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Learning to Love

Katia Mann in her old age described what happened in Venice in the late spring of 1911. She had come to the city with her husband, Thomas Mann, and his brother Heinrich. They stayed in the Hotel des Bains on the Lido:

It was very crowded, and in the dining room, on the very first day, we saw the Polish family, which looked exactly the way my husband described them: the girls were dressed rather stiffly and severely, and the very charming, beautiful boy of about thirteen was wearing a sailor suit with an open collar and very pretty lacings.

She watched her husband watching him:

He caught my husband’s attention immediately. This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach. He didn’t pursue him through all of Venice—that he didn’t do—but the boy did fascinate him, and he thought of him often.

Thus, she pointed out, everything in Mann’s story “Death in Venice” “was based on reality, even down to the details” such as “the graying dandy, an aging man who was all spruced up and obviously wearing makeup” and the rumors of a cholera outbreak in the city:

My husband transferred to Aschenbach the pleasure he actually took in this charming boy, stylizing it into extreme passion. I still remember that my uncle, Privy Counselor Friedberg, a famous professor of canon law in Leipzig, was outraged: “What a story! And a married man with a family!”

The boy in question, many years later as “an elderly Polish aristocrat,” read the story and recognized himself “described to a T,” according to Katia Mann, and wrote to Mann’s daughter to say that “he found this very amusing and intriguing.”

André Aciman, in his memoir Out of Egypt, published in 1994, remembered staying on the Lido in Venice when he went to visit his Aunt Flora, one of the members of his extended family who, having been expelled from Alexandria after 1956, had scattered all over the world. Flora lived in a tiny apartment with her memories and her two grand pianos. There were mornings, she told him, when she woke up and, because of the smell of the sea, thought that she was back in Alexandria again:

Summers were long in Venice, she said, and there was nothing she liked more some days than to take the vaporetto and ride around the city, or head directly for the Lido and spend a morning on the beach by herself. She loved the sea. I loved it too, I said, reminding her that it was she who taught me how to swim.

This encounter came bathed in infinite regret and unexplored possibilities not only because of the atmosphere of beauty and loss in the very streets they were walking in, and the great rich world the Acimans had left behind in Egypt, and the time that had passed, but because Flora recounted to Aciman on that visit how she had once expected to marry his father. She had missed her chance. Restless, she was in exile not only from Alexandria but from her life. “Even today,” she said,

I continue to live my life that way. I cross the street on a slant, I always sit in the side rows at concert halls, I am a citizen of two countries but I live in neither, and I never look people in the eye…. When I’m here, I long to be there; when I was there, I longed to be here.

As he left her, having sampled her proud old cooking, Aciman made his way back by boat to the Lido,

thinking of Flora and of all the cities and all the beaches and all the summers I too had known in my life, and of all those who had loved summer long before I came, and of those I had loved and ceased to care for and forgot to mourn and now wished were here with me in one home, one street, one city, one world.

To that passage of wistful and suggestive longing he added one last sentence. It read: “Tomorrow, first thing, I would go to the beach.” More than a decade later, his first novel, Call Me by Your Name, would take its bearings from that passage about summer and longing and loss. But first it would begin by going to the beach.

The narrator of the novel, Elio, aged seventeen, is the sort of young man we all might have become had our elders not sent us to bed regularly just as things were getting interesting. He is spending the summer with his parents—his father is a professor—in their old house on the Italian Riviera. He is both savvy and insecure. Supereducated, he has read many novels and a great deal of poetry, he speaks several languages, and, besides lounging on the beach and swimming in the sea and playing tennis and flirting with girls and riding his bicycle into the village, he is transcribing various works of classical music for guitar. He knows how to play Bach on the piano as Liszt might have played him, and then can also show how Busoni might have done so “if he had altered Liszt’s version.”

More than anything, Elio is a born noticer. And as the novel opens, he notices with relish and immense detail Oliver, the twenty-four-year-old American graduate student who has come to accept his father’s hospitality for six weeks. He notices, for example, that

the color on the palms of his hands was the same as the pale, soft skin of his soles, of his throat, of the bottom of his forearms, which hadn’t really been exposed to much sun. Almost a light pink, as glistening and smooth as the underside of a lizard’s belly. Private, chaste, unfledged, like a blush on an athlete’s face or an instance of dawn on a stormy night. It told me things about him I never knew to ask.

It is clear, quite soon, that our narrator in this golden summer of wondrous privilege becomes interested in adding Oliver to his list of glittering experiences. He desperately wants to sleep with him; desire fills his waking life and his dreams. He plots and plans, as though he were Humbert Humbert and Oliver his Lolita. The reader, because of the sheer innocent skill with which Aciman draws this desire, this watching for clues and waiting for moves, this hope against hope, is surely on his side. If this is a version of Brokeback Mountain, the reader wants the brokeback removed and maybe the mountain too, so that the gorgeous sexual spaces in between can be filled by our young hero and his elusive object of desire.

