Call me by NO name at all
ANDRÉ ACIMAN — CALL ME BY YOUR NAME — 2007
Do not believe you can know the meaning of the book, of the story before you reach the very last page. How mistaken you would be! How misled you would be! The author leads you on a mental leash from beginning to end. And he never was seventeen in 1986 or later since he was born in 1951. Of course, he will tell me that all novels are autobiographical, positive or negative, or plain experienced as a witness, etc. But it is a technique in a novel like that, that traps the reader into believing he is being told a real story, a real life, which is not the case and cannot be, even if the setting definitely is real.
Aciman leads us on an autobiographical leash, at times a chain that is so frustrating, so irritating and so mind meddling. A character Elio is telling the story from his only and sole point of view. He is a very speculative mind and he constantly reconstructs what he thinks the motivations of other people he is dealing with may be.
This Elio is about seventeen at the beginning with short allusions to a time when he was fifteen, and he is thirty-seven at the end of the book. It thus covers essentially twenty years of his life with an occasional but marginal two-year extension in the past.
This Elio is the only son of a university professor in Italy who lives in a mansion in the south of Italy, not far from Naples. Elio lives with his mother and father and three servants? Most of the story and action, three parts out of four, eighty percent, takes place during a summer we understand is some twenty years before publication, hence in the mid-80s. The family is Jewish and this Jewish element is very important though not really structural. It is a side element, nearly collateral, and yet mentally crucial for Elio. This element is definitely autobiographical since the four most important characters are Jews, proud of it, and yet not projecting it onto everyone as some kind of test for empathy. Elio and The one I am going to introduce now wear their Jewishness on their chest skin in the form of a golden David’s Star and Elio will allude to circumcision a couple of times.
In this summer of let’s say 1986 — like in all summers when the father was alive — a post-doctorate student and junior professor and researcher was invited to spend six weeks in the mansion overhanging the seaside to do a little bit of intellectual and academic work for the father, advance and/or promote his own research, and be a challenge to Elio in his high school years. This mansion by the Mediterranean Sea and in the summer is paradise on earth literally, with the sea providing swimming, boating, fishing and the land providing tennis, cycling, and of course summer partying and nightclubbing in the nearby cities.
We will learn along the way but not in chronological order some events concerning Elio and his friend making or rather his great difficulty at making friends and building relationships that are anything other than casual and episodic, quick and short ventures out of his self-cocooned inner contemplation of his own mind and psyche with a couple of openings to look outside and see what the world is doing. In this year 1986, he works on the transcription of Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ, transcribing the work to the piano as can be inferred from his piano expertise and his centeredness on piano transcriptions of various works by various musicians like Liszt and some others. These early and past events in the story — always with young men though older than him — will confirm along the way what is clear from the very start.
Elio cannot establish normal relations with other people, meaning men. Allusions to episodes with women or even a couple of episodes with the next door young woman or rather girl as a second choice for sex due to the frustration of the first choice which the young summer house guest, show his hierarchical approach. With women he is nice, gentle, even attentive but it is obviously not what he is looking for, what may blow his mind to oblivion. But men are for him so far out of reach because of what is called his shyness and what he reveals to his “private journal or diary”: He is an over-developed mental analyzer and he is blocked by his cogitations that feed his fear, anxiety and even at times fright to be rejected in any possible way or not to be able to satisfy the expectations of the male he is suddenly targeting.
I thought at first he was an autistic savant person, and that typical psychological profile might have something to do with the whole stance of this young man in front of society. But the main handicap is that he longs for male partners though in Italy in 1986, it was just plain impossible or difficult to satisfy this fancy, and it was true all over the world at the time.
So at the age of seventeen, he is still a gay virgin though he has already tasted the straight choice in the field, or so we understand. It is in this summer 1986 that the third (mentioned) summer guest, Oliver from New York Columbia University, a specialist of Heraclitus in the process of publishing in Italy his first book already published in English, French and German, arrives and is going to blow the whole life of this young Elio into shattereens.
It is love at first sight on Elio’s side and it is fright at first sight on Oliver’s side. Elio’s shyness and Oliver’s knowledge and apprehension block the relationship because it is mainly reduced to sexual appeal and intellectual exchange and partnership and collaboration are NOT emphasized as central the way they should be. Oliver is bisexual or at least shown as such. He is older by seven years and is thus twenty-four. He is reticent with this young man, not yet of age, under the roof of his parents, and still a virgin. And sure enough, no one tries to help these two young men to find a field in which they could collaborate without being obsessional about their hormones. It is clear Oliver does not want to answer Elio’s begging and Elio’s does not want to show Oliver he is begging and yet Oliver can only see that begging and the attitude he takes of not acknowledging he has understood the begging makes that desire so strong that it will become explosive. The father should have seen — and actually, we learn at the end of this 1986 part of the book that he had seen, but he did nothing to help, not to prevent the relationship but to help build some alternative. Oliver does nothing either too afraid he is not to be able to resist the desire if by any chance he came closer to it. And Elio is thus a pawn on this chessboard.
Since the story is entirely told by Elio we will only learn very late that Oliver is more or less engaged to be married, or at least in the process of moving towards getting married, and Oliver does not tell Elio anything about it and that remains unexplained and unjustified. Oliver does not really want to make friends with Elio for a long time and when he will yield to the sexual desire of the teenager he will have no safe ground on which to stand to manage Elio in any other way than take him, enjoy the episode, and terminate it physically (easy since he is going back to New York) even if he kept it in a back cupboard of his mind with a lot of mothballs and purifying fumigation.
