The troopship carrying me and several thoes and other soldiers across the wintry North Atlantic in 1952 was named the General Floyd W. Cagebottom or something, and the 11-day nightmare aboard it has always salved my bad conscience for heading to Europe rather than Korea, the destination for the overwhelming majority of my fellow basic trainees. I was on the bottom canvas bunk in a tier of four. My three spatial superiors were as seasick as I was, but it was I who had to endure the splash of vomitus on the deck beside my face. The latrine was clogged and awash in urine and various forms of buoyant egesta. The Coca Cola and graham crackers on which I subsisted kept me from losing more than the twenty pounds or so I got shot of on the way to Bremerhaven.
My way out of this hell was to abstract myself and go to a mental place of my own invention. Well, not entirely my own. I chose a room in Beirut and engaged Matisse as decorator. The sunlit balcony looked onto a blue sea. The white wooden table beside my transatlantique held a sliced melon. Hibiscus bloomed nearby. Some other fragrance that I could not and cannot name is still available to my senses, as arc the other wholly abstract elements of this notional construct, invulnerable to all the manifold miseries of later Lebanese history.
I begin this account of André Aciman’s Out of Egypt with a fragment of my own autobiography to make a point about the Platonic geography that is involved. His actual Alexandria (where he was born in 1951, only a year before I boarded that ship) is as innocent of my footprints as Beirut, but it is another of those places to which I have repaired so often in thought-guided by Forster, Durrell, Cavafy and others – that in reading Aciman I find myself checking his real city against the one in my head, to see whether he’s got it right.
He must have it right, of course, though this is hardly dismaying, since I must now merge his fascinatingly different Alexandria with the one that has served me up to now. Quails from as far away as Siberia, exhausted by their long flight across the Mediterranean, did not, for instance, drop into my Alexandria and lie panting on the ground, waiting to be picked up and roasted. They do into his. I could never have made that up. His Alexandria, on the other hand, does contain on one of its walls a print of the very Matisse that probably gave rise to my Beirut asylum.
The family’s own Platonic geography begins with an all but imaginary Leghorn, a great wall of ‘Italian’ status for many Levantine Jews, occasionally substantiated by actual passports, and crucially important after Suez, when it was essential not to be British or French or Israeli. Closer to the time of the book is the actual 1905 emigration from ‘a faraway, gaslit world called Turkey, where ignorance, dirt, disease, theft, beauty, and massacres prevailed.’ But the family also prevailed, in a sense. Aciman’s paternal grandfather had been a prosperous cigarette manufacturer in Constantinople. Fortune beckoned when Uncle Isaac became fast friends with a schoolmate, the future King Fouad, a royal lure that spurred the whole family’s removal to Egypt. Intimacy with the court continued with Farouk and assured positions of financial power for all the men of the family. Still, there were ups and downs. At a low point in the Thirties the family sifted possible refuges in its phantom atlas: ‘America? Too many Jews already. England? Too rigid. Australia? Too underdeveloped. Canada? Too cold. South Africa? Too far.’ They settled on Japan and hired a Japanese tutor twice a week. ‘Raw fish and all that rice ...! Death by constipation,’ wailed Aunt Clara. For the time being, however, they stayed put.
Aciman’s date of birth is something I derive from independent research (stopping him in a corridor at Princeton – where, belatedly to declare an interest, we both teach – and asking him), not from anything in or near his memoir. The book is not entirely innocent of chronology, though it seems almost irritated that anything so datable as the Suez crisis should sit there at one end, like an uninvited walrus in a canoe.
For its preferred time is like that in Proust’s novel: the time of generation and exile, of insult and retribution, of anguish and bewilderment, fine mornings and tumultuous meals and days on the beach – the time of memory and longing, not of the calendar or the clock. Proust frames the first chapter – in a phrase on the opening page (‘I tried to speak to him of Alexandria, of time lost’) and by name on the last – and is implicitly present in all the chronological inter-weavings and redoublings.
The memoir opens on a large estate in Surrey, the gift of a grateful England to the nonagenarian Uncle Vili, now living under the name ‘Dr H.M. Spingarn’, who had been a British spy while loudly admiring II Duce. The author (neither of his names appears in the book) is there on a visit, establishing his bona fides as flesh-and-blood narrator. But he evaporates almost as quickly as Ishmael in Moby Dick, to return as a preternaturally observant eyewitness of scenes that took place decades before his birth or at some distance from his actual person, noting every nuance of dialogue, facial expression and stage furniture in vivid quarrels. Valéry said that a painter should paint not what he sees but what will be seen. Aciman does that: Out of Egypt is continuously absorbing.
