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Call Me By Your Name may prove to be the beautiful book of 2007. That is the first and only important thing to say about André Aciman's debut novel, at least after a first reading.
I loved August weather. The town was quieter than usual in the late summer weeks. By then, everyone had left for le vacanze, and the occasional tourists were usually gone before seven in the evening. I loved the afternoons best: the scent of rosemary, the heat, the bird, the cicadas, the sway of palm fronds, the silence that fell like a light linen shawl on an appallingly sunny day, all of these highlighted by the walk down to the shore and the walk back upstairs to shower. I liked looking up to our house from the tennis court and seeing the empty balconies bask in the sun, knowing that from any one of them you could spot the limitless see. This was my balcony, my world. From where I sat now, I could look around me and say, Here is our tennis court, there our garden, our orchard, our shed, our house, and below is our wharf - everyone and everything I care for is here. My family, my instruments, my books, Mafalda, Marzia, Oliver.
That afternoon, as I sat with Marzia with my hand resting on her thighs and knees, it did occur to me that I was, in Oliver's words, one of the luckiest persons on earth. There was no saying how long all this would last, just as there was no sense in second-guessing how the day might turn out, or the night. Every minute felt as though stretched on tenterhooks. Everything could snap in a flash.
But sitting here I knew I was experiencing the mitigated bliss of those who are too superstitious to claim they may get all they've ever dreamed of but are far too grateful not to know it could easily be taken away.
Elio, the seventeen year-old narrator, is about to discover pleasures (and pains) that he has never dreamed of. In retrospect, as I sensed while copying the foregoing, the passage sums up Elio's Golden Age, the Arcadia to which he will never return, even though, twenty years later, he will still spend his summers in the house, with its tennis courts and its wharf, and the good services of the housekeeper, Mafalda. The astonishing trick of Call Me By Your Name is that Mr Aciman has undertaken to speak from an adolescent point of view. Readers may carp at the implausibility of a youth's writing such beautiful prose, but that is not the point. The thoughts themselves - it would be better to call it a form of ignorance - are genuine. Elio is a brilliant student and a precocious musician. But he's a rank amateur at dissembling. He will learn that most of the adults in his household have seen through his attempt to hide his ardent passion for this year's summer guest, Oliver. And he will learn (what's worse) that his juvenile misinterpretations of Oliver's behavior have reduced his time in paradise - a paradise that follows the Golden Age, but also a paradise that forecloses any return - from six weeks to two.
"Taking in summer guests was my parents' way of helping young academics revise a manuscript before publication." Oliver is a twenty-four year-old Columbia University graduate student working on Heraclitus. At some point - possibly a week after Oliver's arrival, possibly months earlier, looking at a photograph, Elio develops a crush on the American, whose manners he does not understand. That is, he does not understand them well enough to navigate the tormented currents that gradually transform the crush into white-hot carnal longing. Elio has had easy sex with the wealthy girls who live in the small town on the Tuscan coast where Elio's family summers, but he has never been with another man (or boy), and the consciousness of his homosexual desire builds very slowly. (None of the terms that travel with "homosexual" ever appears.) What he wants at first is attention, and perhaps a bit of admiration; Elio is used to being regarded as exceptional. But as often as not, Oliver returns his glances with steely, icy glares that, to Elio, seem unmistakably hostile. Elio is mistaken, but, feeling rebuffed, he recoils into himself and pretends to ignore Oliver. In his bed, however, he longs for Oliver to appear. He hasn't a clue how to proceed. Finally, Oliver challenges him: "Grow up."
