It’s my first Palm Sunday in Rome. The year is 1966. I am fifteen, and my parents, my brother and I, and my aunt have decided to visit the Spanish Steps. On that day the Steps are filled with people but also with so many flowerpots that one has to squeeze through the crowd of tourists and of Romans carrying palm fronds. I have pictures of that day. I know I am happy, partly because my father is staying with us on a short visit from Paris and we seem to be a family again, and partly because the weather is absolutely stunning. I am wearing a blue wool blazer, a leather tie, a long-sleeved white polo shirt, and gray flannel trousers. I am boiling on this first day of spring and dying to take off my clothes and jump into the Roman fountain—the Barcaccia—at the bottom of the Steps. This should have been a beach day, and perhaps this is why the day resonates with me so much.
Two years before, in 1964, we were probably celebrating Sham el Nessim, the Alexandrian spring holiday, which for many of us usually marked the first giddy swim of the year.
But in Rome at the time I am not thinking of Alexandria at all. I’m not even aware that there might be a connection between Rome, this eruption of beach fever, and Alexandria. The yearning to jump into a body of water and drink it whole, and always that search for shaded areas, away from the blazing sun—these are what my body wants, now that the wool I’m wearing is unbearable.
After our long walk on the Pincio, we come back down the Steps and stop to buy a juice and a sandwich each in a small corner bar on Via della Vite. The bar has turned off its lights to keep the premises cool. It feels good inside. I like my sandwich simple, containing only coleslaw.
A used bookstore right next to the Keats-Shelley House by the Spanish Steps happens to be open that day. My father and I do what we always do when we’re together: we look for books I should read. He points out a used copy of Chekhov’s short stories, but I want to read Olivia. So we buy Olivia. He read it in French, he says, and promises it will certainly offset the Dostoyevsky I’ve been devouring that entire year. My father has definite opinions about books. He dislikes current writers, dislikes the bare rag-and-bone shop of the heart; anything that smacks of the immediate world around us turns him off. Instead, he likes his literature a touch dated—say, by thirty to forty years. I understand this. Everyone in the family feels a bit dated and out of sync with the rest of the real, here-and-now world. We like the past, we like the classics, we don’t belong to the present.
A week later, my father is already back in Paris. It’s Saturday, and I am back on Piazza di Spagna, this time alone. Many of the flowerpots have already been removed, though there are a great many still. I don’t want to go home, so I hang around the Spanish Steps. At around twelve or so, I stop at the same bar and buy a coleslaw sandwich, as I’d done the week before. I also buy a book that I know my father would approve of: the short stories of Chekhov. Past one o’clock, the area begins to empty, and all the stores are closed. I am sitting on the warm Spanish Steps and am peacefully reading. I am, of course, not really focusing on the story; what I am longing for is a whiff of a marine breeze; I want to be transported back to last week and to that feeling of well-being and plenitude that had suddenly erupted in our lives without warning or explanation on Palm Sunday.
For a month or so after that day, every Saturday I would buy a book and a coleslaw sandwich and begin reading on the Spanish Steps. I still do not make the connection with Alexandria during that period. I don’t even make it when, exactly a year later, around Palm Sunday once again, I finally decide to buy the first volume of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. I am alone that day, and the memory of the previous year’s Palm Sunday hovers over the day like an illusion of a day spent not on these Spanish Steps but at the beach in Alexandria. I like this shadow memory.
Half a century later the meaning of these ritual weekly errands to the Spanish Steps is somewhat clearer: part longing for a larger, happier, secure household, and part yearning for an Alexandrian world that was entirely lost. What I wanted by myself in 1967 was the family outing in 1966, though the 1966 outing mattered because it held wisps of Alexandria in 1964.
