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 Three: Loss.
This novel is stunning. These posts are a love letter to this book.
Read Part 1 here.
Read Part 2 here.
‘Whom else would I ever be able to call by my name?’ – p. 187
The notion of loss is one that permeates the entirety of this novel. Right from the first page the reader is aware of the ticking time bomb that is Oliver’s visit to the Perlman home. It becomes so much more real and heartfelt because of Elio’s narrative. He is the one experiencing the loss, and because the book is written in first person, it makes the reader feel it so much more deeply.
On Fighting Time
‘Let summer never end, let him never go away, let the music play on perpetual replay play forever, I am asking for very little, and I swear I’ll ask for nothing more’ – p.30
This is something that Elio begs for early on in the novel, and whilst the reader has been aware of the six-week deadline of their tryst since the very first page of the novel, this reminds us yet again that there is a impending end to this season. Summer itself seems like a direct comparison; no season can last forever, no matter how much one might wish it to, eventually Autumn always comes along. Elio is trying to fight against something that cannot be fought; the passing of time. It feels very raw, the desperation with which he wishes time could stand still.
‘I squirreled away small things so that in the lean days ahead glimmers from the past might bring back the warmth’ – p. 162
In a way Elio’s reference once again to nature reminds us of the cyclical nature of seasons and the passing of time. The use of the word ‘squirreled’ makes me think of how a creature might prepare for the winter; exactly what Elio is doing. He is trying to keep as many little moment of Oliver, so that when he is gone, he still has something to feed upon to remind himself of the sunnier days gone past.
‘but because by not planning to keep things alive, we were avoiding the prospect that they might ever die.’ – p. 187
There is a certain joy in the naivety of both Oliver and Elio at this moment. They do not wish to discuss how they will stay in touch once their lives go separate ways, because to do so would be to admit that their lives are going to separate. The joy is that they have this wonderful moment, and do not want to spoil it by imagining an end. Yet, for the reader, it is almost infuriating because there is the hint of the ‘what if..?’ – what if they had spoken about it? What if they had been able to make something work?
On Regret & Memory
Aciman has mentioned in interviews that perhaps Elio is not the most reliable of narrators, and the place where that probably comes across the most strongly is when he is reminiscing on the idea of regret. Towards the end of the novel there is a gap of twenty years separating Elio’s thoughts and the events of the Italian summer in which they found each other. Elio’s language becomes grandiose, and his recollections of what Oliver says when they do again meet sound a little strange when put into Oliver’s mouth (compared to the way he speaks earlier in the novel). Yet, the language Aciman gives Elio is heartbreakingly beautiful, and for anyone who has ever loved and lost, it rubs at the wounds that perhaps you had thought healed. The language draws attention to the fact that memory often grows stronger with time; distorting events, drawing certain things to the fore and cancelling out other things. It’s why people are sometimes accused of looking back at something with rose-tinted glasses. They can only remember the good things.
For example, when Elio says;
‘Over the years I’d lodged him in the permanent past, my pluperfect lover, put him on ice, stuffed him with memories […] I’d dust him off from time to time and then put him back on the mantelpiece. He no longer belonged to earth or to life.’ – p. 233
The idea that Oliver ‘no longer belonged to earth or to life’ compounds the idea that Elio has distorted the reality of events, and created this paragon which he can worship from his memory. Similarly, the quote below is drenched in absolutely gorgeous language, one that as a poet made my skin feel aglow with it’s sheer beauty. It is not realistic, and it is not meant to be. It is the beauty of a memory.
‘In the weeks we’d been thrown together that summer, our lives had scarcely touched, but we had crossed to the other bank, where time stop and heaven reaches down to earth and gives us that ration of what is from birth divinely ours […] We had found the stars, you and I.’ – p. 244
It is often practice, when something comes to an end, that one or both of the parties spend time wondering ‘what if?’, ‘what might of..?’. More often than not this type of thinking is useless (and quite often harmful). Rather than trying to imagine how something might have been different, it is often better to reflect on the joy of what was. Elio’s father tells him that;
‘You’re too smart not to know how rare, how special, what you two had was.’ – p. 223
And he is right. The love the two share is rare and it is special, but it does not mean that it can be the only one. Professor Perlman encourages Elio to feel the pain of Oliver’s leaving (and in the movie this is an especially beautiful scene!) and says to him;
‘We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what as waste’ – p. 224
As a reader (and watcher of the film as this quote is used pretty much word for word in the script), I adored these words. It resonated with me because so often we are told not to pick at wounds lest they never heal; but sometimes it is useful to examine what we have felt, how it made us feel, and how we feel about it now. I think this is especially important for a poet/artist/actor etc. The actor who plays Professor Perlman in the movie, Michael Stuhlbarg, states in the commentary that there are ‘just moments and then they are gone’, in which he is referring to the way that the director highlights the fleeting nature of various moments by the way he composes his shots, but equally it refers to the very fabric of the novel; just because something only occurs for a moment, does not mean it is any less special, and should be ignored or not felt. As the character says ‘what a waste’.
