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It’s been a grand year for André Aciman. In January he published the novel Enigma Variations, which chronicles the all-consuming wanting that defines one man’s life. Friday November 24 sees the release of one the best movies of the fall, the film adaptation of his novel Call Me by Your Name, starring Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet and Michael Stuhlbarg. We spoke with Aciman about the romantic movie and how desire binds all his stories.
This year saw the arrival of Call Me By Your Name, the first film adaptation of one of your novels, and the release of your new novel Enigma Variations. Has it been a deluge of attention for you?
Not so much attention. It was a sense that great things have happened this year so far. The movie came out a couple of weeks or days before Enigma Variations did, at Sundance, and there was a magnificent reception of the film. A few days later, the book is reviewed and gets good reviews, so basically I’m supposed to be on cloud nine. I never am on cloud nine. It’s not my nature to be. I say: That’s great, let’s wait for the other shoe to drop, and if there is no other shoe to drop, then, well, it’s hiding somewhere and we’ll find it eventually.
What are misunderstandings you encounter with how people receive your books?
There are many layers at which this happens. People say to me: “Is this story true? Did it happen to you?” I don’t really copy my life into books: I alter things, and sometimes I move the furniture around so much that you may not even recognize the room—though I haven’t invented or taken away any furniture. It’s just the arrangement that’s different. And you swap many things. They assume it’s true, but then when I wrote a memoir [Out of Egypt], people assumed it was all made up. So, my real life is allegedly fictitious and my fictions are allegedly non-fiction. That’s the level at which the discourse takes place.
Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name
Do you feel that the movie retains that sense of elusiveness that defines the novel?
Oh yes, I think it does. A movie needs to make transformations, because it doesn’t have the luxury of words. But it does things that a story cannot do. The last shot of the film is a very powerful scene, and the book can never do that. It’s incapable of conveying so much emotion, without the soundtrack, the tears in the boy’s face. All of that is beyond bookishness; in other words, it’s better than books. I’ve told the director [Luca Guadagnino] that the way he ended the movie is more powerful than the book itself. There are entire passages that I thought: surely they’ll cut out that scene, but they kept everything. I’m very grateful for that, because when you hear the actors speaking with the director in public, you get a sense that when there was a doubt, they went to the book. So I’m very flattered.
It’s great to hear that you’re pleased.
Well, most authors are so vain, that if you touch anything they’ll need a defibrillator, because they can’t handle the fact that someone touched their thing. No, I assumed from the very beginning that there were going to be major transformations, and that’s fine. They were essential to the movie. They couldn’t have had the whole Rome excursion [from the novel]. That’s fine, I understood that.
While Elio and Enigma Variations’ Paul don’t necessarily identify as gay, they experience the sting of shame in specific ways that most gay men could relate to. How did you nail that so well?
To be honest with you, I think that sexual desire is shameful. It puts you in a beckoning position. You are asking for something. You want to hide it from them, you want to come as obliquely as possible. And the confession that Elio makes in the square when he runs into Oliver is a confession that is extremely ambivalent and ambiguous. He may want to retreat, and it’s shameful. All desire—from age 3 to age 93—is always shameful. And people who pretend that it’s OK to desire somebody—of course it’s OK to desire somebody. For me the initial stages of desire have always been embarrassing and awkward. I wanted to capture that as best as I could, and not only to capture it but to dilate on it, not to lose it with a kiss that comes too fast. I don’t know if you remember the scene when [Elio and Oliver] are in bed together for the first time. They feel so awkward; they play with their feet. Elio touches his toes with Oliver’s toes, and Oliver at some point says: “What are you doing?” And that’s the point in which you know you might have sex, but you’re not sure yet. You’re just trying to work your way to passion, work your way to that moment from which there’s no coming back. It’s a very embarrassing, self-conscious moment. I’m sure that gay men feel that way, because on top of everything, you have to overcome the stigma—which is always there. But i’m sure that it’s there between boys and girls as well. I always experienced it.
I keep thinking about Superman and Clark Kent and Lois Lane. As Clark, he’s begging for affection from Lois, but as Superman he’s almost too good for her. He can never integrate in the relationship.
It’s exactly the situation. Clark Kent is self-effacing, and then he has this other identity. But we’re all like that: We’re self-effacing vis-à-vis the person we want the most, and then sometimes, given the right potion or whatever you want to call it, we’re almost arrogant with the same person. It’s how we feel at the moment.
We are so obsessed with identity labels in the United States. Your characters are never called gay or bisexual. Was that a conscious choice?
The word “love” does not appear in most of my books. Many terms gel the ambiguity in everything, and it’s the ambiguity we live with—not the concrete sensation of it. When you say: “Finally, John told Mary that he loved her,” you’ve killed everything. And I don’t want to do that, because I want there to be no doubt. I want there to be all the ramifications of that big word without using that word. I’m always writing without using tangible concepts. Because once you name the concept, you basically kill the mystery, you kill the excavation that is required of the writer. That’s why I don’t use the words: “He was finally able to admit that he was gay,” because that is a killer; that is a platitudinous thing to say. I don’t want to think concretely. I want to know what’s going on in somebody’s mind, and somebody’s heart and below the belt. Those parts of the body don’t have words for them. Thank God there are no words, because then you wouldn’t have writers.
Big concepts can’t always be reduced.
This big thing on identities we have in the States basically reduces you to a particular algorithm that has to do with your sexuality. Is it possible that sexuality can be reduced to some word? Seriously? Sexuality is so complex. When you look at the sexuality of a three-year-old, of a seven-year-old, of a ten-year-old, of a twelve-year-old, these are highly complex moments in life. We all have sexual identities by then, and they’re so fluid. Why would you arrest it? What does it do for you to basically cut out all the ambivalence and ambiguity that is part of what we are? What I love about religious people—who I have no tolerance for—is that they’re very observant, and at the same time they say frankly: “I don’t know.” And I say: “How can you be observant if you don’t know that you believe in God?” “Well, it’s not the same thing.” I love that answer because it opens up this multifarious organism that is our head. We don’t know, we don’t understand, and we can’t arrest our sexuality. Think of the sexuality of an 80-year-old—you think they don’t feel sex?
Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name
I am thinking of these terms as verbs and not nouns: wanting, desiring, loving.
Do you know what the difference between love and infatuation is? I don’t. I don’t have the foggiest notion of what differentiates them, but everybody wants to make a distinction. I was infatuated by so-and-so, but I wasn’t in love. Seriously, at the time you had a major, major crush and now you want to hide it behind the word “infatuation,” as if to mitigate your stupidity. Those are just words, and I hate using words that way. A writer can’t use words that way—cheaply.
How has the reception of the two books informed your experience writing now?
What happens for many writers is that as you write and your public gets to recognize you, then you get to service that particular recognition. In other words, you give the public more of what it expects from you, and that is very dangerous, because then you become a one-voice writer, and a writer has to write on a host of things. You may be recognized as the same author, but that’s different than writing the same tale time and time again. You want to do it differently every single time. On the other hand, you think of all the great painters, like Picasso. Various phases produced totally different and unrecognizable works. You cannot say they’re by the same painter, but a real student can say: “No, no no. They are by the same painter, it’s just that he’s developed in different directions.” And I hope I do that, because otherwise I’m really dead.