Call Me By Your Name
By André Aciman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
248 pages, $28.95
Like a knight fork in chess, André Aciman's amorous new novel Call Me By Your Name simultaneously threatens two positions we hold dear. On the one hand, the novel uses its story of gay love between two men of varying ages and experiences to investigate and celebrate power dynamics within love, a subject likely to be unpopular in North American publishing if this were a heterosexual relationship. Then, just when we are helplessly enthralled with this searing portrait of love and surrender, the novel also reveals itself as a bittersweet Bildungsroman, a story of elegiac maturation and resigned loss. The tireless literary subjects of love and death have found their fresh new form.
Seventeen-year-old Elio has grown up as the precocious child of peripatetic, academic parents, who finally settle into an intellectually lively retirement on the Italian Mediterranean. Each summer, they host a promising young scholar to their waterfront villa. Enter Oliver, a bright and beautiful charmer with a freshly minted PhD from Columbia. Intellectual yet athletic, considerate yet ambitious, sophisticated yet earthy, Oliver quickly has everyone in the village eating out of his smooth, tanned hands. No one is more enraptured than the sexually curious young Elio, who narrates this autopsy of infatuation.
Shrewdly, Aciman takes us through this story in the young man's own voice and reflections. Elio freely confesses to being powerless in his love, yet his narration of the story affords him some agency, an agency he needs sorely. In mixed company, the winsome Oliver "speaks of his vices as if they were distant relatives he'd learned to put up with because he couldn't quite disown them," yet while alone with Elio he is often judgmental, manipulative and dismissive.
To Elio, at least, power is the core of his tentative and cryptic relationship with Oliver, not a mere aspect of it. In one of the novel's erotic passages, Elio describes how "an eternity seemed to pass between my reluctance to make up my mind and his instinct to make it up for me." Elsewhere, he secretly implores the twentysomething Oliver, "just don't let me say no." The very sight of his beloved is an addiction; young Elio "could never stare long enough but needed to keep staring to find out why." In this brave and honest song of innocence and experience, love may not be polite or democratically governed, but it's exactly the love we long for: passionate, expansive and revealing.
Significantly and delightfully, however, Call Me by Your Name portrays more than just a well-dressed master and slave on the Mediterranean. This incisive and courageous portrait of gay virginity also enlightens heterosexual relationships. The dialect may be gay, but unmistakably, the language is love. Elio says their first coupling is "like coming home," and Oliver is a "secret conduit to myself."
Here, finally, is a thorough parsing of love, the fishing for looks, the feints and invitations, the heaven of a smile granted and the hell of one withheld. Love "reveals identity to be a false-bottomed drawer." When the novel's consummation finally reaches its slow boil, Elio enjoys "the distinct feeling . . . of being me, me, me, me and no one else, just me, of finding in each shiver that ran down my arms something totally alien and yet by no means unfamiliar, as if all this had been part of me all of my life and I'd misplaced it and he had helped me find it."
For every passage quoted here there are five more, equally crystalline, left on this review's crowded cutting-room floor.
Although the romantic emotions mined here are universal, they are nonetheless particularized quite explicitly in the same-sex bodies of these male lovers. This gay focus affords the novel its second major triumph, enabling latent inquiries into aging and mortality. Arguably, experiential and corporeal similarities give gay lovers profound intimacies. When Elio says "my body is your body," or that he wants to "host" his lover's body inside his own, we are pulled into the love story and also primed for its sad withering to age.
Flirtatious himself, Aciman withholds confirmation of the romance until the novel is one third over, and then its consummation until the close of the second. Prudently, the final third of the novel avoids a lingering nostalgia for the one glorious summer of love, preferring instead to quickly but forcefully dramatize the betrayals of aging and loss.
For those of us who need the novel like we need air, who can't live without the quiet but by no means strengthless companionship of the novel, there is in our hearts or homes a small bookshelf, perhaps real, more likely metaphorical, containing the few books that have helped us love. Unflinchingly, generously and knowingly, André Aciman's Call Me By Your Name has earned its place on that little shelf.
Darryl Whetter is the author of A Sharp Tooth in the Fur and a former professor of creative writing and English. His most recent story is in 05: Best Canadian Stories.