In her 1990 A Natural History of the Senses, a grand tour through the luscious world of sight, sound, taste, and touch, Diane Ackerman wrote of the many writers “gloriously attuned” to that oddly powerful sense of smell. Among them, Proust held an affinity for lime-flower tea and madeleines, Woolf ruminated her “parade of city-smells,” Coleridge pondered the aroma of notebooks, Milosz mused on the freshness of his linen closet, Joyce recalled childhood odors of urine and oilcloths, and Flaubert recounted of the fragrance of his lover’s slippers.
Enter André Aciman, whose latest collection of essays begins with an ode to the fragrance of lavender. We all have our scented indulgences. I’ve recently inhaled mine in the dried Eucalyptus branches I have arranged in a vase by the door in what is now the third place I’ve lived in the past two years. And because I clipped the branches from my mother’s New York apartment before I left the city, they carry the slightest scent of her—a mix of flowering trees, a dash of Patchouli oil—and when I pass by the door, I am taken, as if by some sixth sense, elsewhere. What, after all, is more transporting, more suggestive of time or place than a familiar smell?
So it was that I opened Aciman’s Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, which begins with the simple claim that “Life begins somewhere with the scent of lavender.” From there, Aciman, as if a docent in his own “scent museum,” meditates on a single fragrance—which, as a child, he encountered in the smell of his father’s aftershave, then later used himself as a remedy for migraines—that reveals an archive of experience: of childhood, of fatherhood, of love and loneliness. And, too, Aciman offers homage to time and place: an evening in Manhattan, a perfumery in France, the streets of Cambridge when the shops are aglow in winter.
Early on in Alibis, after learning of Aciman’s affinity for lavender, we also learn of his self-proclaimed identity as an exile. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Aciman emigrated with his family to Italy, then New York. As a man who has lived around the world, Aciman casually lingers with reflections on places near and far. He scans the shores of Lake Como for a house he finds depicted in a reproduction of Monet’s Villas at Bordighera, a painting which mystifies him, “a painting,” he writes, “that had become like home to me, and if not home, then the idea of home—which is good enough.”
In “Barcelona,” the city’s Old Quarter, Barri Gòtic, offers the narrow paths through which Aciman traces his Jewish ancestry and questions the lines and limitations of his faith. In New York City, the “Empty Rooms” in Aciman’s apartment, left vacant when his sons have gone away to college, reveal the ways in which he had for years been “rehearsing their absence,” creating an archive of memory where “everything was being logged, nothing forgotten.” As he traverses interior and exterior landscapes, Aciman’s observations arise from a dreamlike, sensuous palette, while his ultimate realizations are marked by a refined, lucid precision. Returning to lavender, he writes:
Sometimes the history of provisional attachments means more to us than the attachments themselves, the way the history of a love affair stirs more love than the affair itself. Sometimes it is in blind ritual and not faith that we encounter the sacred, the way it is habit not character that makes us who we are. Sometimes the clothes and scents we wear have more of us in them than we do ourselves.
It takes a certain mind to suggest that experience is not always as meaningful as we believe. And yet, Aciman, in a world where “home is altogether elsewhere,” valiantly suggests that life’s meaning is driven less by the people, places, art, and objects we hold dear, than by the way we extract and preserve our memory—like a fragrance bottled or dried.
Aciman is neither novice as a writer nor as a connoisseur of the senses. His 1995 memoir Out of Egypt, which chronicles his family’s arrival to cosmopolitan Alexandria and their eventual exodus years later, is equally infused with sunlit balconies, beach sounds, and city scents that permeate the coastal town. Take the smell of the auburn-colored hilba, from fenugreek, which Egyptians drank for its curative properties and which dyed their palms red. Once deemed by Aciman’s father as an “ethnic odor,” an “Arab smell” not fitting of a Westernized home, it is a smell as symbolic of identity and belonging as Aciman has come to know lavender.
Perhaps Aciman’s exile is the exile of a life upheld by memory—as if suspended or trapped in an anesthetized state of longing in a world where displacement reigns and time recedes. Still, Aciman’s self-examinations exude a sense of urgency. His prose, often meandering and enumerative, is grounded in the humble confidence of one who has lived—not to tell us his tale, but to encourage considerations of our own: What encounters or impressions most linger? What rooms and cities and fragrances most haunt us? In so tapping the core of our memory, Aciman discovers, we risk exposure to what we might find: longing, absence, vacancies where only the trace of our senses remain.
I can’t help but wonder, therefore, if the eucalyptus I now keep by the door has become simply the fragrance of my own exile—by which I mean, merely, the preservation of a place I once knew, and left. An unsettling realization to be sure, and yet it is a realization nurtured by truth—the type of truth wherein real essays are born. Alibis is a searching ode to the unending sense of memory, and Aciman, as exile, as émigré—as essayist—has made it clear: writing is home.
Jericho Parms recently received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2011
$25.00 (hardback), ISBN: 978-0-374-10275-3