That exhortation is followed by some instructions about what to do at midnight, and, when midnight arrives, the most extensive scene in the novel begins; it will stretch through many pages until late the next morning. As Elio hesitates on a balcony, wanting to turn back but ashamed not to take the final step, we remember what it is like to take charge of your sexual life - absolutely terrifying. The horror of rejection, something that later in life is sufficient to douse the pilot light, is strangely intoxicating, drawing you closer and closer to what you're sure is a sheer precipice. And then, later, there is the powerful reaction, as you come to terms with the person you now know yourself to be. How that person fits in with the society around you will mark the difference between elation and shame, but Elio's shame goes much deeper than a desire to conceal what he has done from his family and the rest of the world. It is the shame of having survived what Tristan and Isolde longed for, a union that, one feels if only for the duration of the passage, they could never, being man and woman, achieve. Elio and Oliver are alike in so many ways - that they're both Jewish is something that Elio can't stop celebrating - that what might be narcissism in other people becomes here something beyond love, the genuine swapping of identity announced by the novel's title. Oliver has been inside him (and he will be inside Oliver): this marks an end to his autonomy. Autonomy meant nothing to him while he had it, but now he is ashamed to have lost it. (He is also uncomfortable when sitting down.) I can think of no writer who has surpassed Mr Aciman's capture of erotic love.
So paradise is made more fertile by shame.
Before returning to New York, Oliver plans to spend a few days in Rome, meeting with his Italian publisher. Elio's father, who, we later learn, has a pretty good idea of what has happened to his son and who is happy about it, reserves and pays for rooms at a luxury hotel so that Elio can tag along. On their first night in the capital, Oliver is invited to a book party, and the lovers can't decide whether to go. Going means not making love first, because, if they get into bed, they'll never get out, but temporary abstinence is not merely invigorating. It is a reminder of the sad transitory nature of love, so poignantly captured by John Ashbery:
From the moment that life cannot be one continual orgasm, real happiness is impossible and pleasant surprise is promoted to the front rank of the emotions.
The boys do go to the book party, and they have a long and richly-described night of Roman high life. Much of it has nothing to do with the intense erotic bond between Elio and Oliver, but it is not a distraction, for in his electric state of mind Elio appreciates every nuance of the pleasure of being accepted as an adult by smart, literate people. The night is as much an initiation as the other night, two weeks earlier. What makes the evening electric, however, is a moment that, although it occurs well into the final quarter of the novel, will be so hearkened upon in the pages to come that it, more than anything earlier, will sound the leitmotif of Call Me By Your Name.
"If we lie down now, there'll be no book party, he said.
These words, spoken from a height of bliss it seemed no one could steal from us, would take me back to this hotel room and to this damp ferragosto evening as both of us leaned stark-naked with our arms on the windowsill, overlooking an unbearably hot Roman late-late afternoon, both of us still smelling of the stuffy compartment on the southbound train that was probably nearing Naples by now and on which we'd slept, my head resting on his in full view of the other passengers. Leaning out into the evening air, I knew that this might never be given to us again, and yet I couldn't bring myself to believe it. He too must have had the same thought as we surveyed the magnificent cityscape, smoking and eating fresh figs, shoulder to do shoulder, each wanting to do something to mark the moment, which was why, yielding to an impulse that couldn't have felt more natural at the time, I let my left hand rub his buttocks and then began to stick my middle finger into him as he replied, "You keep doing this, and there's definitely no book party," I told him to do me a favor and keep staring out the window but to lean forward a bit, until I had a brainstorm once my entire finger was inside him: we might start but under no conditions would we finish. Then we'd shower and go out and feel like two exposed, live wires giving off sparks each time they so much as flicked each other. Look at old houses and want to hug each one, spot a lamppost on a street corner and, like a dog, want to spray it, pass an art gallery and look for the hole in the nude, cross a face that did no more than smile our way and already initiate moves to undress the whole person and ask her, or him, or both, if they were more than one, to join us first for drinks, for dinner, anything. Find Cupid everywhere in Rome because we'd clipped one of his wings and he was forced to fly in circles.
Some readers will find this passage distasteful or even disgusting. To me, it is literature of the highest order. It's one of the most powerful evocations of youthful loving intimacy that I have ever read, and possibly the most. I read Call Me By Your Name in a state of languorous surprise, encountering moods and outlooks that I could remember from my own past but that I could not remember ever having read about. This is one of the very last books that I ever give away. (February 2007)
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