When André Aciman was 14 years old, his family was expelled from Egypt. He has returned only once, 30 years after his departure, he told me in January over coffee on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “I realized that I’ve always hated Egypt, I never liked it,” he said. Still, the experience of living in and leaving a multinational community that has long since ceased to exist has shaped him as an artist.
As a novelist — he is also a memoirist, essayist and scholar — Aciman’s most frequent subject is desire, which he explores as if through the lens of a kaleidoscope. It’s well known that desire is mercurial, yet rarely have authors depicted it as such with so much relentless openness; Aciman’s narrators freewheel through shades of hatred, insecurity, lust and euphoria, so manically focused as to be maddening.
In “Enigma Variations” (2017), for instance, Paul, the narrator, observes, “My passion feeds on everything but air, then curdles like bad milk that never goes bad enough. It just sits there.” In “Call Me by Your Name” (2007), an older narrator recalls his younger self’s thoughts on “the trapdoors of desire, and the wormholes of time, and the false-bottomed drawer we call identity.”
“Call Me by Your Name,” Aciman’s first novel, was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film in 2017. That movie became the subject of a sometimes breathless cultural fascination even before it was released in theaters. (After the film’s trailer debuted, a headline from Vulture, an outpost of New York Magazine, promised “All the Unbearably Intense Sexual-Tension GIFs You Need From the ‘Call Me by Your Name’ Trailer.”)
Aciman’s novels, which include “Eight White Nights” and “Harvard Square,” are disparate in subject, setting and character. Yet taken as a whole, they form a clear and radical thesis of lust. First, while the ways in which people act on it often carry inflections of pain or harm, the internal experience of desire is itself one of bracing purity. Second, at its truest and most intense, that experience can give someone the greatest possible clarity about his or her own character. And third, desire is simultaneously an experience of arrival and one of frustrated return. Its site in the mind is always familiar, yet never quite the same as we remembered, a landscape that will sometimes, in a life, be dazzling in its surprise and perfection, and will at every other time leave one with a slightly extra longing that cannot be fulfilled.
Aciman arrived for our conversation slightly flustered; his previous interview that morning, a phone call with a publication in South America, had run late. The rush of publicity accompanying the theatrical release of “Call Me by Your Name” is, for him, a new experience. Soft-voiced, dressed in a black T-shirt and an overlarge black-brown corduroy jacket, he was preoccupied with concerns of an unusual variety: On the one hand, an international tour to promote the film and a new paperback edition of “Enigma Variations”; on the other, the pressing need to write recommendation letters for graduate students, a task that a long career in academia has made no less distressing or onerous.
Aciman has lived in New York for about five decades. “It’s not my home. It feels like home — I probably don’t want to be anywhere else — but it’s not my home,” he said. Yet he’s skilled at creating an impression of home in absence of the real thing. His brother lives across the street from him. Together they are regulars at the Central Park West coffee shop where we met, which is decorated with a somewhat shabby Old World eclecticism.
Aciman was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1951. His Sephardic Jewish family was forced out of the country in 1965. It was a wrenching event, one the family had anticipated fearfully for nearly a decade. The Egyptian government under Gamal Abdel Nasser had begun to systematically expel noncitizens whose long residence in Egypt did not exempt them from the perceived crime of being of foreign origin after the 1956 Suez Crisis.
(Though the expulsions, which often involved the imprisonment and torture of male heads of families, targeted French and British colonialists in a reclamation of Egyptian self-determination, they also included the small portion of Egypt’s Jewish community that had lived in the country for centuries, “foreign” by only the most nebulous and prejudiced of characterizations.)
Aciman’s father’s side of the family comprised Turkish Jews. As Aciman relates in his remarkable 1994 memoir, “Out of Egypt,” they claimed to be Italian via a “very distant Italian relative” who lived in Leghorn, or Livorno, the port where Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition had often made their homes. The family arrived in Egypt in 1905 and, unable to qualify for citizenship, were long aware they would someday have to leave.
