Desire is unsustainable. It shrinks. Dims. Collapses. It renders us extremely observant, yet somehow undiscerning. In Marguerite Duras's The Lover, her unnamed narrator characterizes herself as being totally "worn out" by the strong feeling.
At its most basic construction, desire is the fear of acquisition. Its end is predated and anyone in its throes, like Duras's heroine or like Elio in André Aciman's Italy-set 2007 novel Call Me by Your Name – which is experiencing somewhat of a revival thanks to Luca Guadagnino's Oscar-nominated adaptation – can confirm, one becomes incapable of simplifying even the slightest gesture. That's because the desirous first-person narrator sleuths immoderate meaning from anything: half-glances, "that tan along [an] exposed shoulder," or the colours of a first love's swimming trunks. In this case, Oliver, the American graduate student staying with Elio's family for the summer. Those wet swimming trunks lying around the house belong to him.
While the ending of Guadagnino's version (written by James Ivory) is different, the movie – its mood – is faithfully scripted. In the book, as in the film, Elio is desperate for whatever acknowledgments might, at any moment, be tossed his way. Like an apricot picked fresh from its tree, accompanied by Oliver's casually uttered Yours. Elio appears menaced by his desire. He's unprotected from it and it plunges him into a state of full swoon. He never knows what to do with his hands. He's prone to roundness, the most worshipful shape. Oliver's Oliverness becomes a mechanism for Elio to turn inwards – he talks to himself in order to talk to Oliver. In the film, as it was originally portrayed in the novel, Elio and Oliver often feel inseparable, and not because of their closeness, but because Elio sees the world only as it applies to Oliver.
During a recent visit to Toronto to discuss Guadagnino's adaptation, Aciman talked with The Globe and Mail about the power of desire, and the challenges of handing over your work to someone else.
Let's talk about the first person, since your novel is written from Elio's point of view. What was it like experiencing Luca's adaptation of Elio's interiority?
Every time I've tried writing in the third person, it just falls flat. Because when you're writing from a first-person perspective, there's always room for high anxiety, high obsession and at the same time, misreading. In other words, Elio in the book is constantly misreading what's around him. He mistakes a gaze from Oliver as being hostile when in fact it might not have been, and I think the reader is kind of inducted into experiencing the fact that Elio may not always be right. He's a narrator aware of his own foibles and exaggerations. When you want to portray this on the screen, you have two choices. One is voiceover, which can become extremely intrusive and heavy-handed. Or you can have fantastic actors who will, in essence, on their faces alone and in their silence, suggest to the viewer what's really going on inside their hearts.
A word that comes up when I think about the film and about your novel, is "conjuring." What the story does so well is summon not just Elio's summer with Oliver, but the movement of light, the sounds, touch, memory's insistence and what's inexpressible but felt. Did you talk to Luca at all about his vision?
Luca and I got along very, very well. But I decided from the get-go that I would not intrude on the picture. I was not proprietary in any sense. I wasn't going to meddle; what I am, stupid? I was extremely happy that it was he and no one else that was going to do the film. When he told me about his ending, I thought it might be a little bit schmaltzy but I didn't say anything. But when I saw the film, I turned to him and said, "You know what, your ending is better than mine."
Audiences are seeing the film multiple times. Or reopening the book immediately after finishing it. There's something compulsive about people's reactions. They're hooked.
Either this kind of love is something you've had and long lost, or it's something you've never had but have always wanted. It's very much like myths. That unreal zone that the book and the film explore is riveting, because it tells you something that you understand perfectly, even if it never happened.
Can we talk about a bit about memory and your relationship to it with regards to your writing, and how, in some ways, it seems to be the novel's agitating force.
When I was 15, and I read The Waste Land for the first time, and there was one line that knocked me over. I never made the association, or I had made it, but never thought of it, which is where poetry comes in: it tells you things we've always known. Desire and memory are almost the same organ, just different facets of the same organ. You don't know where memory begins and where desire ends, and they feed on each other. As a writer, it's essential that I move in both fields at the same time.
You write about "ghost spots" in your novel. Those spaces that feel forever haunted by you or a person, a lover. I kept feeling like "ghost spots" was another way of characterizing memory. As if "ghost spots" were a translation of the word memory from another language.
The idea of "ghost spot" came to me when I was writing a piece about Rome for a magazine. It's precisely what Wordsworth used to call "spots of time." In other words, certain areas and corners, have you in it. Except you have to go back there to find where a birth of you really happened. And you have to revisit it because it is nowhere else and yet, nothing is there.
Do you ever experience the opposite, where you encounter a new place, or read a passage from a book you've never read, or experience a new film that feels oddly familiar? Like you've been previously acquainted with it – even if that's impossible. Like the opposite of a "ghost spot."
Well, that's what recovery is. That's the magic of anything artistic. It gives you back something that you thought you possessed. If you think of soundtracks, the great, magnificent movie soundtracks. Sometimes you hear the soundtrack before you see the film, and you feel as though you've heard this before. It just enters your system. So many things we experience fall flat or don't move us. But that's what we want. In the book, or with the film, you wake up the next morning, and you still want to be woven into it. The movie does that: it keeps you in its spell for days afterwards. And that's why you go and see it again. Part of it is that you want to prove to yourself that you're no longer under the spell, but guess what, you've just recommitted yourself.
I was speaking to a friend about the film and about swimming trunks. Their dopey, baggy fit. The way they cling to wet legs. Finding hooks or doorknobs to hang them to dry. Also, the symbolism of swimming trunks, both in the novel and in the film, as these emblems of summer, curiosity and desire.
When you are obsessed or infatuated with someone, everything about them is now charged with signification. It's almost as if they are trying to tell you something about themselves. Or to use another word, you're intercepting something essential about them. In their glasses, in the way they walk, and of course, in their swimming trunks. Elio creates this whole fable of what each colour bathing suit means. If it's green, it's this. If it's red, it's that. If it's blue or yellow, it's this and that. We do this all the time. We misread the people we want because we need information about them but don't have any. So we go to their clothes, and to their skin, or the way they brush their hair. Anything will do. And I think the bathing suit became the objective correlative of his desire. When you're in love with someone, the fetishization of the clothes becomes part of the desire. Elio is becoming Oliver, the closer he gets to his swimming trunks. He's actually coupling with Oliver. And bathing suits don't have meaning! But they reveal something about your perception of a person.
They might have not meaning meaning, but in Call Me by Your Name, they feel like "ghost spots" to me.
That's true. That's true.
James Ivory, screenwriter of Call Me by Your Name, will discuss his Oscar-nominated adaptation of André Aciman's novel on March 27 at the TIFF Lightbox (tiff.net). The 90th Academy Awards air live March 4 on ABC and CTV.