Jessica Gross | Longreads | November 2017 | 20 minutes (4,900 words)
I spend the first day in any new place, particularly when I’m traveling alone, feeling massively out of sorts and wondering if I should turn right back around and come home. By now, I know that by the end of my stay that initial despair will feel almost unreal. But last summer, on a trip to Vienna, my sense of dislocation was so acute I didn’t know if I’d last. I’d spent the long train ride over from Paris re-reading my great-grandmother’s autobiography—as told to my grandmother—which details my Jewish family’s flight from Vienna in 1938. Arriving in the city so many decades later, I still couldn’t shake the sense of terror they’d described. No matter how much I tried to talk myself down, I couldn’t seem to stop conflating the cold stares of the Austrians I passed on the street with the fact that this country had wanted my relatives dead.
So: It was fraught. Until, that is, a friend sent me an essay by André Aciman. In “Parallax,” the epilogue to his essay collection Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, Aciman—a Jew and an exile from Egypt to Europe, who now lives in New York—writes of the dislocation that seems by now intrinsic to his personhood. He cannot, he writes, appreciate one place unless through the projection of another. “What we missed was not just Egypt. What we missed was dreaming Europe in Egypt—what we missed was the Egypt where we’d dreamed of Europe,” he writes. “Parallax is not just a disturbance in vision. It’s a derealizing and paralyzing disturbance in the soul—cognitive, metaphysical, intellectual, and ultimately aesthetic. It is not just about displacement, or of feeling adrift both in time and space, it is a fundamental misalignment between who we are, might have been, could still be, can’t accept we’ve become, or may never be.” I can’t remember whether reading this made me abruptly stop crying or, in the way that transcendent literature can, made me sob even harder.
Since then, I’ve read enough Aciman—a memoirist, essayist, and novelist—to know that dislocation is one of several central and vital themes. He also grapples with evasion of the present, and of pain; with ambivalence; and with desire. These last two are on particular display in his masterful novel Call Me by Your Name, which has now been adapted into a gorgeous film. Aciman expresses what it’s like to inhabit a human mind with more intricacy, subtlety and lyricism than almost any other writer I’ve read. We met at a café on the Upper West Side, where I tried to keep my reverence in check, and spoke about his distaste for realism, mitigating joy, trying to induce a sense of immersion in the reader, his respect for editors, and the new film. He began by telling me there was only one question I couldn’t ask: whether he thinks it did justice to the book.
Are there any other questions you absolutely loathe?
How do you generally answer when people ask that question?
“I loved it!” Okay, now you’re asking the question. [Laughter] Okay, fine, I’ll answer.
As a writer, you have two choices. You can be very proprietary—in other words, you own the book, you own the story, and the movie has to follow, otherwise you get upset, you go crazy.
Or, you can say, “I’ve written the book. You want to make a movie, you want to make a play, you want to make an opera out of it? Do with it what you want. And if you want my opinion, I’ll give it to you; if you don’t want to hear it, I won’t give it to you.” I’m probably the easiest author to edit because I feel that an editor knows what they’re doing. So if they say, “This sentence is horrible,” I’ll listen. I disagree one percent of the time. Read more…