Podcast • March 31, 2011

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 ...

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.”

Podcast • December 3, 2009

Whose Words These Are (17): Henri Cole

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Henri Cole. (42 minutes, 19 mb mp3) The poet Henri Cole got his French first name from his Armenian mother. From his father, a military man, he got ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Henri Cole. (42 minutes, 19 mb mp3)

The poet Henri Cole got his French first name from his Armenian mother. From his father, a military man, he got his Southern speech and, in what sounds like sadness and irony, “a knack for solitude.” Poetry was the place where as a young gay man he worked through yearning and anger to astringency and order. French, Armenian and English were the languages of his home growing up in Virginia in the sixties and seventies. “And hearing this braid of languages regularly spoken,” he has written, “heightened my sense of words as a kind of loge in which desires were illuminated, memory was recovered and poems would be assembled.” On publication of The Visible Man in 2005, Harold Bloom pronounced Henri Cole “a central poet of his generation. The tradition of Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane is beautifully extended … Keats and Hart Crane are presences here, and Henri Cole invokes them with true aesthetic dignity, which is the mark of nearly every poem in The Visible Man.”

I was an undergraduate student at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and I was reading the novels that we all read — Woolf, James, Conrad. These are novelists who, you might say they’re novelists of the interior – and that kind of transcript of the interior life in the novel somehow got me interested in how some version of that is achieved in a concentrated way in poetry. I grew up in a military and Catholic household, so I was used to rigid structure and passion you might say, the passion of the mass and the structure of conforming military uniforms. My brothers were jocks and I didn’t really have a way to be myself, I guess I was probably looking for a way to be a man or masculine in some different way, and somehow poetry entered my life and it gave me a way to have a conversation. It made me sociable, I wasn’t very sociable — I was a pretty shy undergraduate so it made me sociable…

In Boston, now his home base, Henri Cole is reading to us mostly from his latest collection, Blackbird and Wolf (2007). Listen to his “Dune” and consider Colm Toibin’s observation that “The self in his work is explored as a diver might explore the ocean bed, it is ready to be surprised, frightened, puzzled, while the world above the water is noted with something close to calm and half-remembered acceptance. Cole’s poems at times display an amazing eloquence and command of form, but they are usually also impelled by sorrow, by dark knowledge, by pleasure, by the body and its discontents, and by history and what it has left us. It is not surprising that he has invoked the language of prayer as being an early influence.”

Our Proust Questionnaire

Q: Who is your favorite all-time fictional character?

A: I remember reading a French novel called The Wanderer when I was a young man, by Alain Fournier. I don’t remember the character’s name, but let’s just call him the Wanderer.

Q: What’s the quality above all that you look for in a poem?

A: Two qualities: there has to be a commitment to emotional truth, and there has to be a little concerto of consonants and vowels.

Q: What is your idea of a perfect poem?

A: Almost every poem of Elizabeth Bishop’s. James Merrill has a poem called “The Broken Home” that I love. In the Merrill poems, the thing I like so much is the combination of a high register of speech with total colloquial moments – I like that the poem has a range that can go from very high to very demotic in a few short lines.

Q: Who do you write for?

A: I don’t think too much about it. I am more committed to the truth and sound thing. If you think about too many people in your head, that’s like having a bunch of guns pointed at you, and that will censor you I think. When I write a poem, I hope to be in conversation with Merrill, who hopes to be in conversation with Cavafy or Whitman, and it goes back and back to Horace. But I guess I am also aware of the need to push all of that out of my head and just write the poem that I want to write.

Q: Who do you think of as fellow travelers in other media? Who is doing the work of Henri Cole’s spirit in a different way?

A: I am probably most nurtured by visual art. I love Joan Mitchell, Louise Bourgeois, Vija Celmins, Alice Neel. I’ve collaborated with two great visual artists, Jenny Holzer and Kiki Smith. Visual artists tend to be freer than writers are. Writers seem to have more boundaries – maybe it’s because making art is more physical, but they just seem freer. Also in relation to public events, speaking to the moment in history.

Q: What is the talent that you would most love to have, that you don’t yet?

A: I would love to be able to fly. I would love to be able to sing and fly like a bird. That would be fantastic.

Q: How would you like to die?

A: Alone, in a way that is not painful for anybody that loves me.

Q: What is the keynote of your personality as a poet?

A: Empathy.

Q: What is your motto?

A: I like Henry James’s motto. “Be kind, be kind, be kind.”

Henri Cole with Chris Lydon in Boston, 11.20.09.