The author has been told many times that his book, and the recently released movie, have affected people strongly. “It gives you an insight into what was happening to you,” he said.
André Aciman is used to the swooning, the people who clutch his arm and spill their hearts, their memories and their thanks.
It’s the precious price Aciman pays for dreaming up “Call Me By Your Name,” the gorgeous, lush love story between 17-year-old Elio and 24-year-old Oliver, the graduate student who comes to work with Elio’s academic father one summer at the family’s home in the Italian countryside in the mid-’80s.
“People do spill their hearts out to me,” Aciman said the other day. “For them, the book is very moving because it captures a moment in their lives.”
The novel, first released in 2007, has been given a new and near-obsessive audience with the release of the film of the same name.
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Timothée Chalamet has been nominated for numerous awards for his portrayal of Elio — including an Oscar for best actor. Armie Hammer co-stars. Sufjan Stevens contributed two songs to the soundtrack. There is art and classical music. Peaches and apricot juice and bike rides through an Italian summer.
It creates a perfect, cinematic storm of emotion at a time when matters of the heart seem far from the public conscience.
Which is why Aciman has ventured out on a national book tour that will bring him to Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle on Monday, Feb. 26, to read and discuss “Call Me By Your Name,” as well as last year’s “Enigma Variations.”
(Attendees are invited to an after-reading meet-and-greet at Queer Bar, one block from the book store at 1518 11th Ave.)
On the phone from New York, where he teaches the history of critical theory at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Aciman has a sense of who will show up.
The first type he is used to: Men in their 50s, 60s and 70s, who only wish they had a father like Elio’s, who understood and accepted his son’s love affair, and soothed his anguished heart with the very perfect words that put both readers and film audiences in tears.
“You had a beautiful friendship,” Professor Perlman tells his son after Oliver leaves. “Maybe more than a friendship. And I envy you.
“In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, or pray that their sons land on their feet soon enough,” he continues. “But I am not such a parent … We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of 30 and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything. What a waste.”
Said Aciman: “These men wish their fathers had spoken to them and accepted them. It’s a conversation that never happened. This is what should have been.”
Others tell him that “Call Me By Your Name” changed them, which confuses Aciman.
“To be very honest with you, I don’t know exactly what that means,” he said. “I sense what they are trying to say, but I am not sure I understand. They say, ‘Your book laid out a map or charted a course of things that happened to me long ago and may continue to happen to me, but I never had the language.’
“And so suddenly you see yourself laid open and you think, ‘My God, this is what happens to me in my life.’ It doesn’t change you, but it gives you an insight into what was happening to you.”
In that sense, Aciman is able to read the inside of the human heart, and put to words all the confusion and joy that love stirs up. Those feelings are not only for the young, he said. They don’t bloom once and die. They return again and again throughout our lives.
“The whole mythology and mystique,” he said. “It was always there, and it doesn’t change. I meet somebody, I become obsessed, I become interested.
“I may not go all the way, but I feel it,” he said — he is married with sons in their 20s, after all.
“It’s more like desire,” he continued. “We all feel desire; we just don’t know what we mean by it. Is it lust? Is it love? Is it infatuation? It is so many things gnarled together.”
They include shame, he said, because desire is a form of interest in someone that is not easy to admit to oneself, or the other person, he said.
“If every time I felt desire for someone I told them, I’d be in jail right now, or an asylum.”
Our lives are full of fantasies, in addition to the things we actually do with our lives, Aciman said.
“These are the things that never go away,” he said. “The fantasies that are never lived out.”
We all have something that might have happened, he said. Something significant that was never allowed to blossom, but never went away.
Aciman recalled that when he was 9, he had a crush on a boy who was 16, “and I would follow him around. I wanted to be his friend. And nothing ever happened, but it was a milepost in my life.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is how you will react from this time on to the people that you want,’ ” he said. “Men, women. I react the same way.”
Aciman isn’t writing anything that people don’t already know, and feel.
“There is nothing that I say is new,” he said. “But I articulate what you easily could have overlooked. That’s one of my specialties.”
He writes in long sentences so as to open up space.
“It allows me not to name things too quickly,” he said. “Their resonance is what you can touch. Not just the name. ‘I was in love with so-and-so’ doesn’t give you any sense of what the resonance was.
“I like to excavate and explore and I do it with a degree of lyricism,” he said. “I think there is something beautiful when we delve into ourselves.”
“Call Me By Your Name” is graphic, but sentiments and feelings are given equal time. (“There is nothing I said that people are embarrassed about.”)
For all his skill with the shifting waters of the human heart, Aciman never uses the word “love.”
“Once you use the word ‘love,’ the whole thing calcifies and becomes hard,” he said. “It loses is ambiguity. The resonance.”
Aciman didn’t get involved with the making of the film, save for a cameo as one-half of a gay couple that visits the family for dinner.
Although, he did fret that the film version would not be narrated by an older Elio, as it was in the book. (“I wasn’t going to tell (director) Luca (Guadagnino) or (screenwriter) James Ivory what to do.”)
Chalamet’s performance, he said, made up for the lack of narration.
“I was flabbergasted,” Aciman said. “He was able to capture all this internal monologue on his face. You know exactly what he’s thinking. The comfort he feels, the faith, the nostalgia.”
Even when he ends a fling with a neighbor girl, Chalamet’s Elio “just hunches his shoulders,” Aciman said. “Instead of saying something flat and stupid, he says ‘Look, it’s over. It’s not happening and I have no excuse.’
“It took a lot of guts for (Chalamet) to play that role because he could have easily been typecast,” he said. “The last five minutes are, for me, some of the greatest moments in movie history.”
What does he think happened to Elio and Oliver?
“The book does not give you any reason to believe one thing or another,” he said. “But it leaves it very open. I don’t know.”