So I learned about this story through its film adaptation, which was shown for only one day here in Singapore early this year. I received the book as a gift this Christmas and was absolutely delighted to see that it was written in the first person. I thought this would make a good counterpoint to an earlier post I shared about a love story written in the first person that didn’t work for me.
While this is not technically a memoir or a biography, this still falls within the ‘self-constructed’ narrative bit of our reading theme. I am hereby calling it a fictitious memoir of an idyllic summer romance somewhere in Southern Italy.
Written by André Aciman
Published by Picador (2017)
Book was given as a gift to me. Book quotes layout via Typorama. Book photos taken by me.
This story revolves around a powerful intimacy between 17 year old Elio and his father’s house guest, in their lovely Italian Riviera villa, named Oliver, a 24 year old academic who teaches at Columbia. I love the entire set up that Elio’s family has arranged with their annual houseguests – free board and lodging for academics, scholars, artists who are working on manuscripts, books, art works for six weeks. The academic simply has to send in his or her application and show some level of fluency in the Italian language. In return, they are expected to provide the Professor, Elio’s father, some assistance in whatever project he is working on.
It reminded me somewhat of my research fellowship in Munich, although the deal isn’t as sweet as what Oliver has. It is no wonder that Elio seemed very learned for a seventeen year old. He has this old soul quality about him, possibly brought about by his conversations with bright, inquisitive minds from around the world along with his unorthodox parents.
From the time that Oliver with the “moviestar” looks arrived in their quiet villa, things changed for Elio:
You are my homecoming. When I’m with you and we’re well together, there is nothing more I want. You make me like who I am, who I become when you’re with me, Oliver. If there is any truth in the world, it lies when I’m with you, and if I find the courage to speak my truth to you one day, remind me to light a candle in thanksgiving at every altar in Rome.
I was drawn to the beauty of the language and the introspective nature of the storytelling that was Proustian in its attempts to excavate one’s inexplicable feelings, all tangled up in hormonal knots, then exposing the snarl of frenzied emotions into the Italian sunlight to make some meaning out of it. However, that didn’t stop me from also being extremely impatient with the first two-thirds of the narrative. Again, it must be my age and the cynicism that comes along with it.
I felt exhausted reading about the “I think he knows that I am thinking that he is thinking” type of wondering. But then again, I had to remind myself that the narrator is a seventeen year old boy, totally unsure of himself, playing at things that slip through his fingers, as he clumsily tries to capture slices of eternal beauty in the sunset or an apricot that tastes like shame.
The fact that Elio lived and breathed books (just like Oliver) made his continual second-guessing a little less insufferable for me. As pointed out by Elio’s lover, Marzia:
This was a subtext that was recurring throughout the narrative: a measure of self-loathing, the refusal to acknowledge or be at peace with one’s identity, the shame experienced after a kind of yearning that both consumes and annihilates. This inner conflict can overwhelm a person, leading to decisive forks in the road, as can be seen in this conversation between Elio’s father (the Professor) and Oliver:
This was my moment in heaven and, young as I was, I knew it wouldn’t last and that I should at least enjoy it for what it was rather than ruin it with my oft-cranked resolution to firm up our friendship or take it to another plane. There’ll never be a friendship, I thought, this is nothing, just a minute of grace. Zwischen Immer und Nie. Zwischen Immer und Nie. Between always and never. Celan.
Allow me to just say that it was neither Elio nor Oliver who captured my heart in this book. It was Elio’s parents. Their capacity to see people with gentle, discerning, non-judgmental eyes. This level of seeing is a gift, one that permits access to another person’s being – even if the person himself may not have accessed that part of his being just yet, maybe out of fear or anxiety or self-hatred. There is an openness in their souls, a wide-armed courage that embraces both pain and joy, allowing them to truly live fully, their feet firmly planted on the ground and their eyes tasting the heavens. It was this gift that they passed on to Elio who shared it with Oliver: the thirst for the infinite.
The last third of the novel completely unraveled me. I realized that the first few parts when I felt unbelievably impatient were all worth it, for me to arrive at this point of truth: a complete loss that is as astounding as it also sustains.
All I was likely to discover at this point wasn’t just how distant were the paths we’d taken, it was the measure of loss that was going to strike me – a loss I didn’t mind thinking about in abstract terms but which would hurt when stared at in the face, the way nostalgia hurts long after we’ve stopped thinking of things we’ve lost and may never have cared for.
Clearly, it was not meant to last, notwithstanding the unparalleled level of intimacy that Elio and Oliver shared. Yet what this novel tells me is that it doesn’t matter. While that may sound naive, because of course it always matters, the fact remains that the intimacy will exist, existed at some point, continues to exist regardless, despite the life choices they have made. These are parallel roads that will never ever converge, but the truth of each path remains: one does not negate the other. It is bigger than the spaces and the silences between the years, the attempts at disavowal or the efforts to minimize and dismiss something raw and real. This survives, regardless – with a life of its own.
This is perhaps, what rendered me completely bereft, that I was sobbing into my pillow as I read these words:
Aciman has written fearlessly here – and the reader simply can not help but be with him in this singular journey, the one that takes you to that parallel life that you have chosen not to live, then comforting you with the knowledge that it’s fine. You’d be alright.
#LitWorld2018GB Update: Italy