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 is Part Two: Obsessive Love.
This novel is stunning. These posts are a love letter to this book.
Read Part 1 here.
‘Do I like you? Oliver, I worship you’. There I’d said it. – p. 103
Into the Unknown
One of the key themes of this book is that neither Oliver nor Elio have felt like this about anyone before, and as the blurb of the book denotes, are scared that ‘they may never truly find [it] again’. Being the educated sort, Elio spends time drawing comparisons between his feelings and the works of various literary greats; Paul Celan, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and being set in Italy; Dante.
The quote below comes earlier in the book, but it gives an inkling of the kind of love that Elio will offer Oliver. Amor ch’a null’amato amar perdona translates as ‘love that exempts no one loved from loving in return’. To me that means the love offered will be so honest, and so intense, that the one who is receiving that level of devotion can’t help but feel it in response. It is naked, raw, and completely trusting. It is the first time Elio is truly in love, and he is offering everything – having not been hurt before, he doesn’t try to protect himself.
‘Amor ch’a null’amato amar perdona’ – p.30
You’ll Kill Me If You Stop
After Elio’s speaks-but-doesn’t-really-say-anything to Oliver, they are catapulted into that odd stage when friendship turns to something more, but neither of them is quite brave enough to make the first move. It comes to a head at Monet’s Berm. Elio takes Oliver to this place after they have been on a bike ride to town. It is Elio’s secret hideaway, and by taking Oliver here it illustrates just how much Elio trusts Oliver even though he doesn’t really know much about him. The knowing of facts and life story doesn’t seem to matter though, because even if Elio doesn’t know much about Oliver, he feels like he knows him on a deeper level.
Their first kiss is instigated by Oliver. He is the older; he thinks he can control the situation and make sure it doesn’t get out of hand. When he kisses Elio, he kisses him in a ‘warm conciliatory, I’ll meet-you-halfway-but-no-further kiss’ kind of way. He underestimates Elio’s feelings, and ‘how famished he was’. Elio admits:
‘…at that moment on Monet’s berm, if I wished to hide everything about me in this kiss, I was also desperate to forget the kiss by losing myself in it,’ – p. 81
Oliver tries to lighten the significance of this moment by saying “better now?” afterwards, but given the words that had just been rattling through Elio’s brain, it is far from better. Elio is still wanting to give Oliver everything of himself (‘I wished to hide everything about me in this kiss’), but he is also unsure of what is to come, so he wants the security of forgetfulness.
Then everything goes cold. Oliver starts wearing his red bathing shorts. Elio is convinced when he is wearing these that he is bad-tempered, angry, and closed off, as opposed to when he wears the green or yellow bathing shorts. Elio is somewhat bewildered about what is happening, and begins a sexual relationship with Marzia; the literal girl-next-door. Elio does care for Marzia, he’s not simply using her, but at the same time he does want to see whether his relations with her would cause Oliver to be jealous.
Eventually Elio can’t stand the tension anymore, and he writes to Oliver.
‘”Can’t stand the silence. I need to speak to you.” […] “Grow up. I’ll see you at midnight.” That’s what he had added under my words.’ – pp. 118-120
This draws a sharp juxtaposition between Elio and Oliver, and reminds the reader that whilst this is Elio’s first foray into intimacy, Oliver has probably done this before, or something like it. In fact, Elio spends much of first third of the book imagining that Oliver is getting off with pretty much everyone in town. And yet it doesn’t stop him throwing his hat into the ring. He wants to know whether Oliver wants him; he will take that step. And Oliver bats the ball right back into his court with ‘I’ll see you at midnight’ – the moment a lover acquiesces and agrees to the advances.
‘Til he said, “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine,” which I’d never done in my life before and which, as soon as I said my own name as though it were his, took me to a realm I never shared with anyone in my life before, or since.’ – p. 134
After they make love for the first time, Oliver utters these words to Elio, bringing the title of the novel straight onto it’s pages. It’s rare that an author does this, as it often feels forced or unnatural, plucked from the words in order to create a snappy title. Yet, here it feels natural. It is exactly what the intensity of their love is about. They have found themselves in each other, so it is only natural that they will call each other by their names. It’s so beautiful and yet so right. Yet it doesn’t solve everything. It is not the end of all things, in the way that some people imagine it might be. Sex is just a part of their relationship – not the end goal. There is also a deep sense of melancholy in amongst the joy, because Aciman already tells the reader that this is a love doomed to end; a love hurtling towards it’s own heartbreak.
‘I had taken a giant step last night. Yet here I was, no wiser and no more sure of things than I’d been before feeling him all over me’ – p.152
Elio has been with Oliver and yet it has not cleared up anything that it was supposed to. It has not solved the conundrum of their relationship as Elio thought it might. And now he doesn’t know what to do. He has to choose how to move on from that moment, and it being the first time – he doesn’t quite know how it do it.
