Had the adjective not been indiscriminately overused, it would have sufficed to say that André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name is a ‘beautiful’ novel; beautiful in its language, in the emotions it portrays and the responses they evoke, in the backdrop against which the story unfolds and in its heart wrenching finale. But since it is, we must grope for other words to describe the book. Siddhartha Dey on the search…
I met the book the way you meet most good things in life: by chance. A college senior, whose choices I admire, had shared a link on social media about the brilliance of the film CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (which went on to become the most acclaimed film of 2017). The slightest enquiry revealed that it is based on a novel (2007), whose e-book version got downloaded to my Kindle with minimal effort. I usually assess the quality of a completely unknown (to me) book of a completely unknown (to me) writer by the grip of the language in its opening pages. And once Aciman scored almost a nine out of ten on that count, there was no stopping.
There is much that kept me hooked to the book. The language, to begin with, is lyrical and crystalline; to such an extent that it becomes a hurdle to fast-reading, as you keep meditating on individual lines and forget the story for a while. Very often it touches the sublime without ever toppling over to maudlin sentimentality. In fact, Aciman’s prose — at times strongly reminiscent of Emily Brontë — acts as the perfect medium to give voice to the passionate convictions of love:
“You are my homecoming… You make me like who I am… If there is any truth in the world, it lies when I’m with you, and if I find the courage to speak my truth to you one day, remind me to light a candle in thanksgiving at every altar in Rome.“
The setting — Elio’s parents’ sprawling summerhouse in the Italian Riviera — is a perfect match for the prose with the Mediterranean sunshine lulling the grapevines and the swatches of lavender that border the beach of the cove that stretches right across your sight as you impersonate the seventeen year old precocious boy, Elio idling away a warm summer afternoon in his patio.
This idyllic and timeless world of Elio’s adolescence gets tangled in the twin forces of desire and it’s immediate antidote, fear, as the dashing 24 year old Oliver arrives as a summer-guest. Fondly named ‘il cauboi’ and ‘la muvistar’ by Elio’s mother, this tall, handsome and intelligent American academic in his ‘billowy’ shirt and crisp conversations wins over the family, the neighbours and of course, Elio. What follows is a roller-coaster ride and an impeccable study of love in all its nuanced shades: the apprehension, the denial, the guilt and the circuitous reaching out:
Did I want him to act? Or would I prefer a lifetime of longing provided we both kept this little Ping-Pong game going: not knowing, not-not-knowing, not-not-not-knowing? Just be quiet, say nothing, and if you can’t say “yes,” don’t say “no,” say “later.” Is this why people say “maybe” when they mean “yes,” but hope you’ll think it’s “no” when all they really mean is, Please, just ask me once more, and once more after that?
The author also deals masterfully with erotic tensions and oddities (watch out for the scene when Elio shudders away from Oliver’s touch, or the one in which he masturbates using a peach) and keeps the novel erotically charged all throughout without ever plunging into pornography. And the first-person narrative makes sure that the reader feels as much emotional and sensual heft as Elio does.
But, just as the characters (both Elio and Oliver) hesitatingly begin to acknowledge and reciprocate their passions they are gripped by the two great fears of the lover: that of being ditched and that of being devoured. And by the time they can even partly overcome either of these, it’s going to be all over as Oliver is only a ‘summer-guest’ for six weeks. The inevitability of separation looms large over the novel as it reaches midway and you are left wondering why loss is always the measure of love? and what can prepare the lover from coming to terms with it? Is it possible to keep dropping breadcrumbs — when you are madly, passionately in love — for the return journey which you will have to carry out all alone?
Read the book. For you have all had your Olivers (male or female, in adolescence or as adults). Read it, for the authentic and meticulous examination of craving and desire:
“Did I want to be like him?… Or did I just want to have him? Or are “being” and “having” thoroughly inaccurate verbs in the twisted skein of desire, where having someone’s body to touch and being that someone we’re longing to touch are one and the same, just opposite banks on a river that passes from us to them, back to us and over to them again in this perpetual circuit where the chambers of the heart, like the trapdoors of desire, and the wormholes of time, and the false-bottomed drawer we call identity share a beguiling logic according to which the shortest distance between real life and the life unlived, between who we are and what we want, is a twisted staircase designed with the impish cruelty of M. C. Escher.“
Read the book for the lively cast of characters: Elio’s parents, who might rank amongst the most sensible parents in contemporary literature; Chiara and Marzia, the two women who hover on the margins and keep playing second fiddle to the Oliver-Elio romance; Vimini, the ten year old girl suffering from leukemia, who forms an intimate bond with Oliver and is dead by the time the novel moves to the future and Oliver makes a revisit. Read the book for the numerous episodes charged with passion and poetry: in Monet’s berm, at Shelley’s beach, and during the psychedelic tour to Rome, where the evanescent last night together is clothed with a garb of eternity; for the timely allusions to Heraclitus, Stendhal, Dante and Thomas Hardy; and finally for the magisterially crafted finale (which strongly reminded me of Barnes’ SENSE OF AN ENDING) that is both shattering and reaffirming. It makes you regret all the possibilities you chose not to embrace, but simultaneously consoles with the the assurance that there is no end to love. Ever.
Title Art: Suman Mukherjee
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