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The holiday reads series: The book of longing

Timothée Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name, 2017, SONY PICTURES CLASSICS.

Tracing memory and desire with André Aciman, author of Call Me by Your Name.

“At last the long-awaited message … had come, like a summons back to the Underworld. A message which was to draw me back inexorably to the one city which for me always hovered between illusion and reality, between the substance and the poetic images which its very name aroused in me … Alexandria, the capital of memory!” – Lawrence Durrell

Alexandria is my grandmother’s city. It’s not that she was born there. Her earliest moments were spent as a refugee on the Greek island of Lesbos, territory of the poet Sappho, exiled from Smyrna on the nearby Turkish mainland in the wake of the Greco-Turkish War. It was there, too, that she was christened Mary, in the hope that “Mother Mary would save them”. That fortuity came in the form of a safe passage for her, her mother and her sister to the port of Alexandria where her uncle – a man she long believed to be her father – was waiting.

When my grandmother told stories about her life, before her failing memory required us to begin telling them for her, she spoke of Alexandria. Its status as a cosmopolitan city on the Egyptian coastline had rendered her fluent in five languages and a master of the double entendre. Educated in French, she received the top leaving mark in Egypt in the year she completed her Baccalauréat Français. After she published her first and only novel – a romance entitled Lost Dreams – she was head-hunted by the city’s Greek newspaper. Ahead of her time and with an appreciation for controversy, she was the first woman in her city to be seen in a bikini.

It was more than 60 years ago that my grandparents, both considered European thanks to their Greek heritage, left Alexandria for Australia in the face of increasingly nationalist policies in their North African home city. But it seems that a part of her – the journalist who thrived on the new and swam freely in those Mediterranean waters – remained in the Egypt she had lost.

The writer André Aciman, best known as the author of cult novel Call Me by Your Name, lost an Alexandria, too. It was an event that would produce a lifetime of aftershocks still rippling within his works – from his memoir Out of Egypt and beyond – and a fact of the writer’s life that would cause me to traverse his archives in search of shared history.

Our stories bring us together, as Aciman knows well. The enduring response to Call Me by Your Name – the Italian summer love story of Elio and Oliver recently rendered for the screen by director Luca Guadagnino – grants him regular insight into the intimate lives of strangers. On the day we speak via a FaceTime call to his home in New York, he’s received two emails from readers thanking him for writing the book – and perhaps in particular, a now-iconic monologue from Elio’s father – that gave them the courage to come out to their parents. “These are the easy ones,” Aciman explains. “But then there’s the unquantifiable effect of the book: you read a book that isn’t about almost pure, unalloyed desire [but] the fact that when we desire someone we don’t just desire them. We desire them through fear, through shame, through guilt, through some kind of inhibition. We don’t want to desire them but we do desire them. Back and forth, back and forth.” Writing from the perspective of the character Elio, Aciman was impelled to give words to the cycle, “in a rather creative manner”.

“And people will tell me, ‘This was me. This was my experience. I’ve lived through this.’ And some people will write to me and say, ‘I wish I could stop living this but this is my life and so I hate you André Aciman because you have captured my life but I love you because you’ve given me my life back in better.’ So in a sense people write to me because they feel that I’ve said something to them that they’ve been sensing all through their lives.”

Insecurity, disappointment, jealousy, pettiness, fantasy, disloyalty – the interior dialogue we bury under ‘white lies’, often to ourselves – is all there on Aciman’s page. In the course of our interview he speaks candidly of his wish to have had “different parents”. “Which is a very difficult thing to say,” he concedes, “but one has to be honest.” Just as I was spurred to get in touch by the lost Alexandria we have in common, not to mention a few of the qualities above, it makes sense that other readers would be compelled to share something of themselves in return. Most of us have been an Elio at least once in our lives.

