André Aciman probably never imagined that his writing – intimate, labyrinthine and somewhat devoid of plots – would one day enjoy a kind of Harry Potter moment. It happened in May, immediately after he posted to his Twitter account the cover of his new book, “Find Me: A Novel,” due to be published worldwide next week. The legions of admirers of its predecessor – “Call Me by Your Name,” the huge best seller that was made into an acclaimed film – unleashed a flood of enthusiastic tweets and comments in response to the cover, which is no more than a photograph of a sun-drenched street corner in Rome.
“I’m nervous, I’m very, very nervous about it,” Aciman told me in a phone interview, from New York. “The anticipated sales on Amazon are extremely high, so I’m very nervous, of course, because people loved ‘Call Me by Your Name,’ they loved the movie, they loved the book, and they expect to see the same thing. I have this funny feeling that I have written something like ‘The Godfather, Part IV,’ which becomes weaker and weaker, and I’m nervous. I hope people are not going to be disappointed, but how can you tell?”
Can you tell us a little about “Find Me”?
“It’s about the [same] three men, it has four chapters but I will only tell you about the first three. One is about the father, who is on the train to meet his son and he goes to Rome and he meets this woman on the train, and something happens. The second one is about Elio as a young man, he is a pianist now, and he meets an older man and something happens between them. And the third one is about Oliver, who is a professor, and who is suddenly beguiled by a piece of music and he remembers Elio and he decides that maybe he should leave his wife, and I will leave it at that because I don’t want to give any spoilers.”
The pressure Aciman feels is understandable. In the dozen years since its initial publication, “Call Me by Your Name” became a cultural phenomenon whose power only intensified following the release in 2017 of the film adaptation. Produced and directed by Luca Guadagnino and set in the 1980s, the movie stars actor Timothée Chalamet as Elio, a 17-year-old American Jew living in a small Italian village who falls in love with Oliver (Armie Hammer), 24, an American doctoral student who is visiting town. The picture was nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture and best actor (Chalamet), and won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay (James Ivory).
This earlier novel takes place almost entirely in the feverish and brilliant mind of Elio, the narrator. He’s been in the throes of unending torments of love and passion since the arrival of the handsome, tanned student, a house guest in his parents’ home – the “cowboy,” as his mother dubs Oliver. As such, the book flows almost without events or concrete actions, even as it reveals a wellspring of agony, fantasies, desires and painful yearnings, which until almost halfway through are barely requited by the object of Elio’s love. This situation heightens not only Elio’s misery but that of the reader, as well.
Aciman had never thought of actualizing the love of the two. “I was not really committed to the story and I was going to end it right away,” he recalls now. “But I kept going and it was like a ripple of desire and desire and desire, and I was going to stop, I was going to stop. At some point I realized I have about a hundred pages of this – why not go all the way? Which is when I decided that maybe it’s time to make something happen between them, and so I did.”
He adds, “Usually when I write something, I have no idea where it’s going to go, and I allow myself to go with what my whims tell me to do, or my desires, whatever.” In this case, “the book took over and somehow it forced me to go to... I was going to stop when they kissed, because I didn’t want to go into the whole sexual scene. And then one thing led to another, and the next thing I knew they were making love and they had become lovers; they were actually now in love. And I’m saying to myself, ‘This is wonderful, let’s keep going, don’t stop.’ It was happening and I went with it. And eventually it had to end, because I needed to go back to the other book I was writing, ‘Eight White Nights,’ which,” he chuckles, “was a huge, huge flop.”
Expelled from Alexandria
It’s hard to think of a bigger contrast than the one between the characters of “Call Me by Your Name” and the passionate romance that blooms between them, and Aciman himself, a bearded and charming 68-year-old New Yorker, who came to Jerusalem as a guest of the International Writers Festival earlier this year. Actually, Israel, located in the heart of the Levant, far from that little Italian village, is an ideal place in which to discuss “Call Me” and “Find Me,” in light of both the subjects at the heart of the books as well as the author’s personal history. For Aciman, whose life has been a long journey between continents, cultures, eras and identities, being in Israel afforded a return to the geography of his youth, as a Jew growing up in Egypt.
When he was 14, Aciman’s family was expelled from Alexandria, during a relatively late stage in the expulsion of Jews from Egypt, which had begun in the mid-1950s. He tells the tragic story of their deportation in his first book, “Out of Egypt: A Memoir,” published in 1995.
“Most Jewish families were expelled in 1956, particularly those who had French citizenship. We had Turkish citizenship and my father immediately changed to Italian citizenship because we also had a provenance from Italy, so that was not difficult. And we lived in Egypt way too long, in other words until 1965, which is when they kicked us out. They nationalized all our properties, took our assets and then they kicked you out and, if you will, the country became Judenrein and that’s the end of that,” Aciman says.
“It was a horrible experience for my parents, of course,” he continues, “because they were used to the way of life in Alexandria. You didn’t have to be a millionaire to live well. And eventually this was all lost and I don’t think that my parents and all my relatives ever recovered. Past the age of 50 or so, you don’t recover, you stay rooted in the spot you were in when you lost everything. They tried France, they tried Italy, they tried the United States, but they never quite got acclimated to anything else.”