Aciman’s family was mostly Ladino-speaking, and mostly nonpracticing. (“I refused to be bar mitzvahed,” Aciman said. “If they had asked me if I had wanted to be circumcised I would have said absolutely not; that’s a barbaric custom.”)
“My father was a person who wore a cross, a Magen David and a Hamsa because he hated them all,” Aciman said. “He said, ‘I’m wearing all of them because one of them could be right.’ We had Christmas trees at home. We celebrated Easter and Passover. It was very eclectic, and it’s part of a universe that doesn’t exist anymore, of this kind of broad open-mindedness at a time when most people were not open. It’s part of being multinational, multiethnic, multi-whatever.”
“It’s a world that existed in Alexandria for a very short period and then disappeared, and doesn’t exist anywhere else as far as I know.”
In 1965, Aciman went with his family to Italy as a refugee; eventually he moved to the United States. Currently a distinguished professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, Aciman, whose research focuses include Marcel Proust, received a doctorate in English and comparative literature from Harvard University. He is married with three sons.
Home but not home, he is drawn to those who are similarly wary of being tethered to specific ideas or identities.
“All my friends, my very best friends, are people who are ambivalent about who they are and what they do,” he said. “People who are patriotic about one thing or another, I don’t want to talk to them. I don’t understand what patriotism is.”
Asked whether he, too, is ambivalent about his work, he answered quickly in the affirmative.
“Do I take my writing seriously? You wonder, because one of my books is called ‘False Papers,’ the other book is called ‘Letters of Transit’ and the third book is called ‘Alibis,’” he said. “They’re all about my proclaiming who I am, at the same time saying that ‘This is all papers, people.’ Paper is not life.”
Elio, the narrator and central character of “Call Me by Your Name,” is preoccupied with paper. He reads insatiably, and, in a unique preoccupation for a 17-year-old, spends much of his time transcribing music. From those habits, happily indulged during his family’s languorous summers in a balconied seaside house in northern Italy, the book draws a clear distinction between paper and life. Come one summer, indulging in his own papers — a book manuscript — in the same backyard as Elio is Oliver, 24: “Today, the pain, the stoking, the thrill of someone new,” the older Elio narrates, “the promise of so much bliss hovering a fingertip away.”
In the film adaptation of the novel, directed by Luca Guadagnino from a script by James Ivory, Timothée Chalamet plays Elio and Armie Hammer is Oliver. Elio’s narration, ruminative and frenetic in the book, is excised: his yearning for Oliver is communicated, barely, in expressive silence. (Aciman himself appears in the film, as one half of a gay couple with whom Elio’s parents are friends. “A ridiculous character,” he said, “because that is the way that most people in most families that are conventional and conservative see gay men. And I wanted that to be there: Okay, this is how you think of it, but look what’s going on upstairs.”)
Aciman says that “Call Me by Your Name” began with a calendar filled with Monet’s paintings that he was given by an acquaintance in the 1980s. One image in the calendar was a painting of a house in Italy.
“I looked at the picture of the house,” Aciman said, “and I said, ‘This house is on the beach, I know it is on the beach.’
“Why was I intrigued by a house on the beach? The answer is very simple: It takes me back to our house in Egypt. That’s what it is. The whole of ‘Call Me by Your Name’ is in many ways a kind of idealized Egypt, as it is refracted by memory, by imagination, by fiction. I wanted to go into that house. I wanted to people it, I wanted to live in it.”
The house has grown: In it, now, live not only the characters Aciman imagined, but also, tangentially, the readers who loved them first, and the audiences who followed. His Egypt, idealized, has gained a life of its own. In an unexpected mimesis of Aciman himself, the fan culture that has surrounded “Call Me by Your Name” is fueled partly by the longing for a genuine emotional experience of home. The film’s fans are far from exclusively gay, but stories like these, in which two men find complete intimacy and then — spoilers — part because of necessity, rather than because some disaster separates them, remain rare.