Though the intricacies of the character’s inner monologue – a cerebral diary of the most vicious of crushes – are so palpable, so intimate, that it’s easy to assume he and Aciman are one and the same, the author is quick to clarify that Call Me by Your Name isn’t autobiographical. “Oh, it’s not. It’s a novel. But everything I do, everything I write, is a collage of many, many things,” he notes.

“What I want is the ability to just free-flow on the page and go where my pen takes me. It’s not something specific about me, it’s essentially all the stuff I’ve lived through and imagined, and remembered. Each one is invited and whoever speaks first gets the place.”

Aciman began gathering his thoughts on page when he was 14 or 15, around the time his family was forced out of Alexandria to live in Italy and the year in which his award-winning first memoir, Out of Egypt, concludes. It also intersected with the period in which he inherited his father’s love of Proust – that master of introspection and tangible memory who would help set the course of Aciman’s career as a writer and scholar. “I was always interested in basically writing fiction but I was always writing fiction around something that seemed to have happened to me. I say seemed to have happened to me because many of the things that happen to one sort of drift away and we replace them with these sort of simulated memories.

“There’s a point in which I thought what I really wanted was the house that we used to have in the summer [in Alexandria], where summer was wonderful, food was fantastic. Whatever there was, was going to last forever, and there’s a part of me that longs for that house, longs for the beach, longs for the sense of plenitude that must have existed back then, even though I was an extremely unhappy child.”

1994’s Out of Egypt is a sensuous remembrance of Alexandria as Aciman knew it – reaching back to the decades before his birth and into his formative years caught between two families and a meeting of cultures – born into a Jewish family that also identified as Italian, though his first language was French. “My family originally comes from Spain,” Aciman explains. “They were displaced in Spain. They moved to Italy, then they left Italy, then they went to Turkey, they stayed there for a few centuries, and then they decided to leave Turkey and moved to Egypt, where they were kicked out. So there was a whole kind of nomadic trajectory in the history of the family, which is one, not of migration, but of very painful displacement, because it was always forced displacement … My father was displaced three times, I was displaced twice. I hope it never happens to my sons and I don’t think that way.”

For Aciman, there is no home town – not even a native tongue. His mother was deaf but spoke and lip-read French, while his paternal grandmother – not atypically for an Alexandrian – spoke “eight, nine languages”, the most familiar of which was Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish. “That was the language of her heart,” says Aciman. “But I don’t have such a language.” Despite his proficiency in traversing a landscape of human emotion in English, on page, “there are certain moments in my life where English is just not going to do it,” he explains. “When it comes to certain emotions, it’s French that comes first. Sometimes it’s even Italian. And exclamations. Either surprise or fear or pain, or love … And I don’t know if these exclamations are more authentic or they’re just something that comes out from your subconscious … I don’t know where the root is. Actually, this is the fundamental thing, and I’ve been battling this all my life, is that there are no roots.”

The result for Aciman has been an untethered existence. “It has made me refuse to belong anywhere … I mean I’ve lived here [in the US] for 50 years, so there’s no reason to pretend … but I don’t feel like … and on the other hand I also don’t want to. And it’s the not wanting that is the problem. I don’t want to belong to a particular religious faith. I don’t want many things that people look for. It’s as if I find there’s a certain kind of solace in feeling that I’m a pariah wherever I go. I don’t like the feeling, but I feel that it is my punishment, my curse, whatever … it gives me an understanding of the universe.”

It’s a quality Aciman’s readers will recognise, and not only in his memoirs. Like Elio, who forgoes time with friends in favour of transcribing sheet music, his characters often view themselves as outsiders. And that pervading notion of fluidity finds shape in their sexuality. As Elio puts it to Oliver, “We are not written for one instrument alone.” In the case of Aciman’s most recent novel, 2017’s Enigma Variations, this manifests in the life of central character, Paul: a caustic sexual awakening sparked by an older man, followed by a constellation of affairs with male and female lovers. “It has, basically, some of the same issues come up,” says Aciman. “… The fluidity of desire, the fact one doesn’t know who one is, what one wants, who one likes, what one wants to be.”