Aciman says he still carries vivid memories of his years in Egypt – “plenty, because I left when I was 14, so [there was] plenty of time to have memories and not to forgive people for what they have done. I like Egyptians when they are not political, but it is very difficult to meet them when they are, and so I don’t really have much contact with Egyptians now in America. But there are a few that have become extremely good friends because they understand what they lost when they got rid of all the Jews.”
The Levantine ambience in which Aciman was raised colors his works, whether in the clash of cultures or the multiplicity or fluidity of his characters’ various identities – including the sexual fluidity of the two main characters in his books, who do not label their sexual preferences, and have relations with women in addition to each other – or the fact that they are Jews living in a non-Jewish milieu.
“Look, I’m not a religious Jew at all, zero religion, but I am very Jewish, and I love to do anything for Israel and I have some friends in Israel, and I like Israelis by and large. I love the country. Will I retire there one day? I don’t think so. It’s competing with Italy,” says the author.
Unlike in the movie, in which the Jewish identities of Elio and Oliver are basically reduced to the casting of the two Jewish actors depicting them and the Stars of David that Oliver, and later Elio, wear around their necks – the Jewish theme has a much larger presence in the novel, and Aciman also connects it to the subject of the two men’s sexuality.
“What I wanted to do when I had the Jewish theme in there, in many ways it was my way of establishing a common link between the two of them, so that if even nothing ever happened or nothing was ever said between them, the fact that both were Jewish and particularly that both were Jewish in a little town where there were no Jews – and therefore Jews had to be somewhat careful not to be totally open – that alone was a way of creating a sense of tacit complicity between the two.”
In the novel, Elio observes, for example: “But it was the gold necklace and the Star of David with a golden mezuzah on his neck that told me here was something more compelling than anything I wanted from him, for it bound us and reminded me that, while everything else conspired to make us the two most dissimilar beings, this at least transcended all differences.”
Aciman expands on this: “I’ve always encountered this in my life, when you go to a place and there are no Jews and finally, finally, you suspect that someone could be Jewish as well, because they never tell you, immediately there is a sense of, umm, I don’t like the word ‘complicity,’ it’s an ugly word in English but in French it’s actually quite acceptable. There is a sense of intimacy that immediately inserts itself between two human beings.”
Gaydar and Jewdar
A professor of comparative literature and French at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Aciman, a scholar of Marcel Proust, freely admits that he took the idea of comparing the way Jews recognize each other to the way gay men recognize each other from the great 20th-century French writer.
“Well, this is something that I stole, or borrowed let’s say, from Proust, who at the beginning of ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ [the fourth volume of his six-volume masterpiece “In Search of Lost Time”], very ably establishes that the way one Jew recognizes another Jew – basically, there is a bridge between them simply by virtue of the fact that they are Jewish – itself mimics or imitates the way one gay person and another gay person sort of immediately sense that the other person is of the same orientation. And that is something that I borrowed from Proust because it made perfect sense for me, in other words, because economy between one gay person and another gay person in a society that is closed is exactly the same as between one Jew and another Jew. And to add to this if the Jew is also gay then there is an intensification of that sort of relationship.”
Israeli novelist Moshe Sakal, who wrote an article on “Call Me by Your Name” and the parallels Aciman created between Jews and gays, notes that nearly every reference to Judaism in the novel is linked to sexuality.
“Even [Oliver’s] Star of David necklace is in effect jewelry that is worn by a man with pride,” says Sakal, in a conversation with Haaretz. “Elio says of their relationship, among other things, that, ‘We were in a half ghetto, half oasis.’ He even uses the Hebrew word galut [Diaspora]... creating a connection between the exile of the Jews, like that of his family from Egypt, and that of Elio, who says that he finds his home only in his relationship with Oliver.”
In addition, he adds, “the idea of longing and of a world that is disappearing and a time that is gone, never to return, is very characteristic of the Judaism that I find in Aciman’s work. It combines East and West, very multicultural and polyglot. It is the Judaism of a minority... The new Levantine is a minority within the madding crowd: galuti, or a woman, or a gay man. You can say that from all these aspects, it is a Judaism that is the exact opposite of Judaism as it is expressed in so many parts of Israeli society.”
The gender and sexual fluidity that recurs in Aciman’s writing stems not only from his personal life, but is also associated with a growing, albeit not new, trend in queer literature.
“Something interesting has been happening in the past two decades,” says Shai Rudin, who teaches literature and gender. “Sexual fluidity has become a popular theme, and it follows from this that certain queer authors today present characters who do not identify with a specific ‘community’ or ‘category.’ It stems from a sense that it’s no longer necessary to claim an identity because the important battles of the [LGBTQ] community – in Europe and in the United States – are over. While in the 1980s and the ‘90s, queer literature was engaged in the battle for LGBTQ recognition, today it’s less involved in issues of inequality and ostracism.”
Rudin adds that Aciman is part of this trend, which puts the idea of passion at the center, rather than sexual orientation and gender-related issues, per se.