Alexandria eventually came to me one afternoon as I lay in bed reading Justine. I liked to read in the afternoon and welcomed those precious minutes when a band of sunlight, reflected from a window across the courtyard, would settle on my bed. It was then that I fell upon a list of familiar names of Alexandria’s tramway stations: “Chatby, Camp de César, Laurens, Mazarita, Glymenopoulos, Sidi Bishr,” and, a few pages later, “Saba Pasha, Mazloum, Zizinia, Bacos, Schutz, Gianaclis.” And then I just knew. I had not invented Alexandria. And just because I was never going to see it again didn’t mean that it was dead and expunged from our planet. It was still there, and people still lived in it, and, contrary to what I’d led myself to think, I didn’t hate it, it was not ugly, there were people and things I still loved there, places I still longed for, foods I would give anything to savor one morsel of, and the sea, always the sea. Alexandria was there still. I just wasn’t.
But I already knew it wasn’t the same Alexandria; my Alexandria no longer exists. Nor does the Alexandria that E. M. Forster knew during World War I, nor the Alexandria that Lawrence Durrell made famous after World War II. Their Alexandrias are all gone. And as for the city I grew up in in the fifties and early sixties, it, too, no longer exists. Something else lies on Egypt’s Mediterranean coastline today, but it’s not Alexandria. E. M. Forster, the author of the classic guidebook to Alexandria, lost his way in the streets of the city when he returned before writing the third preface to his Alexandria: A History and a Guide. Durrell might never have gotten lost down some of its sinister lanes, but he certainly wouldn’t recognize the Alexandria of the Quartet one bit—and for good reason: that Alexandria never really existed in the first place. But then, Alexandria was always the child of fancy. Durrell, like C. P. Cavafy, saw another Alexandria, his Alexandria. Many artists have re-created their city and made it theirs forever: Matisse’s Nice, Hopper’s New York, Fellini’s Rome, Joyce’s Dublin, Svevo’s Trieste, Malaparte’s Naples. As for me, I could still take a walk in Alexandria today and never get lost; however, the character of Alexandria has so thoroughly changed in the five decades I’d been away that what I found there, when I finally did go back thirty years after leaving, unhinged me completely. This was not the place I had come looking for. Whatever this was, it was not Alexandria. Where today’s Alexandria is headed is anyone’s guess, though I shudder to speculate.
Cavafy, the ultimate Alexandrian, gave us an Alexandria that was already not quite there in his own lifetime. It kept threatening to disappear before his eyes. The apartment where he had made love as a young man had become a business office when he went to revisit it years later; and the days of 1896, of 1901, 1903, 1908, 1909, once filled with so much eros and forbidden love, were already gone and had become distant, elegiac moments that he remembered in poetry alone. The barbarians, like time itself, were at the gates, and everything would be swept in their wake. The barbarians always win, and time is hardly less ruthless. The barbarians may come now or in a century or two, or in a thousand years, as indeed they had come more than once centuries earlier, but come they will, and many more times after that as well, while here was Cavafy, landlocked in this city that is both the transitional home he wishes to flee and the permanent demon that can’t be driven out. He and the city are one and the same, and soon neither will exist. Cavafy’s Alexandria appears in antiquity, in late antiquity, and in modern times. Then it disappears. Cavafy’s city is permanently locked away in a past that refuses to go away.
As for the old Alexandria of Alexander the Great, of the Ptolemies, of Caesar and Cleopatra, of Callimachus, Apollonius, of Philo and of Plotinus, and, let’s not forget, the Alexandria of the great library, well, it perished many times over and, from the evidence available today, might as well never even have existed. Stones and shards, scraps and fragments, layers and tiers. The Alexandria of these ancients, like Cavafy’s Alexandria or like mine, just happens to have been in Alexandria and, strange to say, happens to be called Alexandria, too, and, coincidentally enough, some of its streets still run along the same lines that the founders of the city laid down more than two thousand years ago. But it’s not Alexandria.
There have been many Alexandrias. Egyptian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, colonial—each pluralistic: multiethnic, multinational, multireligious, multilingual, multieverything, or, in the unforgettable words of Lawrence Durrell in one of his more whimsical moments, a city of “five races, five fleets and more than five sexes.” But he also branded it a “moribund and spiritless backwater … a shabby little seaport built upon a sand reef.”
Yet Alexandria is more than a place, more than an imbrication of layers and tiers, more than an idea, more than a metaphor, even. Or maybe it’s just that: a self-perpetuating, self-consuming, self-regenerating idea that won’t go away, because it’s already gone away, because it never really existed in the first place, because it’s still struggling to come into being, and we’re too blind to see this.
