[Warning: this post deals with the novel Call Me by Your Name and contains spoilers!]
One of my TFG (or BA dissertation) tutorees, Marc, has chosen to work on the novel Call Me by Your Name (2007) by Egyptian-born American author André Aciman. You may have already seen the successful film adaptation directed by Lucca Guadagnino and based on a script by acclaimed filmmaker James Ivory, who was honoured with an Oscar for it. I am aware that the film is quite faithful to the novel but, since I haven’t seen it yet, I will refer here only to Aciman’s gorgeous text.
Call Me by Your Name is an exquisite literary novel which narrates in the first person the relationship between 17-year-old Elio (the narrator) and 24-year-old Oliver, a brilliant college teacher and published scholar. Prof. Perlman, Elio’s father, has the habit of inviting budding academics to his Italian Riviera villa for a six-week stay during which they are supposed to assist him in his own work. Oliver is, then, the last addition to the list of guests, whereas his brief sojourn with the Perlmans functions as the time frame constraining his relationship with Elio. Their love story, which happens in summer, fits in many ways the conventions of this kind of transient romance: it is intense but brief and it finishes as soon as the participants return home.
Since they are two men, inevitably Call Me by Your Name has been read as a homosexual story– as a matter of fact, it got a Lambda Award for Best Gay Fiction in 2008. This is quite peculiar because actually both boy and man are in relationships with women: Elio has a besotted girlfriend, Marzia, whom he treats not too kindly, and, this is crucial, Oliver returns home to the United States to marry an unnamed girl. Technically, then, this is the story of two bisexual men. However, Aciman refrains from pinning any label onto his protagonists and their relationship; we need to wonder, then, why we, readers and critics, do use labels anyway. This is in fact my student Marc’s research question.
Marc started off from a position which completely rejects how labels are used, arguing that Elio and Oliver are involved primarily in a love story, with their gender and sexuality being of secondary interest. This would work, I told him, if the members of the couple could be other than two men, and we agreed that they could easily be two women, and even a young man and an older woman. Turning Elio into Elia, however, would result in quite a different story: one framed by patriarchal heteronormativity. A surprising point in the romance happens when Prof. Perlman books a luxury suit in Rome for Elio and Oliver, aware of what has been going on between them under his roof. Marc and I read this as proof that, quite possibly, Prof. Perlman is a closeted homosexual. What would not fit, at any rate, our current politically correct taste is a story in which a father would book a hotel room for his underage daughter and her lover, and be fine about her having seduced one of his guests. Odd. Labels, then, are still needed.
Not that Call Me by Your Name is not an odd tale. Reversing Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912), in Aciman’s novel the one who obsesses over a beautiful male body is the adolescent (though Oliver, of course, is a young man whereas Mann’s voyeuristic Gustav von Aschenbach is in his early fifties). Elio’s erudition and fine prose are simply baffling. He belongs to a family of Jewish intellectuals, which might be a justification for the passion he feels for high Culture. Still, he’s only 17 and, since I was myself 17 at the time he lives his summer romance, in 1983, I can tell you that he is a completely unrealistic rendition of a 1980s teenager. He sounds, in fact, like someone out of a Thomas Mann novel, perhaps Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain. I don’t doubt the intensity of the feelings Elio has for Oliver, but I find it impossible to believe that a 17-year-old would ever write in that subtle vein about them. Unless, that is, the one actually writing the story retrospectively is the 37-year-old Elio of the last part, set in the author’s narrative present.
It is this segment, Part 4 ‘Ghost Spots’, which makes Call Me by Your Name a particularly ambiguous text about modern love. As I explained to Marc, whatever gender and sex option we prefer, we’re awfully confused about how we want our love stories to end: if the couple remains together, then what follows is dreaded domesticity, a total anticlimax; it seems, rather, that we prefer the lovers to separate for ever, if possible tragically, as this prevents domesticity from spoiling passion. Aciman, though, chooses a peculiar third option: he has Elio and Oliver get together for a return to the landscape where their love flourished so many years ago, but he offers an open end. No decision is made, albeit Elio seems to be hoping that Oliver takes a step.
