By Andre Aciman
The unnamed narrator of Andre Aciman's new novel "Eight White Nights" puts his finger on the problem almost inadvertently, when chatting up a woman he has just met at a Christmas Eve party in Manhattan: "One could dream of a relationship and one could be in one, but one can't be the dreamer and the lover at the same time. Or can one, Clara?"
Had he heeded his own advice we would not have the novel, which opens at this posh party and leaves our habitual dreamer moonstruck by Clara but instinctively wary of her as well. She seems to have Cleopatran beauty but the tongue of an asp, "alert, warm, caustic and dangerous," in his initial opinion. When another guest at the party calls her a Gorgon repeatedly, it should have tipped off even the most unobservant of suitors.
Clara is off men at the moment, "lying low" in her terms, "for my sins, for my whatevers," although the narrator spots her in a passionate embrace and deeply kissing another man at the party. This causes him to reflect that until that moment, "I had probably never understood what lovemaking was, nor what it was for." What ensues is a halting tale of parry-and-thrust encounters between Clara and the narrator, their respective aims and very natures open to question in the narrator's mind.
On the surface, "Eight White Nights" is an angst-ridden tale of the potential for love, playing out as a series of rendezvous over a week's time between Clara and Aciman's narrator. It is also, however, Aciman toying with literature's romance with romance as a motif. Both Clara and the narrator have overdeveloped literary antennae, as they quip with lines from Keats and Joyce and Gerard Manley Hopkins (not always identified), drop allusions to poems by Verlaine and Leopardi, and refer to the St. Petersburg of Gogol and Dostoevsky. The novel also gestures toward and could be a sly update of Dostoevsky's story "White Nights," which was also narrated by an unnamed, lonely dreamer who walked his city's streets and fell in love.
We might as well call Aciman's narrator "Printz" or "Oskar" as Clara playfully does after they spot a cargo ship named Prince Oscar on the Hudson River while on a daytrip upstate together. They have fun on that drive, even as they visit places that Clara frequented with her former boyfriend, Inky. Inky is "out of the picture," Printz has been told, although Clara continues to field calls from him and he was the one she embraced full-body at the party. Printz wonders, as he puzzles over the meaning of his own connection with Clara, if men get hooked by her because "they took for large bills what to her was loose change."
Printz, who is 28, is also quietly suffering still over the death of his father nearly a year beforehand, but when he and Clara drive by the cemetery where his father is buried, he does not mention it or suggest that they visit the grave. "I hated conversations that threatened to leave me totally exposed," he admits later in the novel, "even when I knew that exposure, as an abstract concept, was far better than being so bottled up."
Printz's reflections - reliving the recent past, debating his responses to Clara minutely, rehearsing the future in advance of its arrival - set the tone of the novel and form the bulk of its substance, with a strong tendency for cyclical, recurrent thoughts. We see Clara and a few others directly in conversation, visit a nightly film festival featuring the romantically challenging works of French director Eric Rohmer, and idle the wee hours in a small park on the Upper West Side near Clara's building. We even accompany Prinz as he circles her block and wonders if he is a stalker. But it is the shadow-life of Printz's mind as it wavers between projected fears and the possibility of happiness that is the real stalker here.
Clara "was my eyes to the world looking back at me," Printz observes- her judgment becomes his way of intuiting how others see his life. Unfortunately, Clara's waspish delight in mocking the world around her often leaves him wondering whether all is in good fun or if she enjoys humiliating him, too. "Was there anything I could do to dispel the indignity of being just a writhing human body?" Printz wonders, after noting the shame of it all, for wanting Clara to "touch me with your lips, your jeering, taunting lips."
The near obsessive quality of love has been worked by Aciman before, in "Call Me By Your Name," his previous novel, which involved a retrospective look at a same-sex affair in the narrator's youth. The passage of time, telescoped in that novel, is here slowed as events loop again and again through Printz's consciousness. As he says, "I want nothing to change and everything to last." Offering up the idea to Clara that some Beethoven music is representative of him, he declares "it's not answers and clarity, or even ambiguity, that Beethoven wants. What he's after is deferral and distended time, a grace period that never expires and that comes like memory, but isn't memory."
Clara is a skeptic - she is not into keepsakes, she had warned Printz - and whether the world of action and the world of thought can have a happy confluence remains to be seen. One of Printz's shibboleths is "the life that never happens," a feeling he believed haunted his late father. He has a hand in the answer, but whether he will raise it is the question. Late in the novel, Printz and Clara's attempts to outwit each other with clever phrases begin to wear thin: Clara's cut-up comments in public make her seem adolescent rather than endearingly eccentric, and Printz's overwrought moments have indeed distended time, toward slackness. He visits his mother at the very end, and she tells him he is just killing time. Even he admits it.
Former Literary Editor of "The Nation," Art Winslow is a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune.