A few people asked for it---not enough people---but here it is, Michael Ampersant's review of Call Me by Your Name---of André Aciman's book which was the trigger of the eponymous, Oscar-nominated film. We're behind the curve as usual, but there you have it. To repeat: this is a review of the book, not the film, and it appeared originally on Ampersant's website:
Title & author
Most reviews of the book are fawning, and the few critical ones typically censure it for its not-so-happy ending---Aciman having apparently listened to his agent who told him that "the American public is not ready for a gay relationship that doesn't end in tears." Or he listened to his inner voice, which is Proustian by vocation (he's the director of the Proust Project at CUNY). Anyhow, this is not one of the books that "get stronger towards the ending," as a judge of the Booker Price once put it. But its finale is not the only issue here, so let's do a little bean-counting and separate our critical pluses ("+") and minuses ("-") accordingly.
(+) There's something unique about the combination of high fiction and graphic expressions of longing and desire in the book. Ignorami that we are---we do believe this combination hasn't occurred in world literature before. THIS MAKES THE BOOK STAND OUT.
No? Well, here, Elio, the narrator (on p. 8), just warming up:
"I know desire when I see it---and yet, this time, it slipped by completely. I was going for the devious smile that would suddenly light up in Oliver's face each time he'd read my mind, when all I really wanted was skin, just skin."
Okay, you say, that's just an example of erotic literature done well (more examples on our Handsheet for the Erotic Writer). Ampersant could have done it if he'd be a better writer. But...but little Elio (aged 17), is really a paragon of high fiction; he's inconceivable in any other kind of literature. Here (p. 29 now, Elio conversing with Oliver):
"And yet here he was in his third week with us, asking me if I'd ever heard of Athanasius Kirchner, Giuseppe Belli, and Paul Celan.'I have.' [Elio replies]."
A paragon of high fiction
(These are all writers, we suppose, because Paul Celan was one). Okay, let's try to find a better example. Next page:
"I was Glaucus and he [Oliver] was Diomedes."
Not good enough? Here, Elio daydreaming (p. 39):
"Did you [Oliver] know that I came in your mouth last night?"
(+) Elio is blessed to grow up in an intellectual Acadia of the 1980's. Father's a renowned professor of something, there's money, an understanding mother, Jewish heritage, and an understanding house keeper (who inspects the bed sheets each morning for stains). There's also a villa on the Italian Riviera with a tree-lined driveway, a pool, and a tennis court (one wonders, given the hilly, seaside topology of the place). And there's TALENT. E.g., Elio is a serious musical prodigy who improvises Busoni improvising Brahms improvising Mozart on the piano, much to Oliver's delight. And this Oliver (aged 24 (and not 34, as he is, or looks, in the movie)) has already finished his Ph.D. on Heraclitus and come over to supervise the Italian translation of his thesis (among other things).
And there's TALENT
(-) Apologies for this nit-picking: So, Heraclitus ("You never step into the same river twice") is a pre-socratic philosopher of whom almost no original texts survive. He has to be painstakingly reconstructed from obscure Latin and Greek sources; libraries have been written about him throughout 2500 years. And there you are, you are 24, and now you purport to add to this body of research, meaning that you purport to have absorbed this body of research already. This sounds impossible, physically impossible at Oliver's age.
Heraclitus (by J. Moreelse): "You never step into the same river twice"
(-) Plus, Oliver has been doing this during office hours---at night he's a brilliant poker player who paid his way through Columbia University with his gains from the tables. And he's a lot more, like handsome, clever, funny, deep, possessed of four swimming suits in different colors, a muvi star, and a cowboy (as Elio's mother puts it). Everybody loves him. He's extremely shy but makes friends like a waterfall. Three weeks into this, and "his cock has been everywhere [...] Every girl has touched it" (p. 68). He's simply too much. We hate him.
(-) This intellectual Acadia again. The Elio's are blessed, and cursed, with an infinite supply of intellectual neighbors that show up a lunch every day for like-minded conversations. NOW: Your reviewer lives in Le Trayas, off Cannes, FR, in a remote place at 43° 33' latitude in a house on the coast facing due east.
At 43° 33', view due facing east across the Gulf of Genua
If his sight could travel along the curvature of the earth, he could peek into the windows of Elio's villa on the Italian side of the Gulf on Genua---given the fact that Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poet, perished there at the same latitude during a storm in 1822 in the Bay of La Spezia, and was then washed upon the shore of a cove below "B." (the villa's purported place marker).
