Suddenly One Summer: A Book Review
Call Me by Your Name is an evocation, a love letter, and a eulogy for all lost and faded love.
May 31, 2018
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust, The Prisoner
André Aciman’s 2007 novel Call Me by Your Name is, to be frank, hot. It is a coming-of-age, coming-out story, a meditation on time and desire, Proustian in it’s affection and decadence. It’s a love letter, a dedication, and something of an epitaph, Call Me by Your Name is also an open-ended question. It is an exceptionally beautiful book that cannot quite bring itself to draw the inevitable conclusion about the axis-shifting passion that men and women of the world might like to think they will always reach—that that obscure object of desire is, by definition, unattainable, indeterminate and already lost at exactly the moment you rush so fervently to hold him or her. The heat is in the longing, the unavailability as we like to say, the gap, the illusion, et cetera. But what Aciman considers, elegantly, with no small amount of unbridled skin-to-skin contact, is that maybe the heat of that stolen moment isn’t only in the friction of memory and anticipation. Maybe it is also in the getting. In an insurmountable novel that abounds in moments of emotional and physical abandon, this must be the most wanton of his motives: his narrative brazenly refuses to remain closed.
It is as much a story of paradise found as it is of paradise lost. It is not so much a search of lost time as it is a reminiscence of it. (Those are novel references; look it up.)
I should probably issue a notice that this isn’t usually the kind of book I would like. I think. A summer-romance up to its neck in stain-glass, love-laced platitudes and wandering introspection sounds absolutely nightmarish. And yet, there was something so beautiful and awful and intoxicating and sad about Call Me by Your Name. I think that maybe I like it—and I hate to admit this—because I recognize something of myself in it. Either you have been this kind of person, and perhaps you still are this kind of person, or you have not, are not, and this book will seem woefully affected and alien. I, unfortunately, have experienced that deep, all-encompassing infatuation with another person. I don’t dare call it love; not anymore. Instead, it is a feeling of overwhelming, almost feverish obsession with their existence— their body, their laugh, and almost everything they do or say. I’m not proud of it, and I do not think it is healthy, even if you are in a relationship, but I do think Aciman captures it in all it’s intensity and singularity and sadness. Call Me by Your Name, for me, stands apart from other romances because it doesn’t follow the usual template of two people meeting, of cliche flirting and angst, falling in love, and then finally, the two ending up together. If you’re reading it for that warm, fuzzy, sickeningly sugary feeling, you will be sorely disappointed. It may not be my usual choice of reading material , but I think Call Me by Your Name is one that will stay with me. Sometimes, it is the exceptions to my rules that I end up remembering the most.
The literal story is one of adolescent sexual awakening, set in the admirably well-appointed home of an academic on the Italian Riviera in the mid-1980s. Elio, the precocious 17-year-old son of the well-renowned and markedly open-minded professor and his wife, falls fast and hard for Oliver, a 24-year-old post-doctoral student teaching at Columbia University in Manhattan, who has come to the villa for a six-week tenure to revise his manuscript—appropriately, on Heraclitus, since this is a story of time and love—under the instruction of Elio’s father before publication. Elio is smart—one might even say genius—nervous, naive, but also strikingly bold; Oliver is handsome, seductive and buoyantly American, given to such phrases as “Later,” and he is abundantly “OK with” many things Elio is less OK with. Oliver is OK with his Jewish heritage, he’s OK “with his body, with his looks, with his antic backhand, with his choice of books, music, films, friends.” From the very first page, we are aware that we are in the decaying terrain of memory. “I shut my eyes, say the words, and I’m back in Italy,” Elio writes from some unforeseen vantage point. Which is also to say: I am not in Italy now, I am not that young man, what I am about to describe has long since passed. Heraclitus, indeed.
The younger Elio has been ostensibly, more-or-less, heterosexual up until Oliver’s arrival, but in fewer than 15 pages he has already entered a state he calls the “swoon.” He lounges on his bed in the long Mediterranean afternoons hoping Oliver will walk in feeling “a fire like fear, like panic, like one more minute of this and I’ll die if he doesn’t knock at my door, but I’d sooner he never knock then knock now. I had learned to leave my French windows ajar, and I’d lie on my bed wearing only my bathing suit, my entire body on fire. Fire like a pleading that says, Please, please tell me I’m wrong, tell me I’ve imagined all this, because it can’t possibly be true for you as well, and if it’s true for you too, then you’re the cruelest man alive.”
But it is true for Oliver, and he does knock, and that’s when things really heat up. What Elio and Oliver do to a peach, for instance, might have made T.S. Eliot take a match to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Aciman, who has always written so exquisitely about exile, loss and Proust in his book of essays, False Papers, and his memoir, Out of Egypt, is no less exquisite here in his evocation of Elio’s adoration for the lost city of Oliver’s body and the forgotten treasure of the love between the two men. He constructs this lost city and uncovers his abandoned treasure with the extraordinarily compulsive craftsmanship of obsession, carefully imagining every detail of Elio’s lapsed affair with Oliver, depicting even the slightest touches and most mundane conversations with a near-hyper-realistic attention to how exactly each one articulated the desire in Elio that felt like “coming home, like asking, Where have I been all my life?” Aciman never curbs or mocks Elio’s unabashed adolescent romanticism, never wheels in oppressive social forces to crush the lovers for their ‘perversion’, never makes one the agent of the other’s ruin. Even Elio’s father is fairly “Que sera, sera” about what he suspects has been going on (a lot) under his roof.
What unwinds the men from each other’s embrace is none of these clichés; instead, Aciman, Proustian to his core, moves them apart, renders their beautiful city Atlantis, with the subtlest, most powerful universal agent: time. Nobody gets clocked with a tire iron. No one betrays the other. No one is persecuted; not even a little bit. One becomes ordinary and marries; the other’s romantic fate is left vague, but seems to be more patchy and experimental. They meet again, 15 years later, and they aren’t tragic; all they are is older. The fully adult Elio thinks, “This thing that almost never was still beckons, I wanted to tell him.” They “can never undo it, never unwrite it, never unlive it, nor relive it. … Going back is false. Moving ahead is false. Looking the other way is false.” In a book that seems to wear its heart unflinchingly on its sleeve, this openhanded, open-ended gesture is also its most knowing, challenging moment. That the city of desire is a scrim, all “dream making and strange remembrance,” Aciman seems to say, doesn’t mean it would be any less false not to walk into it. And if the novel is mourning the ruins of this city, it is also, brick by brick, board by board, reconstructing it before the reader’s very eyes.
In his essay “Pensione Eolo” Aciman writes, “Ultimately, the real site of nostalgia is not the place that was lost or the place that was never quite had in the first place; it is the text that must record that loss.” In other words, Elio and Oliver might give each other up, but the book that conjures them doesn’t give anything up, least of all the two of them. In fact, it brings them back together, it reunites them, for a glorious, endless summer. In the book, the river can be revisited. The closing words echo the title: a phrase of simultaneous greeting and farewell. Both an elegy and an invitation.