Author’s Note: This series of posts will (attempt to) explain and detail the thematic ideas and the nuances of language found in the exquisite book Call Me By Your Name (2007) by André Aciman. If you intend to read the book for yourself and don’t wish to spoil it, then do not read these posts until after you have done so.
This novel is stunning. These posts are a love letter to this book.
Falling In Love
Everyone remembers the first time they fell in love; the uncertainty, doubt, and complete and utter joy that comes with it. At first it’s sometimes difficult to identify the feeling, because we have never felt it before, but somehow it is innate to us to eventually recognise it for what it is. Oh, I must be falling in love.
It takes seventeen year old Elio several weeks to realise that love is exactly what he is feeling towards the handsome academic who comes to stay in his house; intruding in his life and disrupting his perfect peace – even if Elio was completely expecting the physical disruption of someone being there, he certainly wasn’t expecting the emotional one.
When Elio first meets Oliver, he is taken aback by the latter’s seemingly overly confident manner, and his brusque way of saying ‘Later!’ instead of goodbye when taking his leave of a situation. Elio’s father thinks it’s because Oliver is shy, and this way it cuts ties with the conversation. Elio believes it’s because Oliver is rude and uncouth. Or at least that’s what he thinks he believes. Elio is obligated to be civil to the newcomer, to show him around the area of Northern Italy where they are situated, and to help him settle in to what will be his life for the next six weeks. The pair go running together, or cycling, or swimming. Elio comes to realise that when Oliver says ‘Later!’ it isn’t necessarily cutting him out, but inviting him back… well, later.
‘I liked it when our feet were aligned, left with left, and struck the ground at the same time, leaving footprints on the shore that I wished to return to and, in secret, place my foot where his had left its mark’. – p. 11
This is an occurrence that happens early on in the novel when Elio is out jogging with Oliver and he is obviously watching him very closely. It’s that feeling when you’re aware of someone at all times; where they are, how they’re acting. You’re not doing it consciously, but you’re wondering whether they’re thinking about you.
‘The thud my heart gave when I saw him unannounced both terrified and thrilled me. I was afraid when he showed up, afraid when he failed to, afraid when he looked at me, more frightened yet when he didn’t’ – p.59
This quote is along the same lines as the first. Elio is constantly hyper aware of Oliver, whether he is around or not. Elio wants to know where he is – not so that he can keep tabs on him, but more so that his emotions are prepared for when Oliver is around. He doesn’t want to be caught unawares. I think anyone who’s ever fallen in love or lust has felt this at some point. Making yourself look your best to perhaps go to the corner shop just in case so-and-so is there. Elio cannot relax, because he is afraid that if he does he won’t be ready if Oliver suddenly does make an appearance, and he can’t afford to be caught off his guard around this stranger who he can’t decide if he loves or hates for making him feel this way.
‘You make me like who I am, who I become when you’re with me Oliver. If there is any truth in the world, it lies when I’m with you, and if I find the courage to speak my truth to you one day, remind me to light a candle in thanksgiving at every altar in Rome’ – p.49
This is really the first time we begin to understand the title of the book. Elio realises that he feels totally different when he is around Oliver than he has with anybody else. Oliver makes him the best version of himself in that he makes him like who he is. Oliver allows (not consciously) Elio to be completely true to himself, and therefore be exactly how he wants. That level of emotional vulnerability is terrifying, which is why Elio says he will light a candle at every altar in Rome if he ever plucks up the courage to tell Oliver how he feels. God never really makes an appearance in this novel; both Elio and Oliver are Jewish, and therefore it is clear that this declaration is much more to do with the symbolism of the trial it would take to ‘light a candle at every altar’ than to do with any religious overture.
The way Aciman puts thoughts in Elio’s mind is truly breathtaking. The emotion in the line ‘if there is any truth in the world, it lies when I’m with you’ is absolutely stunning. It pierces the heart, making the reader aware of the times when perhaps they thought like that around somebody; that the world suddenly makes sense because this other person has come into it.