We inspected the area like a bed sheet
We visited and inspected the area like a bed sheet (all place markers in the novel are fictional). The only plausible location of "B." is Lerici, (eight klicks south of La Spezia, where Shelley resided before his untimely death).
Lerici, 8 klicks south of La Spezia
Trust us. THERE IS NO INFINITE SUPPLY OF INTELLECTUALS IN LERICI, LIKE THERE IS NONE OF IT IN CANNES OR ANYWHERE ELSE ON THE RIVIERA. This Acadia is just a lie. The truth is, your neighbors are reasonably successful retirees, often business people (they own three gas stations back home, say, or half of Egypt), and the conversation rarely rises above gossip about the weather, eventually converging on lighter versions of barrel-cracker talk (the refugees, the crime rate, the taxes, and so on). There are exception, to be fair. But they die out, the exceptions, like our friend Samir did, who owned half of Egypt.
(+) Call me by your name is set in the 1980's, when intellectuals, and intellectualism presumably still existed, but still.
There is no infinite supply of intellectuals on the Riviera
(+) Like all good stories, Call me by your name fits a well-worn narrative frame---the delayed fuck in our case.
Witness the delayed fuck
(-) But in order to delay the fuck until p. 129 of the book, Aciman has to imbue our object of desire with an unlikely, and unconvincing pairing of properties. Oliver's shy but makes friends easily, for example. Ha, I tell you, I'm shy. I tell you (Michael Ampersant speaking).
(-) Oliver teaches at NYC's Columbia U., the most enlightened place on earth---this is 15 years after Stonewall---but when push comes to shove (literally), he's telling Elio that---Elio who has finally manned up and made his intentions clear---that "IT WOULD BE VERY WRONG" (p. 78) to have (gay) sex.
All this on the shore where Shelley's waterlogged body was found
He then dithers, there are kisses (all this on the shore where Shelley's waterlogged body was supposedly found), but when Elio mans up some more and lets his hand rest rest on Oliver's crotch...let's quote this extensively:
"In a desperate move which I knew I'd never live down if he did not relent, I reached for him and let my hand rest on his crotch. He did not move. I should have slipped my hand straight into his shorts. He must have read my intentions and, with total composure, bordering on a gesture that was very gentle but also quite glacial, brought his hand there and let it rest on mine for a second, then, twining his fingers into mine, lifted my hand. A moment of unbearable silence settled between us." (p. 82)
(+, or -) 47 more pages to go, until we finally...
"Now I was inside his room [...] Hesitantly I crawled onto the bed and set facing him, cross-legged like him, as though this were the accepted protocol among men who meet at midnight [...] There was absolutely nothing to say. With my toes, I reached over to his toes and touched them [...] "What are you doing," he finally asked [...] Both of us knew we'd already crossed the bar [...] He got under the covers and started to undress me [...] I was totally naked, feeling the weight of the sheet on my cock, not a secret left in the world, because wanting to be in bed with him was my only secret and here I was sharing it with him [...] No part of him wasn't touching me [...] I was on the cusp of something [...] When it happened, it happened not as I'd dreamed it would, but with a degree of discomfort [...] I had, as I'd never before in my life [...] the dream had been right [...] [he] took me to a realm I never shared with anyone in my life before, or since."
(+) For the remaining days of Oliver's stay, the story gets very good.
(-) But, alas, the six assigned weeks of Oliver's Italian presence come to an end, he goes back to NYC, and when he returns at Christmas...
"Had he come back for me? [...] He had come back for his book, which had already been published in England, in France, in Germany, and was finally due to come out in Italy" (p. 226).
WHAT? Think about the logistics of this. A Ph.D. thesis about an obscure Greek philosopher written by an underage American scholar, and it's translated into X languages inside 6 months? The most popular Ph.D. thesis by an American scholar ever, by our biased knowledge, was Graham Allison's about The Cuban Missile Crisis. It got him a full professorship at Harvard's School of Government immediately, but took years to get translated into foreign languages.
(-) So, Oliver came back for other reasons, namely to tell his lover that:
" 'I might be getting married this spring'. "
(-) And from there on the whole thing goes downhill for 22 more pages.
(-) Oliver's character is over-determined, to borrow a term Sigmund Freud borrowed from mathematics. What could have made him bearable, or even convincing, would have been a sense of irony, some sense of a double-entendre. Yet, like most of his peers, 17-year old narrator Elio isn't much into irony, and his creator Aciman isn't into it either.