André Aciman, 2007
Most of us can’t help but live as though we’ve got two lives to live, one is the mockup, the other the finished version, and then there are all those versions in between. But there’s only one, and before you know it, your heart is worn out.
The award-winning smash hit film of 2017 was, like so many great stories of stage and screen, first a book – a book telling the classic coming-of-age tale: a teenager’s sexual and romantic awakening through his union with a mysterious older lover, all taking place over the course of one summer, all set on the idyllic coast of Italy with the cicadas singing all around.
We returned to the bookshop… This felt special. Like showing someone your private chapel, your secret haunt, the place where, as with the berm, one comes to be alone, to dream of others. This is where I dreamed of you before you came into my life.
I adored the film and couldn’t wait to read the book, trusting that, like every other book-to-movie adaptation, it would be way better. But – although Call Me By Your Name was at times very beautiful, emotional and insightful – I failed to connect to this story and its characters, or feel any of the emotions I felt whilst watching the film. Believe that it pains me to say this, being a staunch believer that the book is always better than the movie. But personally, I’m not sure if that was the case for me here.
To begin with the positives, this novel skilfully portrays love and intimacy, playing in particular with the idea that total intimacy is wanting almost to become the other person, feeling that your minds are almost telepathic – and the novel celebrates the joy of this deep connection.
I liked how our minds seemed to travel in parallel, how we instantly inferred what words the other was toying with but at the last minute held back.
This desire to get so close to each other that you almost become the other is symbolised through the book by Oliver and Elio wearing each other’s clothes. The early stages of their relationship are characterised by back-and-forth playful interaction, misunderstanding and miscommunications.
That morning after seeing them dance I made no motions to go jogging with him. Neither did he. When I eventually brought up jogging, because the silence on the matter had become unbearable, he said he’d already gone. “You’re a late riser these days.”
Clever, I thought.
But later on, even after they admit their attractions and become lovers, their days swing between joy and confusion, denial and embrace. They refuse to admit that they will have to part, and waste precious time because of this.
Just be quiet, say nothing, and if you can’t say “yes”, don’t say “no”, say “later”. Is this why people say “maybe” when they mean “yes”, but hope you’ll think it’s “no” when all they really mean is, Please, just ask me once more, and once more after that?
I didn’t really empathise with very much of it. Their emotions, thinking and reasoning, seemed very alien, because I didn’t have a clear sense of either character. Oliver is better described than Elio, because pretty much the entire novel describes him, but even he seemed two-dimensional. I couldn’t see him very clearly in my mind; he didn’t seem material. I would struggle to describe his character to someone else – and as for Elio – even though the entire novel is his thought process, he didn’t seem very real either. Elio constantly tells us how he’s feeling, but to me, there was not much substance for the reader to understand beneath this telling. As such, I couldn’t fully understand why they felt and acted as they did.
I know myself, he says.
I’d heard him use these very words before. They meant I’m dying to, but may not be able to hold back once I start, so I’d rather not start.
The writing is extremely sentimental, overwrought with purple prose and long sentences waxing lyrical with metaphors galore. At times it struck a chord with me, and I found the writing beautiful. Other times, it seemed like waffle which took a lot of effort to make sense of and work out what was being said it simple terms. Like cutting a load of fat off a bone.
I’ll play anything for you till you ask me to stop, till it’s time for lunch, till the skin on my fingers wears off layer by layer, because I like doing things for you, will do anything for you, just say the word, I liked you from day one, and even when you’ll return ice for my renewed offers of friendship, I’ll never forget that this conversation occurred between us and that there are easy ways to bring back summer in the snowstorm.
A huge amount of content matter is lumped together in one sentence. As such, none of it really rings true in the mind; the reader has to properly concentrate to work out what’s going on and what Elio’s saying about how he feels. And consequently, it’s easy to fail to understand how Elio feels.
Aciman, an academic by profession, also has a tendency to get philosophical, to wonder and muse for paragraphs at a time.
And the digging could go on and on. Like the subconscious, like love, like memory, like time itself, like every single one of us, the church is built on the ruins of subsequent restorations, there is no rock bottom, there is no first anything, no last anything, just layers and secret passageways and interlocking chambers, like the Christian Catacombs.
His idea – that there is ‘no first anything’, an interesting idea in itself – is gracelessly lumped onto the subconscious, love, memory, ‘time itself’, and ‘every single one of us’ in the middle of a long and dense passage. This adds nothing. Rather than make such meaningless sweeping statements, it is much more powerful to identify one of these concepts for which there is ‘no first anything’. The point being made – made in the final section of the book – is that Oliver is neither the first nor the last love of Elio’s life; even though he was Elio’s greatest and most intimate love, there were also other loves, who were also important, and also impacted his life.
Fancy this, I might say: at the time I knew Oliver, I still hadn’t met so-and-so. Yet life without so-and-so was simply unthinkable.
There is no first love, then. So why not focus on this and make it clear to the reader, rather than present a messy collage of ideas?
The best books are those that you can’t stop thinking about every time you put them down, that you look forward to reading and make time to read. Other books you do not make time for exactly, but you still look forward to the moment when you can carry on reading them. This was neither. I wasn’t excited to pick it up again. It felt like a duty. I enjoyed it well enough when I did read it, but it didn’t excite me, capture me. What I remember from it will basically be what I remember from the film. There are no particular scenes that will stick in my memory (apart, perhaps, from the infamous peach scene).
The most memorable scene from the film – when Elio (played by Timothée Chalamet) sits and cries for a full uninterrupted 4 minutes – isn’t even in the book. The ending of the film – Oliver leaving, we think forever – packs more of a punch than the book, which hurriedly tells the tale of the pair’s sporadic meetings over the years, when each time they are holding back from what they had that first summer. Such a story – the emotional impact over the course of a lifetime – deserves much more page time than the 25 pages it was given. As a result, it didn’t make much of an impact on me, and the last line felt slightly gimmicky.
The film seemed a whole lot more self-aware. It could laugh at itself and still capture the same level – even, in my opinion, a much higher level – of emotional intensity. There were no real moments of laughter in the book, and – perhaps this was the reason I didn’t feel a connection to it – it didn’t seem particularly self-aware, either.
I suddenly realised that we were on borrowed time, that time is always borrowed, and that the lending agency exacts its premium precisely when we are least prepared to pay and need to borrow more.
Read 7-12 September 2018
If you enjoyed this book review, please consider buying me a coffee. Thank you!