Hearts and flowers

Andre Aciman's first novel, set in the Italian countryside, marries gay intimacy with Jewish concerns.

gay book 88 298 (photo credit: )
gay book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Call Me By Your Name By Andre Aciman Farrar, Straus and Giroux 256 pages; $23 Andre Aciman's new novel, Call Me By Your Name, invites comparison to Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint in that both works explore a Jewish man's journey of self-awakening through sexual longing. Although far more sensitive, erudite and pensive, the novel's 17-year-old protagonist, Elio, could almost pass for a young Alexander Portnoy, stripped of his familial angst but still enslaved by his ravenous libido. This is the first work of fiction by Andre Aciman, an acclaimed essayist arguably best known for his 1995 memoir, Out of Egypt. It is the story of Elio's obsession with his family's summer guest, Oliver, a 24-year-old American scholar of pre-Socratic thought whose prodigious charisma and charm cause Elio's mother to dub him "la muvi star." Like Portnoy, who is consumed by his taboo desire for a non-Jewish beauty, Elio - a boy who wants to be both "man and woman," becomes fixated, utterly consumed with another man. Set in the Italian countryside, the story traces Elio's desperate attempts to read Oliver's every movement, gesture and comment as his own fervor for the visiting academic escalates to a nearly unbearable crescendo. Over the course of a few weeks, while Elio's parents devote their time to leisurely hosting a diverse bevy of friends, relatives, academics, professionals and occasional tourists, Elio tries to elicit Oliver's affection while struggling to conceal his ardor from the members of his household. Eventually he prevails and enters into a liaison with Oliver that sears his mind with an imprint of intimacy that he can never replicate. Elio describes his desire for Oliver as the plain need of one man for another, yet his passion is heavily tinged with sophomoric exuberance. For example, Aciman loads the novel with scenes involving fruit, most notably apricots and peaches. The scenes, rather than invoking erotic intimacy, conjure images of film trailers for the type of crass "teen flicks" that heavily rely on sexual conquests and scatological humor for their themes and motifs. Elio is precocious, but he is, we are invited to remember, foremost an adolescent. His yearnings and fetishes are recognizably juvenile. By telling the story in Elio's voice approximately two decades after it occurs, Aciman toys with the veracity of Elio's recollections of intimacy. While the adult Elio cannot imagine living more authentically than he did during that long-past summer, it is indisputable that part of the perceived intimacy emanated from Elio's still unripe emotional constitution. As Aciman constructs the cat-and-mouse maneuvers that characterize Elio and Oliver's initial relationship, he also paints an irresistible portrait of Italy. To Oliver, lying poolside in the morning sun is "heaven." Every day is punctuated with the "unavoidable afternoon torpor" and then redeemed with the pleasant relief of the early evening breeze. It is a world where there is always a supply of icy lemonade and "rosatello," as well as ocean views like a Monet painting. The heat is romantic, adds sheen and gloss, and every alley and piazzetta are teaming with verve. Less compelling is Aciman's attempt to integrate a Jewish element into the story. Early in their acquaintance, Elio is enraptured to learn that Oliver, like him, is Jewish. But this kinship adds little to their union or the story. Elio muses that their shared faith is one of their essential bonds, but as his attraction evolves into a limitless fascination, their religious affinity fades, becoming essentially irrelevant. A later reference to the poet Paul Celan echoes the book's earlier Jewish concerns, but again, the reference is isolated, not really fastened to any other Jewish thread that emerges from Elio and Oliver's relationship. Call Me By Your Name is a thematically hefty novel, preoccupied with memory, desire, nostalgia and intimacy, that also demonstrates Aciman's mastery of prose. He has the ability to convey drama without sentimentality and deep emotion without hyperbolic excess. One example is Elio's conception of his life in the wake of his summer with Oliver. "Many helped me part life into Before X and After X segments, many brought joy and sorrow, many threw my life off course, while others made no difference whatsoever, so that Oliver, who for so long had loomed like a fulcrum on the scale of life, eventually acquired successors who either eclipsed him or reduced him to an early milepost, a minor fork in the road, a small fiery Mercury on a voyage out to Pluto and beyond." The affair with Oliver is the benchmark against which Elio measures his entire life, but, as is the case throughout the book, Aciman relays the most profound feelings through fresh language and unexpected metaphors. The confluence of gay intimacy and Jewish concerns is not new. Works by writers such as Arye Lev Stollman, Michael Lowenthal and Aaron Hamburger have recently plumbed this topic with varying results. In Call Me By Your Name, Aciman creates a sense of ethereal intimacy that suggests the transcendence of gender boundaries, but in a novel so utterly preoccupied with a gay romance, such transcendence is not possible. Nevertheless, Aciman has produced in this book a language of yearning and desire that is powerful and convincing. Elio's recollection of his summer affair may be colored by nostalgia and the taint of adolescent obsession, but these factors in no way lessen Aciman's ability to relay Elio's memory of the affair with fiery intensity.