By Charles Kaiser,
author of "The Gay Metropolis," which will be published in an updated edition this summer
Thursday, March 22, 2007
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
By André Aciman
Farrar Straus Giroux. 248 pp. $23
If you have ever been the willing victim of obsessive love -- a force greater than yourself that pulls you inextricably toward the object of your desire -- you will recognize every nuance of André Aciman's superb new novel, "Call Me by Your Name."
The story unfolds in the spacious home of an academic who hosts a new student every year on the Italian coast, near Genoa. One summer's visitor is a charming 24-year-old American named Oliver, the kind of person for whom everything seems effortless: "He was okay with being Jewish . . . He was okay with his body, with his looks, with his antic backhand, with his choice of books, music, films, friends." The servants are as beguiled by him as the professor and his wife. Only one member of the household is paralyzed by his arrival: the professor's 17-year-old son, Elio.
This boy is also the book's precocious narrator, and he is quick to recognize the nature of his predicament: "I was afraid when [Oliver] showed up, afraid when he failed to, afraid when he looked at me, more frightened yet when he didn't." Elio immediately decides that he and Oliver are soul brothers: "I liked how our minds seemed to travel in parallel, how we instantly inferred what words the other was toying with but at the last moment held back." But he is tormented by the mystery of exactly where their connection will lead them -- and the reader quickly comes to share the intensity of his curiosity.
Like so many classic love stories, this one unfolds with the suspense of a thriller. Will Elio's passion ever be reciprocated by the one he worships? If it is, will they leap over fear and taboo to consummate their desire? And if they do, will they be exhilarated or repelled by that consummation? They have only six weeks to find out.
The boys' stratagems of avoidance and entrapment (often indistinguishable from each other) unfold inside an exceptionally literate household. Aciman has perfect pitch for everything from the beauty of the languid Italian countryside to the perils of unbridled adolescent passion: "I wanted him dead . . . so that if I couldn't stop thinking about him and worrying about when would be the next time I'd see him, at least his death would put an end to it. I wanted to kill him myself, even, so as to let him know how much his mere existence had come to bother me . . . I didn't know what I was afraid of, nor why I worried so much, nor why this thing that could so easily cause panic felt like hope sometimes and, like hope in the darkest moments, brought such joy, unreal joy, joy with a noose tied around it."
At the dinner table, the boys compete to hide their passion beneath their erudition. The conversation ranges from an explanation of Haydn's "Seven Last Words of Christ" to the etymology of the word "apricot."
The book is explicit without ever being prurient, and the feelings the narrator describes are both homoerotic and universal: "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 this perpetual circulation 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 . . . 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 soldier's bone together, the other man's heart that makes us more us than we were before the transplant."
Almost 60 years ago, Gore Vidal published "The City and the Pillar." Although Vidal has always eschewed the word, the novel's characters advanced the argument that "gay" describes an act rather than a person. The protagonists of Aciman's novel do that more convincingly that anyone Vidal ever created. The beauty of Aciman's writing and the purity of his passions should place this extraordinary first novel within the canon of great romantic love stories for everyone.