"They taught us at Barnard about that word—utopia. The Greeks had two meanings for it: eutopos, meaning ‘the good place’, and outopos, meaning ‘the place that cannot be’.” This exchange between the Jewish heiress Rachel Menken and Don Draper in Mad Men is perhaps one of the most interesting discussions on Zionism in recent popular culture.
André Aciman’s new book of essays, Homo Irrealis, out from Faber & Faber this month, is all about longing for the good place, mostly imagined, sometimes real. With it, the author of the best-selling novel Call Me By Your Name and four other works of fiction returns to the essay form.
From meditations on a poem he repeatedly encounters in the New York subway system to Freud’s psychological resistance to visiting the city of Rome because of his supposed “Roman phobia”, to broad-ranging considerations on W. G. Sebald, Éric Rohmer, Marcel Proust, Fernando Pessoa and others, Homo Irrealis is a robust study of our relationship with the present tense. Aciman starts off by defining “irrealis”—a verbal mood to express what might never, couldn’t, shouldn’t, or wouldn’t possibly occur but that might just happen. In linguistics, the irrealis mood “indicates that a certain situation or action is not known to have happened at the moment the speaker is talking”.
Aciman, as he detailed in his 1995 memoir Out of Egypt, left Egypt as an adolescent, following the forced migration of Jews in the 1960s. This life experience informs the book. In the introduction, he writes that his family rehearsed nostalgia even before they left the city of Alexandria. So when he remembers Alexandria, it’s not only Alexandria that he remembers. “I remember a place from which I liked to imagine being already elsewhere. To remember Alexandria without remembering myself longing for Paris in Alexandria is to remember wrongly,” he writes.
You can read the chapters in sequence or bounce around as I did—who can resist a title like Beethoven’s Souffle in A Minor? This chapter travels most thrillingly from a recipe by Julia Child to Beethoven to Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev’s periodic table. When I asked Aciman how he structures his essays he told me he never has an outline but simply reaches out to “stuff” that might help him and the reader move forward.
The New Yorker calls Aciman “an acute grammarian of desire”. It is a title that his novels hold up. Homo Irrealis is also a book on desire, not for a person, but for a particular feeling in time. Aciman is a dedicated Proust scholar, and this book is a collection of what we call “Proustian moments”. One thing Aciman stresses on, though, is that remembrance and nostalgia aren’t merely tools of sentimentality. Quoting the poet Giacomo Leopardi’s idea of le ricordanze, he reminds us that remembrance can be a creative act.
Homo Irrealis is a particularly poignant read after a year when many people around the world have had trouble grappling with the present tense. From his home in Manhattan, Aciman spoke to me about how he chose his diverse cast of subjects, why Pessoa is underrated, unrequited love, and more. Edited excerpts:
The essays in ‘Homo Irrealis’ bring together a diverse cast of characters from Freud to Beethoven to Proust. How did you go about choosing your subjects?
I selected passages from many people. They didn’t have to be writers, they could be composers, movie directors, poets, writers, philosophers and painters too.
I was interested in one phenomenon everybody discussed in this book has had difficulty with—the present tense. Everybody wants to live intensely in the present tense but we don’t know how to.
Sometimes we slip into the past, we slip into the future, or we slip into what we call the “irrealis mood”, which could be the conditional mood, the subjunctive mood, the imperative mood…all of which mean that we are not in touch with the present, with real life. My contention is that most people really don’t live in real life. We only anticipate living in it. We all have difficulty in situating ourselves in this great thing called “the present”. And so I decided that I was going to read (works by) all these people and basically misinterpret them intentionally so that I could interpret myself better. In other words, I used them for my own purposes.
The epigraph of the book is by Pessoa. In the last chapter dedicated to Pessoa, you write that you find the “irrealis moment” everywhere in his genius—“his conscious inability to set his feet in one time zone”. Can you tell me more about your relationship with Pessoa? Do you believe his genius is less known than it should be?
