Aciman, Andre. “Homo Irrealis: Essays”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.
Thoughts from Aciman
Leaving novels behind for the time being, author Andre Aciman shares his thoughts on time, the creative mind, and great lives and works. He explores what the present tense is all about and what it means to those who are unable to take hold of it. But this is “not about the present, or the past, or the future, but about what might have been but never was―but could in theory still happen.”
Aciman looks at “subway poetry and the temporal resonances of an empty Italian street, to considerations of the lives and work of Sigmund Freud, Constantine Cavafy, W. G. Sebald, John Sloan, Éric Rohmer, Marcel Proust, and Fernando Pessoa, and portraits of cities such as Alexandria and St. Petersburg” taking us into the power of imagination “to shape our memories under time’s seemingly intractable hold.” With the theme of “a certain situation or action is not known to have happened at the moment the speaker is talking”, Aciman looks at time and the hypothetical situation in which everything exists and does not regardless of what happens and did happen.
Exile is a major idea in the collection and the author writes from a place where he is between the realities or perhaps yearning for a reality that has never happened or might have happened. This is akin to being an exile, immigrant, and migrant— stuck between worlds in which he yearns for both the past and the future. There is an inexplainable yearning for a home and past that is no longer available to the exile; a place outside of time, with no real indication of where, when, or in which decade this is. It is the longing for something that does not exist within time or space.
We all have several identities to aid in adaptation and among those is one of alienation that we are reminded of in explaining why someone seeks another identity or a new country. Aciman, himself, did not feel welcomed in Egypt due to his family being Sephardic Jews. Therefore, once being alienated, he fantasized for a new reality, that may or may not be real. Can someone ever truly be “home”.
Having had left this country for a new life in Israel makes this a very important and personal book for me. It is never easy to live somewhere between two worlds— dreaming about and yearning “Homo Irrealis” has a personal touch for me as I have had similar experiences of being in a transcendental position, being in between two worlds— “yearning for a home or the past life, that is never existent in reality as we know it. But it exists beyond our mind and time, it stands still in a place, where we can only reach in our mind. When you leave a place, it will never be the same when you get back to it. Just like it is for Giovanni in Giovanni’s Room and Raif Efendi in Madonna in a Fur Coat: they yearn for the past but also the future in present time but they only exist in their minds”.
In terms of linguistics, “irrealis” moods “are the set of grammatical moods that indicate that something is not actually the case or that a certain situation or action is not known to have happened at the moment the speaker is talking.”
Aciman sees this as how we often think in the form of “what should we have done” and the kind of longing for the alternate universe that might accompany us if we put that choice up instead of the choice that we finally made. He uses many of his personal experiences for reflection. We go on a journey in which we see our iives as they might have been.