This might never happen, however, because he and Elio spend the first four weeks of their 1980s summer romance giving each other very confusing signals as they feign mutual indifference for strange personal reasons. This is more or less justified because Oliver worries that Elio might not really be ready for a sexual relationship with him, and also because the boy is still finding his feet as a seducer. As I read the novel, though, and because we live in the Tinder/Grindr age, I marvelled that any two persons could take so long to express their desire. To be honest, I started getting impatient, absurdly concerned that they would run out of time! Elio’s and Oliver’s cavalier use of time presents, as you can see, a serious obstacle to believe in a possible happy future together, now in the 21st century. Marc tells me that Guadagnino and Ivory are working on a second movie, so we’ll see…
Let me step back a bit and return to this puzzling Part 4. As I was explaining, the summer romance ends, simply, with Oliver’s return home. I find Aciman’s decision not to continue the love story (by, for instance, having Elio become a student in the USA and Oliver abandon his fiancée) correct. A 17-year-old boy seems to be in no position to commit for long, as most likely Oliver sees. This is hard to say, anyway, because and this is my main complaint against this discerning novel, Oliver remains a cipher. He is all handsome face and sexy body, but not a full person, a round character. But never mind. Assuming, then, that it makes sense to keep the two lovers apart as long as Elio is young, I cannot see, however, why Aciman stages their reunion 20 years later. It seems a very long time. Unless, that is, the author is narrating autobiographical events that simply happened in that way.
This long time lapse is a vital part in how Call Me by Your Name exemplifies modern love, for protagonists, author, and readers share a total uncertainty about romance. Conventionally, love stories are supposed to be intense but, like Elio and Oliver, we now avoid deep feelings out of fear of being excessively affected, or hurt. When romantic feelings start looming anyway, quite often the relationship is cut short, though this is, I think, far more frequent in real life than in fiction (is it?!). This is why Aciman’s novel is so original and at the same time so realistic: there is no tragedy (remember Brokeback Mountain?), just a logical, sensible drifting apart.
Or not so logical. Elio and Oliver’s passion could have been presented as a happy physical relationship within a specific period of their lives, and it would work well. Nevertheless, Aciman felt the need to add that problematic Part 4, which suggests that it was really love, of the kind Elio has never found (we’re not sure about Oliver, who seems more keen on being a father than a husband). But, then, if that summer fling was true love, why does Elio take so long to seek Oliver out…? You may sense here a hidden (or not so hidden) fear that the renewed relationship might not be as exciting, sexy or satisfying. To begin with the seven years separating Elio and Oliver, which made their first encounter so problematic but also so thrilling, mean now nothing: one is 37 and the other 44, practically the same age.
Of course, if we compare Call Me by Your Name to the most popular heterosexual romance of recent times, the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy, we immediately realize that Aciman’s elegant final paragraph is light years away from the cheesy heteronormative resolution which E.L. James offers. The two texts, however, are at the same time inevitably linked: neither makes sense of how sex and love connect, and I very much suspect that, even though he could not have read James’s first novel, published four years before Call Me by Your Name, Aciman is conditioned by the happy-ever-after trope she uses against all odds. That is to say, he avoids it like the plague it is.
This is both a strength and a shortcoming of Call Me by Your Name, published at a point in the history of the United States, 2007, when same-sex marriage was already available (Massachusetts was the first state to legalize it, in 2004). We need to read, then, in Aciman’s open end a question mark about how to narrate romance today, when a main homophobic barrier has already been broken. Perhaps the remaining barrier is aesthetic and Aciman’s main dilemma is that although Elio’s inspired prose can transmit the nuances of attraction, it cannot accommodate the corny image of his walking down the aisle to marry Oliver twenty years later. And I have no idea, begging your pardon, whether any other LGTBI+ novel has managed to conquer something as essentially heteronormative as marriage for classy, literary queer romance. Or reinvent it.
Lovely novel… Wistful ending.
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