ANDRÉ ACIMAN is best known to LGBT readers as the author of Call Me By Your Name, the critically acclaimed, bestselling novel about the tormented burgeoning of same-sex love, which was turned into an Oscar-winning film in 2017. But he’s also the author of several other well-received novels, a collection of essays, and a memoir about his childhood in Alexandria, Egypt. He is currently professor of comparative literature at the CUNY Graduate Center.
Aciman has recently come out with a follow-up to Call Me By Your Name entitled Find Me (Picador, 2020). The new novel, which is a “sequel” only in a loose sense, was initially received with decidedly mixed reviews, especially by LGBT readers. Find Me is about several love relationships, both gay and straight, but not that of Elio and Oliver, who do eventually reunite after twenty years of living separate lives.
The interview (abridged and edited here), which was conducted last February, was part of an on-line weekly series called Zooming Through Queer Culture (produced by Oscar Wilde Tours and curated by Andrew Lear).
Franco Mormando: By way of introduction, let me say that I was asked to do this interview not only because I knew André from a previous lifetime—we were grad students together at Harvard—but also because, as a professor of literature, I am interested in the same themes, the big recurrent themes, of his fiction: love, relationships, the complexities of human psychology when two people try to get close to each other. For 25 years, I have offered a popular course titled “Love, Sex, and Gender: The European Literary Tradition,” in which we explore these themes throughout the centuries, from antiquity onward. I mention this because many of my questions and observations derive from this teaching experience.
André, you grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 1950s and ’60s. Did the subject of homosexuality ever come up in your family? in your schooling? I don’t know if you had religious training, but what sorts of impressions or even prejudices did you have about gay people, or was homosexuality just a blank slate?
André Aciman: No, in Alexandria it wasn’t discussed much explicitly. Mind you, I was fourteen when I left Egypt, so I didn’t know much about sexuality in general. My primary interest when it came to sexuality was simply in getting laid as fast as I could, and there was only one way to do that: you had to pay for it. And this was totally current in those days and in that society, and it still exists, in Italy and in the rest of Europe, though people don’t admit it.
But homosexuality existed. We knew about it. I had first heard about it from a friend when I was probably thirteen years old. One day I was in the desert [in Egypt]with my father, and some guy who must have been fifteen or sixteen came up to me when I was by myself and asked: “Do you want to do something to me?” Let’s use that language. I said, absolutely not. And he went away, and that’s the last I heard about homosexuality in Egypt. But when you look back, it was sort of all over the place, and eventually I was able to have conversations on that subject with my father. I grew up in a family where sexual issues were very much in the open. My grandmother one day gave me money and said: “Make yourself a man” [by having sex with a prostitute]. The idea was that you would become a man because you had that experience. So everybody was very open, and I tried to bring up my children in that way: “Whatever you want to do is fine; we’ll accept it.” The speech the father makes at the end of Call Me By Your Name is the kind of speech that my father would have made even back in the 1960s.
FM: I had assumed that your first really major encounter with the subject of homosexuality was when you studied Proust. Not so?
AA: No, it was way before that. I had read many books in which it came up. I was in Italy for three years after Egypt, and we were so poor. I hated the neighborhood where we lived, so all I did was buy books and close the window shutters. I didn’t want to see what was outside and just wanted to read. I read Oscar Wilde. I read A. E. Housman, who most people don’t read any longer. Homosexuality is in the dialogues of Plato, which I read as a kid. It receives its most extended treatment—and its most æsthetic treatment, I would say—in Proust, but that was a few years later for me.
FM: I’ve been meaning to bring up the subject ever since you gave a lecture at Boston College a couple of years ago where, at the beginning of the question-and-answer period, a gay man praised you for having depicted gay love so poignantly and accurately even though you are a straight man. But my conclusion after teaching this course on love, sex, and gender is that there’s no real difference between same-sex love and heterosexual love. Falling in love and trying to get to know another person is a universal human experience. Do you have any thoughts on that?
