Monday, September 30, 2013

Harvard Square by André Aciman

Harvard Square
The first time I read anything by André Aciman was an essay called "On Loss and Regret," published in the Opinion section of The New York Times. I remember after a paragraph or two looking with startled curiosity at the name under the title again. Who is this man who writes with such clarity of matters of the mind and heart, and about how we deceive ourselves? Sometimes we ourselves do not even know what we think, but this man appears to see. Since that time--February 2013—I ordered several of his books, though I begin reading his work with his latest. It is fall and I live near Boston, and late summer-early fall days will always recall Harvard Square.

An early press release or an early review gave me the mistaken notion that this novel detailed a homosexual love affair. It is nothing of the sort. It is a love story between two men, but it is both less and greater than physical love. The two men see into one another's souls, like brothers. This story details a fleeting moment (the action takes place over a matter of months) in the lives of two very different, transplanted Middle Eastern men who are finding their separate ways in the rarified air of Cambridge, Boston. There is gladness and pain in the recognition of their differentness, for one salts the other and makes life vital and more interesting.
”I was shifty. He was up-front. I never raised my voice; he was the loudest man on Harvard Square. I was cramped, cautious, diffident; he was reckless and brutal, a tinder box. He spoke his mind. Mine was a vault. He was in-your-face; I waited till your back was turned. He stood for nothing, took no prisoners, lambasted everyone. I tolerated everyone without loving a single one. He wore love on his sleeve; mine was buried layers deep, and even then…He was new to the States but had managed to speak with almost everyone in Cambridge; I’d been a graduate student for four years at Harvard but went entire days that summer without a soul to turn to. When he was upset or bored, he bristled, fidgeted, then he exploded; I was the picture of composure. He was absolute in all things; compromise was my name…He was a cabdriver; I was Ivy League. He was an Arab, I was a Jew…”

I admit to a long-standing curiosity about the mind of the Middle Eastern male, and this novel goes some way to reveal and explain that mind and character, insomuch as one or two men can be examples of their culture. This is fiction, but the motivations and rationales are as believable as nonfiction, which is all any reader can ask of a novelist. Almost every line carries an insight which propels us forward. Besides showing us the lonely, uncertain lives of recent immigrants, the smell and feel of a scholar’s life in Cambridge has a resonance that any student will recognize.

One morning I awoke to begin reading again, about two-thirds of the way through the novel. The spell I operated under while reading the previous night had been broken and my eyes and mind were back in assessment mode. I realized with a laugh that I was once again ‘listening’ to a capable man with scads of talent telling me who he slept with…what was it about me that invited these revelations? But my biting sarcasm soon passed and I was once again under Aciman’s spell.
At Café Algiers he was almost always the first to arrive in the morning. Like Che Guevara, he’d appear wearing his beret, his pointed beard with the drooping mustache, and the cocksure swagger of someone who has just planted dynamite all over Cambridge and could wait to trigger the fuse, but not before coffee and a croissant. He didn’t like to speak in the morning. Café Algiers was his first stop, a transitional place where he’d step into the world as he’d known it all of his life and from which, after coffee, he’d merge and learn all over again how to take in this strange New World he’d managed to get himself shipped to. Sometimes, before even removing his jacket, he’d head behind the tiny counter, pick up a saucer, and help himself to one of the fresh croissants that had just been delivered that morning. He’d look up at Zeinab, brandish the croissant on a saucer, and give her a nod, signifying, I’m paying for it so don’t even think of not putting it on my check. She would nod back, meaning, I saw, I understood, I would have loved to, but the boss is here anyway, so no favors today. A few sharp shakes of his head meant, I never asked for favors, not now, not ever, so don’t pretend otherwise, I know your boss is here. She would shrug, I couldn’t care less what you think. One more questioning nod from Kalaj: When is coffee ready? Another shrug meant: I’ve only got two hands, you know. A return glance from him was clearly meant to mollify her: I know you work hard; I work hard too. Shrug. Bad morning? Very bad morning. Between them, and in good Middle Eastern fashion, no day was good.”

Before you begin reading, you might consider razoring out the Prologue and the Epilogue, which one might argue actually detract from the narrative since they are clumsy and feel tacked on. In Chapter 1, we immediately sense the mind and hands of the master.
Clancy Martin reviews the book in the NYT, May 2013.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. Not a book I'd ordinarily go for but sounds good (plus I'm a sucker for New England in autumn).

    1. This has a pretty circumscribed focus on Cambridge rather than New England, but it is very rich in insight, and we could all use more of that. Aciman is a brilliant writer, careful and clear. I recommend him.