cover image False Papers

False Papers

Andre Aciman. Farrar Straus Giroux, $23 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-374-29978-1

Memory trumps life and existence acquires the hue of old hand-tinted photographs in this collection of 14 essays by a self-defined perennial expatriate. Aciman, a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, grew up in Egypt, Italy and France, and lives in Manhattan. Taking up again the themes of Out of Egypt, his acclaimed memoir of his family's lost life in Alexandria, he fumbles for the nebulous essence of a rootless existence. On a return trip to Alexandria, he tentatively visits old apartment buildings, the Graeco-Roman Museum and the Jewish cemetery, each site leached of visceral impact and replotted on an abstract, internal map. In Paris, a trip to the Square Lamartine in the 16th arrondissement calls to mind the few winter weeks he spent in the city when he was 14. Straus Park, a small, neglected and magically marginal triangle of ground on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, comes to symbolize all the cities he has ever known and loved. Farther afield, he visits Proust's hometown of Illiers, touring the Proust Museum just a few days before Christmas with a select group of Proust enthusiasts, and travels to Bethlehem, where the tension among Muslims, Christians and Jews reminds him of Alexandria. A final few pieces explore the patterns of love affairs in New York: bus routes remembered, cafes revisited, sentiments examined. Aciman makes an art of indirection. He travels, he ruefully explains, ""not so as to experience anything at the time of my tour, but to plot the itinerary of a possible return trip. This, it occurs to me, is also how I live."" So long as he keeps from slipping into a repetitive, rarified exaltation of displacement, such insights illuminate the most shadowy corners of memory and motivation. (Aug.)