Few people may have heard of Andre Aciman before his first novel Call Me by Your Name, first published in 2007, was made into a beautiful film of the same name. Fewer still will have read it, the more the pity. Ordinarily I tend not to read the novel on which a famous film has been based after seeing the movie. But in this case, I was so moved by the film that I was intrigued to read the inspiration for such beauty.
Anyone who has seen the film knows the story of young academic Oliver from Columbia University who spends a few weeks in Italy as a house guest of an eminent Classics scholar where he has the opportunity to revise his manuscript before publication. There he encounters the professor’s 17 year old son Elio, and after a tentative start, a passionate romance ensues. Watching the film, I had a strong notion that I was experiencing a cinematic masterpiece of the kind Bernado Bertolucci might have made in the early Eighties, the time in which the film was set. This was before I knew that James Ivory wrote the screenplay which made perfect sense.
The main difference between the film and the novel is that in the book, an older and wiser Elio narrates the story of his six weeks with Oliver, as well as the aftermath. We see life through the eyes of an intellectually precocious and curious youth, who appears to be very sure of himself, but is in fact riddled with teenage angst, longing, obsession and insecurity. He creates elaborate fantasies. He is fascinated by Oliver, sexually attracted to him despite himself. He wants him but is unsure how to get him. He blows hot and cold and then wonders why he doesn’t get the reaction he wants. He takes us through every bend and turn of his convoluted reasoning that the reader cannot help but remember the confusion and anxiety of one’s own coming to terms with one’s sexuality. He does not know how to be who he is. It’s thoroughly exhausting.
Yet, when Elio and Oliver eventually admit their feelings, everything falls into place:
“When it happened, it happened not as I dreamed it would….from this moment on I had, as never before on my life, the distinct feeling of arriving somewhere very dear, of wanting this forever, of being me, me, me, me, and no one else, just me…as if this had been part of me all my life and I’d misplaced it and he had helped me find it. The dream had been right – this was like coming home, like asking, Where have I been all my life? Which is another way of asking, Where were you in my childhood, Oliver? Which was yet another way of asking, What is life without this? Which is why in the end, it was I, and not he, who blurted out…You’ll kill me if you stop, you’ll kill me if you stop, because it was also my way of bringing full circle the dream and the fantasy, me and him, the longed for words from his mouth to my mouth back into his mouth, swapping words from mouth to mouth, which was when I must have started using obscenities that he repeated after me, softly at first, till he said Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine which I had never done in my life before and which, as soon as I said my own name as though it was his, took me to a realm I never shared with anyone in my life before, or since”.
The beautiful romance progresses for remaining weeks of Oliver’s sojourn in Italy and culminates in three heavenly days in Rome, with the knowledge that it will end. Their experience marks them for all their lives. Elio and Oliver will meet again in the course of the next twenty years, but life will have led them down different roads. Rekindling the romance is futile. And unlike Edith Piaf who claims she regrets nothing, both seem to regret a lifetime spent without one another. Oliver calls Elio “cor cordium, heart of hearts” in one of many heart-breaking moments.
This novel is beautifully written, lyrical and brutal at the same time, eliciting reactions ranging from whimsical nostalgia to gut wrenching realisations. The novel and the film are two brilliant standalone works of art. I need to see the film again soon (not just for Armie Hammer), and I have already returned to parts of the book a few times. Like Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story or Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library, Call Me by Your Name is destined to become one of the gay gospels of my life. – ET.