So, in a nutshell, the story is the finally performed defloration of Elio by Oliver after four weeks of evading and provocative tactics; then the subsequent intense liaison for two more weeks with the open complicity of Elio’s father who may even appear to be the calculating mind behind throwing this young predating man onto his son for what we learn later some phantasms that are not specified that the father would have entertained in his own youth. And in this situation, the fact that Oliver is Jewish is a link somewhere, the meeting of two equal Jews, same blood, saùme heart, same mind, and yet maybe an obstacle, as being in a way unethical.
But Oliver has to go back to New York and Elio back to school for his last high school year before going to college somewhere in the US. That year is crucial with the distance of going back to New York and the marriage Elio will only learn about at Christmas when Oliver comes for a short visit. Oliver appears cruel and maybe even predatory but that might be because of the absence of his point of view. The story is long and detailed and very contradictory in Elio’s mind. Some will say à la Proust or à la James Joyce. And yet between Elio and Oliver, there is during that summer no common language. Elio speaks the language of his mind that over analyzes what other people say or do. And Oliver seems not to understand that language at all, to be dumb and deaf. If he had been true from the very first day with Elio since he pretends he knew within fifteen minutes, he could have become friends with him and established a line not to be crossed and Elio would have accepted not to cross that line because to be friends with Oliver could have been so much more enriching and heart-rending but then mentally and intellectually, not emotionally and sentimentally. What’s more, the father who watched it all let the whole thing develop and run into the marsh of a short-lived passion and the wall of a final and annihilating termination.
The last part that runs over the twenty subsequent years does not improve this absurd summer of two salivating idiots manipulated by their hormones in the worst possible unconscious absurdity. As if that was love! Oliver let Elio think it was and Elio drank the cup of sweet vinegar that some Antony presented to some Cleopatra just before betraying her with going away forever into death, as if it were a cup of divine, heavenly and eternal hydromel. Oliver satiated his pleasure knowing that it was only for two weeks and Elio fed these two weeks to his expectation for eternity as if it were a promise it would last.
After this separation and Oliver’s treacherous marriage, we go fast over the twenty years that follow. We need to have a lot of empathy to understand the tremendous dilemma that created a lot of suffering in Elio but it is best summarized page 238:
“But going back is false. Moving ahead is false. Looking the other way is false. Trying to redress all that is false turns out to be just as false.”
There sure is no hope in Elio’s fate and curse with Oliver married and with two children who are twenty years later nearly the age he was when he first encountered Oliver. And yet both Oliver and Elio have to admit in the end they have never forgotten anything when Oliver visits Elio in the mansion in B. after Elio’s father’s death, after Elio has taken over the mansion with his mother still alive. Oliver visits for a few hours only on his way from Rome where he landed earlier to Menton for some let’s say professional conference. Twenty years later. A short visit indeed. When Elio is able to accept his fate and to look at the past with glee and even pride and happiness in spite of the suffering he was bombarded with.
But the real conclusion is given page 240–41 by Elio when he visited Olive in his New York University one year earlier or so, without any warning, nineteen years after his ordeal, his father being already dead, having just died. Elio tells Oliver:
“You are the only person I’d like to say goodbye to when I die, because only then will this thing I call my life make any sense. And if I should hear that you died, my life as I know it, the me who is speaking with you now, will cease to exist. Sometimes I have this awful picture of waking up in our house in B. and, looking out to the sea, hearing the news from the waves themselves, He died last night. We missed out on so much. It was a coma. Tomorrow I go back to my coma, and you to yours. Pardon, I didn’t mean to offend — I am sure yours is no coma.”
And Oliver answers cruelly but he has no choice:
“No, a parallel life.”
This is sad but beautiful. Sad that even then, nineteen years later, Oliver does not capture the phenomenal cruelty that had been his. Beautiful because Elio is able to keep the bliss of this cursed predatory episode he was the victim of alive in his mind with no real hatred and resentment. In fact, with love, because he was the one who loved the other, loved him the only way he could imagine and with no help from anyone to look for any alternatives. This was real love that did not find its real soil because it was thwarted and distorted, in fact, reduced and amputated by sex and desire. If love is seen as having to be sex first — as teenage hormones might tell — it is bulldozed into plain rubbles, then pushed down into a landfill. Sex is not even part of it, only an eventual option.
So I regret the book does not build that real love that could have become a collaboration in a research cultural project, in piano recital in the evening in the mansion or in the city, in the bookstore for example, or jazz in some other shop or bar, and that would not have prevented Oliver from marrying, which should have been put in the clear straight away, nor Elio from finding a balanced gay relationship later in his life and not what we understand is a myriad of casual relationships with no stable life-partner. And eventually it could have also integrated Oliver’s wife about whom we do not know anything, not even the profession, if she has one, or her name — call me by no name at all — which is a sexist stance on Elio’s side as the storyteller, he is of course not, since he is only a character.
But what a beautiful story, what resilience in both Oliver (revealed at the end) and Elio (all along)! What a moving, mind-stirring and disturbing story!
Are we so narrow-minded in our alienated psyches to waste so much potential value in young people, men and women, with such bigot stances like only getting male summer scholarly guests or only speaking from a point of view that cannot even consider a possible psychological and cultural richness on women’s side, except marginally and often ironically if not sarcastically with descriptive nicknames like “Goitered Toucan” or “Straordinario-fantastico.”
Gay men and bisexual men in our society in the 1980s but still today lived and still live — in spite of gay marriage — divided lives because we cannot accept the idea that love is a lot more powerful and productive than plain sexual pleasure, bliss, or climax. Love can be intellectual, artistic or musical; matrimonial or not; sexual or not. But love must always bring more and more patrimonial value and creative heritage to the world, to the community and to humanity. We probably have to understand sex is an option and love does not make all options compulsory. You can still have a car without a radio or a GPS.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU