I could easily go back through all of Aciman’s published work and underline passages and write in the margins of the pages, same for me, this is me, this was me, he states perfectly what I’ve always felt about these things, he writes about this as I would have written about such things, such perfect synch between what he says or describes and what I’ve long experienced and felt. But is this not what we do with so many writers? We find ways to believe they write for us, express what we want to have expressed. We identify, after all, with the tales they tell, the characters they describe, the ways they express thought, storylines, the narrative voices they use. This is the whole of literary art and how readers have always enjoyed it. But, no, with Aciman there is a distinct difference for me. He describes feeling, longing, anxiety, ambivalence, being in the middle of situations, places, people, moods, thoughts, in all the ways familiar to my own inner life. Much more so than any other writer I’ve ever read. I have been waiting for over fifty years to find a writer like Aciman. I had given up hope of every finding one like him. The closest most recently has been Pessoa. When I read The Book of Disquiet only a few years ago, I said oh if only I had had this book forty years or so ago. Why had I never read this book before now?
Pessoa as companion and guide would have helped me so much at so many moments in life. With Aciman, this same sort of recognition and relief but even closer to the bone. Uncanny it felt. Instant sense of deep inner accord. No matter how much he talks about the externals of his story, and they are as dramatic and noteworthy for a major writer as possible---Alexandria, Jewish, Ladino, France, Rome, New York, memoir, novels, essays, awards, fellowships, the whole success of the writer in our time--no matter all of this. The essential wonder is how much, how perfectly, my
own experiences in their felt rhythems and patterns align with all that he feels about his outer life.
Long passage below from his essay called “Intimacy.” to which I say Yes, Yes, Yes and Yes, that’s how it was for me too. Me too Alypius, Augustine’s friend in The Confessions. I have always often times been that person, but this is different. Aciman is just uncanny in saying my notions about all of these things.
“It never occurred to me then that insight and intuition, which are the essence, the genius of all criticism, are born from this intimate fusion of self with something or someone else. To everything—books, places, people—I brought a desire to steal into and intuit something undisclosed, perhaps because I mistrusted all appearances, or because I was so withdrawn that I needed to believe others were as dissembled and withdrawn as I feared I was. Perhaps I loved prying. Perhaps insight was like touching—but without asking, without risk. Perhaps spying was my way of reaching out to the Roman life that was all around me. In the words of Emanuele Tesauro: “We enjoy seeing our own thoughts blossom in someone’s mind, while that someone is equally pleased to spy what our own mind furtively conceals.” I was a cipher. But, like me, everyone was a cipher as well. Ultimately, I wanted to peer into books, places, and people because wherever I looked I was always looking for myself, or for traces of myself, or better yet, for a world out there filled with people and characters who could be made to be like me, because being like me and being me and liking the things I liked was nothing more than their roundabout way of being as close to, as open to, and as bound to me as I wished to be to them. The world in my image. All I cared for were streets that bore my name and the trace of my passage there; and all I cared for were novels in which everyone’s soul was laid bare and anatomized, because nothing interested me more than the nether, undisclosed aspects of people and things that were identical to mine. Exposed, everyone would turn out to be just like me. They understood me, I understood them, we were no longer strangers. I dissembled, they dissembled. The more they were like me, the more I’d learn to accept and perhaps grow to like who I was. My hunches, my insights were nothing more than furtive ways of bridging the insuperable distance between me and the world.
In the end, my solitude, my disaffection, my shame on Via Clelia, and my wish to withdraw into an imaginary 19th-century bubble were not incidental to the books I was reading. My disaffection was part of what I saw in these books and was essential to my reading of them, just as what I read in Ovid was not unrelated to my tremulous yearnings for the swarthy knees of the gypsy girl. But they were essential in an altogether strange and undisclosed manner. I wasn’t identifying with Dostoyevsky’s characters because I too was poor or withdrawn, anymore than I was identifying with the lust of Byblis and Salmacis because I would have given anything to undress the gypsy girl in my bedroom. What my favorite authors were asking of me was that I read them intimately—not an invitation to read my own pulse on someone else’s work, but to read an author’s pulse as though it were my own, the height of presumption, because it presupposed that by trusting my deepest, most intimate thoughts about a book, I was in fact tapping on, or rather divining, the author’s own.”