Monday, July 10, 2017

The enigma of desire in a fine novel

I am always attracted to writers whose style, whose attention to sentences, inspires me to do better work or to return, revived, to an old draft of a story.

Such is the case with The Enigma Variations by Andre Aciman. I wasn't sure if I wanted to read a novel about a bisexual man or perhaps more accurately a man who at various stages of his life goes from a schoolboy crush to lust and jealousy with people of each sex--along with regret, fear, sadness, and worry and all the emotions that make sexuality so complicated.

But I am glad I stayed with it. I must confess to having been intrigued by the title, an allusion to Elgar's piece of music, and even more to the multiculturally rich background of the author: He was born in Alexandria,Egypt of Turkish-Jewish parents who spoke French at home and introduced their son to Greek, English and Italian, which he then perfected when the family moved to Rome.  Then as an adult, Aciman came to America, to Harvard to study comparative literature, which he now teaches in New York City.

It is no surprise to learn from this latest of his books that he is an expert on Proust: the intense, closely observed and analyzed states of feeling that become almost claustrophobic as we follow a man named Paul at various stages of his life.

The recurring theme of the five interlocking stories that comprise this novel is one of memory and desire, as our narrator takes us deeply into his mind and soul as he moves from a gay to a straight experience and back again, suggesting that these terms and categories are useless in describing, like Shakespeare's sonnets, all the emotions associated with lust and longing, with men and women,with time and regret, with joy and sadness.

Aciman, a master of subtly described arousal, shows us that all of us are various people at various points in our life.

In an elegant style that is almost hypnotic, Aciman has crafted a very original type of novel analyzing in agonizing detail what being in love is like, from various perspectives. It is also, my students will be happy to learn, full of those long sentences that I admire and urge upon them.

So, even if you at first find that the desire analyzed here turns you off, you will find the tone poetic--wistful and melancholy--and the style and the central character memorable.

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