Elio’s sensual antennae are not merely directed toward the possibilities of sex, however, but toward the credences of summer, toward the heat and the food, toward the sounds in the garden, the richness of the night air, the abundance of the orchard. Elio is also deeply alert not only to his own feelings and desires but to his family’s position in the village and in the world. “We were not conspicuous Jews,” he writes. “We wore our Judaism as people do almost everywhere in the world: under the shirt, not hidden, but tucked away.” Oliver’s ease with his Jewishness excites him and intrigues him: “Judaism never troubled him the way it troubled me, nor was it the subject of an abiding, metaphysical discomfort with himself and the world. It did not even harbor the mystical, unspoken promise of redemptive brotherhood.”

Aciman, who has written a great deal about Proust, has an ability to make the finest, the tiniest and most convincing distinctions between moods, responses, and registers. Everything is watched as it shifts and glitters and then hesitates and maybe is shadowed over. Oliver’s reactions are never simple and the narrator’s system of reading them is as meticulous as his way of transcribing his music, or his method of trying to remember what this classic summer was like as he writes his account of it many years later. This really is fiction at its most supremely interesting; every clause and subclause shimmers with a densely observed and carefully rendered invention which seems oddly and delightfully precise and convincing.

As the summer progresses, so do Elio’s plans to seduce Oliver. His appetite for what must happen between them is considerably whetted by his sneaking into Oliver’s bedroom and sniffing his red bathing suit:

I brought the bathing suit to my face, then rubbed my face inside of it, as if I were trying to snuggle into it and lose myself inside its folds—So this is what he smells like when his body isn’t covered in suntan lotion, this is what he smells like, this is what he smells like, I kept repeating to myself, looking inside the suit for something more personal yet than his smell and then kissing every corner of it, almost wishing to find hair, anything, to lick it, to put the whole bathing suit into my mouth…

When he finally manages in suitably subtle terms (and in a suitable spot once frequented by Monet) to make clear to Oliver what is on his mind, Oliver replies that he cannot go to bed with him “because it would be very wrong.” Instead, they kiss passionately and later Oliver causes Elio to have a nosebleed from pure nervous excitement as they play footsie under the table during a family “conversation about Jacopone da Todi,” a thirteenth-century friar from Umbria who wrote pioneering works for the theater. (Much of the dinner-table conversation that summer as recounted by Elio can be usefully washed down with a glass of vintage Wikipedia.)

Aciman creates marvelous suspense in the days that follow as Elio has a tryst with a local girl on the beach and Oliver manages to ignore him and pay him close attention at the same time. There are many layers and levels in this story, but the dominant one is the simple love story in high summer between the young man and the visitor to the house; the consummation of this is offered with slow and exquisite frankness. We are not spared its lovely details, which include the rather novel use of a large, ripe peach.

This is followed by an evocation of Rome in August where the two young men go for three days. They have soft sex in a grand hotel, they walk the sacred streets of the old city, they go to a literary party in a bookshop with dinner and drinks afterward. That night Elio catches an enticing glimpse of glamour:

Everything about it thrilled me. Every glance that crossed my own came like a compliment, or like an asking and a promise that simply lingered in midair between me and the world around me. I was electrified—by the chaffing, the irony, the glances, the smiles that seemed pleased I existed…. I envied these lives and thought back to the thoroughly delibidinized lives of my parents with their stultifying lunches and dinner drudges, our dollhouse lives in our dollhouse home, and of my senior year looming ahead.

Because the novel is narrated twenty years after the event, we know that this summer is an interlude, something golden and memorable snatched from time before everyone got on with their ordinary lives. The novel is thus filled with the dull aching passion of nostalgia as well as the pure excitement of the story as it unfolds. Despite the lightness of this story and its simplicity, the novel seems oddly dense in its implications; there appear to be other things happening within the text and indeed within the rhythms of its sentences which are not quite specified but which shimmer and glitter and puzzle on the pages. It is easy, I think, to outline at least three of these weaves within Call Me by Your Name which add to its richness.

The first is the shape of the story. For most novelists, writing is a sly disturbance of the self, a spreading out of the self into places where only the spirit has ventured. Carlos Fuentes, for example, dining in a hotel in Zurich in 1950, could observe at another table Thomas Mann as a “quiet and dignified old man” having a meal with his wife and daughter. All of his life Mann has been battling with his own dignity, his solidity, his deeply conservative nature, working out ways to defrock himself in fiction, using parts of his own life, adding bits of the lives of Nietzsche, Mahler, Schoenberg, playing with ideas of violence, risk-taking, the demonic. In the meantime, he sat in the hotel doing a perfect imitation of an ordinary high-bourgeois man.

