André Aciman’s subject is exile. His first book, Out of Egypt (1995), was a wry and touching memoir of the richly eccentric existence of his Jewish family in Egypt before they were expelled in 1965. The pace of daily life in Alexandria after Nasser’s rise to power, languid beneath a bright sun with brief, frenzied eruptions of family crises, is as distinctive as the Mediterranean light. The routines of school and meals and shopping and going to the movies continue for years, threatened but undisturbed, until the family is finally deported. Aciman describes a vanished life and a vanished world, first from Italy, then from France, and finally from New York City, an outsider even in his memories.
The view from exile often looks back, but for Aciman exile is not just a loss of time or place. It is also a loss of self, and so his work (four novels and four essay collections in addition to the memoir) looks within as well, like windows on a beautiful but ever enclosed courtyard. That internal view is prominent in his first novel, Call Me by Your Name (2007), even as the Mediterranean sun shimmers above a sleepy villa on a luminous Italian island. The home of a professor, his wife, and their brilliant, introverted seventeen-year-old son, Elio, the villa also houses a scholar every summer. This summer’s guest is Oliver, a twenty-four-year-old American studying Heraclitus.
The novel is a dreamy recollection of falling in love, of a slow, sexy unraveling of desire, confusion, and guilt. The pace on this unnamed island (Aciman employs the Old World device of referring to it by its initial alone) has its own routine, different from the family life of Alexandria, but no less important. Here is the leisurely order of summer: the quiet intensity of scholarly work, the sprawling sunbath, the swim, the bicycle ride, all of it charged with an ethereal frenzy of sexual denial. The characters and the prose tremble with desire, a desire that is at last realized in a night of lovemaking that Aciman describes with fierce and feverishly explicit prose.
But for Elio, the intimacy he longed for is almost immediately tempered. First there is shame, then the lonely realization that he and Oliver are still two separate beings, and finally a geographical separation when Oliver returns to America. This is a book full of joy, but it is not a joyous book about coming out of the closet. It is instead an almost idealized fable of a lost love, a lost summer, and a legacy of irresolution. The relationship between Elio and Oliver is romantic, obsessive, aching with love, painful with doubt and physical necessity. It is also in the past. Aciman’s narrator is looking back, as if at a lost dream.
Enigma Variations begins on a different Italian shore, this one on a southern island called San Giustiniano. There, too, a homoerotic longing shapes the summer days and weeks and months. In the most beautiful of the five variations of the novel, innocence and desire are not set against each other as they were in Call Me by Your Name. They are united in a quiet, passionate determination for an ambiguous goal. Called “First Love,” this section begins with the words “I’ve come back for him.” A page later, with an ambivalence that Aciman’s readers will recognize from other protagonists, the narrator says, “But perhaps I wasn’t coming back just for Nanni. I was coming back for the boy of twelve I’d been ten years earlier—though I knew I’d find neither one.”
Aciman gives the island a hallucinatory, paradisiacal beauty, a beauty as clear and blurred as memory:
I loved its narrow alleys, sunken gutters, and old lanes, loved the cooling scent of coffee from the roasting mill that seemed to welcome me no differently now than when I ran errands with my mother, or when, after seeing my Greek and Latin tutor that last summer, I would take the long way home every afternoon.
The café owner, the barber, the baker, the old professor who tutors him for his coming exams—the narrator recalls them chatting pleasantly with his father while he eats an ice cream. It is an idyllic scene. The old town “always rested in the shade when it grew unbearably sunny along the marina.”
Paul (we learn the narrator’s name much later in the book) comes to this island every summer with his family. This summer, which turns out to be the last, he needs a tutor because his grades were so poor in Latin and Greek, and Aciman describes a scene on the ferry after Paul’s mother sees his report card that is amusing in both its universality and its particularity. As his father leans back noncommittally against the rail, his mother explodes in “one loud, unending rant” that covers everything from Paul’s lack of friends to his penmanship, the diatribe delivered as “she kept trying to scratch off a drop of dried chocolate ice cream that had dripped on my shirt….”
