March 31, 2011

"You don't need Moby Dick. You need two individuals sitting in one room with the impossibility of going for sex."

André Aciman: “The rest is just prose…”

Art takes the ordinary, the absolutely ordinary day-to-day humdrum stuff, the stuff we ignore, and it magnifies it and keeps magnifying it until it becomes big enough for you to see finally what your day was like… My father taught me that the most important things in life are the small ones, and it’s important to observe them with fussiness, and that’s what I devote my life to… This is why I love French literature. You don’t need an Atlantic Ocean, you don’t need Moby Dick, you don’t need whales. You need a small room — basically two individuals sitting in one room with the impossibility of going for sex. That’s not part of the formula; it will come, but not right now, says the script. … Proust is a master of this, of putting individuals together. Or remove one individual and you have one individual by himself, thinking about experience and trying to be as honest as he can with himself and therefore with the reader about the things that crossed his mind and how he dealt with them, and how he thinks experience works … The rest is just, as I like to say, “just prose”. And we have a lot of masters of “just prose” living today.

André Aciman with Chris Lydon in NYC, March 24, 2011.


André Aciman is best known as a devoté of Marcel Proust. He’s not well-enough known, I’d say, for a new novel, Eight White Nights, a beautifully blocked romance that begins and ends in the snow, like James Joyce’s masterpiece story, “The Dead,” and owes still more perhaps to Dostoevsky’s heart-crushing tale of another anonymous lover’s woe, “White Nights.” Eight White Nights is the interior record of an “asymptotic” affair — between lovers who, like the line on the graph, get ever closer to committed intimacy but never reach it. It could remind you also of Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle,” though it turns out that André Aciman scorns Henry James for “gutlessness” — that bogus old charge, in my view. But no matter. André Aciman sets himself where he belongs, in the classical tradition of imaginative writers about our inward and invisible lives.

He has generously, candidly admitted us into the workshop of his meticulous craft — the place where he dresses and undresses, teases and assaults his characters, and gives them better lines than people give him. His own unguarded lines in conversation run to the cantankerous and caustic. Who else out there honors the master tradition. “No one!” What gets a writer over the threshhold? “Style,” he says. “Content is over-rated.” When people ask how he could set a novel — to wit: Eight White Nights — in New York with nary a mention of 9.11, his answer is “the here-and-now, portrayed as the here-and-now, is insignificant.”

Born himself into a French-speaking Jewish family in Alexandria in 1951, Aciman is original, cosmopolitan and extravagant about the writers who have inspired or taught him: among them E. M. Forster, W. G. Sebald, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Marguerite Yourcenar and on a pinnacle strangely higher even than Proust: Thucydides. And still, fair warning, our conversation keeps returning to Proust. It was his father, a writer manqué, who told him to read Proust for “the long sentence that keeps you waiting… It took me years to realize what that meant, to understand the abeyance that is being built in, that courts the reader into holding his breath and waiting and waiting and staying under water and not feeling that you’re going to drown. That takes time.”

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  • I agree: the essence of fiction–the essence of what’s human–is two people in a room.

  • I disagree: content is important too, not just style. Style matters most, I think, for the writer and to other writers. For the majority of readers, content matters more than style. If the two are well blended, then that is ideal–and it makes for great writing and reading. But if I must sacrifice one for the other in reading a book, I’ll take content over style.

  • Duke.

    I think ultimately a writer would respond that after awhile style subsumes content, but content cannot subsume style. What you are writing about and how you are writing about it eventually become the same thing, the pragmatically fuse, in the way a writer sees his work. Painters describe similar things.

    I don’t think the point is that content doesn’t matter, but ultimately questions of content -are- questions of style when you’re the one writing the piece. It’s a false, reader’s dichotomy.

  • Thoughts on ROS Aciman interview:
    Charles Swann, the French Jew is in the parlor with the narrator’s parents as visitor as the novel opens. Dalliances and vielleities aside, the book shows the intrusion of the Dreyfus Affair and winds of WW I nightmares into this pouty world of social and subgroup snobberies.

    Thus Proust does connect the quotidian fidgets and musings of daily life with the larger canvas of history. The Proustian impressionistic and inconclusive ‘flirt paradise” is a Garden of Eden “dreamscape” which goes through the larger “history processor” and the preexisting “snobbery system” is overtaken by events and processes.

    Yourcenar connects the intrigues and the mood swings and diurnal tizzies of her characters to war and revolution in a kind of ‘double feedback’ system. See:

  • Scott Ralph

    This was one of the few interviews I could not get through on ROS. Rarely does one encounter such honed arrogance. What an insufferable dandy.

    To say, as he did at the point where I quit, “I judge a book by its first sentence”, and not even be embarrassed is quite a feat.

    To reduce Moby dick as some parlor trick involving a whale…. Jesus.

    The most arrogant dandy I have listened to, and I have been on safari.

  • Dennis

    Arrogant! I never thought that at all and enjoyed the inteview immensely.
    Aciman believes excellence should be rewarded and strived for, there’s a novel idea in this day and age.
    His views are current and to the point, you should have him on the show again.

    Safari? Are you sure it wasn’t more like a cruise.

  • Potter

    Similar to Harold Bloom in that way- but let’s not let that get in the way. I valued his opinion as I listened and vowed to pick up Proust again. Proust today for me, older, will be different. What you read and get attached to or pulled into is such an individual thing but I agree that it’s usually evident right away, maybe even the first sentence. For me to get pulled in it’s about the writing.

    I am applauding the embrace of New York — and good for CCNY that he teaches there!

  • Malachiter

    The accusation of arrogance is the badge of honor that makes me want to follow this man. The right to strong opinion must be earned, and he has earned it. After all, he keeps drawing a circle around me that is larger than the one into which I enclose him. There is no defining a person who can wriggle free of definition with the slippery confidence of an otter. There is something to learn from his bubble trail.

  • Shaman

    Andre is a silly man.

    The fact that he claims there is not a single, serious contemporary writer of any worth, even by the end of Chris’ excellent interview which was appropriately more about Proust, is itself the flashing neon dunce hat on his head. Really!? Not one? Even the glum but wonderful Harold Bloom has a much better answer than that!

    Consider the despairing nature of Andre’s claim for a moment.
    What a foolish human endeavor is writing that it produces no literature worthy of the name in the ENTIRETY of his 50+ years. And why then, pray tell, should anyone even try to bother with it? I should like to hear from his students what it is they think he is teaching them.

    He also claims to know from the first sentence of a book EXACTLY what the quality of the entire book will be!

    Consider the comedy of Andre in a bookstore repeatedly opening up book after book, and, after reading only the first sentence, saying “Nope, no good!”

    Aciman is ridiculous.

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  • Alexander Cormier

    Although I found many insightful and intelligent comments throughout this interview, it left me feeling discouraged as a reader and writer. I am 22 years old and none of my peers even consider picking up a book. I think the sort of attitudes expressed in this interview have alot to do with why young people turn their backs on literature. Imagine if a musician claimed that there was not another living musician worth listening to and in fact that they were the only person making real music. If a young person has read 10 books in his/her life it is a rare thing these days. Now imagine they tune into this interview and hear Aciman telling them that none of that was literature or even worth reading, why should they ever pick up another book. I love reading the classics and I respect Aciman’s passion for them. If it weren’t for a handful of exorbitant comments in this interview I would read one of his books.