‘Is it better to speak or to die?’
The ultimate question. Elio gets this line out of German folk tale that his mother is reading to him and his father one rainy afternoon when they can’t be outside. It is the story of a knight and a princess, and the knight is floundering because he does not know whether he should speak of his feelings or not. Perhaps it is better to risk death than to risk rejection?
The thing I absolutely adore about this line, and it’s context, is that it pays no attention to gender. It is the words and the intent that matter. Aciman did not worry about the fact that the fairy story Elio hears is concerned with a heterosexual couple, whereas the novel is about love blooming between two men. This is something that comes across through the whole book: it is never an issue that that is the love story – it is the love story itself that is the issue; will he/won’t he/can I/can he etc. Being set in the 80s it could have been very easy for Aciman to go down the AIDS/homophobia/forbidden love context, but other than a passing glance to the way that Oliver’s father would react if he knew, it’s never mentioned. The central plot is not about them being gay (or otherwise – it’s never explicitly stated); it’s about them being in love, and that’s amazing.
Fear of Rejection
‘”Because you thought I should know.” He repeated my words slowly, trying to take in their full meaning, all the while sorting them out, playing for time by repeating the words. The iron, I knew, was burning hot.’ – p. 72
This moment occurs just as Elio attempts to tell Oliver of his feelings. He can’t bring himself to be overt with his declaration, but finds his own way to jumble his feelings together into some form of sentence. Oliver understands what he is saying.
Throughout this exchange the words are practically sizzling off the page as the reader is transported to Elio’s terrified mind. Right now, at this moment, as the iron is ‘burning hot’, Oliver could injure Elio in such a way that he might never recover. Again, anyone who has been the first to confess their feelings to another has perhaps felt this fear – they could throw it all back in your face and hurt you. You’re desperately hoping that they are the person you’ve imagined that they are, and that they wouldn’t do that. For Elio this is especially important because, as seen earlier in the book, Oliver makes Elio who he is. This is different from a crush.
‘I stared back, not to defy him, or to show I wasn’t shy any longer, but to surrender, to tell him this is who I am, this is who you are, this is what I want, there is nothing but truth between us now’ – p. 78
There is a freedom in admitting your feelings to someone, and it can be almost hedonistic in that order to protect yourself you can try and convince yourself that it doesn’t matter what they think – you’ve said it, and it is for them to do with what they will. The ball is in their court so to speak. Except it’s very rarely that simple. On page 78 Elio has show his heart to Oliver, revealing his feelings, and now it is Oliver’s prerogative what he does with that information. In this quote the freedom of Elio comes across because now that he has let Oliver know and that ‘there is nothing but truth between’ them, he is free from the weight of keeping everything to himself.
‘I was not unhappy. I wanted to be with someone. But it didn’t trouble me that I was alone’ – p.90
This is important because it illustrates that Elio is not chasing Oliver because he thinks that’s what he should be doing, and on some level I think this is true of his brief relationship with Marzia – the girl next door. He does neither of these things because he believes that he should. He does them because at any particular time his feelings and his mind tell him that it’s okay to do so; that to follow your passions is alright.
Throughout the book we get the impression that Elio and Oliver are not in a relationship – they’re not supposed to be. They are just together because they are meant to be. That might not make a whole lot of sense, but the novel is not trying to draw the reader down the conventional lines of “and they lived happily ever after”. To me it was more about acknowledging the feelings within, and doing something about them because they existed. That was reason enough to act upon them. The context and implications do not necessarily matter.
And sometimes it is better to speak than to die.
Read Part Two of this series where I will be discussing the way Aciman explores what it’s like to be in a passionate love, and how Elio and Oliver exist within that.
If this post has inspired you to read the rest of this beautiful book (and my essay-length post hasn’t completely spoilered it for you!) you can get here: Call Me By Your Name (link to Amazon Books).
Author’s Note: Any books bought with links from this site help me out a tiny bit, so if you were thinking of buying it anyway, I would be very grateful if you went off my blog. Besitos! I xx