André Aciman is a novelist and critic whose works include Out of Egypt: A Memoir, False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory, and the novel Call Me by Your Name. He is also the co-author and editor of The Proust Project and Letters of Transit. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, he has also lived in Italy and France, and now lives in New York. This is an excerpt from an essay which recounts his return to the Roman neighbourhoods of his youth:
I learned to read and to love books much as I learned to know and to love Rome: not only by intuiting undisclosed passageways everywhere, but by seeing more of me in books than there probably was, because everything I read seemed more in me already than on the pages themselves. I knew that my way of reading books might be aberrant, just as I knew that figuring my way around Rome as I did would shock the fussiest of tourists.
I was after something intimate and I learned to spot it in the first alley, in the first verse of a poem, on the first glance of a stranger. Great books, like great cities, always let us find things we think are only in us and couldn’t possibly belong elsewhere but that turn out to be broadcast everywhere we look. Great artists are those who give us what we think was already ours. Never mind that we’ve never seen, felt, or lived through anything remotely similar. The artist converts us; he steals and refashions our past, and like songs from our adolescence, gives us the picture of our youth as we wished it to be back then—never as it really was. He gives us our secret wishfilm back.
Suddenly, the insights nursed by strangers belong, against all odds, to us as well. We know what an author desires, what he dissembles; we even know why. The better a writer, the better he erases his footprints—yet the better the writer, the more he wants us to intuit and put back those parts he chose to hide. With the right hunch, you could read the inflection of an author’s soul on a single comma, in one sentence, and from that one sentence seize the whole book, his life work.
— André Aciman, Intimacy
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