Longing pulses through all of Andre Aciman’s books — from his celebrated memoir, “Out of Egypt,” to his most recent novel, “Eight White Nights.” He’s a prose poet of confounding desires, an expert on Proust who ruminates on the scent of memories that haunt us.
His new novel, “Harvard Square,” opens with a prologue set in the present day as the narrator guides his unimpressed teenage son around the campus on a college visit. “Everything he sees,” Aciman writes, “seems steeped in a stagnant vat of nostalgia,” but the hallowed haunts that bore his son quickly draw the narrator into the past. And so the novel proper takes place in the hot summer of 1977, a fraught intermission that could have sent his life in a very different direction.
“Harvard Square” joins a long tradition of guilt-clouded stories about intense, unlikely friendships between men. In fact, Aciman initially seems to be revisiting the febrile atmosphere of his first novel, “Call Me by Your Name,” about a teenager’s obsession with an older student. But this time around, the narrator’s attraction is not sexual, and the object of his interest is more complex. This is not a tale of forbidden coupling but of forbidden rejection — an immigrant’s painful decision to assimilate into a culture that rewards reinvention.
We meet the young, unnamed narrator (who bears a striking resemblance to the author) during a crisis of confidence familiar to any mortal who has suffered the withering tedium of graduate school. Having failed his comprehensive exams, he’s trapped in Cambridge for the summer, tutoring French, working in the library and slashing through a long list of 17th-century books. An Egyptian Jew far from home, he’s worried — deeply worried — that he won’t pass the second time around: “Self-doubt scrapes down the soul, till all that’s left is a flimsy sheath as thin as a sliver of onion skin.” In his darkest, most rudderless moments, he realizes that “I was a fraud, that I was never cut out to be a teacher, much less a scholar, that I had been a bad investment from the get-go, that I was the black sheep, the rotten apple, the bad seed, that I’d be known as the imposter who’d hustled his way into Harvard and was let go in the nick of time.”
One day, in the slough of this despair, while sitting in a cafe, he overhears an obnoxious man talking in French like a jackhammer. He’s wearing a faded army fatigue jacket and jabbering like “Zorba the Greek on steroids.” Despite every urge to flee, the narrator feels so lonely, so desperate to speak French that he introduces himself. It’s a delightful encounter, re-created with the palpable sensation of a desperate thirst suddenly satisfied. Kalaj turns out to be a Muslim cabdriver from Tunis. “In no time,” Aciman writes, “we reinvented France with the very little we had that evening. Bread, butter, three wedges of Brie. . . . Cambridge was just a detail.”
Although they have nothing in common except their alien status, a friendship unfurls, filling the narrator’s life with color and drama. They meet again and again at this cafe in the center of America’s intellectual capital; they go on a double date to Walden Pond, the sacred shrine of self-
reliance. But they’re always hyper-aware of their otherness, their exclusion from the promise of the New World. The cabdriver’s overstated disdain for America and its ersatz culture is infectious. “I knew I was beginning to sound like Kalaj,” the narrator confesses. “By looking at him I was almost looking at myself. . . . He was just my destiny three steps ahead of me.”
Kalaj is outrageously flirtatious, almost comically seductive and eager to critique the narrator’s approach to women. “He was after passion, because he had so much of it to give,” the narrator says, “after hope, because he has so little left; after sex, because it evened the playing field between him and everyone else, because sex was his shortcut, his conduit, his way of finding humanity in an otherwise cold and lusterless world, a vagrant’s last trump card to get back into the family of man.”
This is a ruminative novel that will strike some readers as under-plotted. But “Harvard Square” is a plaintive love letter to displaced, wandering people, to anyone who longs for home and reaches unwisely for the hand of a fellow wanderer. “Maybe Kalaj and I were not so different after all,” the narrator reflects. “Everything about us was transient and provisional, as if history wasn’t done experimenting on us and couldn’t decide what to do next.” Aciman spins a hundred tragic, lush reflections on his fascination with Kalaj, but a less patient reader might wonder if a dozen such passages would have sufficed.
The story grows darker and more compelling, though, as the stakes rise and Kalaj’s attempts to secure a green card grow more panicky. Naturally, the immigration department is not so easily seduced by his “sputtering bravado,” precipitating a crisis that tests the limits of our narrator’s devotion. What really are the terms of their obsessive relationship? “Why had I ever befriended such a nut?” he wonders. And what, ultimately, is he willing to offer his uncouth friend, whom he regards with “a rush of love, loathing, and bile”?
In the end, it was only five months, a strange, long-forgotten episode that could have derailed the narrator’s life and frustrated his grasp for wealth and prestige. Only the sheen of these sentences, polished by tumbling in remorse for decades, show how deeply Kalaj affected him, how ashamed he still is. It’s an old story for Americans, but worth telling again when it’s told this well: Every act of immigration is also an act of betrayal.
Charles is The Washington Post’s fiction editor. You can follow on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Andre Aciman
Norton. 292 pp. $25.95