About a couple of weeks ago, I reconnected with a friend after 15 years. We met for coffee and tried to condense the last 15 years in 3 hours of catching up with each others’ lives. Prior to our meeting, I learned that he was doing some spring cleaning of his library and he had books to give away. I asked for some of the books and he brought it to our coffee date.
One of these books was “Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman. The author was unfamiliar to me. I started reading it last Monday late at night after finishing watching my TV shows. I would’ve finished reading it in one sitting but the desire to sleep caught up with me so I reluctantly put the book down. Last night, I resumed reading it and didn’t stop until I finished, at about 3AM. But before turning in, I went back to my computer and typed the passages from various parts of the book that resonated to me. I knew I had to write about it later in the day.
When I was younger, a book on young love like this would fill me some kind of dread, which was mostly centered on my own fear of finding or not finding the love of my life. Through the stories I was able to live through the experience of finding, of losing, of living through such loss, and of moving on. This vicarious living was sort of a parallel life that existed alongside with my real adventures and mishaps in love and relationships.
The story of Elio and Oliver reminded me of the previous books on young love that I have read through the years. In particular, “Dream Boy” by Jim Grimsley. Religious fervor pervaded this book but the emotional connection between the two, much younger protagonists was similar in its intensity. Another book was “Like People in History” by Felice Picano, which covered the last 60 years of American gay life through the lives of two gay cousins. One character’s recollection of their youth was as touching as the recollection of the narrator Elio.
Elio was a precocious teenager in the story, and his version of his affair with Oliver was full of awkwardly funny and painful incidents wherein every word and gesture was exhaustively analyzed, down to whether Oliver is conveying secret messages in his choice of swimming trunks. His schemes and machinations reminded me of another precocious youth’s brazen modes of seduction in “A Boy’s Own Story” by Edmund White. While the pain that came with the protracted end of an affair and the confusion on how to cope with such a loss reminded me of “Nightswimmer” by Joseph Olshan, a book that also resonated with me when I read it many many years ago.
“Call Me By Your Name” was narrated by Elio, who had to give up his bedroom every summer for visiting academics who came to his parents’ house in the Italian Riviera as his father’s guest to spend six weeks working on their manuscripts before publication. Elio soon became infatuated with Oliver, the 24 year-old Heraclitus expert from the US. Elio would spend a good part of the summer pining and fawning over the handsome academic who seemed indifferent and aloof to his thinly veiled amorous advances. However, as autumn approached and Oliver’s return to the US drew near, their relationship intensified into something that transformed everything that followed hollowed and seemingly unreal.
Summer love was never this hot, this painful, this emotional, and this profoundly affecting. The narrator might be an adolescent, but his experience was universally relatable. Probably due to my age now, instead of filling me with the aforementioned dread, I found myself identifying with the narrator as he went through every excruciating stage of his passion for this other person. Memories of my awkward years surfaced and intensified my reading experience. The book effectively explored the vagaries of infatuation, the fears within impending starts and ends of a relationship, the sorrows of lost love, and the elusive peace that memories of the past years can bring.
The prose is flawless, haunted by Marcel Proust’s style, contemplative and blunt in the right places, tender and brutal as any experience of intimacy can be. The long, seemingly meandering sentences reminded me of the way I wrote when I was in my 20s and I found them a delight to read instead of being tiresome.
Many of the lines really struck me. Like this, taken from the part where Elio’s father spoke with him after Oliver left for the States, and Elio was feigining indifference to this separation, a pretense that his father, a revered academic, saw through. He said:
“… if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it. Withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night, and watching others forget us sooner than we’d want to be forgotten is no better. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt at the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything–what a waste!”
Imagine hearing something like this from your own father after seeing you silently suffer from heartbreak. Even Oliver commented that Elio was lucky to have a father who felt like that, adding that is his own father learned of his affair with Elio, he’d have been institutionalized in a heartbeat. After so many years, Elio and Oliver finally meet again, under quieter circumstances. And Elio comes to a realization on what he had with Oliver. To me this paragraph would have sufficed as the ending of the book but the ending didn’t happen until a few pages after this paragraph. To me this summed up everything that Elio and Oliver went through:
“…. It would finally dawn on us both that he was more than me than I had ever been myself, because when he became me and I became him in bed so many years ago, he was and would forever remain, long after very forked road in life had done its work, my brother, my friend, my father, my son, my husband, my lover, myself. In the weeks we’d been thrown together that summer, our lives had scarcely touched, but we had crossed to the other bank, where time stops and heaven reaches down to earth and gives us that ration of what is from birth divinely ours. We looked the other way. We spoke about everything but. But we’ve always known, and not saying anything now confirmed it all the more. We had found the stars, you and I. And this is given once only.”
To find the stars in each other. If that isn’t total intimacy, then I don’t know what is.
Posted on November 27, 2013, in journal, review and tagged A Boy's Own Story, Andre Aciman, book, Call Me By Your Name, Dream Boy, Edmund White, Felice Picano, Jim Grimsley, Joseph Olshan, Like People in History, Nightswimmer. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.