“I look back to that summer and can’t believe that despite every one of my efforts to live with the “fire” and the “swoon”, life still granted wonderful moments. Italy. Summer. The noise of the cicadas in the early afternoon. My room. His room. Our balcony that shut the whole world out. The soft wind trailing exaltations from our garden up the stairs to my bedroom. The summer I learned to love fishing. Because he did. To love jogging. Because he did. To love octopus, Heraclitis, Tristan. The summer I’d hear a bird sing, smell a plant, or feel the mist rise from under my feet on warm sunny days and, because my senses were always on alert, would automatically find them rushing to him.”
When I find myself struggling to find the words to write a review, it is typically a situation where I feel lukewarm or worse about the book I have just read. This is not one of those situations. Quite the opposite. Wanting to read a few diverse offerings with LGBT themes in honour of the fact that it is, in my city, Pride Week, I wanted to begin with a novel I imagined would fall into a conventional coming of age/coming out tale, something I do tend to enjoy. André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name is that, but as a beautiful, elegant, emotional, and intelligent piece of literature it offers much more for anyone who has ever been hopelessly infatuated, experienced a brief passionate affair, or lost a love that has left a hollow space in their heart and imagination.
The setting is lush, a mansion on the Italian Riviera in the mid-1980s. Our narrator’s father, a distinguished academic, is in the practice of inviting a young scholar to spend six weeks with the family each summer – in return for assisting the professor, the chosen candidate has an opportunity to further his own studies and experience a taste of Italy. When Oliver, a handsome, carefree American post-doc who is working on a book about Heraclitis arrives for his stay, the entire household is captivated. For seventeen year-old Elio though, it marks an intimation of so much more; an instant, devastating attraction that will consume and obsess him for weeks to come.
The atmosphere is richly intellectual. Elio, an only child, is precocious and he knows it. But he is still a teenager. He is transcribing Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ”, quotes Paul Celan and references Star Trek. His father is always encouraging him to get out, see friends. But once Oliver walks into his life his attention has a new focus – a focus he strains to hide under a guise of indifference while secretly noting every gesture, glance and inflection he perceives from this seemingly casual, self-assured houseguest. Their relationship seems to slide from hot to cold from day to day. Elio continues to see and sleep with a female friend, in part in reaction to Oliver’s tendency to disappear to town at night, but also to try to quell his own uncertainties about his sexuality and his complicated feelings for the 24 year-old man who is likely unattainable, unavailable and uninterested. Yet as much as he tries to push his feelings away, they continue to dominate his waking and sleeping hours.
“Let summer never end, let him never go away, let the music on perpetual replay play forever, I’m asking for very little, and I swear I’ll ask for nothing more.”
Awkwardly and uncertainly Oliver and Elio do eventually acknowledge their mutual attraction and move toward what will become a few scant weeks of deeply passionate, sexually explicit consummation. Their love represents a perfect, intense summer drenched affair. The frantic attempt to have and to hold as time slips away. Ultimately Oliver will have to leave to return to Columbia where he teaches, Elio will be heading back to boarding school. The space they have to share is defined but within those limitations they experience an intimacy that is timeless and create small, immutable memories that will endure. Like life, nothing is perfect, and it is inevitable that time and circumstance will soon take Oliver and Elio in different directions. For one man their affair will serve as a confirmation of where his attractions lie; for the other, the outcome will differ. But 15 years later when the two men meet again, they have to acknowledge that the experience was profound and has not been forgotten.
Given my rough, romantic précis it is difficult to appreciate the sheer beauty of Aciman’s prose. A memoirist, essayist and Proust scholar, Call Me By Your Name, was his first novel. It stands as a rich evocation of memory, youth, and the unquenchable desire to possess and be possessed by one’s beloved. He brings to life the sultry seaside beauty and character of the Italian Riviera in language that delights in nuance and detail, rich with allusions to literature, music and philosophy. Latin and Italian passages are seamlessly woven in to the text, adding atmosphere. Elio’s endlessly convoluted, adolescent passions contain a tension that pulls the reader in and the story forward until, looking back years later he wonders about the trajectory his life has taken against the alternate life have might have lived had someone other than Oliver turned up at his home at that fateful summer. We have probably all wondered about those potential parallel lives we carry inside us.
Desire, possession, loss, resolution. Time passes, and as Heraclitis would remind us, everything is constantly in flux.