No Love Without Delusion

‘Dreaming in the Sun,’ Portofino, Italy, circa 1936; photograph by Herbert List
Magnum Photos
‘Dreaming in the Sun,’ Portofino, Italy, circa 1936; photograph by Herbert List

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…

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