Chief among the characters in this great family memoir is the author’s mother, who is congenitally deaf, an affliction that isolates her more cruelly than her in-law status in her husband’s intensely clannish family. As a child the author was a sort of linguistic prosthesis for her, a device that she had to attach to the telephone to derive any use from it; but he also served as a kind of dragoman in daily situations.
All his early experience seems to have been a confusion not only of tongues but of tongue-lessness. If deprivation is the sine qua non of a writer, as the great editor William Maxwell recently said, then the mother’s physical deficit was an ample lack for the son. In describing his situation he is unsparing of everyone’s sensibilities, including those of the reader: ‘the sound of her shriek would not go away ... it was an ugly, coarse, demented shriek, and no matter how I tried, no other thought, no conjured sound could quite muffle its persistent, frightful ring in my ears.’ This shriek was also the terror of tradesmen in the bazaars, where his mother was known as al tarsha (‘the deaf woman’) and all others associated with her were known as this or that in relation to al tarsha.
She was no less physically than vocally formidable. She would come to blows with the Arab butcher in the marketplace over a cut of meat, though everyone would soon embrace with tears of reconciliation. There was no forgiveness, however, for the headmistress of Victoria College, a former jewel of the British colonial educational establishment, where André was not only forced to memorise, in Arabic, anti-semitic doggerel, but was caned for getting it wrong. The imprint of al tarsha’s hand glowed on the astonished woman’s face the day he was abruptly moved to the American School.
Father Vassily Papanastasiou, the Greek Orthodox priest who counsels the author’s father when he contemplates a prudent conversion, says: ‘I am not like the others.’ This is putting it mildly. But none of the many characters who orbit this family – the staff of servants, each sharply individuated; the parade of governesses and tutors in Greek, Italian, English, Arabic; and the coterie of family friends, such as the outsized Hugo Blumberg, alias Hugo de Monteury, alias Ugo da Montefeltro, the most powerful stockbroker of Egypt – is ‘like the others’.
The Suez crisis brings every kind of upheaval (blackouts, crowding into one apartment, an exacerbation of anti-semitism); but one must still have breakfast
where the fresh morning air is always tempered by the welcoming smell of exotic flowers, buffed floors, and hot beverages, butter, toast, and eggs ... A servant poured coffee, tea, or chocolate. The butter was curled into neat oyster-shaped shells. The dried toast was covered with an embroidered purple cloth, the eggs were kept warm in a large bowl, there were plenty of cheeses and jams. As for the brioches ...
His father has a ‘visceral aversion to helba’, an Egyptian beverage that the servants consumed in great quantities. But Aciman observes that
all homes hear ethnic odours, and anyone born in Alexandria would just as easily have sniffed out a Sephardi household like ours, with its residual odour of Parmesan, boiled artichokes, and borekas as they themselves could recognise an Armenian kitchen by its unavoidable smell of cured pastrami, a Greek living room by the odour of myrrh, and Italians by the smell of fried onions and chamomile. Working-class Italians smelled of fried peppers, and Greeks smelled of garlic and brilliantine, and, when they sweated, their underarms smelled of yoghurt.
Amid the extreme anxiety of preparing to flee Nasser’s wrath with whatever property could be concealed, one smell, of leather suitcases, was alarming, for it had to be masked from visitors, who were not infrequently the police. His father called the house ‘the abattoir’.
Behind the book’s title lurks Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa and perhaps Pliny’s Ex Africa semper aliquid novi. But its actual deep structure is Exodus, for it concludes with the limitless irony of a Seder, the ritual meal celebrating liberation from Egyptian bondage, conducted inside an Egypt that was becoming hourly more of a prison. These not especially observant Jews had celebrated many Seders, some fifty in all, with the insistent phrase ‘out of Egypt’, from the second book of Moses: ‘Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.’ It is a ragged affair, a rehearsal by actors who have forgotten parts they never really knew. It is made more ragged still by the scratches on his father’s face, left there, as everyone knows, by the fingers of his mistress, whose telephone call to beg forgiveness compounds the chaos.
Only eight of the numerous family were now left behind, poised like revivified quail to migrate once again across the sea, and of those the two eldest, Nessim and Great Grandmother, died in Egyptian bondage. Or hardly bondage, all things considered. For Alexandria was after all Alexandria, and just as Auden insisted he was not an American but a New Yorker, so they were not Egyptians but Alexandrians. The ultimate irony of exile is to long for the earlier exile one has been forced to leave, to remember for ever ‘the baffling, sudden beauty of that moment when, if only for an instant I had caught myself longing for a city I never knew I loved.’