic insights in his essays on Venice or his descriptions of Place des Vosges. It is not the places that matter for Aciman, but rather the sentences that give shape to the places. Or another way of thinking: it is the writing that matters most, turning the places into palimpsests of memory and experience and imagination. The places anchor a writer who uses sentences to imagine a past so as to give some fragile shape to the present. “This is how I have come to love Tuscany,” he writes, “the way I love most things: by drifting ever so slightly from them.” This distance is the uncertainty of exile, but it is also the vital space of an essayist.

If Aciman lulls in the drifting space, it is because of his compelling distraction: the power of writing to create a present and future out of the imaginings of the past. This is the elsewhere that the book’s title is really evoking, a place where writing itself is the act of experience, where memories, imagined or real, can only be useful if than can be crafted in words and sentences that give shape to our present lives. This is the intriguing nature of Aciman’s essays and what gives them a recursive quality, turning again and again to the moments of the past. We could be seduced that such repetitions are obsessions, but we would then miss how powerful the act of writing can be in anchoring our fragile realities.

In “Rue Delta” he confronts this directly as he considers the distinctions between fiction and memoir, and how memoir can “open up a parallel universe” for the writer, somewhere between recollection and invention. He asks:

Is lying about one’s life precisely what memoirs are all about, a way of giving one’s life a shape and a logic, a coherence it wouldn’t have except on paper, a way of returning or of rehearsing such a return, the way some of us would like nothing better than to seek out an old flame, provided the reunion remain a fantasy? Is our life incomplete, incoherent, unless it is given an aesthetic finish?
It is this act of writing that compels him and anchors his Proustian meditations on time and place, meditations that turn into reflections on writing itself. Again in “Rue Delta” he remembers an essay from False Papers about returning to Alexandria after so many years away and how the memories of the place turned and twisted with more excitement than the actual visit. He writes that his memory was numb, that returning to the city that he had written about in his memoir Out of Egypt some years earlier, had turned the actual experience of return into a failed foray of experience that induced a numbness of memory. “Writing about” those childhood memories, he says, “had made them so familiar, that it was as if I’d never been away. Writing about Alexandria, the ‘capital of memory,’ had robbed memory of its luster.” Throughout this collection, it is not memory or exile that matter, but the effort to turn the past into sentences and the mixed results that brings about. His anxious passions so often turn us to the paradox of memoir: how it can organize experience as much as cut off other possible stories we might tell of the past.

What happens after writing? What happens to living after writing puts it into an order? These questions were what Aciman left us pondering in his talk at The Jewish Museum. And these are the questions that thread through this collection, in subtle and explicit ways. In this sense, the essays, like most good essays, reach towards an experiment in writing that turns experience and reflection into its own artificial order, and point us beyond any particular subject, any specific place, to consider the force and meaning of the writing itself.

James Polchin is the founder and editor of Writing in Public.

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