ART feature - Enigma Variations
Exploring the idea that eventually we will discover who we've - to quote his novel Enigma Variations - ''always known we were'' is professor and novelist, André Aciman. The Egyptian-born writer is famously known for the award winning gay fiction novel Call Me by Your Name, and currently lectures at the Graduate Centre of University of New York, where he teaches the history of literary theory and the works of Marcel Proust. Writing is André's forté since the release of his memoir Out of Egypt kickstarted his career in 1995, and he has since published several notable novels with more in the pipeline.
In this issue of PIBE, André opens up to us about the journey of understanding who we are referencing one of his latest works Enigma Variations.
Enigma Variations explores the idea that we will eventually discover who we've 'always known we were'. Do you think it's true that there is always an undercurrent of certainty about who we are?
The book is based on the idea that there is no core “us.” As I say in the novel, each of us is “like an ellipse, with two competing foci but no centre. In the words of the poet, Judah Halevi my heart [is] in the east … but my body [is all the way] out west.” We always live with the hope that this next experience, or this next beloved person, will finally help us find our centre - our true identity. This is something we always suspect has been hidden since childhood. As I also say in the novel, there are at least nine of us in each one of us, and some of these don’t even know the other. We have hunches about who our true self is, but that self always gives us the slip.
What made you come up with the title 'Enigma Variations'?
I gave my novel the title Enigma Variations because I was alluding to Sir Edward Elgar’s musical composition. Elgar composed fourteen variations in an 'original theme', but he never revealed what the original themes were.
We are variations of our true self, but our true self is absent. There is no homecoming and there may be no home either. We are, in the end, all exiles from ourselves.
Do you think it's important for us to lose ourselves to regain ourselves?
Losing ourselves takes an enormous amount of both courage and recklessness. I wouldn’t know the answer, because I have never been able to lose myself, which -according to your question- may be the reason I never found myself. We need to stray from the path given to us by our parents and teachers to begin finding the right path for us and begin finding who we are. But I haven't strayed. Or at least not for too long. When I sense trouble, I slip away. I prefer things on the bias than upfront; I like people who give me hints of things rather than those who state them outright. I like people who are, like me, given to irony, because irony is a way of speaking from both sides of the mouth, of saying more -or of saying less- than words can say.
Can you tell us about an experience that has especially shaped you?
There are several experiences that have made me who I am, and they are all the same: failing an exam, being fired from a job, being rejected by a woman I loved - they all spell failure. The scar is still there, and there are days when the memory of that failure flares up and I cannot overcome or hide it. [Over time] I have learned to live with it. This failure gives an edge to what I write; every instance of happiness in my stories turns a jaundiced eye on happiness. Every moment of hope is underscored by fear, failure and defeat; ultimately disillusionment lies in wait each time I forget to expect the worst. Life does not cooperate; I try to forget this, but I can’t.
How would you describe love - the biggest mystery of all?
Love is a form of twisted hope. We want people very badly, but we seldom know what we want from them; much less do we know what they really want from us. Love is a transaction carried with the wrong currency and on an exchange rate that always favours others - never us. We yearn, and we long, and we suffer quite genuinely. And, given the choice, we’ll choose to suffer rather than not feed the hope that someday this other person will make us whole. Without the hope that the other will finally bring us the happiness we cannot find in ourselves, there is no meaning to love.Domestic love is a different thing altogether as it’s a form of tamed love. And tamed love, like spayed love, has lost its fire, its hopes and its flimsiest fantasies. No one [in this day and age] is writing songs about the joy of folding laundry together on Sunday afternoons.
Can you tell us about where you derived inspiration for the novel 'Enigma Variations'?
I believe we are -as I said [above]- many persons in one. I wanted to write a novel about moments in the sexual life of a bisexual man. Starting [the novel] from Paul’s early adolescence, into his young adulthood and then ending in his midlife. I wanted to turn every possible stone and examine how he desires and whom he desires. I love the fact that nothing stays the same and that what seemed firmed up one moment, suddenly vanishes the next. We are rarely the same person within the space of 48 hours; things get more complicated when you begin to measure identity through a far longer span of time. What makes us consistent is how we want [people and things]. Paul wants someone at the age of twelve, and then in his mid to late forties wants someone else. His way of wanting bears his signature as it has not changed a bit since childhood. The person one wants always remains an incomprehensible other.
What do you think is the biggest factor in shaping a person?
Failure and loss, but also success. There is nothing better than to seek the world with gumption and self-confidence but nothing thwarts us as much as fear and the anticipation of defeat. Success and the boldness to hope, and ultimately acquire what we want makes us better, happier people. Success shapes us and, when underscored by humility, makes us tolerable individuals. Failure breeds failure, anticipates more failures and has no vocabulary for success. Ultimately failure and loss inscribe themselves and deny hope, others and love.
It's common for people to mask feelings, what is your coping mechanism (if any)?
Irony. Even when I reach out to someone whom I like and hope will like me, my move is always underscored by irony.
What makes you André Aciman?
I’ve heard the name before, but I don’t know him yet.
Words / JESSIE PINK