Alexandria is an invention. It is totally man-made, artificial, the way Saint Petersburg is entirely man-made and, therefore, unnatural. A man-made city does not sprout; it is pulled out of sludge and then shaken into existence. Because it is a graft, it never feels secure in its place, never belongs. It is on borrowed time, and the ground on which it’s built comes from scrounged landfills and stolen earth. Which is why, perhaps, like all newly wealthy cities, Alexandria was always splendiferous and extravagant—to forget it stood on shaky ground, for nothing bound it to earth. You could not swear on the ground you stood on, because the ground you stood on was never really firmly there, nor was it ever divinely yours to be sworn on in the first place. A transitional identity cannot even swear on anything, because it is transcendentally divided, homeless, and, hence, transcendentally disloyal. Which is also why no one had convictions in Alexandria, and any oath, like truth, was always a shifty business. Alexandria borrowed belief systems and robbed traditions from its neighbors because it had none of its own to pass on, though it almost always perfected the things it adopted; its great contribution was not always invention, but reinvention. Under the Ptolemies it stole every book it could lay its hands on, the way it appropriated and then promoted the knowledge it found in them. It borrowed nationalities, borrowed workers, borrowed legacies, borrowed languages, borrowed, borrowed, borrowed, but was never one thing in one place, which is why it is the only spot in the history of mankind that not only understands but that feeds on and ultimately prescribes paradox in its charter. It won’t be shocked when church and brothel share the same roof, because it knows that prophet and street hustler, priest and poet, are not just easy bedfellows, they are one and the same person. Wealth, pleasure, intellect, and God—that’s what Alexandria added up to; or, in the words of Auden about Cavafy, “love, art, and politics.” How these three managed to cohabit without tearing one another apart can be explained by one word only: luck. And luck never lasts—like the library, which burned down many times over, like Hypatia, who died of a thousand cuts. It never lasts, because it cannot last. Cavafy, a Greek born in the Ottoman Empire, living in British colonial Egypt, knew all about barbarians at the gate and all about luck running out. The barbarians came to Byzantium bearing a cross once. Two centuries later they came bearing the crescent. Byzantium never stood a chance. Alexandria didn’t either.
Which is why in my time, and slightly before my time, all Alexandrians had permanent homes elsewhere, held two nationalities, and boasted at least four mother tongues. Everyone was mixed. This was true in antiquity, and it was true in the last century. Alexandria was provisional in every sense of the word, the way truth is provisional, home is provisional, pleasure and, of course, love are provisional. There is no other way. Those who believed that Alexandria was here to stay were not Alexandrians. They were the barbarians.
Alexandria is unreal. You watch it go away. You know it will. You wait for this. You anticipate the end and already know you’ll remember you anticipated it when that day comes. There is no present tense in Alexandria. Time’s covenants were always broken here. However you look at things, everything always already happened, will happen, might, could, should happen. You never planned for next year; that was being presumptuous. Instead, you planned to remember. You even planned to remember planning to remember.
Caught between remembrance and anticipated memory, the present tense always played an elusive minor part in a deafening symphony of verbal tenses and moods. We lived counterfactual lives in a medley of “timescapes.” Once again, irrealis moods: part conditional, part optative, part subjunctive, part nothing. You fantasized a future without Alexandria before even leaving Alexandria, the way you already knew you’d remember rehearsing a preemptive sense of nostalgia for Alexandria while you were still living there.
When Cavafy steps into the room where he made love in his younger days, he is neither here nor there. He watches the cast of the afternoon sun spread over where he remembers there was once a bed, and he is almost certain that he knew, already back then in his younger days, that he’d think of these dear hours in the afternoon many, many years hence. This is, this was, will always be, the real Alexandria. Cavafy never says this. But I do. Otherwise the poem means nothing to me. Here it is in my free translation:
The Afternoon Sun
This room, how well I’ve known it.
Now it and the one next door are rented out
as business offices. The whole house
is home to brokers, merchants, companies.
This room, how familiar it still is.
