Thursday, 5 March 2020

Book review: Enigma Variations, Andre Aciman (2017)

I bought this book at the shopping centre at Dymocks one day when I had an errand to carry out. It was on the general fiction shelf – they have dedicated sections for things like true crime and science fiction, as well – and I had remembered the author’s name because of a film adaptation of another of his books. That film had homosexuality as a theme and had done well critically so when I saw this book sitting there my mind engaged.

The book I was reminded of when reading this novel was Ali Whitelock’s collection of poetry, ‘and my heart crumples like a coke can’ (2018). In both books the stories are grounded in everyday reality, but in Aciman’s case romance is the key factor. Whitelock spreads her net wider but still stays rooted in this brand of material. Aciman’s is a novel of manners that charts one man’s life from adolescence through to old age. It is about how we live many lives in one life and how we have many special relationships that others in our lives may never learn about.

In one chapter the protagonist – Paul – and the woman he is walking with after having had a coffee in a cafĂ© are stopped on the pavement by a gaffer belonging to a film crew managing crowds for the purpose of enabling a shoot to take place. This scene is a kind of mise-en-abime that encapsulates, in a nutshell, the entire novel. You sense that the author knows he is setting the reader up for a special effect, just like a movie director gets actors to say scripted lines and to make their eyes move to the right or to the left, all the while capturing everything with the faithful, artful camera. Aciman’s prose has, like film, a kind of deliberate, self-conscious glamour.

There is unquestionably something cinematic about his style, something that reminded me of the opening scenes of action movies, something basic and universal that celebrates this time of incredible wealth and privilege and that we casually traverse as though we were always and forever just walking across a street on the way to a dinner date in a restaurant we had booked over the phone the day before. How blessed we are to be alive, how fortunate to be alive now, at this time in the evolution of the species.

Aciman has chosen a theme that crops up from time to time in contemporary literature – in Nabokov’s ‘Ada’ (1969), Garcia Marquez’ ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ (1988), and Mailer’s ‘Harlot’s Ghost’ (1991) – of timeless love, the kind of love that never ends as long as the two people involved are still alive. There’s something in this formulation – in a purely literary guise just as, in film, action movies let us celebrate ourselves in a certain, otherwise inchoate, visual way – that is thrilling and compelling. I never get tired of such stories, but Aciman adds a wry denouement that you will never – not in a million years – guess before you get to the final line of this brilliant novel.

What is the enigma? Is it Paul’s sexuality? Is it the compulsion to find meaning through others, and through what we call “love”? Is it the way we separate our interior life from the everyday, so that we are, for all intents and purposes, lying a lot of the time to people near to us?

Or is the enigma of Aciman’s title the very transience of life, it’s fleeting beauty, which the Japanese celebrate every spring when they take their beer and their grilled cobs of corn and go and sit on rugs to look at the cherry blossoms? Is it the fact of life itself?

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