Some readers of André Aciman’s novel may wish to ask how much of the book is autobiographical, as readers of “Death in Venice” asked, or other readers may wish to know how much of the book is a playful exploration of the private aspects of an imagined self. But there is another question which is more interesting and more fruitful. Call Me by Your Name seems to me a deeply autobiographical book not because the events may actually have taken place and merely been recorded by the author, much as Thomas Mann recorded in his diary entry for January 20, 1942, his memories of a similar lost love:

Read for a long time old diaries from the Klaus Heuser time, when I was a happy lover. The most beautiful and touching occasion the farewell in Munich, when for the first time I took “a leap into dreamland” and rested his temple on mine. Now indeed—lived and loved. Dark eyes that spilled tears for me, beloved lips that I kissed—this was it, I too had this, I can tell myself when I die.

The origins in autobiography of Call Me by Your Name lie not in its theme but in its shape. The golden summer, the sheer happiness of Elio as he finds Oliver and his misery when he loses him, can be read as a version, deeply embedded in metaphor, of Aciman’s life in Alexandria and his exile from there, from what Cafavy calls its “exquisite music,” which Aciman described in Out of Egypt. There were the servants and the summer, the family meals, the books and the music, the abundance of things; there too was the sense of an all-embracing and all-enclosing love but existing as Elio recounts in the novel only “on borrowed time.” In both books there is an abiding sorrow for what was so glorious and is now so lost. Experience in both books is something that will seem more perfect in the light of the scattering which came afterward. Thus it seems that Aciman is not exploring or dramatizing a masked self but finding a new story with which to tell his own story, which seems to have come back to him in eloquent whispers, more erotically changed and consciously shaped the second time around.

The second and third weaves which add texture to the book are political. One arises from the opinion that Oliver expresses when he refuses to sleep with the seventeen-year-old narrator “because it would be very wrong.” There are many readers who might share this view, but they do not include the narrator himself, who feels some shame or guilt a few times but as almost another erotic urge, and never for long. Nor do they include his parents, who watch his progress over the summer with considerable interest. His father knows everything, and observes his son, who is not yet out of high school, as he pursues the houseguest, with a wonderful open-minded wisdom which one might associate with an old southern European way of viewing the body as fully entitled to pleasure, even the body of a seventeen-year-old boy.

It was such tolerance, for example, which allowed Katia Mann to manage her husband’s sexuality with surprising mildness and care. In that hotel in 1950 where she and her husband and her daughter were observed by Carlos Fuentes, Mann had fallen in love with one of the waiters. (“World fame is trifling enough for me,” he wrote in his diary, “but it has no weight at all in comparison with a smile from him, the gaze of his eyes, the softness of his voice!”) Mann told his wife that he could not sleep with longing for the waiter, and Katia and her daughter, instead of packing their bags or calling him an old goat or looking for a divorce, arranged instead for Mann to meet alone with the waiter, encouraged him in one of his final flirtations, teasing him a little.

Elio’s father, when the summer is over and Oliver has returned to the New World, has an equally surprising response to what has happened, which he outlines in a speech to his son when he finds him alone:

You had a beautiful friendship. Maybe more than a friendship. And I envy you. In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, or pray that their sons land on their feet soon enough. But I am not such a parent…. I may have come close, but I never had what you had. Something always held me back or stood in the way. How you live your life is your business. But remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once….

It is possible, in how desire and the pursuit of sexual pleasure are handled in the book, and how emphatic Elio’s father’s eloquence becomes, that Aciman is fully alert to a battle on behalf of an old Puritanism and intolerance being fought with new energy in his own place of exile, the United States. It is also possible, in allowing an even older wise hedonism—the idea that you get only one chance of happiness and that is now in the world—to reign supreme in his novel, that he is playing his own part in this battle. But this is subtly done; it is left in the spaces between the words as much as in the words themselves, thus adding to their weight and power.

The third strand which adds to the novel’s interest is how fluid its characters’ sexuality remains. Just as in James Baldwin’s Another Country, for example, no one seems either gay or straight. Once night falls, or sometimes in the morning, the protagonists will move one way or another, depending on who is around. Elio will be filled with desire for a girl when the occasion arises; Oliver will get married. In the light of the sexual politics and identity politics that hold sway now in our world, this may be highly unsatisfactory to readers who will surely want Elio and Oliver to be either one thing or another. The ambiguities that belonged to an older world are being deliberately played with in this novel.

It is clear, however, that Elio and Oliver are deeply attracted to each other, and the sex between them is serious when it is not playful. It is left to the reader’s imagination then to work out that the chance they lost that summer was the greatest chance of their lives, the chance to be together. Aciman then moves the argument sideways, away from their refusing the identity being offered to them as gay men; he sidesteps the idea that there is a specially constructed banner under which they must now march, that they are homosexual and they must live accordingly. He is offering a sweet alternative to these rigidities not to oppose them as much as to deepen the question of how we should live and love, using a prose that is dense and open-toned, allowing his characters great generosity even in their melancholy knowledge that they have missed their chance, his two men who must experience, as in Cavafy’s poem, “the Alexandria they are losing” in its full glory before it is taken from them.

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