I have a confession for American author, memoirist, essayist, and academic André Aciman as he speaks to me over the phone from his home in New York on a blearily early Melbourne morning. I read his celebrated novel Call Me By Your Name quite some time after seeing, and swooning over Luca Guadagnino’s sumptuous adaptation at last year’s Sydney Film Festival.
“No, actually, I think that’s the best way to do it,” he responds in a lyrical accent, a product of an interrupted childhood that saw his multilingual Sephardic Jewish family flee Alexandria, Egypt, amidst a wave of anti-Semitism when he was 14.
“I think basically the film makes you love this story, and it compels you to go and get the book and then you realise it has so much more depth, because a film cannot be that deep by definition… it can’t quite capture the book you had in your imagination.”
Imagination is paramount to Aciman, who will visit Australia in early May as a guest speaker at both the Sydney Writers’ Festival and Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre Mayhem event. He has repeatedly stated that he despises realism as a literary convention, and steadfastly resisted providing the minutiae of place and personal appearance in Call Me By Your Name, his summer love tale intimately tracing the halting dance of Elio around Oliver, the doctoral student who takes up summer residence in his family home.
“It’s such a dated way of going about a story,” he says. “I also wanted to avoid any typical queer story, which always has an intolerant father, or an intolerant society, or somebody beats you up or kills you, or AIDS is in the vicinity. There’s always this kind of clandestine element that comes in and I didn’t want that.”
Aciman points to Barry Jenkins Oscar-winning Moonlight, another of last year’s bumper crop of queer romances, as an example. “There’s an element of violence even in a movie like Moonlight, and I didn’t want anything like it. It just so happens that these two characters are in love, and it’s beautiful.”
Jenkins is an interesting comparison. Aciman is a married father of three, and like Jenkins, he does not identify as queer but has told, with great care and attention, a queer story. Given that Guadagnino’s film similarly casts two straight leads in Armie Hammer and Timotheé Chalamet, I wonder what he makes of the cultural appropriation debate?
It’s a concept Aciman has very little time for, highlighting Othello. “How dare Shakespeare have written about a black man? You mean to say that Dostoyevsky should never have written about the murder of a woman because he never committed a murder himself? It becomes totally ridiculous.”
Which brings us back to imagination. “I’m not going to speak about my own personal life, but I will say that essentially your fantasies, your imagination, you take a pen and you start writing and suddenly you find yourself steering in a direction that you never expected, and that happened to me.”
Of course, Guadagnino is proudly gay, as is his Oscar-awarded screenwriter James Ivory, with the latter criticising the film’s lack of full frontal nudity, which he had written into the script. Does their world experience alter the story again, as seen through a queer lens?
“What I do like so much about Luca is that he’s so, not just delicate, he is tactful,” Aciman says. “He never told me this, but I’m sure he decided this was going to be a mainstream audience kind of film. So he didn’t show us gay sex, he didn’t show us penises, but I thought he showed us enough.”
I offer that, though I think Guadagnino’s film is divine, the coyness momentarily tipped into unconvincing during the infamous peach scene, in which Hammer’s Oliver does not, in fact, eat the loaded fruit, unlike in Aciman’s novel. Aciman, chuckling, says he enjoyed that alteration. “I think the movie did something absolutely wonderful. He capitalised on that moment when the two are struggling, and instead of having Oliver eat the peach, he has the boy break down and cry, which basically is far more moving than watching Oliver gulp down this peach that has been damaged.”
Like most viewers, he was enamoured with Michael Stuhlbarg’s goosebump-inducing performance as Elio’s father, delivering a heartfelt speech about accepting one’s true nature. It’s a moment that thrills in the novel too. “He may not have had the experience, but he envies his son, because his son has actually encountered absolute love, or what looks like absolute love,” Aciman says. “He also envies him the fact that he’s having a gay relationship, and ultimately that’s my message, if there is a message, though I don’t believe in messages. There is no such thing as being one thing only. As Elio realises, were are not made to be played on one instrument alone.”
I wonder, does Aciman’s early uprooting, and the confluence of languages and cultures that swirled around his childhood and soaks into every page of his writing, play into this multiplicity of identities?
“You are right on the money, as we say here,” he agrees. “There is a fact that when you are displaced, when you have no homeland, no centre, no nationality, no mother tongue and no religious affiliation, it’s very hard to believe in having one identity.
In his new noel, Enigma Variations, Aciman suggests we have at least nine of them, and some of them don’t even get along. “In essence we are plural. There are so many of us in us… now clearly I need to see a therapist all the time, but that’s how my life exists. I envy people who have one profession, one nationality, one religion, one identity, one sexuality, one this, one that, because they are very well centred. But then I wouldn’t want to be like them at all.”