Review: Eight White Nights
A celebrated memoirist and novelist sets up an exquisite romantic conundrum in a finely written return to fiction
An enigmatic, New York, wintry love affair
By André Aciman
Atlantic Books, £14.99
It is Christmas Eve - a popular festive occasion for New York's affluent Jews. In the snow-blanketed city, an extravagant party is in full swing in a penthouse by the Hudson River. The guests, mostly progeny of European Jews who had either fled Nazism or survived the Holocaust, have been leavened by the artistic and intellectual interests that wealth and cosmopolitanism endow.
A man of 28, a guest at the party, invited not by the host but by a mutual friend - hence an outsider - is accosted by a beautiful woman. She introduces herself genially: "I am Clara". Thus starts a turbulent love affair that repairs to the New Year's Eve party, at the same venue, where, possibly, it will obtain its meridian. I emphasise "possibly" because André Aciman does not narrate how the lovers, who until then have failed to achieve full rapport, let alone consummate their relationship, will finally manage to attain that meridian; instead he chooses to intimate it while the man, en route to the New Year's Eve party, deliberates his future.
One might be tempted to say that, after painstakingly chronicling seven days and nights of an intense relationship wherein the man, persistently overanalysing words, feelings and actions, reduces the mysticism of passion to a pernickety mind game, Aciman runs out of steam. But that would be unfair. Aciman, author of Out of Egypt, that memorable memoir of his Alexandrian youth, writes with enviable mastery, intelligence and erudition. Consequently, I would suggest that the reason he opts for an ambivalent ending, is to goad the readers to draw their own conclusions.
Will Clara, an awe-inspiring, unforgettable character who, although only 24 years old, possesses prodigious wisdom and absolute belief in truth, accept bonding with a man who lives his life "on the outskirts of things" and who is "visibly self-tormented, insecure, prone to self-hatred"? And will the man, who distrusts love and is inclined to believe, like the male characters in the Rohmer movies he greatly admires, that love is "just an alibi, a convenient metaphor", muster the courage to surrender to panacean passion.
A compelling conundrum for discerning readers. But before those readers reach the point where they can adjudge the denouement, they will have a literary feast; they will be regaled by the erudition that Aciman - as a representative of a plethora of émigré Jews from "old countries"- has absorbed. And, a lament here, those, like me, who have known displacement and are of a certain age, will regret that Aciman did not reflect more on the sensibilities of the elderly émigrés who grace his novel as supporting characters. That old guard is now either dead or dying out; and those of us who remember them will soon die out, too. And once we are dust, the world, already running amok in savage pursuits, will cease to know that there were times when there were souls who possessed liberalism, compassion and humanity and championed them fervently.
Moris Farhi's poetry collection, Songs from Two Continents, will be published by Saqi on March 31