Harvard Square

  • Harvard Square
  • W.W. Norton & Company
  • 304 pp.
  • Reviewed by K. H. Macomber
  • April 8, 2013

An homage to the muddled lives of outliers, who find themselves trying to fit in where they’ve landed.

Speaking of his childhood home in Alexandria, André Aciman wrote in his 1995 memoir Out of Egypt: “I caught myself longing for a city I never knew I loved.” With his new novel, Harvard Square, Aciman revisits the themes of places torn from the pages of the past, along with the memories of people who inhabited those times gone by — characters and cities more beloved in retrospect, and after many miles, metaphorical and otherwise, have been journeyed.

Along the way, Aciman brings the reader face-to-face with a variety of expat-in-America travails. Harvard Square is an homage to the muddled lives of outliers, who find themselves trying to fit in where they’ve landed, while never quite willing to give over to their new environs. Because, if and when that world rejects and spits them out, what next? A temporary au pair, a grad student who can’t pass the comprehensive exams, a cab driver without a green card — those are the types of global citizen-visitors whose universal worries Aciman describes with a gentle and knowing heart.

The story begins in prologue, with a father shepherding his teenaged son on a college tour that has finally delivered them to Cambridge, Massachusetts. The son is beyond indifferent to the offerings of Harvard’s admissions office, and the father is frustrated by his son’s unwillingness to partake in the information sessions. Our main character, whose name we never learn, then takes his son on an alternate Harvard tour, the one of his graduate-school days — what he can find of it, in any case. He wants his son to love Harvard the way he does, or the way he thinks he did, looking back from the here and now.

Times have changed, and Harvard Square with it. The father is reminded that his presence in Cambridge, now as then, has always been provisional. And after a day of wandering around, noting which old haunts have faded away and which, miraculously, remain, the father reveals to his son that there once was a man who he met at the now disappointingly relocated and revamped Café Algiers — a man who might have changed the course of his life and who could have rendered him someone other than the boy’s father. This glimmer of a life unknown and of a road not traveled piques the son’s interest and sets the story into motion. 

So who was this interloper, inserting himself into our hero’s humdrum life of digesting two books a day in preparation for the comprehensive exams he’s failed once already? Who shakes up this grad student’s sultry summer of living on a shoestring, migrating from rooftop to coffee shop, observing other lives being lived, while watching in silence and taking notes on Montaigne’s essays, hoping to not be found out as Harvard’s latest admissions office mistake?

The newcomer’s name, or at least the one we are given until further notice, is Kalaj, short for Kalashnikov. He enters the story, rat-a-tat-tat: a man of many, many words. As if to keep up with his fictional creation, Aciman revs up his own descriptive word count as well. The sheer volume of verbal visuals and metaphorical compare-and-contrasts overwhelms the reader, in an effort to explain who this character is, and how he is or isn’t anything like our nameless protagonist. As that reader, I was left to wonder whether this was the intended effect of Aciman, never quite trusting that any one of his adjective-laden descriptions alone might do; or whether it’s his novel’s alter ego, the Ph.D. candidate whose response to all queries is to throw up lots of possible answers and see which one sticks. At times, the verbal barrage can be stultifying. Other times, the words flow like whitewater, taking us from an inkling of a concept to its logical, if sometimes unexpected, end: 

“Perhaps he was a stand-in for who I was, a primitive version of the me I’d lost track of and sloughed off living in America. My shadow self, my picture of Dorian Gray, my mad brother in the attic, my very, very rough draft. Me unmasked, unchained, unleashed, unfinished; me untrammeled, me in rags, me enraged. Me without books, without finish, without a green card. Me with a Kalashnikov.”

Aciman also addresses the human need for intimacy, whether through love affairs or family ties or unexpected friendships that spring from local bistros and happy-hour haunts. Add to this thread the ever-present sword of Damocles, hanging over all who don’t exactly fit in, all whose luck seems in danger of running out: There but for the grace of God go I. 

Beyond their love of bottomless cups of coffee at the seedy Café Algiers, the lives of the two central characters are fantastically divergent. One is the quiet student, the other the loud womanizer. The Tunisian is the new arrival who knows everyone and figures everything out; the Egyptian, the wallflower who after four years barely knows his neighbors across the hall. The newcomer rejects the world he inhabits, with all its jumbo-ersatz bullshit. The academic lingerer wants desperately to be allowed in for keeps, and while he’s at it, would like to shrug off his association with the other once he’s got solid footing in his Ivy-League realm.

Over the course of six months, the two share their life stories, their conquests, their angst. They share as much as the grad student is willing to share, and more than he wants from time to time. When it becomes clear that their lives are headed in drastically different directions, their parting is both heart-wrenching and predictable. In the end, our non-hero is unwilling to concede, in either words or deeds, how much the other has mattered to him.

Harvard Square concludes with a wistful epilogue, describing how it might all have played out. Having begun with the now-middle-aged grad student’s petulant son, imploring “Can we just leave?” we are left with the message: Yes, you can. And yet. You can preemptively reject the institution, the place, the person, who may in the end reject you. Or you can open your heart and have your world made more joyful, more meaningful, more full of life. But only if you dare.

K.H. Macomber lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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