Submitted by Hans Chow on 6 January 2018 - 11:28pm
Having been adapted into a full-length film with unanimous, extolled acclaim, Call Me by Your Name (CMBYN) has once again become an instant best-seller in the English-speaking world. Whatever the qualities the film may be judged upon – be it its actors and actresses, its editing and directing skills, its sound and special effects, its mise-en-scène, or its cinematography and anything and everything related to it – I cannot insert any commentary to it: although the film has been released for roughly two months, I have not watched it.
This review is not based upon the film, but the novel with the same name which the film has adapted from. Initially published in 2007 by the Egyptian-born American writer André Aciman, its first edition had already received splendorous exaltation from reviewers over its lucid and vivid storyline which its ebbs and flows read as smoothly as soft, unruffled silk. Its plot is narrated by Elio, engaging in some sort of Proustian recherche du temps perdu, remembering discreetly and nostalgically about the summer of 1987, when he, as a 17-year-old, fell deeply and passionately in love with his father’s house guest – the-then 24-year-old Oliver, an American scholar writing a dissertation about Heraclitus – in Italy. Each and every flipping of the page is followed by an increasing intensity and propensity of Elio’s excogitating concupiscence towards Oliver. It indubitably and ultimately grew, flared up, and culminated into even greater heights, finally reaching a climactic zenith when Oliver noticed Elio’s closeted, averring fondness and affection toward him, with both, thence, acting out their forbidden desires together when homosexual behaviour was still disparaged and shunned as a taboo, an anomaly, a sin, a transgression. With the eventual departure of Oliver and his intentions of getting married, Elio had become lugubrious, morose, dejected, faltered. After Oliver had gotten married, the pair had not spoken for another 15 years until an unexpected visitation by Elio in Oliver’s classroom, where he was working as a professor. Elio would then reminisce and expound his hankering of the events which had taken place back in their youthful years, partly elucidating to Oliver, partly speaking towards the reader, by saying “look me in the face, hold my gaze, and call me by your name”, a reiteration of a similar line after the first time they had sex – “call me by your name and I will call you by mine”.
Adding to the wondrously pieced-together prose; the subtle candour and ephemeral but unencumbered limerence between both protagonists; the incandescent, pulchritudinous descriptions of both the characters, and the subsequent character development; and the mellifluous sensations, thence, experienced by most readers, would be the novel’s overtly Proustian theme – of the “remembrance of things past” – thereby rehashing Shakespeare’s verse in Sonnet 30:
//When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.//
Proust was immensely influenced by Shakespeare, as Aciman by Proust. Indeed, Aciman himself is an academic who specialises in Proust, who is currently a professor teaching the works of Proust in the City University of New York. It should, henceforth, come as no surprise that chunks and bits of Proustian undertones were scattered throughout the novel: it is almost a microcosm of À la recherche du temps perdu (La recherche). It should also strike us with no surprise that Elio’s madeleine moment would be hearing the word “later”, which was connotatively used by Oliver peculiarly and idiosyncratically as an exclamatory good-bye.
Jealousy, for one, is a major facet which is palpably interwoven within both works, and the characters who display such emotions should be juxtaposed side-by-side each other. The amorphously amorous affinity between Elio and Oliver in CMBYN is comparable to the corresponding relationships between Marcel the Narrator and Gilberte Swann; Marcel and Albertine; the bisexual Robert de Saint-Loup with Rachel; Saint-Loup with his protégée Charles Morel; and between the homosexual Baron de Charlus and Morel, depending when and where the episodes took place.
From Part 1 of CMBYN, Elio’s stream-of-consciousness is made observable through the manifestation of his anguished desire, torn apart by the sight of Oliver being surrounded by other women, namely Chiara, of wanting to murder him, so as to imbue Oliver – not only as an individual, a scholar, a friend, a lover, but also as an idea, an abstraction, a representation, an embodiment, transcending beyond the scopes and limits of reality – forever into his mental labyrinth. At other times, Elio had lingered and contemplated upon eradicating Chiara, worrying that he would lose Oliver to Chiara, but was concurrently queasy in losing Chiara, whom Elio admittedly also had feelings toward, to Oliver. Elio’s maddeningly unquenchable crush and craving towards Oliver resemble that between Marcel and Albertine, with Marcel desperately in qualms and uneasiness – propelled by his inner, inert jealousy – over Albertine and her lesbian lover Andreé (whom Marcel, conjunctively as Elio to Chiara, too, had longings upon). Here, Aciman had flipped and swapped the gender and sexual orientation of the original characters formulated, developed, and created by Proust.
In a similar fashion, Elio was enthralled and captivated by both Oliver, and Marzia, who Elio met in the local town is every bit as comparable as Robert de Saint-Loup falling in love with both Morel and Rachel. From Part 2 of CMBYN, Elio thoroughly enjoyed himself sleeping alongside Oliver, inside Oliver’s bedroom. With Proust, Rachel would “(come) in so late at night that she could ask her former lover’s permission to lie down beside him until the morning.” Unquestionably, this provided tremendous comfort, and succour, to Saint-Loup the same way that Elio derived a sense of assuagement and belonging with Oliver during the night. The cuddlesome and lascivious behaviours between Elio and Oliver mirror and parrot that between Rachel and Saint-Loup, as the listlessness, the psychological torment, and the mawkish sentiment of innate emotional exile that had come to an eventual soothing within the arms of their retrospective loved ones in spite of both Elio and Saint-Loup’s jealousy, towards Chiara and Marcel correspondingly, who, the latter, in part, was formerly in love with Gilberte Swann, the ex-wife of Saint-Loup.