“He was preceded,” says Rudin, “by Virginia Woolf, by Alice Walker in ‘The Color Purple,’ and by Toni Morrison in ‘Love.’ That said, one of the arguments of scholars is that the use of sexual fluidity is aimed at making queer themes easier for the heterosexual audience to accept, and hence, the reception by queer scholars and readers of these works is mixed. Both waves have won acceptance. On one hand, [there is] a novel such as ‘Less,’ by Andrew Sean Greer, which presents the character of a gay, Pulitzer-winning author, and on the other hand Aciman, who is both popular with readers and admired by critics.”
Americans can’t write
On a few occasions during the interview Aciman, in his typical biting and humorous style, aims his barbs at other writers. At one point in “Call Me,” Elio advises American tourists in a local bookstore not to buy a book by [the late Italian writer] Italo Calvino and suggests another book whose title is not mentioned explicitly.
Aciman: “It’s ‘The Leopard,’ by [Giuseppe Tomasi di] Lampedusa. Because everybody buys Calvino, and I hate Calvino, a third-rate writer with stupid ideas and everybody loves him because he is easy [to read]. He is a stupid writer. So Elio tells these American tourists don’t buy this trash, buy this one, it’s a much better book.
“I’m not a big fan of the writing that goes on today. I’m not a fan of any writer in any part of the world that is writing today. That goes for America, to France especially, to Italy, to England. And the only writer I loved who is a modern writer is [the late] W.G. Sebald. Otherwise, I stay away from contemporary writers altogether. I like something that’s deep, profound. I hate stories about families and disruptive families; you know I just hate that, it’s silly stuff. And I don’t want information that I can get in newspapers. But most people write information, they don’t know how to write, that’s all it is. And in particular, American writers – they don’t know how to write.”
Were you influenced by any queer works in writing “Call Me”?
“Never, never, never. People always ask me if I read Edmund White or ... ‘Giovanni’s Room,’ sort of classics of American gay literature,” Aciman says, referring to the James Baldwin 1956 novel. “Never. The only book [in that genre that] I read is probably [Oscar Wilde’s] ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ which you read anyway, and ‘À rebours’ [‘Against Nature’], by [Joris-Karl] Huysmans, and of course Proust. But these are very very mitigated gay works, almost not even that. And I didn’t want to be influenced. Actually the subject in literature is not something I ever sought. I was very much conditioned by Russian novelists and by French novelists. And the one novelist I always hated is André Gide. I’ve never like Gide, I’ve always hated him, I’ve found him unbearable, and silly. So there you have it, the apogee of gay literature until the 1930s, ‘40s even ‘50s is a man I read with great reluctance and never enjoyed.”
Your writing also contains a lot of criticism of American culture.
“Yes, of course, very much so, but notice that I’m also Americanized at this point. But I wrote a book called ‘Harvard Square’ where there’s a Jewish kid who becomes friendly with an Arab taxi driver who basically deplores American culture and habits, very openly. I’m imitating the character but at the same time when I’m writing this whole thing, I cannot help myself but sort of speak through him about my feelings about what America represents.”
Young gays, for whom yearning and waiting are very familiar, can relate to the pace of “Call Me,” although Aciman does not see it that way.
“I don’t know if it’s gay or not, I do know that most people fantasize far, far more than they actually admit to. I started the book with a boy and a girl, but I said to myself that when a boy and a girl desire each other the sex happens almost immediately; they don’t have to be in love. When it comes to a boy and a boy, it becomes something a bit more troublesome, the brakes are on, and therefore there is more room for introspection, doubts, reluctance, [and] sometimes the desire to be apathetic and then finding out that you are not as apathetic as you thought you were.”
Hookup apps are very popular today; everything happens so quickly. But you are describing an experience that is the opposite of that in the way that it develops.
“One of the reasons why I set the book back in the mid-’80s is because I wanted to avoid email, chatting, Grindr, Tinder, whatever. I didn’t want any of those apps to be available because I knew, as I was writing the story, with them there would be no waiting, no anticipating, no anxiety of not knowing, not knowing anything. Nowadays, the young of course have them. On the other hand, there is the fact that a lot of young people identify with the book, which you would imagine they couldn’t because of the apps they have.”
You wrote about the strong emotions of a 17-year-old boy. Do you think that passion fades with the years?
“No. Absolutely not. I hope it doesn’t. I think that desire is always in existence. That is a good thing and I saw it because my father was 93 when he died and I think until he was 90 years old he had one interest in his life: women. He only wanted a new woman all the time.”
At present, Aciman is working on a new book of essays about what he calls “the life that could have been,” and includes interviews with a painter, a filmmaker and a musician. It’s about dealing with a life that one didn’t have and perhaps wished to have, but which disappeared or never happened and cannot happen now. We live all of these lives all of the time, in parallel, Aciman observes.
In “Call Me by Your Name,” Oliver uses the word “later” often. There’s this constant postponement of life to a later time.
“The name of the first section, ‘If Not Later, When?’, is itself a paradox, because it means if you are not going to do it, when is it not going to happen, which is completely paradoxical. But I wanted that, because the father is making fun of the son by saying you are putting off this thing that is unavoidable – so when are you not going to do it?”
That applies to so many people.
“Come on, this is what life is.”