“I remember sitting there thinking, ‘Why am I listening to this crazy person?’” André Aciman humorously interrupts his own reading of his latest novel, Harvard Square— the semi-autobiographical story of the friendship that forms between the nameless narrator, a Harvard graduate student who can be read as Aciman, and Kalaj, a loud, opinionated Tunisian cab driver.
Seated in the middle of 192 Books—a bright bookshop in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood that brings together lovers of both art and literature—Aciman smiles warmly at the intimate crowd of listeners, a varied mix of tight-vested professors and girls in towering stilettos.
“He’s always so bristling with anger,” he continues. “But he’s having fun, and if you can read him as a person who does it all for effect, you can see how a person like that can be charming.”
He flips to other dog-eared passages, always about Kalaj. Having read the book, I enjoy watching the crowd’s reactions to the sharp and witty prose.
Novelist André Aciman signs at 192 Books
Finally closing the book, Aciman takes questions.
Why call the book a novel and not a memoir?
“Life has no narrative. There is no climax. When you start to select the things that happen you’re cobbling them together. You’ve created a narrative. You no longer remember what it looked like before and what you altered becomes fact. Memoir and novel…once I’ve written it down it’s impossible to distinguish between what truly happened and what you think happened.”
Why such a strong focus on Kalaj?
“At Harvard, I felt everybody knew what their place was and that I was let into Harvard by mistake. I believed I had fooled them and they were going to find out at some point! To tell this story, I needed someone to feel that out other than me—I needed him as a shadow-self, to speak about the fear and frustration and insecurity.”
He also addressed the Boston Marathon bombing—the two men connected seeming oddly reminiscent of the two friends in his novel.
“I was in Boston last week…So many journalists are trying to understand what happened there in Cambridge—calling me and asking questions. One brother saying that he has no American friends and another who does. And I like…Well, not ‘like’ but, you know, how the one who is still alive was normal. He was tweeting and he had friends and was social. And the other one just couldn’t quite hack it in America. The difficulty that I have is that the young kid looks exactly like one of my sons, so I want them to give him a second chance—which is ridiculous because he killed people.”
When I go up to speak to him afterward, words tumble excitedly from my mouth faster than he can likely comprehend. He does catch that I loved his novel, and his smile grows.
“Thank you,” he whispers. “Truly, thank you.”
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.