Out of all the devastatingly beautiful language in this book, the below quote is the one that probably got me the most. It made me want to rail at the pair of them for being so stupid. To have not gathered what they had and ran with it until they could run with it no more;
‘And on that evening when we grow older still we’ll speak about these two young men as though they were two strangers we met on the train and whom we admire and want to help along. And we’ll want to call it envy, because to call it regret would break our hearts.’ – p. 238
Yet, it is easy to think that something would have been doable when one thinks back on a particular time. There is always more to it than just the feelings of the people involved; there are lives to be lived, time goes on, and the world does not stop;
‘He came. He left. Nothing else had changed. I had not changed. The world hadn’t changed. Yet nothing would be the same. All that remains is dreammaking and strange remembrance’ – p. 199
And just because the world does not stop, time does not cease to exist, and the days continue to go on by, does not mean that everything will be the same. As Elio says here, he has not changed in and of himself ‘yet nothing would be the same’. Sometimes there are experiences that shape you. Just because the change is not obvious does not mean that it has not occurred.
The character of Vimini didn’t appear in the film, and I totally understand why – she acts as an extra subplot, that whilst adding to the fabric of realism in the novel, would have been extra unnecessary padding in the movie. In the book, however, she is a living embodiment of time running out. Vimini is a young girl, no older than eleven, who tragically has leukemia. Her and Oliver bond, due to her high level of intelligence and her insights and observations on life.
She dies after Oliver leaves, like a tree that loses it’s leaves once the sun has begun to fade away for the winter. Elio, who occasionally writes to Oliver, tells him of her death in a letter. As he says, it is ‘the last footbridge’, something which held them together and which no longer exists. One less reason to maintain their ties.
‘Writing to him about her was like crossing the last footbridge between us, especially after it became clear we weren’t ever going to mention what had once existed between us, or, for that matter, that we weren’t even mentioning it.’ – p. 230
On What It Means To Be Human
Elio does a lot of learning in the short weeks he is dazzled by Oliver’s presence in his life. He is only seventeen, so everything is new and everything is beautiful. He is amazed by Oliver’s world of literature and culture, he is bombarded by new ideas and thoughts. It is clear throughout that Elio is an exceedingly well read young man, that he is very intelligent and learned. Yet, as he freely admits when he tries to tell Oliver how he feels, he doesn’t really know anything. Elio learns a huge amount in the short time he has with Oliver. Oliver takes him to literary talks when they go to Rome together, and he is exposed to the brilliance of others outside of his immediate academic circle;
‘There was more to learn in this tiny crammed bookstore than in any of the mighty institutions across the Atlantic.’ – p. 183
Once again, Elio is is being fairly bombastic and perhaps exaggerating, but as he is hit by these experiences in a very short space of time, it is only natural for him to inflate reality in his own mind. He is totally over-awed by everything he is getting to experience. He becomes philosophical;
‘Like the subconscious, like love, like memory, like time itself, like every single on 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…’ – p. 192
He starts thinking about the very nature of what it means to be human. In a way, this part of the novel reminded me of The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (another excellent book), in that the visual and auditory experiences that Elio is having at that particular time lead him to very deep thoughts on the very meaning of living. I loved the below quote because to me it encapsulates the message of the novel; that when people share something, even something as simply as ‘the love for the night’, then it is okay to express that love, and not to imagine the consequences too deeply. There is a joy in experiencing emotions just because they are there, and to feel things just because you can. As a reader it really did make me think. As Elio reminds us ‘there is no first anything, no last anything, just layers…’, so be what you can when you can, feel what you can when you can, and love hard when given the opportunity.
‘I loved watching all these light dressed people standing so close to me, all of them sharing the same basic thing: love for the night, love for the city, love for its people, and an ardent desire to couple – with anyone.’ – p. 198
Well there you have it; the last part of my ode to this utterly wonderful novel. I hope you have enjoyed these detailed posts as much as I have writing them. It has been a wonderful and beautiful journey deep into the language of what I think will go down as a modern classic.
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