Some books, vortex-like, pull the surrounding events and memories into them, as they embed themselves in life’s numerous contexts. One such book, for me, was André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name—a steamy, intellectual, homoerotic novel set in a small Italian town. Now, a decade after the book’s publication, a film by the same name, written by James Ivory and directed by the Italian Luca Guadagnino, is screening in limited release in New York and Los Angeles.
It is a ritual of a sort to argue the book’s superiority to its necessarily shallower film adaptation. Aciman, who spoke to me about the film over Skype, pointed out: “People do it all the time, and it’s so boring. It’s boring when the authors complain because the authors always complain—‘they didn’t get my book, they changed everything’—that’s shallow. These are different genres.”
Indeed, in the case of Call Me By Your Name it is clear that the film is not a simplification, nor is it in competition with the book, but rather, as Walter Benjamin wrote about successful translations, “it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully.” Above all, the film, which stars Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, made me want to reread the book.
For Aciman, the novel Call Me By Your Name was a breakthrough. Until its publication, widely celebrated by critics in 2007, he was mostly known as the author of Out of Egypt, a memoir about his childhood in Alexandria, and exile from there, in the wake of the Suez Canal Crisis and subsequent persecution of Europeans and Jews. Aciman had also published an essay collection, False Papers, exploring, among other matters, the nature of memory. And yet, as he told me in the interview, the novel was hardly a moment of self-discovery, or even an experiment: “I was always a fiction writer because my memoir is written like a novel, it is meant to be read like a novel, not like an autobiography, which is dull.”
Memory is hardly a dull, passive recording of past events but one imbued with literary and mythic conventions we bring to the task of piecing together our life-stories, with arcs and plateaus, climaxes and anti-climaxes, tragicomic turns and retroactive epiphanies. Perhaps because all of Aciman’s books deal with memory’s facts and fictions, watching Call Me By Your Name and rereading the book, I too, found myself returning to my initial encounter with the work, and my own life, as it wrapped around the reading.
Call Me By Your Name, book and film both, are sensuous: alternating pleasures of seduction, desire, reading, intellectual discourse, music, food, and the gorgeous rural Mediterranean environs where the storyline unfolds. Seventeen-year-old Elio is the son of a world-famous professor, who, along with his wife, invites a graduate student to summer with the family, and complete the remaining chapters of his doctoral work. The visitor, Oliver, is seven years’ Elio’s senior and is an eccentric, charismatic, “movie star” scholar of the ancient world. As both protagonists are pursuing relationships with women, Elio finds himself fantasizing about Oliver, only to find out that Oliver’s obliviousness to his affection is a form of seduction. The age difference between the two characters seems all the more dramatic in the film, where gawkish, slightly awkward Chalamet and studly Hammer appear to belong to different worlds of experience and prescience. Aciman, in the interview, commented: “Those seven years, they do matter. The person you are at 17 and the person you are even at 16: totally different; and from 17 to 24 there’s a substantial difference. And I like that difference. You do need a relationship in which one has all the experience with life, and the other is just beginning to discover what life is.”
In an unforgettable seduction scene, Elio confesses: “If you only knew how little I know about the things that really matter.” This is his way of admitting to Oliver that he’s treading the territory he’s completely unfamiliar with, and he admits to it, hedging his bets, hinting rather than confessing, revealing and concealing, at once. What matters here is that Elio does know a great deal—not only about carnal pleasures but also about everything else—especially music. At one point, he’s transcribing a Bach piece to the guitar and, at another, plays piano, first in Liszt’s variation, then in Busoni’s. His father, the professor (Michael Stuhlbarg), goes on a page-long rant about the etymology of the word “apricot”—which, in the end, turns out to be erroneous, and is corrected by Oliver, but is nevertheless as elegant as the Bach composition that Elio performs.
Chekhov famously told us about the rifle that hangs on the wall in the first act, only to fire in the third. In Aciman’s case, the apricot ripens a few pages later: “the firm, rounded cheeks of the apricot with their dimple in the middle reminded me of how his body had stretched across the boughs of the tree with his tight, rounded ass echoing the color and the shape of the fruit.” And this, perhaps, is what makes Call Me By Your Name so memorable—the fusion of sophisticated intellectual discourse and erotica—a pleasure that is both of the mind and body, desire and imagination.
