Aciman, Andre. “Enigma Variations: A Novel”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.
Desire, Pure and Raw
If you have ever thought about the lines between melodrama and tragedy, this is the book you need to read and if you have not thought about that, you need to read this as well. I have love Andre Aciman’s prose and his ability to depict the emotions in prose and here is proof that he is one of the most interesting novelists writing today. We are introduced to Paul whose life seems to be ruled by love; be it present or past.
As a youngster Paul listed after his parents’ cabinetmaker, as a college student, he had passion for a young coed and his life has been filled with anonymous sexual encounters with men wherever he might have been. His definition of love is the same as his definition of raw desire and while he might feel this for one person, at the same time he feels it for someone else. While these “loves” are often transient and anonymous, there is great passion and it is this passion that propels Paul forward. Aciman takes us into Paul’s mind and thoughts as he examines the roots of his passions and the definitions of desire.
Aciman pulls is into a sensual and sensuous milieu in which his characters deal with moral agony due to having their hearts and not their minds. the choices they make in following their hearts. Paul is a whose life seems ruled by sensitivity and he lives with the memories of both men and women that he has met, bedded and even taught wisdom to. While he is Catholic in what he thinks, he is flexible in his pursuit of feeling and love. His world is one of sympathy and thought; he is man of many identities who finds pleasure where he can and lives with the damage he has caused to himself. He searches for desire and attachment and harbors the regrets that are the result. Paul’s loves are consuming and covetous during his adult years just as they were when he was in his teens. He is unable to move forward without letting go of his past and he constantly dreams of love. He is an enigma to himself just as we are to ourselves.
Wile living in Italy with his parents, Paul’s first crush was a handsome, talented local Italian with whom he had what he calls “my first encounter with time.” As an adult he returns to Italy and learns that he could have the same anywhere. As an adult in New York, he senses that his girlfriend Maud was cheating on him with a handsome visitor and then he becomes drawn to the visitor himself. He becomes romantically involved with a fellow tennis player while also being off and on involved with a college girlfriend.
Aciman brilliantly enters the human psyche and with his usual gorgeous and lyrical prose, he looks at desire and our aches, pains and indecisions. Paul like so many others walks a very thin line between melodrama and tragedy and manages to remain somewhere in between the two.