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Andre Aciman Interview – Call Me By Your Name Author On Why the Sequel Find Me Doesn’t Focus on Elio and Oliver
Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name is a chronicle of feelings familiar to anyone who’s ever had a crush: powerful lust, tormenting anxiety, an overwhelming extremity of emotion. Set in the luscious Italian countryside, it narrates the vivid interior life of Elio, a teenage piano prodigy who falls hard and fast for Oliver, the American graduate student summering at his family home. Widely celebrated, the novel has gone on to occupy a totemic place in lgbtq literature, collecting accolades as well as a passionate fanbase. It further saturated the culture when, in 2017, director Luca Guadignino adapted it into an Academy Award-winning film, a lush and languid interpretation of the story starring Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer.
Now Aciman has written Find Me, a sequel to Call Me By Your Name that opens with Elio’s now-divorced father, Samuel, meeting a young woman on a fateful train ride. What ensues is a thoughtful meditation on regret, lives unlived, and the indomitable bearing of the past on the present. Esquire spoke with Aciman about domestic life as a literary genre, the pleasures of aesthetic gratification, and the lifelong fingerprints of our first loves.
ESQ: What I and many people expected when they read the news about the sequel was 250 pages of Elio and Oliver together. Instead, you spend much of the book with other characters. Why did that feel like the right choice, particularly when it wasn’t the expected choice?
Andre Aciman: Call Me By Your Name started when I was writing another book called Eight White Nights. I interrupted it because it was surfeited with complexity, so I started writing Call Me By Your Name just to have fun. Four months later, I was done, and I went back to the other novel as if there had been nothing in between. After I finished Eight White Nights, I decided it was time to go back to Elio and Oliver, because I knew the story wasn’t done. I started another book many times, actually, with Elio thinking about how to travel. Suddenly I realized it wasn’t right–that it was the same thing as Call Me By Your Name. What do you do after they reunite a few times? Or they don’t reunite, or it doesn’t work? Then we’re back to the same back and forth. It came to me, somewhat sporadically, as I started writing something about an older man and a younger woman on a train, that this was the thing to do. To start with the father and gradually introduce Elio, then have Elio essentially switch roles with his father to give him some advice. That was the way to enter back into this universe.
ESQ: What about this ending felt right to you? Why did it have to end this way for Elio and Oliver?
AA: I was inspired by every single Jane Austen novel that I’ve ever read. Austen is so smart and ruthless. I just didn’t want to start describing a domestic life for them. I don’t think we like domesticity as a literary genre. I wanted it to be their reunification without too much lyricism, without any rhapsody–just a reunification. That’s good enough.
ESQ: Call Me By Your Name is the rare literary novel with a big community of young fans. There’s even fanfiction. How do you feel about that?
AA: I’m too old to take this stuff to heart, but it gives me pleasure. I love the fact that when I go speak to an audience of a thousand people in India, I have a feeling that everybody’s read the book and seen the movie. Everybody is totally alert to every single joke, so it feels as if a country that’s so distant from ours has responded as ours has, and it’s a lovely feeling to have. I have certain scenes that come on strong, and it’s encouraging as a writer not only that people don’t mind them, but have basically idolized them. Everybody talks about the peaches; it has become part of our national discourse. I’m happy, but at the same time I have to go on with my own work, which is to keep writing different things.
ESQ: How strange, to think about your literary work as something that’s been meme-ified.
AA: I know. People see peaches and they send me pictures of peaches all the time. I just have to say, “thank you.”
ESQ: Do you feel that the type of person who shows up to your readings now is different than in the pre-CMBYN years of your career? Has it changed the reception to your work?
AA: When people come to my readings, they come because there’s something implicitly moving about the story. Every time somebody recognizes me in the street, they are always in tears or totally flustered, and I have to say, “Calm down–I’m just your average Joe.” People used to write to me because they were in their sixties or seventies and they wished their fathers had given them that speech. Then I have people who are so young that this is how they foresee their next love affair, or even their first love affair. You have the people who have had the experience with all the pain, and the people who haven’t even started yet.
Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name
Frenesy Film Co/Sony/Kobal/Shutterstock
ESQ: You write about a world where people come and go, where lasting connection feels transient and impossible. One line struck me: “It’s just that the magic of someone new never lasts long enough. We only want those we can’t have. It’s those we lost or never knew we existed who leave their mark. The others barely echo.” What’s the place of lasting love and commitment in your worldview?
AA: You point to this very ambiguous, amorphous territory called domesticity. I call it domesticity, because after two years of being together, you’re domestic. You’re living together, you’re not cheating on each other, but there’s a certain degree to which things have become less powerful and less historic. I try not to write about that because I don’t understand it. I don’t know how to make it interesting. Two men who have been together for fifteen years–I don’t know what’s exciting about them, unless one is cheating or one is jealous. Then you fall back to traditional tropes. I try to stay away from that.
ESQ: I’m always struck by how your writing marries these two very disparate dimensions of cerebral life and sensual pleasure. What, for you, are the rewards of that fusion?