This cerebral undertone does not entirely translate to the film. Aciman’s literary style owes a great deal to the author’s profound engagement with Marcel Proust. (Aciman is the editor of The Proust Project, an anthology of essays on the French author.) Aciman’s long and sinewy, slowly unraveling, rhythmically complex sentences that engage multiple senses, reel off cultural references, and venture into sarcasm as well as social commentary, are under a Proustian sway—and are, perhaps, Proust’s more reasonable, and slightly impatient counterparts. Such sentences and the density of linguistic experience they offer could not find their way into the film. Proust’s significance, reaches beyond the style alone, however. Reminiscing about Proust’s Sodom And Gomorrah during the interview, Aciman recalled a particular five-page-long paragraph about parallels between closet Jews and closet gays, and how each senses the other or throws signals to the other to intimate “I’m like you.”
Aciman recalled parallels between closet Jews and closet gays, and how each senses the other or throws signals to the other to intimate ‘I’m like you.’
Elio’s family and Oliver are the only Jews in town. Everything about Elio and Oliver, Aciman commented, “is very different. They have one thing in common, and it’s very important. It’s their Jewishness. In other words, their Jewishness becomes their bond that’s already implicit. It is also a metaphor for the thing that is not revealed, and in this case, it is the metaphor for homosexual desire.”
Whereas Elio and his family, as Elio’s mother points out, are “Jews of discretion,” Oliver is open about his identity. He wears a Magen-David, and when Elio comes to mimic him in doing so, in a way, he also intimates that he is ready to wear, in the open, his previously discreet desire for Oliver. As Aciman put it in our interview, “There’s … a coupling of identities and I wanted it to be there, and it means something to me. … Something is connecting them blood-wise.”
The connection, however subterranean, is articulated in glimpses of Elio’s internal monologue, as in: “We were in a half-ghetto, half-oasis, in an otherwise cruel and unflinching world where fuddling around strangers suddenly stops, where we misread no one and no one misjudges us, where one person simply knows the other and knows him so thoroughly that to be taken away from such intimacy is galut, the Hebrew word for exile and dispersal.” Here, history and communal mythology become resonant metaphors for personal experience, and above all, desire.
The play between homebound and exiled, hidden and revealed, especially as it pertains to one’s Jewishness is a strand that runs through Aciman’s work and is nowhere more apparent than in his memoir, Out of Egypt. There, the narrator’s great-uncle, a self-loathing Jew who’s converted to Christianity and has gone through numerous names and identities, is overheard reciting the nighttime sh’ma, which, we’re given to understand, the great-uncle would deny if asked about. Indeed, as Aciman told me, “When you grow up as a Jew in a place like Egypt, and you see someone wearing a Magen-David you say, ‘I had no idea… why don’t they hide it? They’re not supposed to show it here.’ Your antennas are out. Who is this person wearing a Magen-David? You become alerted. Because you’re always paranoid and on the defensive.”
Elio’s own paranoia and defensiveness—of being found out, of misreading the signs, of making a false move, of unwarranted separation—is at the core of the book, and Chalamet’s sublime portrayal of the character gained him this year’s Hollywood Breakout Actor Award. In one particularly tense moment, during a brief conflict between the two protagonists, action shifts to the shoreline, where Elio’s father and the father’s friend are excavating long-buried but well-preserved statues from under the water. Elio holds up an excavated, severed hand, and reaches it toward Oliver, as an offering of peace. They shake on it. This fraught scene, entirely fitting with the storyline, is not in the book. Aciman (who has a cameo in the film that I won’t spoil) appeared pleased with the addition: “I thought it worked. It evoked the beauty of the nude male. When the father says to both of them: ‘It almost tempts you to desire them,’ ”—speaking of the statues—“Oliver looks at him with a ‘what are you trying here?’ He understood but doesn’t believe he understood. It is as layered in the movie as it is layered in the book.”
To read and watch Call Me By Your Name is to see the call and response of imagination and interpretation. “Call me by your name,” beckons Oliver, reaching toward Elio for a complete sense of intimacy, the swapping of minds, bodies, identities. Call Me By Your Name, the book beckons the reader—no matter what age or sexual orientation—to enter the sensuous fantasy, to dream alongside it, and to seek, crave, and remember. When I was reading the book the first time around, I was in love with the woman who became my wife. Reading the book, I thought of her as she would be relishing the reading. It was among the first of many books we’ve come to read together, books that today fill our shared bookshelves.
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Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). His jazz-klezmer-poetry record Hermeneutic Stomp was released by Blue Thread Music in 2013.