Aciman, the author of Harvard Square, earned his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at Harvard. My guess is that he was a tutor at Lowell House. I selected his book to read because of the name. My son is off to Harvard in about a week. “Like many parents who had been students here, I wanted him to like Harvard but knew better than to insist for fear he’d dismiss the school altogether. Part of me wanted him to walk in my shoes. He’d hate that, of course. Or perhaps I wanted to walk in them myself again, but through him… I wanted to share with him and bring back all of my old postcard moments: the day I crossed the bridge in the snow while friends ran across the frozen Charles and I thought how reckless” (pages 5-6). The night we danced in evening dress under the full moon, on a footbridge across the Charles, to the music of the Bach Society Orchestra. It was in honor of my friend Christina’s graduation.
I wanted to read what someone had to say about my alma mater. As I read, I kept thinking, this guy has great descriptions. He must have spent lots of time in the cafes of Harvard Square. Then he started talking about Lowell House. A fellow Lowell House Tutor! Excellent.
Within the first few pages of his book, I was hooked. He perfectly described that feeling most new Harvard students get, that somehow someone made a mistake in admissions. Everyone around me is so smart and talented. I am an imposter. At any moment, they are going to yank me out of this academic paradise and send me home. “They’d find out what they probably suspected all along: that I was a fraud, that I was never cut out to be a teacher, much less a scholar, that I had been a bad investment from the get-go, that I was the black sheep, the rotten apple, the bad seed, that I’d be known as the imposter who’d hustled his way into Harvard” (page 15-16).
“Life wasn’t easy,” I said, “and I don’t mean the course work — though there was plenty of that, and the standards were high. What was difficult was living with the life Harvard held out for me and refusing to think if might be a mirage. I had money problems. There were days when the margin between the haves and have-nots stood not like a line drawn in the sand but like a ravine. You could watch, you could even hear the party, but you weren’t invited.” (page 7). This brought back memories of a spring afternoon, gazing from my tutor’s suite in Lowell House, down into the back garden of a Finals Club. In a Gatsby-esque vision, young men in tuxedos played baseball as young women in diaphanous frocks cheered them on, gin and tonics in hand.
This story is about a young man who comes to graduate school from Egypt. He becomes friends with an Arab taxi driver who is his alter ego, the person who he might be, without the privilege and opportunity of a Harvard education. Together they spend days in the Cafe Algiers and nights at the Harvest and the Casablanca. They compare notes on the women they meet. They would speak French. They cover for each other. While Kalaj repels him, he realizes that he at the same time became his best friend. “Like Che Guevara, he’d appear wearing his beret, his pointed beard with a drooping mustache, and the cocksure swagger of someone who has just planted dynamite all over Cambridge and couldn’t wait to trigger the fuse, but not before coffee and a croissant (page 43).
This book brought back many memories of my life at Harvard. It also was an interesting dive into the intricacies of relationships from the male perspective, perhaps the Middle Eastern male perspective. It brought alive ideas about the American Dream, seduction of women and the seductiveness of the materialism of American culture.
Harvard Square has whetted my appetite to sample Aciman’s other books: Out of Egypt, Call Me By Your Name, and Eight White Nights.