For this writer, the coefficients are endless. “It’s a sort of inexorable displacement that never goes away and that always makes you feel like planet earth is not exactly the right place for you, that the time we’re in is not the right time for you.”

That’s not to say he hasn’t sought remedy for his curse. His reasons for getting that first memoir down on paper are reminiscent of Proust and his famous madeleine – when the writer tasted the cake dipped in tea he was transported back in memory: an establishment of cause and effect that would define Proust’s literary style. “There’s one fundamental [reason] that really sort of worked at me,” says Aciman, “and it has to do with the fact that there were many times I would walk into a place and smell something, it would remind me of something Egyptian, I would long for something that seemed to have a root in Egypt – if not in Egypt then in Italy. What really interested me was what was I being summoned by? Every time something happened as I’m walking on Broadway, what is it that calls me, beckons me, to travel back in time?

“I thought it was going to allow me to put them behind me so that I could go on living in this thing we all call the present – which I don’t believe exists – but I felt that at least it would rid me of this baggage I was trailing with me.”

Perhaps fortunately for his readers, it didn’t work. “It turns out it didn’t put it away at all. It just left it there, so that the next book I wrote had more of the same. In other words, the same memories keep resurfacing, and asking, as if they’re begging me to put them down once and for all. And there’s no once and for all. You keep returning to the same fantasms from the past, and they may not be from the past.”

One such symbol is water. “When I’m in Rome, for example, where I’m going to be in three days, a fountain that’s bubbling water always makes me long for the beach,” Aciman says. “But I think I like the fountain better than the beach because I don’t like the beach that much, but I long for the beach through the fountain. Actually what I do like is just the sensation of water on my face on a very hot day and that is a very important experience for me because it seems to close something that has been hanging from my past … but it’s not, it’s simply a detail from the past that’s been transmogrified, telegraphed through time, through places, and now has become sort of an obsessive theme that I can’t get rid of.”

It’s this sense of perpetual longing, a thirst begging to be quenched, that underpins much of Aciman’s writing – in Call Me by Your Name, certainly, and perhaps most destructively in Enigma Variations. “Yes, it’s all the same,” he says. “Water, fruit – and I’m not talking peaches only,” he adds, in reference to Elio’s much noted encounter with one such stone fruit. “Anything that’s good, irreducibly good and you can’t ignore it.”

But like a mirage in the desert, reality can never match what’s glimpsed in the grips of desire. “If I went to the fountain I would say this is a dirty fountain … I would complain about the beach … The actual experience is always so utterly disappointing.”

I’m reminded of a passage in an essay of Aciman’s titled In Search of Blue, included in his book False Papers:

“Sitting on my balcony, I kept staring at the fabulous expanse of blue, and all I could think of, besides feeling helpless, was: There it is. I’m leaving in three days! I wanted to close my eyes. I was in the most perfect spot on earth. There was, now that I think of it, nothing more to want. Nothing more to say.

“But that was the problem. There was nothing to write about, nothing to invoke … ”

We all want what we can’t have. But for a writer it goes further: a state of contentment – that is, living in the moment – often corresponds with a lack of material.

We can be thankful the opposite was true for Aciman in the summer in which he wrote Call Me by Your Name, relegated to New York after plans to holiday in Italy fell through. It began, simply, because he desired a house by the sea. “Once I had the house, I could do anything I wanted in the house. I could put the characters where I wanted. I could change them … And that was easy. What was difficult was rooting the whole thing in a place that made me happy.

“I loved the fact that the house had a tennis court, that it has a swimming pool, and that it’s two feet away from the beach. I loved this. This, for me, was paradise. And then, anything else can happen in paradise.”

“There’s no question,” says Aciman, that the home of Elio and Oliver’s love was built on the foundations of that summer beach house back in Alexandria. “But it was a much nicer house: it was a house that I desired. And that is sometimes more powerful than memory.”