Yet the film, which tells a queer story without including the gay culture of the 1980s or the ravages of the AIDS crisis — and without including any real sex scenes between Elio and Oliver — has drawn criticism for its seeming ambivalence toward its characters’ sexuality. In other words, it provides a haven for desire, not the complicated realities of home. “‘Call Me by Your Name’… seems to refuse to engage with gayness at all,” Ben Ratskoff wrote in the Advocate; “there is… a neutering restraint when it comes to depicting man-to-man physical insatiability,” Billy Gray observed in Slate.
In “Call Me By Your Name” the novel, however, Elio’s depth of feeling for Oliver takes on the definite, occasionally melancholy cast of home. When he seeks out Oliver 15 years after their formative summer, despite narrating that Oliver had had “successors who either eclipsed him or reduced him to an early signpost,” Elio tells his first great love, “‘You are the only person I’d like to say goodbye to when I die, because only then will this thing I call my life make any sense.’”
Desire is a home. It tells us who we are. Acknowledging it as such is necessarily a choice; in Aciman’s fictional world, it’s perhaps the most significant self-determinative choice a person can make.
“‘Everyone goes through a period of traviamento, [leading astray] — when we take, say, a different turn in life, the other via,” Elio’s father muses at one point in the novel.
“Dante himself did. Some recover, some pretend to recover, some never come back, some chicken out before even starting, and some, for fear of taking any turns, find themselves leading the wrong life all life long.”
The novel concludes with one such period, or, more aptly, a moment: After 20 years, Oliver returns to the house in Italy and makes an admission to Elio that suggests their relationship might possibly resume. He’s supposed to leave the following morning, but the novel ends before his departure. “We have no idea — I certainly don’t — of whether he’s there to stay,” Aciman said.
As I told Aciman early in our interview, I first read “Call Me by Your Name” on a single day in 2007, the year it came out. I was 14 years old, a high school sophomore on the first day of winter break. (“Shame on you,” Aciman exclaimed, only partly mollified by my clarification that my mother had bought me the book.)
In the weeks after our conversation, my memory of that first, fully absorbing reading remained prominent in my mind. Aciman’s yearning for an open-minded world, and his literary interest in what he had called “sexual fluidity,” had reminded me that much of my introduction to the idea of sexuality happened to occur through queer lenses. When I was in middle school and interested in playwriting, a teacher had me read her own one-woman show about falling in love with her partner, a woman. I was 12, and captivated. Their love sounded miraculous, more accessible and immediate than the sanitized, often Disney-esque romance I’d so far encountered in novels. “Call Me by Your Name” completed the picture, an idyll — I was too young to recognize either the torment or regret suffused through it — that seemed, to me, perfection. The book’s radical disregard for boundaries felt instinctively right, invigorating and liberating.
I myself am not queer. And while books are powerful, they can’t cut discrimination and stigmatization out of the world, or make those forces any less painful to contend with. It’s also worth noting that Aciman, who is married to a woman, has publicly indicated he does not identify as queer; his vision of queer love, therefore, may not be an emotionally comprehensive reflection of its lived experience.
Yet I still think there’s an important hint, in my experience, of how we might better introduce young people — especially those living in less idyllic circumstances than those enjoyed by Elio — to ideas about sexual identity and identity itself. Because I was exposed to a joyful, reverent portrait of queer sexuality at a time when the word “sex” was one I barely understood, I grew up thinking of sexuality at large as something like the Alexandria of Aciman’s memory, a site of open exchange. That idea was, of course, too simple — “Enigma Variations,” adulthood’s mazelike and often anguished answer to “Call Me by Your Name,” precisely demonstrates how — but the deeply rooted idea that sexuality might allow for a pure and exuberant loosening of self persists.
There is an Alexandria in most hearts, a remembered or imagined place in which identities beyond those to which we daily feel constrained become attainable. It’s often un-actionable, or at least viewed as such. The miracle of “Call Me by Your Name” is that the question at its end, of whether Alexandria might be regained, could believably be answered in the affirmative. We’ll never know, and that’s the beauty. The wish stays out of reach. Still, it’s real.
Talya Zax is the Forward’s deputy culture editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org