As though by tradition, second novels, like second children, could never seem to surpass the earth-shattering emotion one felt that came with the birth of the first. André Aciman's latest and second novel, Eight White Nights, sadly, validates this theory all too well. His début novel, Call Me by Your Name—a riveting romp through a torrid summer love by way of Proust—had critics and readers around the world reaching for superlatives rapturous enough to convey their admiration. Now, this author who is the unrivaled twenty-first century incarnation of Marcel, sets his sights on Dostoyevsky's snowy, and therefore white, Saint Petersburg, only his own tale takes place in New York during the last eight days of December, when the decay of the passing year is contrasted sharply against the cleansing promise of the coming year. The two night owls who roam NYC during unholy hours of the evening and early morning in search of paradise (disguised here in the form of Beethoven, Handel, Rohmer, among others) are Clara and the unnamed twenty-something narrator, who, at the very moment Clara "put out a hand and introduced herself," becomes instantly drawn to her, to her name, to her "voile-thin crimson shirt which she wore unbuttoned to her breastbone, the swell of skin as smooth and as forbidding as the diamond stud on her thin platinum necklace."
These two souls—lonely, detached, aloof—are both in their twenties, but live a particular lifestyle that doesn't correlate at all to their ages. For one, both live in ritzy Manhattan; have wealthy older friends for another; (possibly) know a foreign language or two; can quote Henry Vaughan if a heightened moment demands it ("Last night I saw Eternity. . ."); and have an entourage of equally sophisticated friends with "uptown" names like Gretchen, Boris, Rachel and Lauren, the types of which who have nothing better to do, so it seems, than to sit through Rohmer and throw dinner parties that stifle with their pretentiousness rather than endear. Aciman's prose remains so incurably Proustian that it takes an extremely patient reader to digest a baroque procession of extravagantly prolonged sentences crammed with as many therefores, howevers, maybes and perhapses as a sentence is legally allowed. The story revolves in the span of only eight chapters but rather feels like the span of two lifetimes had already elapsed between night one and night three, for these eight nights, no matter how stylishly rendered, are filled to the brim with over-inflected, flowery prose that dampen climactic scenes and vignettes such as the sex scene that never occurs in night six or seven: ". . . just make me make trouble, make me do something, make me hurt you, Clara, and hurt me hard, because this staying put like two boats tied to a dock is like waiting decades on death row." A microscopic attention to detail and a general sense of repetition bombard the reader, all of which easily filled up the 360 pages or so allotted to him by his publisher, and all of which one must slog through, out of a sense of duty, for Aciman is immensely gifted, and who can, at will and through sheer force of talent, weave a tapestry of spellbinding language and concoct inspired declarations such as this one: ". . . I'll say it now, not because I've lost you, but I've lost you because I loved you, because I saw eternity with you. . ."