André Aciman's entertaining and moving new novel, "Harvard Square," begins in the present, with the fraught ritual of the college tour. In this case, it is complicated by the father's status as a graduate. As his son ricochets between hope and scorn, the father, narrating the story, is caught in a haze of middle-aged nostalgia and regret. Visions of bygone days appear to him out of the mists, like Brigadoon.
The never-named narrator of "Harvard Square" hails from a French-speaking Jewish family in Alexandria, Egypt, as did Aciman.
Like the author, he studied comparative literature at Harvard, a pathway to assimilation and the security of an academic career. (Aciman, a Proust expert and author of the memoir "Out of Egypt," is a professor of comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.)
Most of the action in "Harvard Square" takes place in flashback, in the summer and fall of 1977. This was a transitional cultural era, when the campus idealism of the late '60s and early '70s had faded but not given way entirely to the mercenary impulses of the 1980s. Harvard was still a deeply traditional place, struggling toward diversity and gender equity. It was not unusual for students who were not native-born, upper-crust white men to experience the perks of an insider one day and the alienation of an outsider the next.
Like most graduate students, the narrator of Aciman's novel is all but penniless and deeply anxious about his academic fortunes. Having failed his comprehensive exams on his first try, he has just one more opportunity to pass, rendering his hold on Harvard, and America, tenuous. "I was not like everyone else in Cambridge, I was not one of them, was not in the system, had never been," he thinks.
By the second half of the summer, when we pick up the narrative thread, Harvard Square has largely emptied of both summer-school students and faculty. The narrator is essentially alone with his books. Then, one day, while loitering in Café Algiers, a refuge for Middle Easterners in the heart of Cambridge, he meets Kalaj (short for Kalashnikov), a flamboyant Arab cab driver from Tunis.
Kalaj is impossible not to notice. He has strong, loudly expressed opinions about America, an engagingly hedonistic approach to life, and a sixth sense about women. Aciman paints Kalaj in vivid strokes:
At Café Algiers he was almost always the first to arrive in the morning. Like Che Guevara, he'd appear wearing his beret, his pointed beard with the drooping mustache, and the cocksure swagger of someone who has just planted dynamite all over Cambridge and couldn't wait to trigger the fuse, but not before coffee and a croissant.
Kalaj is no terrorist, but he can be something of a bully and a braggart. His apparent scorn for America — against whose "ersatz" ways he rails — turns out to be a defense, a cover for his fear of deportation. Having failed at his second marriage, Kalaj is clinging to America and his immigrant dreams even more tenuously than the narrator.
The two men, a nonreligious Jew and an equally secular Muslim, bond through their shared love of French and their status as Middle Eastern exiles. They become steady companions, gliding from Café Algiers to all-you-can-eat happy hours. The narrator imbibes some of Kalaj's sexual self-confidence, and his romantic conquests — and betrayals — quickly mount. The pair double-date, co-host an elaborate dinner party, and drive to Walden Pond to enjoy summer's waning days.
It is an idyll that, like summer, ultimately must end.
But not before the two men's lives merge even further. Kalaj starts living on and off with the narrator. He becomes an adjunct teacher of French at Harvard in the fall, invading even that bastion of privilege. The job, improbable because of Kalaj's lack of education, makes symbolic sense, since he functions as a kind of double for the narrator.
Aciman writes a vigorous, muscular prose that is as seductive as his characters. While the women who flit through their lives remain ciphers, the narrator and Kalaj make a colorful and, for a time, mutually irresistible pair. The narrator describes the cab driver as a man who "preferred bad company to no company, an argument to silence, a twisted life that coiled like barbed wire around him when he sparred with anyone to the protracted beep of a dead patient's heart monitor."
But the tensions between them inevitably mount. While Kalaj "defaced the world by applying improvised monikers, leaving his fingerprint on everything he touched," the narrator, a not particularly admirable figure, "desperately … clung to the small privileges and to the tentative promises Harvard held out for me." The narrator finally will imagine Kalaj as "a mythological beast … that wreaks great harm on earthlings, ravages the countryside, and then, without explanation, is suddenly swallowed back up by earth" — but not, it turns out, without leaving indelible memories behind.
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review, graduated from Harvard College in June 1977.
By André Aciman, W.W. Norton, 304 pages, $25.95