Friday, 26 July 2013

Harvard Square by André Aciman (4.5/5)

First published: 2013
Page count: 292

The back says: It’s the fall of 1977, and amid the lovely, leafy streets of Cambridge a young Harvard graduate student, a Jew from Egypt, longs more than anything to become an assimilated American and a professor of literature. He spends his days in a pleasant blur of seventeenth-century fiction, but when he meets a brash, charismatic Arab cab driver in a Harvard Square café, everything changes.
Nicknamed Kalashnikov – Kalaj for short – for his machine-gun vitriol, the cab driver roars into the student’s life with his denunciations of the American obsession with “all things jumbo and ersatz” – Twinkies, monster television sets, all-you-can-eat buffets – and his outrageous declarations on love and the art of seduction. The student finds it hard to resist his new friend’s magnetism, and before long he begins to neglect his studies and live a double life: one in the rarefied world of Harvard, the other as an exile with Kalaj on the streets of Cambridge. Together they carouse the bars and cafés around Harvard Square, trade intimate accounts of their love affairs, argue about the American dream, and skinny-dip in Walden Pond. But as final exams loom and Kalaj has his licence revoked and is threatened with deportation, the student faces the decision of his life: whether to cling to his dream of New World assimilation or risk it all to defend his Old World friend.

I say: I love Aciman; the author of my favourite novel, Call Me By Your Name (from whence my blog name comes) and prominent Marcel Proust scholar whose prose is so achingly beautiful it hurts at times.

This is Aciman’s third novel, and I was a tad apprehensive about reading it since his sophomore release, Eight WhiteNights, left me a little disappointed. Although I know that nothing will ever compare to Call Me By Your Name, I was so pleasantly surprised by Harvard Square and savoured every minute of it, never really wanting it to end. It is noticeable that Aciman has studied Proust because the prose is similar with the long run-on sentences, the beautiful descriptions of every minute detail and the acute emotions of the protagonists.

I realise that this is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love it.
The novel starts off with a rather unoriginal prologue (that I could have done without) of a father walking along Harvard campus with his son and starts reminiscing about his old uni days. We are then taken back to 1977 and the synopsis above, and I fell in such love with the Harvard Square that Aciman describes that I want to transport myself there for the rest of my life. The little café where he first meets Kalaj and is intrigued by his way of talking and strikes up a conversation due to his ache to speak French; the discussions they have about everything from politics to women to Americans to their native countries; and all the characters make for a sumptuous read. Not to mention the war of words Kalaj has with everyone; hilarious insults and petty grievances.

It’s all so vividly portrayed it felt like I could just reach out and touch it.
I am inclined to regard this novel a semi-biographical work since the nameless protagonist shares a lot of similarities with Aciman. I could, of course, be wrong about this – and it doesn’t really matter – but as a person who generally doesn’t want to know anything about authors I love for fear of finding out something about them that I don’t like, I am now more intrigued by Aciman than ever.

Before turning this into an incoherent essay I must point out that one of the main reasons this hits so close to home is the issue of identity that the men deal with; wanting to hold on to their heritage, but at the same time wanting to be a part of America. Kalaj offers the point of view of someone who is standing outside of American culture, while the student is standing with one foot on either side and unsure of where to turn.

Like an actor who wants to sit alone in his booth after all the lights are out and everyone’s gone home, I wanted to take my time removing the makeup, the wig, the false teeth, the skin glow, the eyelashes, take time to recover myself and see the face, not the mask, not the mask again, always the mask again. I wanted to talk to myself in French, in my own French accent, speak as those who brought me into this world had taught me to speak. – p 247

I get goose bumps.

So yeah, 4.5/5 because of the unoriginal start and a few things within the text that I didn’t particularly care for, but I am really in the mood for a re-read right now.

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