The New York Times–bestselling author of Find Me and Call Me by Your Name returns to the essay form with his collection of thoughts on time, the creative mind, and great lives and works
Irrealis moods are the set of verbal moods that indicate that something is not actually the case or a certain situation or action is not known to have happened . . .
André Aciman returns to the essay form in Homo Irrealis to explore what the present tense means to artists who cannot grasp the here and now. Irrealis is not about the present, or the past, or the future, but about what might have been but never was―but could in theory still happen.
From meditations on subway poetry and the temporal resonances of an empty Italian street, to considerations of the lives and work of Sigmund Freud, Constantine Cavafy, W. G. Sebald, John Sloan, Éric Rohmer, Marcel Proust, and Fernando Pessoa, and portraits of cities such as Alexandria and St. Petersburg, Homo Irrealis is a deep reflection of the imagination’s power to shape our memories under time’s seemingly intractable hold.
Four sentences that I wrote years ago keep coming back to me. I am still not certain that I understand these sentences. Part of me wants to nail them down, while another fears that by doing so I will snuff out a meaning that can’t be told in words—or, worse yet, that the very attempt to fathom their meaning might allow it to go into deeper hiding still. It’s almost as though these four sentences don’t want me, their author, to know what I was trying to say with them. I gave them the words, but their meaning doesn’t belong to me.
I wrote them when attempting to understand what lay at the source of that strange strain of nostalgia hovering over almost everything I’ve written. Because I was born in Egypt and, like so many Jews living in Egypt, was expelled, at the age of fourteen, it seemed natural that my nostalgia should have roots in Egypt. The trouble is that as an adolescent living in Egypt in what had become an anti-Semitic police state, I grew to hate Egypt and couldn’t wait to leave and land in Europe, preferably in France, since my mother tongue was French and our family was strongly attached to what we believed was our French culture. Ironically, however, letters from friends and relatives who had already settled abroad kept reminding those of us who continued to expect to leave Alexandria in the near future that the worst thing about France or Italy or England or Switzerland was that everyone who had left Egypt suffered terrible pangs of nostalgia for their birthplace, which had been their home once but was clearly no longer their homeland. Those of us who still lived in Alexandria expected to be afflicted with nostalgia, and if we spoke about our anticipated nostalgia frequently enough, it was perhaps because evoking this looming nostalgia was our way of immunizing ourselves against it before it sprang on us in Europe. We practiced nostalgia, looking for things and places that would unavoidably remind us of the Alexandria we were about to lose. We were, in a sense, already incubating nostalgia for a place some of us, particularly the young, did not love and couldn’t wait to leave behind.
We were behaving like couples who are constantly reminding themselves of their impending divorce so as not to be surprised when indeed it finally does occur and leaves them feeling strangely homesick for a life both know was intolerable.
But because we were also superstitious, practicing nostalgia was, in addition, a devious way of hoping to be granted an unanticipated reprieve from the looming expulsion of all Egyptian Jewry, precisely by pretending we were thoroughly convinced it was fated to happen soon and that indeed we wanted it to happen, even at the price of this nostalgia that was bound to strike us once we were in Europe. Perhaps all of us, young and old, feared Europe and needed at least one more year to get used to our eagerly awaited exodus.
But once in France I soon realized that it was not the friendly and welcoming France I had dreamed of in Egypt. That particular France had been, after all, merely a myth that allowed us to live with the loss of Egypt. Yet, three years later, once I left France and moved to the United States, the old, imagined, dreamed-of France suddenly rose up from its ashes, and nowadays, as an American citizen living in New York, I look back and catch myself longing once more for a France that never existed and couldn’t exist but is still out there, somewhere in the transit between Alexandria and Paris and New York, though I can’t quite put my finger on its location, because it has no location. It is a fantasy France, and fantasies—anticipated, imagined, or remembered—don’t necessarily disappear simply because they are unreal. One can, in fact, coddle one’s fantasies, though recollected fantasies are no less lodged in the past than are events that truly happened in that past.
The only Alexandria I seemed to care about was the one I believed my father and grandparents had known. It was a sepia-toned city, and it stirred my imagination with memories that couldn’t have been mine but that harked back to a time when the city I was losing forever was home to many in my family. I longed for this old Alexandria of two generations before mine, knowing that it had probably never existed the way I pictured it, while the Alexandria that I knew was, well, just real. If only I could travel from our time zone to the other bank and recover this Alexandria that seemed to have existed once.
I was, in more ways than one, already homesick for Alexandria in Alexandria.
Today I don’t know if I miss Alexandria at all. I may miss my grandmother’s apartment, where everyone in the family spent weeks packing and talking about our eventual move to Rome and then Paris, where most members of the family had already settled. I remember the arrival of suitcases, and more suitcases, and many more suitcases still, all piling up in one of the large living rooms. I remember the smell of leather permeating every room in my grandmother’s home while, ironically enough, I was reading A Tale of Two Cities. I miss these days because, with our imminent departure, my parents had taken me out of school, so that I was free to do as I pleased on what seemed like an improvised holiday, while the comings and goings of servants helping with the packing gave our home the air of being set up for a large banquet. I miss these days perhaps because we were no longer quite in Egypt but not in France either. It is the transitional period I miss—days when I was already looking ahead to a Europe I was reluctant to admit I feared, all the while not quite able to believe that soon, by Christmas, France would be mine to touch. I miss the late afternoons and early evenings when everyone in the family would materialize for dinner, perhaps because we needed to huddle and draw courage and solidarity together before facing expulsion and exile. These were the days when I was beginning to feel a certain kind of longing that no one had explained to me just yet but that I knew was not so distantly related to sex, which, in my mind, I was confusing with the longing for France.