Near the door here was the couch,
in front of it, a Turkish carpet,
nearby a shelf that held two yellow vases.
To the right, no, opposite, a closet with a mirror.
In the middle, the table where he wrote;
and the three large wicker chairs.
Next to the window was the bed
where we made love so many times.
This poor furniture is nowhere now.
Next to the window, the bed
which the afternoon sun touched midway.
… At four o’clock one afternoon we parted
for just a week … But alas,
That week lasted forever.
Cavafy would never have walked into the old room and just thought, Here was a bed once, here a chest of drawers, here sunlight across our bed. This is not the complete thought. What he thinks of and is unable to say is: I never thought I’d be back here remembering these afternoons when my body and his lay coiled together in this very spot. But that’s not true. I know I thought this, surely I did, and if I didn’t, then let me imagine that, as we lay on this bed, exhausted from our lovemaking, that I already had a presage I’d come back here decades later looking for this younger self who surely would have earmarked this moment so that I’d recover it as an older man and feel that nothing, nothing is ever lost, and that if I should die, then surely this rendezvous with myself will not have been in vain, for I’ve inscribed my name in the hallways of time as one writes one’s name on a wall that has long since been torn down.
The present hardly exists for Cavafy. It hardly exists, but not because Cavafy was too prescient to the ways of the world not to foresee that he’d remember the past before the future had occurred, or because his writing is punctuated by competing temporal zones, but because the real, inhabited zone of his poetry has literally become the transit between memory and imagination back to imagination and memory. The reflux is where things happen. In Cavafy, intuition is counterintuitive, and impulses are thought-tormented, and the senses are too canny not to know that something like disquiet and loss always await lovemaking. The grasp on things is always, always tentative and counterfactual. Cavafy the lover would not have written this poem as a nostalgist, but as someone who was, as he is in so many of his poems, already awaiting nostalgia and therefore fending it off by rehearsing it all the time.
Being in Alexandria is part imagining being elsewhere and part remembering having imagined this. Alexandria cannot die and doesn’t let go, because it never really is, or if it is, it is never itself long enough. It is the shadow of something that almost was but stopped being yet continues to pulsate and craves existence though its time hasn’t come yet but could just as easily have already come and gone. Alexandria is an irrealis city, always apprehended but never fully discovered, always adumbrated but never really touched, an Alexandria that, like Ithaca or Byzantium, has always been and will always never be quite there.
I was aroused and thrilled while discovering Durrell’s sensuality. Who knew that I’d lived in a city where such things happened, things I dreamed of and thought of all the time but needed to see in print to realize they were not just airy, schoolboy fantasies? They would have been at hand’s reach in Alexandria. All I should have done was ask our driver, who was the most open-minded man I knew in Egypt, to tell me where I could find those pleasures Durrell seemed to know so much about. Some open-minded relatives would have helped me find these pleasures, since they, too, knew all about them. There were stores where I could walk in and, like Cavafy’s narrator, ask about the quality of the cloth and allow my hand to graze the salesclerk’s hand. There were women who stood on the same sidewalk in the evening who I wished would turn their gaze on me, though I was just a young fourteen-year-old then. And there were men, too, who threw the most feral glances at me that both scared and troubled me and that I would be tempted to return, because mine would surely lead to nothing. This was a city I’d just begun to know before leaving, and now that it was too late, I was suddenly discovering it in Rome—Rome, whose Spanish Steps and bookish errands and coleslaw sandwiches on Saturday afternoons were nothing more than poor stand-ins for a city and a way of life forever lost. In my room in Rome, and with Durrell and Cavafy as guides, block by block, tram station after tram station, I began reinventing a city I knew I was already starting to forget and could kick myself for not having studied better to anticipate the day when I’d look back from Italy and remember so little.
André Aciman is the New York Times best-selling author of Call Me by Your Name, Out of Egypt, Eight White Nights, False Papers, Alibis, Harvard Square, Enigma Variations, and Find Me. He’s the editor of The Proust Project and teaches comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He lives with his wife in Manhattan.
Excerpted from Homo Irrealis: Essays, by André Aciman. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 19, 2021. Copyright © 2021 by André Aciman. All rights reserved.