Destination: Rome, New York City, Tuscany, Paris, Barcelona, Alexandria Egypt
Book: Alibis:Essays on Elsewhere by André Aciman
André Aciman travels with a very different mindset than you and I. We are going away from our home to a different place. He agrees with T.S. Eliot, who said, “The end is where we start from.”
A journey, he says, always is FROM somewhere. But in his case, home is elsewhere in time. Since it is difficult to pin down where he comes from–anywhere he goes is also elsewhere. His essays play with the idea of memory of place, trying to recover the past, fiction that sneaks into memoir, and the time-bending quality of anticipation.
“I write about exile, remembrance, and the passage of time…” And he writes about himself. “If I keep writing about places, it is because some of them are coded ways of writing about myself…” As he says at the beginning of the Afterword to Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere:
I was born in Alexandria, Egypt. But I am not Egyptian. I was born into a Turkish family but I am not Turkish. I was sent to British schools in Egypt but I am not British. My family became Italian citizens and I learned to speak Italian but my mother tongue is French..I am African by birth, everyone in my family is from Asia Minor, and I live in America.
His explanation of his confusion of identity goes on to say that unlike his ancestors who were Jews claiming to be Christians, “I enjoy being a Jew among Christians so long as I can pass for a Christian among Jews. ‘ “I am an unreal Jew, the way I am an imaginary European.” His is the most eloquently expressed identity crisis you have ever had the pleasure to read.
Alibis makes the traveler think about the very nature of travel. Why do we go? What are our expectations? Do we only find what we are looking for? As you read his essays about specific places, you may say, “Yes, that’s exactly the way that city is.” More likely, you visit an entirely different city, because as he amply illustrates, we see ourselves wherever we go.
Aciman tells about how he hated Rome when his family first went there, forced to leave Egypt. But he wanders in old Rome looking for bookstores and:
I’d grown to love old Rome, a Rome that seemed more in me than it was out in Rome itself, because, in this very Rome I’d grown to love, there was perhaps more of me in it than there was of Rome…It would take decades to realize that this strange, shadow Rome of my own invention was everyone else’s as well.
He goes to Bordighera (Italy) to see a villa that Monet once lived in, but arrives with no information on how to find it–not even the name. His wandering uncover great discoveries. Had he asked anyone, or looked in a book it would have been easy, But then:
But then, unlike Ulysses, I would have arrived straight to Ithaca and never once encountered Circe or Calypso, never met Nausicaa or heard the enchanting stains of the Sirens song, never gotten sufficiently lost to experience the sudden, disconcerting moment of arriving in, of all places, the right place.
In New York City, a city that “gets” us, he says–understands our secrets– he realizes that
The miracle of intimacy with a place that may be more in us than it is ever out there on the pavement, because there may be more of us projected on every one of its streets than there is of the city itself.
Although he calls Rome “the most beautiful city on earth”, he calls the Place de Voges in Paris as “the most beautiful spot in the civilized world.” I wish that I had read this essay before I went to Place de Voges to see the home of Victor Hugo. But even if I were carrying along Aciman’s wonderful run down of the scandalous history that took place midst that very formal architecture, I would not agree with him that it is the most beautiful place in the world. However, I can see how it might appeal to a mind searching for order (in the architecture, not all the 16th century scandalous love affairs). Aciman calls Tuscany “a reader’s paradise.”
People only come here because of books. Tuscany may well be for people who love life in the present–simple, elaborate, whimsical, complicated life in the present–but it is also for people who love the present when it bears the shadow of the past, who love the world provided it is a a slight angle. Bookish people.
What an interesting description of travelers who read! Does it fit? Is that why you have gone or would go to Tuscany?
As you can see, it is impossible to write about Aciman without quoting him liberally to give a flavor of his thoughts. At first, I doubted that a book of essays would fit well on the shelves of the traveler’s library, but like the book of philosophy set on a Greek Island, Travels with Epicurus, this book won me over as a terrific one for the traveling reader.
You can read an interesting interview with Aciman from Book Slut.
Note: The publisher provided this book for review. The opinions are my own. The Photos are also my own, so please respect my copyright. Links to Amazon are here for your convenience, but you also are supporting A Traveler’s Library when you do your shopping through those links, because of our affiliate relationship with Amazon.