(Well more of a Book Experience than a Review)
I don’t like to be greedy between two books. I try to remain enveloped in the after mist for at least some time before picking up a new book. But the one I had closed didn’t stir much within. So the next day, with some misgivings and much guilt, I open the first page of Call me by your Name by André Aciman.
Time left in book: 5 h 37 m Kindle tells me. I’m pleased. I hate thin books. We readers invest so much in them, a thin novel seems chicanery. The reviews on the book cover though, give me second thoughts. “If you can’t handle violence of regret the novel will awaken in you, or the agony of remembering wanting someone more than you wanted anything in your life, or the exquisite suffering that comes with the gain, and loss, of something that near perfect understanding, then don’t read this book-Nicole Krauss”
No. I can’t handle any of those things. I prefer my books to be happy. Especially when I’m out at sea. With no one to turn to, one avoids feeling low by all means. However, I dip my foot in.
A bit later
I have finished 2 parts of the book and with 2 more still to go I have stopped reading. For now. I want to savour the lingering taste of what I have read so far. Meanwhile, who the hell is André Aciman? And why has he not written more? Lots more? And who is “Albio”, his “Alma de vida” to whom the novel is dedicated? How does one get to meet these two? Is it possible to stalk them? I’m ready to take up studying again to attend his classes. André Aciman teaches comparative literature at the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York. This is his first novel.”
The story so far: the narrator is 17, shy and speaks in the voice of a wise old man. But you can see though precocious and all, but he’s still a teenager. You remember how serious and mature you thought you were at 17? Maybe you are that age and want to be taken seriously especially by someone like Oliver who is a young (at least he sounds so) professor of philosophy from Columbia U. Oliver is a houseguest with the narrator’s family, visiting that summer at their Italian beachside villa. The narrator has conflicting feelings for Oliver, inexplicable attraction and seething hate for having such power over him and not reciprocating. Yes, ‘narrator’- we don’t know his name, I’ll call him N for convenience. Since he’s writing as he’s thinking, N does not explain what he already knows, including his own name. I have read half the book and am still not sure if he has any more siblings. His focus from the very first word is Oliver. Everyone else are mere props. He’s infatuated, he’s obsessed.We don’t know whether his family is Italian or expat. They are all multi-lingual. (Thankfully Aciman translates most of the Italian and Latin). He does not say Oliver is handsome, although he confesses looking at Oliver’s body, as he lies sunbathing in swimming shorts. He mentions his mother calls him a “muvi star”. That is the beauty of it all. There is a raw attraction and there’s no reason for it. In the past N has had sex with girls his age and continues to through Part 2. Oliver too, it seems has slept with every girl of the village/town. No labels are used as if to say it does not matter; for everyone is pansexual. Attraction is only for personalities, not gender. The author does not say that he is gay or Oliver is gay or even a bisexual. This vagueness, the leaving out details (even the town is only called B.), the not explaining anything other than his current feeling for Oliver, glues the reader to the narrator because you are he and he is you. Unlike any other book you do not have an option of identifying with any other character. So although by now you are sure about the narrator’s attraction to Oliver but Oliver gives mixed signals. Sometimes he is kind and attentive to N, they talk books and philosophy at length (which even though you have never read them-nor ever going to- you participate in the conversation because you after all are N). At other times Oliver is curt and aloof and they hardly exchange a word for days. There are but a few days before Oliver returns to the States at the end of the summer and probably out of N’s life forever. The atmosphere is supercharged with sexual tension.
With much apprehension I start on the third part. In three days Oliver goes back to the States. I am reading but I am actually dreading his departure. I know there is no happy ending. The book reviews have been quite explicit about that. “If you can’t deal with disappointment, this novel is not for you.” Thankfully Aciman digresses. There’re a lot of pages on Dante and Italian poetry and interaction between poets and the philosophers. I’m at sea; I’m not really into all this literary exchange, not right now anyways. But I don’t really mind. There are still two nights of Oliver after this one. I close the book when this night is still not over…
I decide to re-read the book to write this review. Begin again before I have actually finished reading it. I have never done this in my life. But don’t you know what a good book does to you. It’s not enough to read it yourself; you want to share the pleasure. Hope to effuse enough excitement to make someone else read it too. And then you can bask in each other’s pleasure. We would say- doesn’t he just connect to you right away. Yeah, but I feel sad for Marzia why is N dangling her when he’s clearly into O and why is O doing exactly the same thing? Why doesn’t he just go and tell him right away? No the poetry is alright . I hope there’s a happy ending and they get together. Do they? No, no, don’t tell me pleeeease! I have re-read very few books and that only when I didn’t have anything new to read. So this is completely out of character for me. I think I’ll read it again when I draw it and a fourth time to make it into a movie if someone allows me to. I know exactly how it will look. I know it won’t be a ‘huge success’. It would be a little European style film. Very Mediterranean.
Of course I did not start reading it, I couldn’t wait to find out how it ends. I finished the third chapter and am on the last. No I’m not crying, the tears are there on the verge of spilling, but definitely not crying. Only there is this cannon ball size of my fist stuck behind my sternum and I can’t breath. It is written somewhere in the book that no amount of preparation for an emotion can actually replace the actual event. Even when Oliver finally goes away there’s a hope that maybe they will meet again somewhere in future, once the novel closes perhaps- after the time of the novel. But nothing prepares you for anything like this, nothing. “‘I know nothing Oliver,’ I say ‘Nothing.'”
By the last page I am crying inconsolably, oh what a terrible waste!
And surely I turn to think think of him, of us. Of what we have, could have had and may have. And I want him to come back home. To me. For home is where ‘we’ belong. For “Time makes us sentimental. Perhaps, in the end, it is because of time that we suffer.”
PS: I did read start reading it again and thinking of the last paragraph still makes it difficult for me to breathe. It’s not only a bildungsroman, nor only a coming out story or a story of accepting who you are or giving it a label. It is a story of first love, feeling right, longings, regrets and finding someone who is “bounty of your life”. And losing. Aciman writes effortlessly with a light touch. You don’t realise you are moving-the time stands still on the pages. Simply a brilliant first novel. I have left out mentioning anything that might put off your reading experience. I might have written somethings we don’t find in the book that actually is there. But don’t let my review turn you off. Whatever your sex or sexuality, you will find something universal in these pages. Go read.