If the 20th century had three to four great writers, these will be Joyce, Proust, Pessoa, maybe Lampedusa. We are talking about giants. I discovered Pessoa less than 10 years ago and spent two months reading his Book Of Disquiet. It is a work of genius, filled with priceless insights into what it means to live with the foreknowledge that life could be meaningless. It is a warren of unsortable contradictions.
The core theme of the book is the idea of “rehearsing nostalgia”. You write about how evoking nostalgia while still in Egypt was a way of immunising yourselves against it before it sprang on you in Europe. The Stoics practised negative visualisation to prepare for the worst outcomes so they were never caught unawares. Do you see overlaps in the two?
Loss is the worst thing imaginable. Loss of a person, loss of a country, of a way of life, of love, loss of a career, of property—when we know that these are unavoidable, all we can do is put all our instincts on alert and teach ourselves to stay forewarned. Some start packing (metaphorically and/or literally), some sort through their lives to think of what can be left behind, what will they want to remember and hope they won’t forget to “log in” when the moment of loss occurs, what will be missed, always wondering who they will be once the unavoidable loss finally occurs. They are rehearsing the future, trying to anticipate what they know they cannot begin to anticipate. They are rehearsing who they will be and how to buttress themselves against life after loss.
I found the ghost of the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō on almost every page of ‘Homo Irrealis’ (‘Even in Kyoto/Hearing the cuckoo’s cry/I long for Kyoto’) but you don’t mention him explicitly. I was curious about this.
This haiku is brilliant. I should have included it in the epigraph. Thank you for telling me about it. In the Penguin edition of Bashō that I still own, I must have skipped that one, or I wasn’t old enough to have been seized by its genius.
You wrote your latest novel ‘Find Me’ (2019), the sequel to ‘Call Me By Your Name’ (‘CMBYN’, 2007), more than a decade later. You have said in the past that the idea of conflict in love interests you and that’s definitely the sense one gets from ‘CMBYN’. I am curious about what prompted you to give ‘Find Me’ a somewhat happier ending. Is unrequited love no longer of interest to you?
Actually, to be honest, I don’t think I like unrequited love. It’s not nice, it’s not happy. Most of my books end, in fact, in the conditional. We would have done this, we should have done this, we might still do this. We are not doing it, but anticipating it maybe.
And I found that to be a very comfortable zone. So eventually—I don’t want to give away the book but in essence what happens is that you have two individuals who have been separated for many, many years who gradually understand that they have something in common that is more binding than many of the other things they have known in life.
And so they have to do this thing that so few of us do: They have to make a decision. I don’t think I’ve ever made a decision in my whole life. Things just happen. I get carried along, I say “Yes, Yes, Ok.” I have a feeling that life is like that, it carries you along, and sometime if you are arrogant you think you made the decision.
What I wanted to do in Find Me was to explore who the father is. What kind of a man made that speech to his son in CMBYN? I wanted to know about him and so I wanted to put him in a situation where you can discover more about him. And I also wanted to examine who Elio is once he’s no longer an adolescent.
You fancied yourself to be a poet till you were 16. Your father encouraged you. Now you believe you write prose as a failed poet, which is something Proust and Joyce did as well. How does a failed poet write prose differently from a prose writer?
A failed poet, or a would-be poet, has a sense of language as something that pertains to the ear. In other words, the ear is inducted into the business of writing. Most people don’t want the ear. They don’t even think of the ear but you have to have a sentence that has rhythm. That has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Sometimes, at the end usually, it has a little surprise. How do you bring about the surprise? How do you style something so important that the reader will not have the same experience unless the style is the way it is? And style really is the function of poetry.
One of the things I always say is you may never have known the kind of love I write about, but you will if you read me. My sentences are wide enough for you to slip into them and once you have slipped into my prose, you cannot leave (unless I am terribly boring) because the rhythm carries you along and you become sort of indebted to that rhythm. Most prose writers don’t know rhythm, yes they know a few things but it’s never like the craft of the poet that is always musical. There’s cadence in every single sentence.
Conversations At Large is a fortnightly interview column. Anindita Ghose is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai. @aninditaghose