On his way home from the tutor, Paul begins to stop in at the shop of the young carpenter who is restoring his family’s antique desk. His fascination with Nanni is both innocent and, because of its power, threatening. “I knew that what I’d felt in the shop was unusual and stealthy, possibly unwholesome.” The boy does not know why, but the narrator looking back does, and a great deal more besides. In this first variation in particular, Aciman withholds and reveals information with an illusionist’s skill. He creates a tender, wistful momentum in a story that is very much about a summer that stood still.
That summer has vanished, however, when the narrator comes back ten years later. The family house has been burned and looted. The townsfolk are for the most part cold and withdrawn. Nanni is no longer there, his shop closed, abandoned. “And yet my life started here,” Paul notes, “and stopped here one summer long ago, in this house, which no longer exists, in this decade, which slipped away so fast, with this never love that altered everything but went nowhere.”
In the rubble of his house and his memories, Paul does discover one secret, a rather startling plot twist, that is as inevitable and unlikely as an O. Henry ending, an answer to a question he did not realize needed to be asked. The story of Nanni, the narrator’s first love, his “never love,” ends on a note of vast, timeless impossibility. His love never happened, left no trace on the island, “went nowhere,” yet it follows Paul everywhere:
I’ve lived and loved by your light alone. In a bus, on a busy street, in class, in a crowded concert hall, once or twice a year, whether for a man or a woman, my heart still jolts when I spot your look-alike. We love only once in our lives, my father had said, sometimes too early, sometimes too late; the other times are always a touch deliberate.
“First Love” is deep and sad, a story full of light and shade and warmth. The variations that follow occur in a different light, the weaker sun and gray pavement of New York City. They are less tender and less moving than “First Love,” and they are perhaps even sadder, for they seem to be exactly those loves Paul’s father spoke of as “a touch deliberate,” both for Paul, the lover, and for Aciman, the author. The surrender the twelve-year-old feels to the mysteries of love is gone now, a loss like the loss of the island itself.
One of Paul’s mother’s complaints on the ferry is her son’s “total inability to give a straight answer whenever anyone asked what I thought about this or that—shifty, always shifty….” That inability to give a straight answer, even to himself, is characteristic of the narrator throughout not just “First Love,” but the other sections of the novel as well. It moves Paul from love affair to love affair. It haunts his thoughts. Second thoughts, and third and fourth—this is Aciman’s stylistic territory, along with an oddly glancing obsessiveness, a catalog of each passing thought, suspicion, judgment.
That second trait, the logging of word and gesture as if they were signals from a passing ship, is the more prominent style in the chapters that follow. In “Spring Fever,” Paul is living in Manhattan with a young woman named Maud. He sees her in a restaurant having lunch with a man and suspects she is having an affair. The way her hand rests “so doleful and guileless on the table”—it is a sign. As are all the other bits and pieces of observation he begins to convincingly turn over in his mind:
The eternal yoga classes on weekday evenings; the phone she almost never picks up at the office when she knows I’m the one calling; the drinks after work that always get shuffled around so you can’t quite tell when they’ve morphed into an impromptu dinner; the reading group that never gathers in the same place twice; the meetings at work that happen at the last minute; the laptop she shuts a bit too hastily the moment you walk into the room; and always those cryptic yes-no conversations she says are with her boss calling late from Westchester.
Aciman’s details of a modern-day affair are uncanny, funny, perfect. But as in “First Love,” the observant Paul of “Spring Fever” misreads them all. So, happily, does the reader. The supposed lover, it turns out, is a work friend, and the flirting he openly engages in later at a dinner party at which they are all present is with Paul, not Maud. It turns out, too, that while Paul suffers and sulks from suspicion and jealousy over Maud, he is in love with a man he plays tennis with in Central Park, a fact we learn in the next variation, “Manfred,” which chronicles two years of silent locker room obsession.
In “Manfred,” the delicately unrequited love beneath a bright Mediterranean sun we saw in “First Love” has become a pale, naked, endlessly veiled gaze beneath fluorescent lights. It’s not quite stalking, not quite Paul as a creepy peeping Tom, but this tale of two years of voyeuristic glances and fantasy conversations and couplings is far from the innocence and breathless infatuation Paul felt for Nanni. If Paul was drawn to Nanni, he seems driven to the lovers of these later variations.
