ne of the best things I read last year was André Aciman's memoir ''Out of Egypt.'' (The book actually came out in 1994, but it took me until last year to catch up with it.) My local bookstore had stacked the paperback on the ''Recent Fiction'' table, which was inaccurate but nonetheless appropriate, for Aciman's memoir has the richness, the elusiveness and the allure of a novel. When I finished the book, I wanted nothing more than to visit the lost Alexandria in which Aciman grew up -- a longing as hopeless as that for Dostoyevsky's St. Petersburg or Dickens's London or Proust's Paris. It is not just that these entrancing cities are gone now. The fact is, they may never have existed at all, outside the minds of their authors.
''False Papers,'' Aciman's new book, is in some ways an attempt to explore the cast of mind that could produce, cherish and mourn a lost Alexandria. It is many other things as well: a cleareyed look at several beloved writers, a tempered discussion of nationality and ethnicity, a recurrent examination of the nature of love, a celebration of the exile's adopted city, New York. But let's take one thing at a time, if we can -- though that is exactly what Aciman finds himself unable to do.
His own state of mind, he tells us, is one ''where the dominant motion is one not so much of ambivalence as of perpetual oscillation. The true site of nostalgia is therefore not a land, or two lands, but the loop and interminable traffic between these two lands. . . . Displacement, as an abstract concept, becomes the tangible home.'' Over and over in the course of these linked essays, Aciman shows himself wanting to be elsewhere. When he is a child in Alexandria, he dreams of Paris; when he is in Paris or Rome, he wishes to be in New York; and when he gets to New York, he misses Alexandria (not to mention Paris and Rome).
If there is something ludicrous and Woody-Allen-ish in all this, it is not lost on Aciman. By his own account, he is the most ridiculous of travelers because, he says, ''this is how I always travel: not so as to experience anything at the time of my tour, but to plot the itinerary of a possible return trip. This, it occurs to me, is also how I live.'' He has become used to desiring only what he cannot have, and is therefore unable to cope with reality when he gets what he wants. This mode applies to a whole range of unattainables: cities, women, the blue of the ocean, the emotion of recognition. And yet it is precisely in telling us how he fails to have the proper, resonant, satisfying response that Aciman achieves his clearest note of authenticity. Whether he is revisiting his grandfather's grave in the Jewish cemetery of Alexandria or sitting on a park bench at 106th and Broadway, Aciman's refusal to be in only one place at a time is what makes him wholly present to us. If he is fully alive anywhere, it is on the page -- as a writer, in his own pages, and also as a reader, in the pages of the writers he loves.
These writers include Stendhal, Cervantes, Svevo, Saint-Simon -- each a master, in his way, of Acimanic irony -- as well as Wordsworth (a trickier case) and, most of all, Proust. The Proustian influence is complicated, multidirectional, with its own ''loop and interminable traffic.'' Aciman began to read ''À la Recherche du Temps Perdu'' at the age of 15, but even before then he had already become a Proustian character, so that his first experience on reading the novel was one of recognition: ''In the 80-odd pages I had read that day I had rediscovered my entire childhood in Alexandria.'' It also helped that his father, who introduced him to Proust, loved this writer above all others. And Aciman has fully lived up to the inheritance. One might even call him, if it were not such an obvious oxymoron, our contemporary Proust.
Yet the chapter of ''False Papers'' devoted to a visit to Proust's house is, for me, a little disappointing. Perhaps this is because Aciman always defies expectations: we expect him to be terrific on Proust's house, so, perversely, he is not. Actually, though, I think the shortcomings of the Proust chapter have more to do with the fact that here Aciman is being forced to look directly, explicitly, at something that elsewhere underlies his every thought. He is at his best when he can delicately draw on Proust, as he does in the book's first chapter, which describes his midlife return to Egypt. ''The idea of eating cake to summon my past seems too uncanny and ridiculous,'' he says about a visit to an Alexandrian pastry shop, leaving it up to us to supply the madeleines.
One of Aciman's most Proustian traits is his ability to write winningly about a broken heart. He is the poet of disappointed love. As with his other memories, his lost love affairs combine the faintly comic with the truly moving: he has no embarrassment about showing himself in the light of unsuccessful suitor, and the paradoxical result is that he comes out seeming triumphant. (He has also, somehow, come out married, and with children -- not the fate usually reserved for the pathetic romantic protagonist, whether in Proust or Stendhal.)
Besides being the poet of disappointed love, Aciman is the poet of the city, and in some of the best essays in ''False Papers'' he merges the two subjects, so that his New York seems to rival 19th-century Paris as the ideal setting for a nostalgic lover. ''Counterintuition,'' the remarkable closing essay, is set largely in a cafe in Greenwich Village, where the youthful Aciman waited hopelessly for a girl who never arrived. Now, 25 years later, he is traversing some of the same territory to meet his wife for dinner; on the way, he conveys both his whole emotional past and a very specific late afternoon in December. ''I like 4:30,'' he tells us. ''People are just beginning to come out of work, and there's a touch of indecision in the city, as though it's too late to start anything new today and yet still early enough to take a stab at it. Like me, most people are strolling about the streets, taking their time, probably avoiding something they should be doing, caught as everyone is in this interim dreamspace which is neither day nor night.''
That dreamspace is Aciman's territory, and he has made it ours as well. You don't need to have lost an Alexandria to understand what he does with place and time and memory. After all, we are all exiles in a way -- from our own childhoods, our own pasts, if nothing else. It is that remembered aspect of ourselves, that shadowy other life, that André Aciman's new book so piercingly addresses.
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Memory trumps life and existence acquires the hue of old hand-tinted photographs in this collection of 14 essays by a self-defined perennial expatriate. Aciman, a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, grew up in Egypt, Italy and France, and lives in Manhattan. Taking up again the themes of Out of Egypt, his acclaimed memoir of his family's lost life in Alexandria, he fumbles for the nebulous essence of a rootless existence. On a return trip to Alexandria, he tentatively visits old apartment buildings, the Graeco-Roman Museum and the Jewish cemetery, each site leached of visceral impact and replotted on an abstract, internal map. In Paris, a trip to the Square Lamartine in the 16th arrondissement calls to mind the few winter weeks he spent in the city when he was 14. Straus Park, a small, neglected and magically marginal triangle of ground on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, comes to symbolize all the cities he has ever known and loved. Farther afield, he visits Proust's hometown of Illiers, touring the Proust Museum just a few days before Christmas with a select group of Proust enthusiasts, and travels to Bethlehem, where the tension among Muslims, Christians and Jews reminds him of Alexandria. A final few pieces explore the patterns of love affairs in New York: bus routes remembered, cafes revisited, sentiments examined. Aciman makes an art of indirection. He travels, he ruefully explains, "not so as to experience anything at the time of my tour, but to plot the itinerary of a possible return trip. This, it occurs to me, is also how I live." So long as he keeps from slipping into a repetitive, rarified exaltation of displacement, such insights illuminate the most shadowy corners of memory and motivation. (Aug.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.