Almost a year after our last interview for Woman Around Town, it was my pleasure to catch up with acclaimed writer André Aciman. The beginning of 2021 saw the publication of his much-anticipated collection of essays, Homo Irrealis. His most recent work, the novella Mariana, was just released as an Audible Original. I am grateful that, while immersed in writing his next works and teaching at The Graduate Center, André Aciman took the time to answer some questions for us.
In our previous interview, you spoke of at last unreservedly accepting solitude as a natural aspect of your profession. What insights have the additional months of isolation brought you?
I am reminded of people who have to stay in a hospital for a week, or more. When I had an operation at the age of 27, I hated the idea of being in a hospital. After a week, though, I became attached to the hospital, to its staff of nurses, to the hours, to the customs and rules of the hospital, even to the fact that so many guests crowded in and all had to obey and leave at the stipulated hour. The moment I was out I bought all the help and nurses presents and was attached to all of them. One grows attached to the very room one expects to deplore. So, during confinement, one acquires new habits: you stay at home, you see very few people, you are super careful, you go out but you avoid crowds, you invent new ways of accepting and ultimately justifying being homebound. I bought weights to exercise (they were impossible to find since everyone decided to exercise at home), I went out on long bicycle rides in Central Park, I watched more TV than usual, I zoomed with the rest of humanity, and I certainly worked far more effectively being homebound. The pandemic told me to do what I did best: stay home, drink coffee, listen to classical music, and above all write. That was already my life. So, with the exception of a large dinner with good friends, very little changed. I will miss the pandemic me.
In your collection of essays, “Homo Irrealis,” you reflect on the grammatical mood called irrealis that lies at the heart of what we experience as nostalgia and fantasy. The irrealis moods exist outside real time, in your words: “the might-have-been that never happened but isn’t unreal for not happening and might still happen, though we fear it never will and sometimes wish it won’t happen or not quite yet.” Your explorations of poetry, film, music, cities, authors, and more, through the lens of the irrealis, reveal a universal relationship between artistic creator and creation that eschews the present. But there are those who feel that they live in the moment. They may not be fully present all the time, but they do focus on the Now more often than not. What do you think of this belief in one’s relationship with the present? If you believe that the larger part of our awareness tends to travel to the past, the imagined, and/or the future, how much autonomy do you think we have over keeping our awareness in the present?
I believe that all of us slip out of the present far more often than we claim. Even with loved ones, one needs to keep reminding oneself that one loves them and is happy to be in their company. But if we are honest with ourselves, it is not that we love them less than we do, in as much as no one will claim to dislike the present, but we drift from them, we lose our focus, we may even catch ourselves wanting something more, knowing that there can be no more than the love around us. I recall once being a guest in a wonderful house on the western coast of Lake Como. On a clear night with people who had become my friends as we sat and sipped great wines on the terrace, you could catch the glittering lights of Bellagio across the water. Where I was was perfect and totally lovely… but the beguiling lights of Bellagio always beckoned. We all live on the opposite bank of Bellagio. We may live in wonderful spaces, and some of us have wonderful lives, but Bellagio, and all it promises, lies across the life we were given to live. All of us have our secret little Bellagios that we won’t reveal even to those we are closest to and love.
Your novella, “Mariana,” is inspired by “The Letters of a Portuguese Nun,” attributed by some to real-life nun Mariana Alcoforado. What made you want to write from a woman’s point of view?
For me it was a self-administered challenge. Let me explain. After publishing Find Me I was interviewed many times. In one interview I said that I could never really stomach magical realism. In another I said that it would be impossible for me to write from the point of view of someone I was not. In a third I said that I loved to write about the loves of younger people but found the loves of two sixty-year-olds dull business. The challenge lay in going against everything I’d said. I wrote The Gentleman from Peru, which is a magical realist novella; Mariana is written by a 70-year-old man from the point of view of a 20+-year-old woman; and my latest is Idyll on the High Line about two retired individuals who meet in a jury selection hall. I have frequently taught The Letters of a Portuguese Nun and I always thought that someone should write an updated version. As no one was doing it, I decided to do it myself. The original, published in 1669—and the date is mentioned in the novella—was written not by a nun but by a French diplomat called Guilleragues. Mariana Alcoforado is a mistaken attribution.
What is next for you?
I am writing a couple of books, one a novella, another a novel. I’m still thinking of writing about my father but this is a project that intimidates me. I should write a short book on seven scenes from Proust. But who knows when.
André Aciman photo by Chris Ferguson