Desire: A Complicated Organ
From the first page, the first sentence, the first word, we know this relationship is going to be complicated. This is more complex than a safe romance novel. This is human.
“‘Later! The word, the voice, the attitude. I’d never heard anyone use ‘later’ to say goodbye before. It sounded harsh, curt, and dismissive, spoken with the veiled indifference of people who may not care to see or hear from you again.”
The protagonist, Elio Perlman, is a cultured, multi-lingual 17-year-old musician and avid reader who spends his summers at a cliffside mansion on the Italian Riviera. A bit too romantic and unbelievable? Slightly.
But what is very much relatable, believable, and transcends any hint of cliched summer youth romance is André Aciman’s skilled ability to string together the perfect words to describe and show the intricacies of a human being’s inner turmoil of raw, primal desire for another being.
“This very image of him would become like a night-light in my life, keeping vigil on those days when I’d all but given up, rekindling my desire for him when I wanted it dead, stoking the embers of courage when I feared a snub might dispel every semblance of pride.”
As well as the trappings of remembrance.
“Then I’d stand here and ask the statue and the straw-backed chairs and shaky wooden tables to remind me of someone called Oliver.”
All details, from Italian landmarks and “dinner drudgery” to the soft, pale soles of Oliver’s feet, are from Elio’s lens. His worldview. An unreliable narrator to the tenth power. Is Oliver’s “polite indifference” on page 6 actually meant to be a tactic to push him away as Elio scathingly claims in his head, despite Oliver hardly knowing Elio?
That is one of the the endearing qualities of Call Me By Your Name; Aciman explores the bleak and at times humorous reality of the human condition: we judge, we assume, we dramatize.
Before 20 pages in, it is established that Elio does not hate the new summer house guest. Quite the opposite. He assumed Oliver hated him with his icy glances and on and off again attitude, to which Elio absorbed and returned; set point, the men stroked the tennis ball in an endless rally.
Despite not much of anything externally happening, Aciman yanks us up the hill of Elio’s internal thoughts and emotions, then pushes us down, over and over without respite. Another beauty of this story: no real plot. Just feelings. Images. Conflict. That is life, isn’t it?
Oliver is the epitome of Italy, summer, of Grecian gods, and Elio is his worshiper. He knows Oliver will soon be gone, so he basks in his beauty. If not for the gold Star of David necklace both men happened to wear around their necks, Elio may have been able to write Oliver off as a fantastical physical desire that fizzled, like most things in life, into nothing.
In the orchard, Oliver assists the house help, Mafalda, pick apricots that are “almost blushing with shame”, according to Mafalda. Oliver playfully asks if this apricot (gesturing to one hanging off the branch) is blushing with shame? To which Mafalda answers seriously, “this one is too young still, youth has no shame, shame comes with age.” We discover a secret about Oliver that is never outwardly stated or technically confirmed, but is nested in this brief interaction with Mafalda: Oliver is ashamed of his desires. He may or may not be ashamed of his sexual preferences. There is not enough backstory to know. What is refreshing about Aciman’s choices is his omission of sexual orientation. Whether Elio and Oliver identify as bisexual or not is irrelevant for this story; we are human.
The Star of David: Elio wears his with discreet shame; Oliver wears his openly without a care. This seemingly small detail—it’s only jewelry after all—catches Elio’s attention. It is a symbol of brotherhood. Shared history. Shared pain. Shared people. A transcendence of differences. A detail that makes Oliver intriguing in the eyes of Elio. He’s something more than eye candy.
Within a one-sentence paragraph that takes up almost an entire page, Aciman gifts us a glimpse into his poetic, Faulkner-Proust-esque style (Aciman is, after all, a professor of Proust’s works), as Elio muses upon a dream he has of Oliver in his room and then on top of him, affirming Elio’s suspicion all along that yielding to Oliver is indeed his home, the most natural of all things, that Elio was put on this planet for Oliver, and vice versa, all his, his, his, his. Pure desire. Upon reading this I became starved for the author’s extended moments of poetical prose, which Aciman feeds at pinnacle stages of Elio’s awakening, like offering a madeleine cake only for the most special of occasions.
Mortal friendship is not sufficient. Oliver is what makes life livable for Elio. He can lift Elio to elation and crush him in one swipe. Because Elio is so smitten with Oliver, surely it will some day be reciprocated. It has to, according to the Inferno.
This is a story of desire. Of nostalgia. Not love. At least not the type of love that endures the drudgeries of every day life through hard work and commitment; perhaps the type of love that is every bit unreal as it is real. Youthful love. Oliver knows this, though we don’t know at first that he knows it; by binding their desires through consummation, he undoes it.
Do not assume that desire is entirely physical; it is desire for the consumption of the soul, body, and mind of another. To become that person. To morph into one identity. To remain in a set period of time and place, like somewhere in Italy or the non-existing Monet’s Berm, in 1983. To defy time. To ignore circumstances. To renounce responsibility.