AA: Let’s start with this: art is the most sublime thing that exists on earth. For me, classical music is the ultimate form of aesthetic gratification. This goes back to my father, who was a great reader of books and taught me how to read books. At the same time, he was a man who was not dissolute, but he understood that the body came with a brain. The brain and the heart and the soul could be gratified one way–the body had to be gratified in another.
Art is the most sublime thing that exists on earth.
To me, the two are self-contemporaneous. They happen at the same time. If you find someone who can give you the two simultaneously, you are a very lucky person. If you have it in you, at the same time, the other person’s very lucky. Sometimes it’s just the chemistry of two people who are so well-matched that they bring out in one another not just sensuality, but the pleasures of intimacy, which for me is the most powerful thing. You can feel intimate with a work of art, which I do, and you can feel intimate with another person.
ESQ: In what way did your father teach you how to read books?
AA: He had an antipathy for anything that tried to be current, that was modern, that was up to date. He was more about what happened yesterday and yesteryear and centuries past. I’m the same way, which is why I’m a professor. I have no real sympathy for modern realism and all the outrages that have occurred. This is what he taught me: “Stay with what is timeless. Don’t stay with what is simply time-bombed.”
When I wrote Eight White Nights, it was about New York. One of the reviewers wrote, “There is not a hint of 9/11 in this novel.” I had no intention of invoking 9/11; it had no business in my book. Yes, it affected me–it affected everybody I know. It affected the world we live in. But it wasn’t part of the story I was writing. So I just eschewed it, period. That is, I think, my father’s legacy. Don’t stay in the current. The current becomes old very quickly. It’s what is not current–what basically goes into the long traditions of established art, as T.S. Eliot will tell you–that you should really be seeking.
Amira Casar, Michael Stuhlbarg, Armie Hammer, and Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name.
Frenesy Film Co/Sony/Kobal/Shutterstock
ESQ: Everything you write has such a tremendous sense of place. Do you walk the streets in these cities and just ruminate?
AA: Never. People say to me, “You know, you must have an amazing memory for places and things.” No, I don’t. I don’t see. I was once in Jerusalem writing a piece about Bethlehem and I was walking with a photographer. He kept saying, “Look at this, look at that. Oh my God, this person only has one shoe.” And I’m saying, “Yeah, one shoe.” I’m writing all this stuff down because I’m not seeing anything.
I have no gift for seeing. I do have a gift for hearing, and I have a gift for smelling. As I write about a place, I’m not trying to court the reader with all the travel details that people love to see. I just don’t see them. I give one or two details, which I think are enough. They give you an instant sense of, Oh my God, there’s the smell of lavender here. So they have a lavender garden. That’s it–no more.
ESQ: You write, “Time is always the price we pay for the unlived life.” Do you feel that Oliver and Elio have paid a price?
AA: I think they have. I think that they were booked for one passage, as the reader very well felt. As Elio felt. And soon enough, they’re not on the same ship. I don’t like to say that someone has lived the wrong life. But most of us are filled with regrets, which are the things we should have done and never did. That’s the itinerary of our lives. Most of our lives are filled with things not done, things we should have done, other roads we should have taken and didn’t.
Most of us are filled with regrets, which are the things we should have done and never did.
ESQ: In the final part of the novel, Elio says of his relationship with Oliver, “Our years in between then and now are but a hiccup in that long itinerary called time.” What’s the relationship between love and time?
AA: A French philosopher said that we fall in love only once in our lives. The other times are more or less desired, manufactured, but the first love is really the one that teaches us who we are–it sets the template for how we will behave for the rest of our lives. We’ll have the same desires and we’ll make the same mistakes. That’s part of life. That’s how I see it. Unless your shrink is really amazing and manages to save you from that. I think your first love is the one that is undying. It’s the one that should have lasted. We look for it for the rest of our lives. In the case of Elio and Oliver, I think it was that experience.
Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name.
Frenesy Film Co/Sony/Kobal/Shutterstock
ESQ: If life is just chasing elusive past love and shouldering regret, how do we get through our days? How do we live with regret?
AA: The easiest thing to do is to write about it. That puts it to sleep a bit. But I think, in my case, writing is an attempt to appropriate something that never was. In other words, you turn every negative into a positive by mentioning it, by naming it. As one does with a shrink, for example. If you name the thing that has been bothering you for so long and you never knew it well enough until you named it, then the act of naming it is a plus. Even if you’re talking about a minus, it becomes a plus. In my case, that’s how I think of everything.
As soon as you have an insight into something that was horrible in your life or something that still nags you, the insight itself is a plus. It’s a way of rehabilitating whatever it is that you struggle with. I don’t see a shrink, so what I’m talking about is purely aesthetic gratification. I see it in Proust especially, because in Proust, every insight he has is about how bad he is, or how much of a loser he is. He always bungles everything. But the act of knowing that you’re bungling is, in fact, a rich insight into humanity. That rehabilitates the whole thing. So if you have regrets, knowing that you have these regrets. And if you can say it beautifully, maybe that works.
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.