21 May 2012

Out of Egypt, by Andre Aciman

This book is considered a classic in exile autobiography, and I think deservedly so. The writing is lovely, bathed in a gentle nostalgia and longing but lacking the kind of bitterness one often finds in such works. You don't really get a coherent narrative, more like a cast of characters, and even they are seen somewhat obliquely. But they're a lively, intriguing bunch, with their ethnic and class differences and continuous squabbles. His deaf mother is an especially fascinating character, scheming, frustrated, and prone to intense rages.

Curiously, you don't get an especially strong sense of place. I read the novel before going to Alexandria, thinking it would sort of prime me for the trip, but it doesn't really spend much time on descriptions of place. I did appreciate the book more after going to some of the places he mentions, but I didn't visit them with any sense of having met them before - I really didn't know what to expect (of course, it's also probably changed quite a lot since he wrote the book...). But the passionate evocation of place is usually the centerpiece of exile life writing, and here it is largely absent - he's much more interested in the cast.

You learn a bit about the history of his time, what it was like growing up Jewish and somewhat out of place with your surroundings in a tumultuous period of Egyptian history, but again, not that much. I think the book ends up feeling in some ways like a series of sketches. The people described are wonderfully brought to life, but one does rather miss a story that would tie it all together. I think I will try reading one of his novels to see if they work out better.

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