Friday, 5 June 2015

Book Review: Eight White Nights by André Aciman
With regard to places where the sun sets late and rises early in June, July and August, the USA aren’t exactly the country coming to my mind first although there are of course Alaska and the chain of Aleutian islands that link the north-western part of the American continent to Asia. However, being located on the fortieth parallel (thus further south than Madrid, Rome or Istanbul for instance) the City of New York certainly can’t be called particularly northern and yet it’s just there where I start My Reading Summer of Nordic White Nights. Unlike its literary model – Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s short story White Nights from 1848 – the novel Eight White Nights by André Aciman is set in contemporary New York white with snow. It recounts the beginning of an unusual love story between the nameless narrator and a woman called Clara.

André Aciman was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in January 1951 to French-speaking Jewish parents whose ancestors had come from Turkey and Italy to settle down in Egypt only in the early twentieth century. In 1965 the family moved to Italy and three years later to New York City, USA. After Comparative Literature Studies at prestigious universities in the USA, he embarked on an academic career in research and teaching before making his debut as an author with the much praised memoir Out of Egypt in 1995. The book was followed by so far three novels – Call Me by Your Name (2007), Eight White Nights (2010) and Harvard Square (2013) – along with two essay collections and other non-fiction. André Aciman continues to live in New York City, USA. 

The opening scene of Eight White Nights is set in snowed up New York on Christmas Eve. The nameless narrator is at a big party on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and quite at a loss because he doesn’t know any of the guests. He too belongs to the circle of wealthy Jews with German, Polish and Russian ancestors assembled there, but apparently he doesn’t usually mix with them and moreover he is shy. So instead of talking to the other guests he hides behind the Christmas tree and observes them when an attractive brunette in a red blouse unbuttoned down to her breastbone comes over him like a natural force introducing herself as Clara. They share a rather biting sense of humour and a love for wordplay which before soon makes them intersperse their conversation with a kind of secret code. Clara intrigues the narrator and he realises that he risks to fall in love with her although at the same time he is convinced that she isn’t interested in him at all and that he will only do harm to himself like in the past if he allows his feelings to set root. All this doesn’t prevent him from having a good time with Clara talking and joking even after having seen her kiss passionately her ex-boyfriend. The narrator passes the following day regretting that he won’t see Clara again, but then she turns up at the cinema where he told her he would attend the Rohmer film retrospective between Christmas and New Year. His talk about the French film director Eric Rohmer had made her curious… and she wished to see him again. So they pass another night together, this time watching two films, having dinner and dancing at a nearby restaurant. Nothing else happens between them, not even a kiss, because they are both too afraid of really getting involved and of being hurt. They can’t and don’t wish to withstand their mutual attraction, though, and seek each other’s company. Over the following days they watch more Rohmer films, visit old friends of Clara’s parents on the shore of the Hudson River, listen to Bach transpositions of Alexander Siloti, have a picnic on a rug in the narrator’s apartment, and talk about everything and nothing – except their feelings. 

As already the title of the novel insinuates in a way, Eight White Nights is a first-person narrative following in the traces of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famous short story White Nights which is even referred to in the novel at one point. Like in its nineteenth-century literary model every chapter covers one day in the life of the protagonists with its joys, worries, hopes and doubts. The nameless male narrator is clearly conceived as introverted, highly sensitive and equipped with vivid imagination which often plunges him into agony getting absorbed in worst-case scenarios, speculations about the thoughts of others or simply replaying events past. In fact, he is particularly prone to self-doubt and double-thinking as shows the seldom interrupted stream of consciousness that makes up the novel and sometimes makes it a bit tiring to read. Altogether the style of the book reminds of Marcel Proust whose work and life have been in the centre of the author’s attention as a professor of comparative literature. In addition it is a rather intellectual novel with all its references and allusions to different works of art, first of all music and cinema. Despite a considerable number of lengthy sentences and unusual metaphors as well as similes I had no problem getting into its flow. 

All in all, Eight White Nights by André Aciman hasn’t been what I would call a very easy or quick read, but the novel was much to my taste since I love being drawn into the minds of other people, even if they are only fictitious. To cut a long story short I enjoyed this book and am pleased to be able to recommend it to you.

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