Hanging Around Andre Aciman’s ‘Harvard Square’ (3 cents)

The Jews of Egypt have long interested me, in large part because they seemed so much a part of Egyptian society for so long, until the community virtually all emigrated after the creation of Israel in 1948 and after the Six Day War in 1967.  I was first called to their attention by a New Yorker article years and years ago, and then by two popular books, Andre Aciman’s “Out of Egypt” and the Lucette Lagadno’s “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit”, both of which I recommend highly.

After writing “Out of Egypt”, which was published in 1994, Aciman published several books of essays and a couple of novels, none of which I read.  I did however just finished his most recent novel, published about six months ago, “Harvard Square”. 

Aciman left Egypt as a teenager and came to the United States when he was 19.  He is now in his early sixties.  He was educated here, and has taught literature and creative writing ever since, currently at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  He is also considered an expert on Proust.  “Out of Egypt” was the memoir of his early years in Alexandria, where he was a member of a successful, if idiosyncratic, Jewish family, not of ancient Egyptian lineage, but of Turkish and Italian Jewish ancestry, whose family had entered Egypt around 1900.  His family was educated, cultured, multi-multi-lingual, comfortable, and very cosmopolitan.  His childhood was happy and supported by everyone around him.  It was in many ways a privileged childhood, which came to an abrupt end.  The book is beautifully written, poetic in its style.

I know that his subsequent writing has received mixed reviews, but I thought I would give “Harvard Square” a chance.  I am glad I did, although I find it far from a perfect book, certainly not written as elegantly as his earlier memoir.  But it paints a very interesting experience of the immigrant experience, and for this reason I think it worthwhile to read.

The book is written in the first person.  It’s also constructed as one large flashback, bookmarked by a scene thirty years later when the protagonist (if he has a name, I don’t remember it) brings his high school age son to Harvard on a typical campus tour, which gets him thinking about his years in Cambridge as a PhD student.  Whether any of this bears any resemblance to Aciman’s own life (he does have a Harvard PhD), I don’t know.

But you are thrust back into Cambridge of the late 1970s (unfortunately, not far enough that I can identify with the many coffee houses and taverns around Harvard Square that figure in the book.  Our hero is a Jewish immigrant from Alexandria (so far, so good), who is working on a PhD in literature, has failed is comprehensive exams, and has one more chance.  It takes place over a quiet Cambridge summer, and over the following fall term.  The second comprehensive exam is in January, and we know that he will be successful.

While there is a lot of reading in preparation for the exam (and a lot of literary name dropping in the book), the primary focus is on the main character’s friends, particularly another North African immigrant, he meets, this one a Berber from Tunisia, who is having a much more difficult time of it in the New World, and a series of young women who become the short term lovers of one or another of them.

Coming from Egypt to Cambridge is not easy.  The university is intimidating to everyone, and the social scene is, not surprisingly, rather foreign.  Failing the first exam does not make things easier.  But too get a bit of a hometown feeling, our hero spends a lot of time in small drinking and eating holes around town which are frequented by North Africans.  It is here that me meets Kalaj, in the country because of his American wife, driving a taxi and hoping to get a green card so he can stay.  He has no connections, but a lot of charisma, and he has the tendency to be his own worst enemy.  He becomes the friend/adversary of everyone he meets, but no relationship holds for long.  Kalaj and our friend becomes best buddies, although outwardly very different, they are two sides of one Middle Eastern coin, and (metaphorically speaking) they may be two sides of the same person.  Yet, our hero is destined for success in his new land, and Kalaj for failure.  And how easily it could have gone the other way.

The people they meet, their good and bad adventures……nothing special.  At least nothing special in the world of fiction.  And, for the central character in the book, this is very much a coming of age story.  And I guess this is where I have a problem with the book.  The main character is 26.  Andre Aciman is over 60.  Why is a 60+ year old writing a coming of age story, about a young man trying to find himself and figure out who he is, at the expense of his rougher co-immigrant friend, and a series of beautiful girls who are always available and not always well treated?  Somehow, it doesn’t seem exactly right.

But, as I say, it does provide a good basis for understanding the frailty of the immigrant experience, at least in this rarefied environment.



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