Thursday, August 25, 2011

Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

"Then let me say one more thing.  It will clear the air.  I may have come close, but I never had what you had.  Something always held me back or stood in the way.  How you live your life is your business.  But remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once.  Most of us can't help but live as though we've got two lives to live, one is the mockup, the other the finished version, and then there are all those versions in between.  But there's only one, and before you know it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it.  Right now there's sorrow.  I don't envy the pain.  But I envy you the pain."  Page 225
It's more than a bit intimidating… picking up this book for the first time.  The back cover informed me of no less than five top honors won in 2007.  There are heavy expectations with a novel as this and plenty of room for disappointment.  
Seventeen year-old Elio and his family are settling in for the summer at their mansion in the Italian Riviera.  As is their custom, since Elio's father is a prominent university scholar, they host a visiting scholar from abroad for three months.  Oliver, the 'muvi star' as the locals call him is this year's lucky guy.  He is twenty-four, American, and loved by everyone in the town of B.  None more than Elio.  
Elio's narration tells much about everything but himself.  What we have to conclude through his discussion with others, particularly Oliver, is that he is brilliant for seventeen yet has managed to maintain the emotional ineptitude of his peers: he doesn't know how to act, think, or how to express himself.  Aciman doesn't tell a story about falling in love.  Elio's feelings are known right away.  Rather Elio tries to explain how things got here almost as if he is defending his emotions.  
There is a sensitivity in Elio's voice and I actually grew to see his character as fragile as the book went on.  He is hard to describe as anything but delicate.  Much of his emotional angst could be explained by his age and yet his maturity--not his being mature for his age, rather his insights and intelligence--has a awful time reconciling his actions and feelings.  This is put into sharp relief when contrast with Oliver who is blunt, brash, and confident in all he does.  Elio is torn by desire and lust, guilt and shame.  He is walking insecurity.  
Both characters sexuality isn't merely intriguing: it is all-consuming.  The American 'muvi star' has no problem making friends, acquaintances,  and lovers in a beautiful summer in the Italian Riviera.  Nor does Elio, despite his age, inexperience and hormones, struggle to find the affections of women his age.  They both flirt with women.  They both make love with women.  They both conduct themselves in manner that is completely in line with who they are.  It's all a ruse.  A guise to cover what they want from each other.  One of Aciman's particular strengths is conveying the attractiveness of Elio and Oliver without ever giving the smallest inclination as to what they look like.  We know more of Oliver's clothing and Elio's artistic interest than we do concrete physical descriptions of what they look like.  Each reader is allowed to envision them as they will; and each reader will be correct.  
The book's title is a concept that defines Elio's and Oliver's relationship.  While the words "Call me by your name," are spoken more than once it is more than the silly gesture that it seems.  Elio and Oliver are one and the same person: likes, dislikes, interest, passions; there is nothing they don't share.  Elio wants to wear Oliver's bathing suits, his shirt, to sleep in his bed to--quite literally, wear his skin and be inside of him.  Again I say that is not a metaphor ( well, not really ) this is Elio's most dear desire.  The only thing more disturbing than Elio's obsession, and there is no other word for his feelings, is Oliver's reciprocation.  This wanting to be the other person culminates in the phrase "Call me by your name."  'I am you and you are me.'  While I'm confusing pronouns, I assure you Aciman gives new, near disturbing beauty to the phrase, "I want you inside of me."  
"He was my secret conduit to myself--like a catalyst that allows us to become who we are, the foreign body, the pacer, the graft, the patch that sends all the right impulses, the steel pin that keeps a soldiers' bone together, the other man's heart that makes us more us than we were before the transplant."  Page 143
If I had a point of contention with the novel--and I don't--it would be the title.  "Call me by your name," means so much more than just the words to the characters: the phrase is the embodiment of an idea; and expresses far more power than, "I love you."  I felt that when the line was used in the book it was almost robbed of some, though not much, of it's power just by the reader already being familiar with the title and not understanding it's meaning. 
The summer the two spend together is exactly ninety days.  A little, way too much, and not a lot can happen in that span of time.  I'll shake Aciman's hand, give him a hug and kiss in congratulations for writing the only believable "years after" moment in any book I've ever read.  The power of this relationship goes far beyond the physical and time itself seems unable to exhaust Elio and Oliver's feelings.  
The narration is raw, delicate, susceptible to bruising, and probably more honest than any reader would be comfortable reading.  It is equally convincing in its veracity, vicious lack of subtly, and relentless brooding.  This is some of the most beautiful prose and use of language you will come across.  If ever there needed to be an argument made for literature being art, here is my evidence.  Upon completion of the book, the same back cover doesn't have so much clout; for once, all the critics got it right…    


Anonymous said...

I just finished this book and started it for a second time. It is fantastic. This is a great review. Aciman writes this important and beautiful story in a language that, like you say, is nothing short of artistic masterpiece. To all who haven't read it - run, don't walk, to get a copy of "Call Me By Your Name."

kimbofo said...

This book sounds awesome, Chad. Never heard of the author before but judging by his Amazon page he's got a rather interesting back catalogue.

JT Grant Art said...

Concur with your remarks about the beautiful use of language. "My Name Is Asher Lev" is, to me, the most gloriously transparent writing. I see and think nothing of Potok. He never stumbles, never lays foot to creaky floorboard for a second. He simply isn't there and the story shimmers without a clumsy line to whiplash one out of the reality opened on the pages. Aciman is almost as invisible. Still, there are moments of self satisfaction where he suddenly appears by the pool or next to a cafe table pointing proudly at his story telling.
It is important, not just for it's uninterrupted flow of bodily fluids that the story takes place a few years before the first AIDS death in Italy. Within two years, even in Italy a pall was cast over everyone who had gay sex and no meaningful barrier, even condoms, had yet to become the ubiquitous bio-hazard pocket pack able to protect one from " The gay plague." Still, this colored my perception of 'The cau boi', Oliver. The gay plague as it was then known was already beginning to roil conversation in the US. It had hit with greatest force here and Oliver would, even in '83, have known about it. It's Oliver's tinge of cruelty, dusting of malevolent self absorption that continues to nibble at me. I think it is Elio's salvation that in a moment of clarity Oliver realizes his dishonesty that sends him running away, crushing the boy.