Aciman...lives in the past. We know this because every page quivers with a yearning for moments that have long ceased to be. Or perhaps not. He is, in fact, reaching for moments that could have been, should have been, might have been, but have never actually been. This gray wistfulness hovers all over the book ... Aciman’s are far from aimless meanderings of the mind. Each of the essays is an intuitive and a visceral response to a particular piece of art, the kind that makes one reach one’s 'truest, deepest, most enduring selves by borrowing someone else’s skill, someone else’s words' ... The essays made me come fully alive, as good literature does, in a way that intensified my senses ... his fluency to say the unsayable is remarkable. He touches the irrealis mood, refashions it, reifies it into a shape we recognize but have never dared articulate. Any meditation on time and remembrance can feel overwrought and schmaltzy. In Aciman’s hand, it becomes a strobe light with which he probes himself in tenses and tones that course like dreams without structure or form. He dips almost fanatically into his memories, bouncing from one recollection to another, fluttering everywhere but around the source that leads to these synesthetic bursts of association.
A slow stroll through entrancing capitals, a tender remembrance of rare old films, a fresh contemplation of Modernist literary giants—this describes the material of André Aciman’s new assortment of essays, but not the magic. The opening pieces in Homo Irrealis for instance, meander through fascinating old downtowns: Alexandria, Rome, and New York. Reading each takes no more time than a small pot of tea—brevity counts among the book’s charms—but none would prove much use as a guidebook. Even a landmark like Rome’s Forum provokes Aciman to meditations more far-reaching, more profound ... Naturally, there’s a risk in honoring that 'other' full of possibility but also awfully vague. A blurry passage or two, fogged by abstractions, broke the spell of the reading. Happily, such cases were infrequent indeed, and more than that—paradoxically—Homo Irrealis stands on a bedrock reality. It develops as a kind of memoir, whether walking the streets, watching the flicks, or opening a book. Alexandria and Rome, after all, are the cities of Aciman’s youth, and incidents out of early experience inform his writing on both places. Something similar deepens the pleasures of the Rohmer essays, as they return repeatedly to his thwarted desires for a certain girl, and recapture the lost enchantment of an afternoon at the movies. These recurring elements create a figure-eight design, a pattern significant in the book, but it’s an artifice composed by passions.
The collection hangs somewhere between the story of a writer coming into being and a description of the feeling of aliveness to which a writer may be especially attuned. We see Aciman as a child in Egypt longing for France. We see him then in France longing for the version of France he longed for in Egypt. We see him as a young adult in New York, heartsick, stumbling into showings of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. We see him, years later, traveling to Freud’s Rome and Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg. In these scenes, the act of writing itself—the writer as writer—disappears in a vanishing trick of the irrealis mood ... The irrealis mood develops—blooms, to use Aciman’s word—from this kind of glimpsed significance. Aciman cannot inform his younger self of the full meaning of a pattern of meetings between lovers and ex-lovers that wouldn’t be completed for decades and wouldn’t be visible, except through Rohmer’s films. He can only feel a retrospective nostalgia that runs parallel to his younger self’s anticipatory longing. Herein lies one of most compelling arguments the book makes: that as makers and viewers of art—as humans—we seek out the mood and sensation of the irrealis because we find deep pleasure in it despite the pain it also brings ... A broader investigation of the irrealis might have answered some lingering questions, like why we seek out disturbing sensations, anticipating our own nostalgia and displacing ourselves into the past and future, or why we want to live in the irrealis mood. Though Aciman doesn’t directly address these concerns, he makes room for them by persistently placing himself in view of himself.