Book World: Marie Arana reviews 'Eight White Nights' by André Aciman

(Courtesy Of Farrar Straus Giroux - Courtesy Of Farrar Straus Giroux)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Marie Arana
Tuesday, February 9, 2010


By André Aciman

Farrar Straus Giroux. 360 pp. $26

For all of love's happy advance notices, for all of its dewy-eyed hype, it's the difficult love -- unrequited, hard-won, gone wrong -- that makes for a good story. There is something irresistible about romance in the face of open warfare: "Romeo and Juliet," "A Farewell to Arms," "Doctor Zhivago." Or a love kissed by tragedy and doom: "Anna Karenina," "La Bohème." Even if the story is rescued by a happy ending -- "Jane Eyre," say, or "Persuasion" -- how much sweeter if the road to it is a living hell.

But what if our lovers are contemporary New Yorkers, untouched by war, unfazed by society's obstacles, whose only barrier to the other's heart is a feverish, overactive brain? That is the predicament in André Aciman's psychologically charged, deeply Dostoyevskian new novel, "Eight White Nights."

The comparison to Dostoyevsky is not a casual one. The Russian master's short story "White Nights" lingers over Aciman's novel as firmly as fog over a St. Petersburg winter. From the lovers' chance meeting to their immediate, mutual fascination to the revelation of a troubling former liaison, Dostoyevsky's four surreal nights are embedded here like a literary genetic helix. But beyond that, the similarities stop.

"Eight White Nights" is so quintessentially a Manhattan story that it is hard to imagine it unfolding in St. Petersburg or anywhere else. Strung tightly between Christmas and New Year, as well as between two apartments on the Upper West Side, it involves two protagonists who are equally educated, equally well-off, equally aware of a defining Jewishness and equally ardent aficionados of Rohmer films, Handel sarabandes and unorthodox cocktail conversations. They are also equally hamstrung by their own minds.

Their love story begins at a flamboyant Christmas Eve party in a swank, 106th Street penthouse. "Halfway through dinner," the narrator writes, "I knew I'd replay the whole evening in reverse -- the bus, the snow, the walk up the tiny incline, the cathedral looming straight before me, the stranger in the elevator, the crowded large living room where candlelit faces beamed with laughter and premonition, the piano music, the singer with the throaty voice, the scent of pinewood everywhere. . . ." And then, "someone suddenly put out a hand and said, 'I am Clara.' "

From anyone else, that overture might seem flat-footed. But the woman is a striking brunette with a lithe figure, an arrogant chin, a diaphanous red blouse unbuttoned to her breastbone. I am Clara, "spoken with the practiced, wry smile of someone who had said it too many times to care how it broke the silence. . . . With the hasty familiarity of people who, when it comes to other people, couldn't care less and haven't a thing to lose." Our narrator is instantly smitten.

Before long, the two are understanding one another completely, speaking in code, coining vocabulary that will follow them through the next eight days of a dizzyingly obsessive courtship: "pandangst" is their word for depression, "Mankiewicz" for appetizer, "Vishnukrishnu Vindalu" for sexually breathtaking, "otherpeoples" for the vacant faces about them, "Mr. and Mrs. Shukoff" for the bores they wish they could shake off but can't.

The next few days unfold in an uptown bar, an artsy movie theater, an old man's house on the shore of the Hudson River. There are a few irksome matters to resolve: She has a past life to shuck; he has a numbing penchant for perfection. But by the third night, she has him completely in her thrall, calling him Printz, after a cargo ship they see anchored in the river. By the seventh, he is stalking her apartment building, losing his hold on reality, wondering how many men she has enchanted in this way.

She is baffling, impulsive and surpassingly strange. But, then again, so is he. What follows is a mating dance that will either entrance or repel you -- a collision of two eccentric souls that grows with mesmerizing intensity. This is a richly intellectual novel that will resemble nothing you've ever encountered. Despite its nods to Dostoyevsky and Rohmer, and for all the references to well-worn landmarks of a familiar city, it is an original to the core.

Then again, Aciman has never failed to be original. Nor is he a stranger to questions of love and alienation. His first book, "Out of Egypt," was a beautifully wrought memoir of his childhood in Alexandria, Egypt. His novel "Call Me by Your Name" was a delicately nuanced, erotic coming-of-age story about a boy's homosexual affair in Italy. With "Eight White Nights," he moves into new territory, probing a rarefied urban culture that seldom has been explored in quite the same way.

The question he finally asks is one Dostoyevsky would surely have appreciated: How can a human being measure a fleeting moment of happiness? Or is it enough for us simply to hold it, cherish it and feed on the warmth of its memory for the rest of our wintry lives?

Arana, a writer-at-large for The Post, is the author of "Lima Nights," "Cellophane" and "American Chica."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company