A Surprise, But Not the Good Kind – André Aciman’s “Harvard Square”

I had high expectations for André Aciman’s new novel “Harvard Square.” Friends spoke highly of an earlier novel of his. I enjoyed a recent essay by Aciman in the New York Times on “How Memoirists Mold the Truth.” He is a Proust scholar, from Egypt originally, and teaches comparative literature at City University in New York where he also directs the Writer’s Institute. With such rich personal history and expertise, I anticipated that “Harvard Square” would be a wonderful piece of writing.

It is not. I should rephrase. It is not a wonderful piece of writing, in my humble opinion.

Artistic appreciation is, to some extent, subjective. We all experience art in our own unique way. That individual reaction combined with the animated discussions when we disagree is what makes art so exciting and vital in our lives. A reviewer in the New York Times gave “Harvard Square” high marks describing it as “an existential adventure worthy of Kerouac.” So clearly, some people love the book.

But it seems to me that though there is a subjective component to artistic appreciation, when it comes to writing there are also more objective criteria that differentiate great writing from not-so-great writing. In my mind, “Harvard Square” fails on numerous of these criteria.

Firstly, we as readers are constantly being told what the narrator is thinking and feeling. Listening to a character’s internal dialogue can be a powerful story-telling tool when it is done subtlety and with nuance. But it’s off-putting when it is used obsessively and depicts the obvious and/or the predictable. I am more engaged as a reader in a piece of fiction when I have to surmise what a character is thinking and feeling by observing their actions and speech. As editors are fond of saying, “show me, don’t tell me.”

Secondly, the focus of much of “Harvard Square” is on a wild character called Kalaj who decries everything around him as “ersatz” meaning an inferior imitation. It’s one thing for a character to constantly repeat such an expression and quite another thing for the author of the story to use it ad nauseum not only from Kalaj’s mouth but also in the general narrative. I take it that Aciman’s intention in the novel is to depict the relationship between the narrator and Kalaj as ersatz in that the narrator is a pale and obsequious version of the vibrant Kalaj. But we as readers don’t have to be hit over the head constantly in order to discern this point.

Thirdly, Aciman in “Harvard Square” has a stylistic quirk of putting long series of questions one after the other into the narration.  It is irritating and distracts from the dramatic flow.

I know that I’m being very judgmental and that there are more learned readers and writers who will disagree with my critique. But I had such high hopes as I approached the novel. My disappointment with “Harvard Square” is in large part because the writing style constantly interrupted my appreciation of a compelling story. That was a surprise, and not the good kind.

* * *

For information on André Aciman’s “Harvard Square”, see: http://amzn.to/1bhSKlS

For information on my memoir “August Farewell” and my novel “Searching for Gilead”, see my website at http://DavidGHallman.com

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