Another theme which connects both novels inter- and intra-textually would be the prominence and importance of art. In CYBYN as in La recherche, visual art, classical literature, and classical music represent, and play, an elevated and indispensable role. Whilst Oliver brought Elio to the berm where Monet supposedly painted several of his paintings before he osculated and kissed Elio; Marcel the Narrator from La recherche was introduced to Albertine, his eternal love-interest, by the made-up painter Elstir, who was an Impressionist, whom Proust partly modelled upon Monet. Indeed, À la recherche du temps perdu is arguably the bellwether exemplar in infusing lengthy, prolonged discussions about artistic merits and criticisms of actual paintings, literary works, and musical pieces.
A hodgepodge of literary luminaries were referenced and juxtaposed by both Elio and Oliver in CMBYN. Elio repeatedly compared himself to Ovid, describing his peripheral, prurient yet passionate relationship with Oliver to the forced exile of the banished, then-disgraced Roman poet. In Elio’s household, frequent allegories and epiphanies extracted from canonical classical authors were invoked and brought up from time to time – he thoroughly mesmerised by having ruminative, meticulous discussions about books and music with his father. When Elio first met Oliver, though he began to be enticed and attracted to the older scholar, Elio remained demure. It was not until an explanation of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ which broke the awkwardness between the pair. Throughout the book cultural allusions were made: here Elio was Glaucus and Oliver was Diomedes; there Oliver was Dante and Elio was Beatrice; and Elio performed his improvised variation of Brahms, first to Chiara, then to Oliver. Indeed, it was the collection of Stendhal’s Armance from the town bookshop which further propelled the two together into zestfulness.
Call Me by Your Name is, in a way, a diminutive pastiche of À la recherche du temps perdu, for La recherche was figuratively an encyclopaedia of all things to do with highbrow, polished, aristocratic French culture during the fin-de-siècle era; whilst CMBYN is no more than a simple, nostalgic tale retold by a tender, touching narrator – it had been dwarfed and shadowed by the gargantuan, magniloquent verbosity of Proust’s magnum opus. A few years back, Eric Karpeles commanded an audaciously arduous task in recovering and rediscovering all the paintings which Proust – with the use of his characters, namely Marcel – had analysed and critiqued upon: Karpeles was able to produce a stunningly magnificent 360-page book based on the sole depictions and portrayals within La recherche. The dominant motif which Proust attempted to persuade his readers was that art of all variants – paintings, novels, instrumental compositions – were all pertinent in sublimation and refinery of our souls, that through art we create connexions, perspectives, and lineages which did not exist before. Is that not the case in CMBYN, whereby Elio was progressively closer to Oliver every day via art: last week it was Liszt, this week it was Monet, and the week before Oliver left it would be Dante?
From Part 4 of CMBYN, Elio suffered from separation anxiety, another common and prevalent theme in La recherche, caused by the eventual departure of Oliver. Elio went back to his family house alone, and was distressed, perturbed, and flustered to find out that his personal things had been returned to his own room, as he initially anticipated a buffer time for him to adapt life without Oliver. From here, Elio projected his psychological state of feeling desolate, solitary, lonely, and discomfort, struggling to cope with the absence of someone who, to him, had become indispensable; someone who he called him by his name during sexual intimacy. When Oliver returned announcing that he was getting married in the near future, that further tormented Elio’s psyche, a psychological wound which would not be healed even after 15 years apart, he would remain just as acutely baffled in meeting Oliver’s family. Such a confusingly lost subconscious identity could be seen in La recherche: that which between Marcel the Narrator and his lover Albertine. In La recherche throughout the volumes, we understand that Marcel had a cantankerous relationship with Albertine, that he did not want to see Albertine when she was present; but was conflictingly in great agony, dread, tethering on breaking down whenever she left, was away, or when she was simply gone. Both Marcel and Albertine had quarrelled and remained apathetic and nonchalant toward each other for an extended period of time, but it was always the Narrator who wanted to reconcile and tempted her back due to his longings about her. Alas, Marcel was walloped into torturous anguish, perplexity, and melancholy when he had learnt his lover had passed away in a horseback-riding accident. Correspondingly, he, like Elio, though Elio was in a tremendously less severe circumstance and condition, suffered from a fractured reality which he could not fathom, process, and convalesce from.
Call Me by Your Name is a brilliant success. Its Proustian ambiance remains distinctive and idiosyncratic, its storyline ethereal and breath-taking, and its characters ever more fascinating and efflorescent. CMBYN, alongside What Belongs to You and the Blue Neighbourhood trilogy, are absolute miracles amongst an ocean of disappointing offal and tripe ubiquitous within our contemporary culture – though, I should add, although both What Belongs to You and the Blue Neighbourhood trilogy, too, contain a walk down memory lane; a glimpse, a remembrance, a nostalgic rediscovery of childhood years, the childhood years depicted in the latter two oeuvres were unlike that in CMBYN: disheartening, frigid, suppressive. Indeed, the same could be said throughout the two aforementioned works, for their themes, essences, and protagonists were closer to Emily Brontë’s characterisation of Heathcliff and Catherine, forever entangled in violent passion, guilt, jealousy, rage.
Unlike Proust, André Aciman did not write a semi-autobiographical novel. In fact, not only is Aciman not gay, he did not invest much time into writing CMBYN: he completed it in four months. He did not put much consideration and effort into constructing it. As such, CMBYN parallels A Clockwork Orange: Anthony Burgess only used three weeks from beginning to end. Although both works were initially treated as jeu d’esprit by their corresponding authors, both works are now hailed as literary classics by their subsequent readers, and both works will, thence, be remembered as their finest, and most extraordinary.