André Aciman, the writer behind the much loved movie ‘Call Me By Your Name’, on shifting identities, his love of music, and the ancients
The first-person narrator is always the same in my books. It’s always an extension of who I am, an emanation of my personality traits...
I don’t trust anything I write, I constantly fiddle with it," says André Aciman, dodging my opening gambit. It’s a question scores of journalists must have thrown at him in the last couple of years: Did he ever imagine that his 2007 novel, Call Me By Your Name, would, 10 years after its publication, be reincarnated into the much loved movie by Luca Guadagnino? Let alone any adaptation, he didn’t think it would see the light of day as a book, Aciman says with a touch of exasperation. “You must have heard me say on stage how insecure I am," he adds, perhaps noticing my puzzled expression.
It’s the third morning of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) 2019 and a strong crowd gathered on the front lawns of the Diggi Palace Hotel, has just heard Aciman speak with writer Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi. The cheers and hoots were befitting a rock star, the queue to get copies signed serpentine, filled with hundreds aiming their phone cameras at him. Finally, as Aciman is extricated from the fans and escorted up to the press terrace, the slightly somnolent bunch of journalists (it’s the third day after all) shake themselves up, suddenly alert. He sits down for a joint interview with fellow writer Andrew Sean Greer, the 2018 Pulitzer winner for the novel Less, who won many hearts at JLF 2019 with his disarming friendliness.
My turn comes at last, but Aciman looks stricken at the prospect of yet another interview. “We need you here for the next 3 hours," a smiling publicist informs him as he lets out a groan. “Okay, but first I need to quickly go say hello to my wife," Aciman says, promising to return pronto from the author’s lounge.
Later, as we settle down and after the expected queries about the movies (“Did you have any say over the making of it?" “No. I’m not a screenwriter, I don’t understand cinema, it’s not my province."), we come to the matter of the sequel-in-the-making. “So you are told, you say" Aciman sighs. “But I’m not so sure it’s a sequel anyway."
For those who have read Enigma Variations, Aciman’s latest novel, published in 2017, the idea of a sequel to Call Me By Your Name might seem to have been somewhat addressed already. Paul, the narrator of Enigma Variations, is a character cut from the same mould as Elio, the protagonist of Call Me By Your Name. “The first-person narrator is always the same in my books," Aciman says. “It’s always an extension of who I am, an emanation of my personality traits, of my hesitations vis-à-vis who I am."
Both Elio and Paul are drifters through life, their identities unmoored from the laws of attraction imposed by society, seeking love and comfort from both men and women. Their inability to make up their minds may raise eyebrows, but Aciman isn’t worried.
“I do know some individuals who claim to be entirely gay or straight, but maybe that’s their personal mythology," he says. “I believe all of us float through life, and sometimes we find something that works for us for a certain time. It makes perfect sense for me that Elio could feel attracted to Marzia the very same day he sleeps with Oliver."
Elio’s unstable desires find a fuller reflection in Paul’s predicament in Enigma Variations. Alluding to Edward Elgar’s famous 1899 musical composition, the novel unfolds through, as it were, variations on an absent theme, like the yet-undiscovered melody that is believed to be buried in the interstices of Elgar’s notes. “Elio’s or Paul’s is an identity that is moving through various modalities, many avatars, without necessarily knowing its original or foundational state," Aciman says. This, he believes, is the story of all our lives. “We move from person to person, sometimes from one gender to another, and yet we don’t know what our original destination was," he adds. “We are enigmas unto ourselves."
Beyond informing the structural affinity of his novels, music is present in Aciman’s work in more palpable forms. Young Elio, for instance, is transcribing Haydn’s Seven Last Words Of Christ, which, Aciman concedes, was a provocation to his Jewish readership. It is as potent a presence as the spectre of the classical world—of Greece and Rome, philosophers and writers like Plato, Heraclitus, Thucydides (who is Aciman’s favourite)—in the novels. “I do believe that the classical mode, whether in music or literature, is the highest that humanity has achieved in the Western world," he says. “Classical music, to me, is like speaking to God."
The long shadow of the ancients crosses Aciman’s pages in artful ways. The section in Call Me By Your Name which unfolds in Rome—at a dinner party Elio is taken to by Oliver, over an evening when the mirth never seems to die down—is a parody of the banquets we read about in Plato, Aciman informs me. “Some character usually arrives late, or drunk, then proceeds to make all kinds of allegations about other people," he says. “I was having a good time with it." Another playful allusion to the classics is left in the “peach scene": Elio’s unforgettable erotic encounter with the fruit on a lazy summer afternoon. “The peach is a symbol of one of those Greek characters who is transformed into a fruit as a punishment for doing something wrong," Aciman says.
In his day job, Aciman teaches critical theory and the writings of Marcel Proust at the City University of New York. With his magical prose, languorous cadence, and keen attention to the workings of the psyche, Proust is an obvious influence. “Proust shows us that everything is transitory—any ideas, opinions or loves we have, don’t last," Aciman says. “But obsessions do."
The cornerstone of Proust’s thinking is human memory. “It’s the safest thing we have," Aciman says. “Remembering, not just a person or a thing but the very act of it, becomes in Proust what might be in the East a form of meditation." But unlike the characters in Proust—for whom jealousy was the surest recognition of love—Aciman writes of people who are far removed from such troubling emotions.
Paul, in Enigma Variations for instance, is perplexed by his lack of jealousy towards an ex-girlfriend, who is with someone else, even while he still desires her. “If you have a person in your life and this person has somebody else in theirs, you would still like to believe that this person consistently has the same attitude, same sense of humour and the same ability to connect," Aciman says, annotating that moment for me.
But is that ever possible, I ask, to stay the same and yet be with someone else? What if you find the person you love so much has become entirely different, someone you’ve never seen before? “That moment," Aciman says, as we wrap up, “for me, is totally dangerous."