Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Stumbling over veracity

I finished André Aciman's Call Me By Your Name a couple nights ago. I'd read extensively about it and began the book eagerly, only to finish it with a sort of puzzled disappointment.

Name is the story of seventeen-year-old Elio, idling away the summer with his parents in their Italian cliffside villa. Elio's father, a famous professor, invites a guest to join the household each summer, invariably a carefully chosen young academic destined for greatness. In return for luxurious accomodations and the opportunity to write, the guest is expected to help Elio's father with paperwork and be witty at meals.

Enter Oliver, who at twenty-four already has his first philosophy book in press. He has taken leave of his teaching duties at Columbia to spend the summer poolside with his notes, his Italian translator, and the many women who come his way.

Handsome, charismatic, arrogant, Oliver all but charms the birds from the trees. And one of those birds is Elio.

The first three quarters of the novel are devoted to Elio's unspoken yearnings, his resolutions to play it cool, and his strained exchanges with Oliver. The amount of game-playing going on between these young men puts adolescent girls to shame. Oliver and Elio are chatting poolside. Oliver and Elio are giving each other the silent treatment. Oliver and Elio are trading verbal jousts about arcane literary figures. When Elio isn't circling Oliver, who ignores him, both are making it with local girls, eating ice creams, and having fun at the discoteque. It's an enviably lazy life.

Yet Elio is consumed with longing. The book is almost entirely devoted to his inner musings; external plot development is light, merely enough to let reader know precious time is passing. Finally, in a moment of boldness, Elio confesses his love to Oliver, who suggests they ignore their feelings. They do not, and have a brief, intense affair, truncated by Oliver's return to the United States. And though Oliver and Elio will meet a few more times, many years later, they will never again be intimate. Oliver, who has married and had children, does not seem troubled by this. Elio, who tells us he has many affairs but, it seems, never marries or meets a long-term partner, is forever marked by his attachment.

Aciman teaches comparative literature; Name is his first work of fiction. His observations on time and the ways we look backward, wondering what might have been, are aching and true. But for each moment of clarity, there are more where the writing is wordy, obscuring Elio's raw emotional state. As the book progressed, I had increasing difficulty staying with it.

The problem is veracity. What twenty-four year old holds a teaching post at Columbia? (I am not taking about teaching assistantships.) Has already written a philopsohical treatise? How many seventeen-year-olds experience a love powerful enough to subsume the remainder of their lives?

It was this, Elio's obsession, that gave me the greatest pause. I thought back to myself at seventeen--experiencing first love and a wrenching break-up whose effects dogged me for years. But had they forever marked me?

At first I thought no. I was young; eventually I recovered. But the truth is the relationship did have a lasting impact. The man I married is much like that first love from so many years ago. I still think about my first love; sometimes I wonder what happened to him. But these are idle thoughts. He does not obsess me. Given the opportunity, I would not resume a relationship with him. Further, did he color my choices, or were my choices inherent, my lover simply the first person who embodied them? Aciman touches on this when discussing Elio's sexuality; Elio likes women, but a brief teenage interlude in an alleyway opened the door to bisexuality. So was Oliver merely the first attractive conquest, invested with all manner of teenage emotion?

Ultimately--and this is completely subjective--I can't believe a seventeen-year-old would cling to a fleeting relationship, as Elio does, for the remainder of his days. Remember, yes. Be saddened, yes. Experience regret, yes. But if such a love is possible at seventeen, it must be exceptionally rare. (Romeo and Juliet notwithstanding. It's a play. Shakespeare made it up.)

In fairness, I must note Aciman's moving writing about the ways love transcends physical gender. At no point does the book read as a strictly "gay" novel. Rather, we understand that Elio would have responded to any person embodying Oliver's traits; it happens that the individual in question is male. Aciman's treatment of this fact is beautifully handled and should give any thinking person a deeper understanding of the many ways love is possible.

My final feeling, then, is I may be blinded by my own biases, and if the book were without merit, I wouldn't care enough to mull it over, or to suggest that others may find it more rewarding than I did.

Andre Aciman. Call Me By Your Name. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 2007.

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