The Life Unlived
On W. G. Sebald and the uncertainties of time
By André Aciman
December 5, 2016
Late in the fall of 1996, shortly before leaving work for the day, I happened to walk past the office of a colleague of mine. He was standing with his back to me, gazing out at the leafless trees, in a stance so aimless and unguarded that he reminded me of those frozen characters in Edward Hopper’s paintings who are forever staring out the window at basically nothing at all. I chose to walk by without disturbing him. I knew that he’d been shaken by his father’s recent death, and he was, I was sure, thinking of his father now. But after slipping by his door, I took a few steps back and peered into his office. “You okay?” I finally asked. He turned to look at me, smiled, aware of my hesitation. “Me okay,” he replied. He had been keeping his sorrow largely to himself, but that afternoon, he started to tell me about his father, a conversation that continued when my colleague offered to drive me home. It was during the long ride up to 110th Street that he really opened up. I’ll never forget the story he told me.
After being married all his life, his widowed father found the courage one day to reach out to a woman he had loved in high school, more than 60 years before. She too had been recently widowed, which he knew, since all through their married lives each had kept secret tabs on the other. The two were not a whit less in love than when they were high school sweethearts. I asked my colleague whether he had known about his father’s first love. No, no one even suspected. The man had always been a devoted and faithful husband, the perfect family man, and a model Orthodox Jew. And yet, I said, he must have lived with this big, gaping hole in his heart, despite the wife he must have cherished, the children he loved, the circle of friends that had gathered around him, and the business he’d built up. All exemplary, he said. And yet … he added, without finishing his sentence.
The two needed to do a lot of catching up. Nevertheless, while a part of them might certainly have wished they’d stuck together and not been married to the wrong partners—and his mother was the wrong partner, as he later found out from his father’s letters and journals—another part, while grateful for their final reunion, was surely being reminded of the life they’d missed out on, of all the years spent apart, and of how impossible it would be now to even attempt to make up for lost time. Could one ever banish the thought of having led the wrong life? How could one be happy when faced with daily reminders of so many wasted years?
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André Aciman is the author of Alibis, Eight White Nights, Call Me by Your Name, Out of Egypt, and False Papers, and is the editor of The Proust Project. He is distinguished professor of comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His novel Enigma Variations will be published in 2017.