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[682] Harvard Square – André Aciman

1harvard

” But I suddenly realized one thing very clearly in this dark bedroom. But looking at him I was almost looking at myself. He was the measure of how close I might come to falling apart and losing everything here. He was just my destiny three steps ahead of me. ” (Ch.5, p.203)

Harvard Square begins with a prologue set in the present day as the unnamed narrator guides his unimpressed teenage son around the campus on a visit. But instead of invoking his son’s interest in Harvard, the trip sends the narrator down the memory lane, to the summer of 1977, when he was a graduate student struggling to pass his PhD qualifying exam. The campus is where “everything he sees seems steeped in a stagnant vat of nostalgia.”

He renamed everything around him to snub the world and show there were other ways of seeing and calling things and that everything had to go through baptismal fire . . . It was his way of reinventing the world in his own image, or in the image of what he wanted the world to be— (Ch.2, p.126)

The novel proper is about an intense, unlikely friendship between two men who painstakingly assimilate into a culture that rewards sameness. The narrator, a Jew and transplant from Egypt, was in a crisis of confidence. A huge part of the novel depicts the withering tedium of graduate school. In between long hours of cramming books, tutoring, working at the library, he strikes up friendship with a Muslim cab-driver from Tunisia.

Kalaj is the duke at Cafe Algiers, where he knows everyone by the footsteps. One day, in the slough of despair, the narrator overheard Kalaj talking in French like a jackhammer, lambasting everything about the Western world. Despite the urge to flee, being so lonely and nostalgic of home, he mustered up to introduce himself in French. A friendship unfurls despite that they have nothing in common except their alien status. They share life stories and keep companions.

Ashamed of myself for being ashamed of him. Ashamed of being a snob. Ashamed of letting others see that what we had in common went far deeper than this surface thing called lousy cash flow. Ashamed that I wasn’t allowing myself to own up how deeply I cared for him and had found it easier to think of us as transient . . . (Ch.6, p.226)

But soon Kalaj’s capricious behavior terrifies him. He is ashamed of Kalaj, and yet sees himself by looking at Kalaj. The story becomes darker and more compelling, as the stakes rise and Kalaj’s attempts to secure a green card grow more panicky.

Harvard Square is a ruminative novel that might strike some readers as under-plotted. It’s elegiac but bittersweet. These exiles, acutely conscious of their “homelessness,” find common ground during the hours of worries over their respective crises. Aciman’s style is subdued and beautiful. The story really lingers on a moment in time, in which displaced, drifting people who long for home find refuge in one another. Quoting Aciman’s own words, the book is an ode to those “magical after love” that stays with one all the years, despite the ephemeral “during memories.” This is a book to savor.

292 pp. W. W. Norton. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

2 Responses

  1. I’m grateful for your review of this book. I read it several months ago and was quite impressed by it. Andre Aciman is an author I keep an eye out for. This book brought to mind the books of Dinaw Mengestu, particularly The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears.

    • It was a little slow-going at the beginning, then I realized it’s about a long-lost, transient friendship. The dialogues are some of the most impressive elements of this novel, and so are the period details.

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