Book review: Andre Aciman returns to memory in Homo Irrealis

Andre Aciman embarks on a series of elegant, illuminating meditations on memory and nostalgia in his latest essay collection. PHOTO: CHRIS FERGUSON


Homo Irrealis: Essays
By Andre Aciman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux/239 pages/ $26.95/ Available here
4 out of 5

Andre Aciman, author of Call Me By Your Name (2007), is a writer's writer.

Sensitive and self-reflexive to a fault, he embarks on a series of elegant, illuminating meditations on memory and nostalgia in his latest essay collection.

Homo Irrealis takes its name from the "irrealis moods" of linguistics, a set of grammatical moods that indicate that a certain event or action is not known to have happened at the moment the speaker is speaking.

"Irrealis moods are also known as counterfactual moods and include the conditional, the subjunctive, the optative, and the imperative - all best expressed in this book as the might-be and the might-have-been," Aciman explains.

The essays range from his musings about cities such as Alexandria and Rome, to passages drawing on the life and work of cultural heavyweights such as Freud, film director Eric Rohmer and novelist Marcel Proust.

Aciman, however, is concerned not so much with these things, but the ways in which they are remembered, interpreted, and distorted in the mind's eye.

"Art sees footprints, not feet, lustre, not light, hears resonance, not sound. Art is about our love of things when we know it's not the things themselves we love."

Aciman is a careful, patient writer, and seems to demand the same qualities from his reader. In Homo Irrealis, the essay's form is its substance. Each meticulously constructed passage has its place in an architecture best comprehended as a whole. His prose tends not to lend itself well to nuggets of quotation prised out in isolation.

Some people will be put off by the writer's style, finding it too inward-facing, too involuted. His meditations on memory can indeed feel very circuitous, often circling back to the same argument from different starting points.

However, they also give the writing a provisional, extemporaneous quality - capturing traces of memory and thought in all their fleetingness, without allowing them to calcify into hardened prose. And so the writing is most limpid and life-like when it is most indirect and imprecise in its intent, calling to mind Milan Kundera's words about life being like a sketch - "a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture".

In one memorable essay, Aciman compares the process of art-making to that of whipping up a souffle: "Real meaning, real art, does not necessarily reside in the nitty-gritty, bare rag-and-bone shop of the heart; it resides just as easily in the seemingly superfluous, in the extra, in the joy of folding and refolding air, in creating space for the unexpected visitor, the extra..."

In Homo Irrealis, the author makes clear that our memory of art is not so much about the art itself as the person who is looking at it and remembering it.

Fittingly, readers with a literary bent will likely come away from this book with the realisation that they have, in fact, been reading themselves.

  • If you like this, read: Call Me By Your Name (Atlantic Books, 2007, $19.62, available here), Aciman's acclaimed novel about a summer romance between a 17-year-old boy and a 24-year-old visiting scholar in 1980s Italy.

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