Reality & Unreality
‘This is where I’d dreamed of you before you came into my life’ – p. 105
There is a sense of the intimacy of Oliver and Elio’s relationship being so very real, but also with transcendent qualities to it that gives it a glow of unreality. When Elio and Oliver visit a bookshop in town, Elio admits that this is where he’d daydreamed about Oliver before he’d become a reality. He might not of known exactly what he looked like; but he had a shape that has now become distinct – yet the outline has always been there, even if Elio hadn’t cared to admit it.
‘He was my secret conduit to myself’ – p.143
This idea links into the intensity of their relationship. Oliver provides something for Elio that he had never felt before; he provides a way for him to look at himself from the outside. To see himself from a perspective that he’d never really considered before. It gives a weird sense of unreality to their relationship, in that, at times, it almost appears as if they become two halves of the same person.
‘I felt something so tender for him […] This was the best person I’d ever known in my life. I had chosen him well.’ – p. 154
This quote is something that most people will recognise who’s ever had feelings for someone else. In this scene Oliver is sitting on the rocks below the house, looking out to sea. Elio spots him and feels this rush of emotion. It also provides a moment of role reversal; in that seeing Oliver in a of introspection and vulnerability, Elio feels as if he wants to protect him and hold him close. It’s only there for a moment, and then Elio is bounding down onto the rocks to be with Oliver, and once again he is the younger of the pair. For a moment, however, they seem to drift between the two roles.
‘Just this once, turn to me, even in jest, or as an afterthought, which would have meant everything to me when we were together, and, as you did back then, look me in the face, hold my gaze, and call me by your name.’ – p. 248
I struggled with this quote – whether to put it in this section, or whether to discuss in Part Three, which will be about loss. I decided to put it here because really it is about that love that lasts a lifetime, whether the actual relationship goes on for any length of time. This is the last line of the novel and it damn near broke my heart. Yet, there is a hope in it too, because it doesn’t clarify whether Oliver does or not. The novel ends with Elio’s request. I guess it could be seen as heartbreaking, but at the same time there is the beauty of the memory of what they shared, and what they will go on sharing, regardless of whether their physical relationship rekindles. There are some things that can’t be erased or forgotten.
Traviamento (Going Astray)
‘Everyone goes through a period of traviamento […] Some recover, some pretend to recover, some never come back, some chicken out before even starting, and some, for fear of taking any turns, find themselves leading the wrong life all along.’ – p. 99
In this section I’d like to discuss just a couple of themes that didn’t really seem to fit in the narrative discussion of the novel. The first is the idea of traviamento (going astray) which comes across in the novel. The above quote is said to Elio by his father, and it struck me. I think it’s important that everyone has a period of traviamento – people need to go astray to find out where it is they’re supposed to be going. If there are never any wrong decisions (willful or not) in one’s life, then how can you know when you make the right decision? To me it would be terrifying to think that I was ‘leading the wrong life all along’ because I have been fearful ‘of taking any turns’. Sometimes you just have to grab an opportunity with two hands and take it. It might not be immediately obvious if there’s going to be any dividends from that decision, but if you don’t try then you’ll never know.
‘It never occurred to me to hide from Oliver what I was doing with Marzia. Bakers and butchers don’t compete, I thought.’ – p. 151
Another key theme of the novel that I touched upon in part one is that of fluid sexuality. There is never any overt reference to what sexuality either Oliver or Elio define themselves as. I think if you had to label it then it would be bisexuality, as Oliver eventually gets married, and Elio has a seemingly fairly enjoyable relationship with Marzia. But the thing is, is that it doesn’t matter. The reason it’s not defined is that the label that they fall under isn’t really relevant to the love that they feel. They are two people in love; it’s doesn’t matter what gender either of them is.
Equally, I find the notion of what Elio says about the pair ‘Bakers and butchers don’t compete,’ very interesting. It might be a slightly naive statement, but I don’t believe that loving one person – even sexually – precludes you from loving someone else at the same time. I think monogamy is something that has become a staple of our society over millenia, and therefore it’s just what is done, and it’s difficult for people to think in other ways. I’m not saying that this should be a license for any type of behaviour; but the idea that someone is with one person and therefore is completely banned from having feelings is, at best, unrealistic, and worst, suffocating. As Elio comments, the love he feels for Marzia is totally different to that he feels for Oliver, so why should they compete with each other? Elio uses the analogy of bakers and butchers, but another one that came to my mind was trying to judge a sprinter against a javelin thrower. There isn’t a common ground with which to measure them, so therefore why would you try?
This is getting more into the realms of philosophy and sociology, but I think it’s an interesting thought. I don’t think society is ready for anything close to polyamory on a widespread scale. It wouldn’t be understood or accepted. People are confused by the co-habitation habits of other people if it doesn’t match theirs, and can even feel threatened by it. Having said that, I think it’s becoming increasingly a conversation that young people are having, about what it means to be in love, and the expectations of that love.
Well, I hope you enjoyed part two! Let me know in the comments!
Look out for Part Three where I will be discussing Loss. Get the tissues ready with some of the quotes from that part of the novel!
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