Aciman spares no time for exposition. He gets right to the point. Conflict out the gate as soon as the love interest and his billowy blue shirt pads in espadrille-wearing feet across the grounds of the Perlman estate. No explanation needed, which is greatly appreciated and further proves that this is an exploration of remembrance. Within the span of six pages, we know that the new summer house guest, ‘“la muvi star’”, is a problematic presence for Elio. We know this before we even know the house guest’s name. Oliver.
The 24-year-old graduate-student assistant is, from Elio’s point of view, difficult and unapproachable. Worst of all, indifferent. This is coming from a person who scrutinizes every gesture, every word, every look or lack of a look, and ascribes meaning. Elio is very much an intuitive introvert who is content spending his afternoons reading Dante or transcribing Haydn. And overthinking everything.
“But why wait for midnight, then? Who ever picks midnight to have such a conversation? Or was midnight going to be midnight? What to wear at midnight?”
But, this does not mean he does not desire human contact. More specifically, Oliver’s skin. Just skin. To look, not touch. Worship and obsess. When Elio does consume Oliver’s skin in part 2 (Monet’s Berm), Elio is sickened both physically and emotionally. The pain of his first time is prolific, but the emotional pain is more scarring.
“Had the loathing I felt always been there, though camouflaged, and all I’d needed was a night like this to let it out?”
Though he does come to arousal and gives in to Oliver’s persistent advances, Elio’s desires are forever changed. Out goes naive desire of youth that is eventually sullied by nostalgia, reflected in the last part of the book that is aptly named Ghost Spots.
Gone are the clean lines of desire; Elio wants to show Oliver his real self in all human aspects.
“We had never taken a shower together. We had never even been in the same bathroom together. ‘Don’t flush,’ I’d said, “I want to look.’”
This scene is jarring, as it catapults you from normality to a whole other level of humanity. People do not want to know or think about excrement. But Elio wants everything: the entirety of the flesh, clean and unclean. Aciman presents being human in the shape that it is. You can take it or leave it.
All is holy.
Of Time and Death
Time is death. The process of death is not necessarily the ceasing of a beat in the heart and ending of synaptic nerves in the brain, but also the passage of one end to the next start.
The two men discover more about one another without outwardly doing it. Without plans to do it. They talk of Heidegger while basking in the sun with their toes in the water. Heaven. Oliver and Elio both know the poet, Paul Celan. Oliver playfully probes Elio to share his private thoughts, to which Elio most times does not. Elio has an embarrassing moment in his swim shorts, something that Oliver surely saw and decided not to discuss. These fluttering moments of “being” build the foundation of what is to come. They do not seek to build a relationship, the relationship subconsciously builds itself.
Elio and Oliver move on from their childish antics, (does he like me? does he like me not?) and bond over discussions of poets and musicians. Oliver befriends a child with leukemia named Vimini, whose shadow is the Grim Reaper waiting to take her at any moment. Elio confides to himself that her presence and friendship has brought him and Oliver closer together. Is the inevitability of death the ultimate teacher of life? If we were to live in Elysium, how could we know that we are in paradise when there is nothing to contrast?
If there was no such thing as time, Elio and Oliver may never have embarked in any type of journey. They would have remained content playing games, knowing that the warm Italian summer days would never end. Heaven is today and mañana. But alas, the passage of time is real and time waits for no one, especially those trying to navigate the complexities of desire. It is not until part 2 (Monet’s Berm) that Elio fully realizes summer is dwindling like the sun setting at the edge of the Piazzetta, which means his time with Oliver is coming to an end.
“This was probably the first time I allowed myself to count down his remaining days in B.”
As a part of Elio’s maturation, he comes to terms with reality. Shortly after Elio admits this sobering realization, death crosses his path as he points out to Oliver the area of the sea where the lifeless waterlogged body of Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy Shelley was found, and the physical possession of his heart was fought over.
After intercourse, after the peach, Oliver has his own realization that being somewhere in B., Italy in 1983 made him happy. Perhaps he’ll never be happy like that again. Perhaps Oliver is hurt the most over their inevitable separation. He cynically tells Elio that he’ll get over him soon enough.
They spend their last intimate moments together in part 3, The San Clemente Syndrome, in Rome, kissing in a side alley that will forever be idolized in future nostalgia.
“I wanted to tell him that the pool, the garden, the house, the tennis court, the orle of paradise, the whole place, would always be his ghost spot.”
Ghost Spots was meant to serve as closure of the story of Elio and Oliver. Find Me (the future sequel) most likely was not on the roadmap at the time. But, if Aciman had ended their story hip-to-hip, lips-to-lips in that alleyway in Rome, I would have been left satisfied knowing that such a perfect moment was sealed away there and nothing more could be said about the matter.
Elio and Oliver’s love was never meant to be for the future, nor everlasting. It was meant to stand still in a particular place and time between two people who for a brief moment, merged as one.
That, is more lasting.