Aciman writes about distance, the distance we stand from the past, from lands we no longer live in, and the distance between lovers. Even the details he meticulously observes are a confirmation of distance, for they never quite signal the truth, keeping us apart from truth. He glorifies distance, too, sometimes, as something almost sacred, something safe. The unreality of the unattainable protects it from being disproved. When Paul wakes up from a dream about Manfred, he knows
with unshakable certainty that those few minutes when we walk hand in hand are, even in a dream, more real and better than anything I’d ever know in life, and that I would be lying if I called what I’ve been doing all these years living.
In one passage about crossing the “the good, staunch, loyal” Brooklyn Bridge back to Manhattan, Paul realizes that the bridge “understands and forgives and has always known, as I have always known, that what I really long for…is neither to be on this side of the river nor on the other bank but on the space and transit in between.”
But Paul does, necessarily, cross back and forth, from lover to lover, from man to woman to man to woman, from memory to memory. “Star Love,” the fourth of the variations, conveys his ambivalence and indecision—the toing and froing here takes place not between two lovers, but over time with the same lover, a girl named Chloe he met in college. Every four years or so Chloe and Paul seem to accidently meet at a dull party and end up in bed together, passionate and in love; then after a weekend, they part. “We loved without conviction, without purpose, without tomorrow. On spec, as she’d said once.”
These periodic plunges into the past, even their last-ditch attempt to finally and fully accept their spec love, are not successful, and Paul and Chloe’s relationship is not the most convincing love story. But “Star Love” is not really about love at all. It’s about regret, about “when we look back to see that the roads we’ve left behind or not taken have all but vanished.” Regret, Aciman tells us, “is how we hope to back into our real lives.”
In the final variation, entitled “Abingdon Square,” Paul makes another attempt to back into his real life, which we have come to realize means his past. He embarks on a flirtation with a much younger woman, a woman who was born, he realizes, the year he gave up smoking. He examines, as is his wont, her every movement, her tone, her words, looking for clues. How does she feel about him? What does she expect? What should he expect? He is like a hunter examining every bent blade of grass, and there is an almost predatory feel to his meetings and his musings. His old English professor told his students, “Learn to see what’s not always there to be seen and maybe then you’ll become someone.” Aciman sometimes lets Paul’s scrutiny of what’s not there become oppressive, but he also teases and surprises the reader with how minute the observations can be and how wrong.
Paul, who has at last decided to declare his interest in sleeping with the young woman, reviews every response she’s had to his 6:30 reservation at a West Village restaurant. “That early? she quipped.” She must know what he has planned. She must know he knows she knows and so she must be planning the same thing. On the walk to the restaurant, he imagines walking back afterward, a romantic catalog of twinkling windows, stores, and streets:
I already knew I’d never forget the sequence of streets…. First Horatio, then Jane, then West 12th, then Bethune, Bank Street, West 11th, Perry, Charles, West 10th. The picturesque buildings…, the cold lampposts shedding their scant light on the glinting slate sidewalks.
He thinks, first, that the worst possible result of the evening would be walking back after making love and “wondering whether I was any happier than I’d been before dinner.” But even worse, he then realizes, would be walking back not having said what he had to say: “The worst was watching nothing change.” The word “watching” is important here, for that is what Paul does throughout Enigma Variations. He watches, and he remembers, from his life of exile.
It turns out that, as so often, Paul has misread the signs, for the young woman has not been sending him signals of desire; she does not respond to his hints; she does not invite him up to her apartment. On the way home from the restaurant, Paul doesn’t repeat the street names in reverse order, postcoital and triumphant, as he planned to. Instead, he thinks of Nanni:
I recognized the walking home. This was not the first time. It took me back to my childhood when one evening, after desperately wanting to be undressed and held naked in a man’s arms, I was told to go home,…while I thought, this was home, you’re my home….
Enigma Variations begins on a ferry looking at an island of the past. It ends with a man walking along the deserted streets of another island, Manhattan, recognizing that his past is over, trying to reconcile himself to his present, to his age, to his wife waiting at home. It is a desolate book in many ways, the rich landscape and bright sun of southern Italy and the possibilities of youth winding up on a dark city street dulled by disappointment. It is also an accomplished and nuanced exploration of how we are exiled from each other and from ourselves.