by André Aciman. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, 256 pp, $23.00.
Before Freud, there were the novelists, and they continue to contribute their own unique wisdom of the human condition. This is the first novel for André Aciman, author of the classic memoir Out of Egypt, and perhaps another classic. It is an exquisitely detailed portrait of the erotic experiences of a teenage boy filtered through the razor-edged intelligence and acuity of his adult memory. Central to the book is a brutal longing for perfection, achieved briefly in a star-crossed relationship so ferocious it retains its influence for life—an intense experience turbulently adrift in a sea of transience.
Elio is a scholarly, sensitive 17-year-old boy; Oliver is a 24-year-old charming, worldly professor of philosophy and summer houseguest of Elio’s father in their lush Italian seaside villa. The first half of the novel is a tour de force account of the tortuous on-and-off dance between the two, beginning when Elio serves as tour guide for Oliver and ending 132 pages later in bed. Each advance between them writes a new page in a thesaurus of approach-avoidance; their lurches apart, fueled by uncertainty and danger, are reversed by the relentless magnetism of their attractions.
The thrill of someone new, the promise of so much bliss hovering a fingertip away. Fumbling…in desperation to be wanted, I put up screens between me and the world, not just one, but like layers of rice paper, sliding doors embossed on every sight, sound and smell I’d grown up with, suddenly turned to acquire an inflection forever colored by the events of the summer Oliver came into our house. (p. 10)
Oliver is by turns charming and diffident—fire to ice and back, “but when his kinder gaze fell on me it came like the miracle of the resurrection” (p. 9). The two run together on the beach each morning: “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). After the first casual touch Elio panics “like a virgin touched for the first time, stirring nerves they never knew existed…. I hoped he wouldn’t notice my overreaction, but was certain that my struggle to conceal would expose me. I needed to stare at him, but could never stare long enough to find out why I couldn’t” (p. 16). Elio’s reluctance is finally undone by their symmetry in taste, wit, and intelligence. Their minds seem to travel in parallel, exchanging affirmations with a private glance. The recurrent incarnations of fire and ice progress until they finally bed each other in the last week of summer, aware in retrospect that each had misread the other’s shyness. Elio feared rejection, uncertainty, and making a fool of himself; Oliver feared abusing the influence of his seniority. Both are traversing forbidden terrain, capped by three Bacchanalian days in Rome celebrating denial in grand hypomanic style. The intimacy that is over in one realm becomes indelibly engraved on another.
Other villa residents reflect various prisms of the romance. Mafalda, cook and housekeeper, hears all, washes the bed sheets, and knows everything. The theme of loss is poignantly introduced by Vimini, the ten-year-old girl next door, who conveys with precocious maturity that she has leukemia and a foreshortened life expectancy. She charms Oliver and they walk the beach daily. Her impending death foreshadows the end of summer. Another chord in the story is the reality of a double life, spoken of to Elio by his father after Oliver’s departure. “You had a beautiful friendship. Maybe more than a friendship. In my place, my parents would hope the whole thing goes away, but I am not such a parent. We rip out too much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should, but our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. Most of us can’t help but live as though we’ve got two lives, one is the mockup, the other the finished version. But there’s only one” (p. 224). He advises Elio that to hurry sorrow away “wears out the heart.”
Aciman considers a different aspect of transience in an earlier essay on his love for the sea in which he wrestles with the question, “What do you do with so much blue once you’ve seen it?” (1). The aura of that question haunts this novel: how do you go on with your life when you possess what you’ve wanted more than anything else in the world and must let go of it? No one fails to suffer the urge to stop time, but each must settle instead for the archives of memory. If the intensity of the memory matches Elio’s, a return to the villa is a mistake, and it is one he makes.
There is a reunion at Christmas, and when Elio’s plea of “one last time” is refused, his loss is revisited. The next summer Oliver marries and much of the rest of Elio’s life is filled with “what ifs” and relationships marked “before” and “after” Oliver. Their second reunion occurs 15 years later, filled with ragged acceptance of the life lived.
Did I want to be like him? Or did I just want to have him? Or are “being” and “having” thoroughly inaccurate verbs in the twisted skein of desire, where having someone’s body to touch and being that someone we’re longing to touch are one and the same, just opposite banks of a river that passes from us to them, back to us and over to them again in this perpetual circuit where the chambers of the heart, like the false-bottomed drawer we call identity, share a beguiling logic according to which the shortest distance between real life and the life unlived, between who we are and what we want, is a twisted staircase designed with the impish cruelty of M. C. Escher. (p. 67)
This book may complicate our concepts of intimacy, identity, and a few other things, but it describes some aspects of relationships and the workings of memory better than any textbook. Such are the humbling contributions of novelists.
1.Aciman A: In search of blue, in False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000, p 28
Book review accepted for publication September 2007 (doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2007.07091484).