Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Destination: Elsewhere

Last week, I was chatting with a coworker as she prepared an after-shift smoke, carefully rolling the tobacco as we discussed the day and her present need, at the end of it, to be elsewhere. "I like to sprinkle a little dried lavender in," she said. "It has a nice effect."

I gasped and wouldn't let her go smoke the lavender-and-tobacco bundle until I had dragged her down to Destination Literature to show her the essay I had read the night before, entitled "Lavender."

The essay is the first in a new collection by Andre Aciman, Alibis: Essays from Elsewhere. The book begins with the scent of lavender, as vivid as if you had been smoking it yourself, emanating from Aciman's father's aftershave. In the next pages Aciman will be tracking the essence of this memory and the essence of the self, trying to determine what fragrance best expresses, epitomizes, and may one day, for his own son, immortalize, him.

The Proustian shadow is eminent in this as well as in the essays that follow. All the reader has to do is replace the scent of lavender with the taste of a tea-soaked madeleine to understand that Aciman is on his own hunt for lost time. Aciman acknowledges his emulation of Proust, accepts it as a part of the self he explores, as a Proust scholar and editor of The Proust Project. A Proust fanatic myself, I forgave any parasitic tendencies in these essays, as Aciman does not just evoke the style and philosophical musings of my favorite author, but continues Proust's exploration of the romantic relationship that our imaginations hold with alibis, elsewhere.

Aciman left Egypt with his family when still a young man, an exodus captured in his work Out of Egypt. In Alibis, Aciman returns to the streets of Rome, his first city of exile, to discover if anything of the past remains from his three years in the city. Instead of memories, however, he finds the streets paved with scenes from the literature he escaped into as a young man absented from any homeland outside of his imagination.

Aciman's tendency to read place through the literary imagination infuses his travel essays with beauty and nostalgia for places never to be returned to. Sometimes literature overrides his experience of reality, and the reader is left believing that the places she longs for can only be found within the confines of the self. But every once in a while the spell works in reverse, as art, such as a cherished Monet painting, leads Aciman on a pilgrimage to a place never before experienced in the immediacy of a present moment. Aciman's descriptive, winding prose captures such moments and tantalizes the reader in much the same way that scenes from literature and art inspired his own travels--to Rome, Venice, Tuscany, Barcelona, Paris, Alexandria, and New York.

The reward of reading these essays in getting to travel with Aciman, not only into new landscapes, but into the reflective depths of the self. After all, much of what the traveler sees in a city is simply a projection of the self. This is what Aciman calls "the miracle of intimacy with a place that may be more in us than it is ever out on the pavement."

Reading these essays is, in fact, not far from the experience of an after-shift smoke: breathing in a new atmosphere, a fresh scent, looking up from the page to letting the reflections swirl about, deep within the self, before exhaling the ephemeral language that inevitably leads your imagination back out into the surrounding streets of your city.
As I neared the end of Aciman's book, I went back to the initial essay, this time with a lavender-laced tobacco pipe in hand. The essay ends in a lavender field in Provence, where Aciman has traveled with his wife and sons. There is a sense of fulfillment in this ending, a comforting feeling that things have come full circle: here is the source of the scent, the thing itself, and, perhaps, a glimpse of the ever-elusive self, no longer dwelling in the past, no longer elsewhere, but finally, fully present, if only for a moment. As I read this passage, I exhaled and sniffed the air.

Like Aciman, and before him, Proust, I was remembering. I first read Proust while house-sitting in Seattle. For me, one of the greatest pleasures of house-sitting is getting to try out soaps, shampoos, and lotions other than your own. The lotion of that particular host, which I would lather on after a bath and before curling up with Proust, was scented with lavender.

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