Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A lost love

Lots of good free content in the latest NYRB, including Pankaj Mishra on Hisham Matar and Laila Lalami and a rather funny but very good piece on Shakespeare and the uses of power by Stephen Greenblatt (my personal opinion is that if I should ever find myself shaking hands with the president of the United States, whoever that might be, I would be physically incapable of uttering the words "Mr. President" with a straight face--it is my Quaker education, I just feel unbelievably over the top using ostentatious titles, and in fact when I went to college it was a nasty shock to realize that the custom was indeed to say "Professor X" when you spoke to a professor--I feel unbelievably obsequious when I address someone this way, I have to give it a mildly satirical flavor just in order to feel myself--but more importantly Greenblatt's is the third thing I've read recently that makes me realize I must, must, must read Bernard Williams, a shocking gap in my knowledge of things I care about).

Quite a lot of other good stuff isn't online (Hilary Mantel on Adam Sisman's Wordsworth-Coleridge book, Keith Thomas with a very funny and apt mini-essay about Hugh Trevor-Roper, Daniel Kevles on the history of chemical warfare--really it's full of other interesting things too, I can't be listing everything here!) but the one I particularly commend to your attention is a lovely essay by Colm Toibin about Andre Aciman's new novel. (If you're Columbia-affiliated, you can read it here; otherwise, hit the library or the newsstand...)

Really I am tempted to paste in the whole last part, but that is not sensible, so here's a taste (Toibin's reflecting here on a question that will undoubtedly have occurred to many readers of Call Me By Your Name--did Aciman himself, a married man with children, have a same-sex love affair as a teenager that corresponds to his narrator's?):

For most novelists, writing is a sly disturbance of the self, a spreading out of the self into places where only the spirit has ventured. Carlos Fuentes, for example, dining in a hotel in Zurich in 1950, could observe at another table Thomas Mann as a "quiet and dignified old man" having a meal with his wife and daughter. All of his life Mann has been battling with his own dignity, his solidity, his deeply conservative nature, working out ways to defrock himself in fiction, using parts of his own life, adding bits of the lives of Nietzsche, Mahler, Schoenberg, playing with ideas of violence, risk-taking, the demonic. In the meantime, he sat in the hotel doing a perfect imitation of an ordinary high-bourgeois man.

Some readers of André Aciman's novel may wish to ask how much of the book is autobiographical, as readers of "Death in Venice" asked, or other readers may wish to know how much of the book is a playful exploration of the private aspects of an imagined self. But there is another question which is more interesting and more fruitful. Call Me by Your Name seems to me a deeply autobiographical book not because the events may actually have taken place and merely been recorded by the author, much as Thomas Mann recorded in his diary entry for January 20, 1942, his memories of a similar lost love:

Read for a long time old diaries from the Klaus Heuser time, when I was a happy lover. The most beautiful and touching occasion the farewell in Munich, when for the first time I took "a leap into dreamland" and rested his temple on mine. Now indeed—lived and loved. Dark eyes that spilled tears for me, beloved lips that I kissed —this was it, I too had this, I can tell myself when I die.

The origins in autobiography of Call Me by Your Name lie not in its theme but in its shape. The golden summer, the sheer happiness of Elio as he finds Oliver and his misery when he loses him, can be read as a version, deeply embedded in metaphor, of Aciman's life in Alexandria and his exile from there, from what Cafavy calls its "exquisite music," which Aciman described in Out of Egypt. There were the servants and the summer, the family meals, the books and the music, the abundance of things; there too was the sense of an all-embracing and all-enclosing love but existing as Elio recounts in the novel only "on borrowed time." In both books there is an abiding sorrow for what was so glorious and is now so lost. Experience in both books is something that will seem more perfect in the light of the scattering which came afterward. Thus it seems that Aciman is not exploring or dramatizing a masked self but finding a new story with which to tell his own story, which seems to have come back to him in eloquent whispers, more erotically changed and consciously shaped the second time around.

Toibin then makes several other interesting points, about the politics of sex with minors and of fluid sexual identities as they are treated by Aciman--will be interesting to see how people respond to this one, these things are so controversial to talk about and yet it seems to me a deeply persuasive and perceptive piece. The Thomas Mann stuff is heartbreaking. And read Aciman's novel if you have not already, it is quite extraordinary!


  1. Dear Jenny,

    Have you ever destroyed anything you've written?

  2. I think that it might be very interesting to compare Hollinghurst's The Folding Star to the Aciman novel, once I finally get to read the latter.

  3. Thanks for the heads up on Pakaj Mishra... I read everything by him.

  4. Ah, I'm just in the middle of "Call Me By Your Name,' and as an ardent Aciman fan I am thrilled with it and need to write about it on another blog. I'm looking forward to reading the Toibin essay and am stunned that Aciman read your post! Should I be so lucky?