AA: No doubt about that. And yet, Call Me By Your Name is a homosexual story, and it cannot be otherwise. But I wanted to address two things. One is that when it comes to a relationship, you don’t have to have the woman dying of tuberculosis in order to end the opera. You don’t have to have one of the gay partners killed or beaten or bullied or whatever in order for you to convey a realistic story. The second point is that I tried to capture the difficulty of telling someone of your own sex that you have desires for them. Indeed, in many circumstances desire is something that intimidates us all. We don’t know how to bring it up, and the last thing we want is to embarrass the other person.
When you receive advances from someone, you’re put in a very difficult position. You can say “Yes, I want to,” or you can say “I haven’t decided; I never thought about it; give me some time; you’re putting me in an awful situation.” Desire is a difficult sort of dialog, and I wanted to capture that. It was the hardest thing to write: when Elio tells Oliver very obliquely that he’s trying to have his way with him. It had to be conveyed with a kind of possible retraction built into it: “No, you misunderstood me completely. That’s not what I meant.” How many times have we gotten close to saying something like this to someone else? Fundamentally the difficulty in conveying desire to someone is something that we all experience, whether gay or straight.
FM: Elio’s name strikes me as ironic. My oldest brother’s name is Elio. It comes from the Greek sun god, Helios, but Elio the character is not very sunny. Did you intend that irony?
AA: No. I like the name Elio because it was also the name of the father of a person that I truly love (she lives in Bologna, having taught at the university). But Elio—I love the name. it does mean the sun god, and it’s a direct appeal, if you like, to Apollo. It’s not that he’s necessarily sunny. He’s quite morose and lugubrious sometimes, sort of withdrawn. At the same time, if you look at all the statues of the sun god, they’re all very beautiful statues. I wanted to suggest that without necessarily asking the reader to be aware of it.
FM: You are a 21st-century writer in your prose and in your frame of mind, but there’s also something old-fashioned about your writing. It seems like the world of modern psychology and all the modern over-analysis of love, infatuation, codependence, and so on finds no role in your novels. Is this something you meant to do?
AA: Yes. Even the names of the characters don’t always appear. You don’t always know who the character is. For example, when you begin Call Me By Your Name, you don’t know whether it’s a girl or a boy who is talking. One of the best books I’ve written, Eight White Nights, doesn’t have a name throughout the whole thing. People ask: “What does he do for a living?” I don’t know. I don’t care. I tend to obliterate all these intrusions from the 20th century in my work. One of the people who wrote a review of Eight White Nights said this novel takes place in Manhattan, and yet there’s not a single mention of 9/11. I was in Manhattan when 9/11 occurred. I smelled it. I thought it was horrible, like everybody else. We all mourned. At the same time, it’s not in my novel. I’m not interested in what happens in the outside world or what new isms are being generated. I’m only interested in what happens with—and within—one individual and another, and possibly a third. Everything I write is about human psychology, but by “psychology” I do not mean Jungian or Freudian psychology. I just mean the study of motivations as it was done in 17th-century France, say, where writers created amazing portraits of people.
Most people who read my books will say something like: “It was very moving. I cried.” That’s okay, but it doesn’t really interest me. What interests me is when they tell me: “You’ve written my life.” Now, I don’t know these readers from Adam. I have no idea who they are or where they come from or what they want. But they’ve told me that I’ve written their lives. In other words, I have written what they went through themselves when they were either in love or desiring someone. You can call it Proustian, because there’s an attempt to remain faithful to one thing, and that’s the highest standard, I believe: call it classicism. Classicism percolates through all time. There is no moment in ancient or Renaissance history to which classicism is restricted. It occurs all the time. There is a certain standard that is implicit in classicism. You have to try to capture things not as they come to you, because you may be misdirected. You have to remain faithful and focused on what it is that you’re telling your reader.
FM: We have to get to the long-awaited sequel to Call Me By Your Name, which is titled Find Me. Edith Wharton said that her books frequently began with an image of a character, one character with a personality and a name. Is that how Find Me began, only with two characters?
AA: I usually start with a moment of dialog or with an everyday expression. Out of Egypt starts with “‘Are we or aren’t we?’ said my uncle.” You don’t get his name. Call Me By Your Name starts with one word: “Later.” Find Me starts with “Why so glum?” spoken to a complete stranger on a train. The first sentence gets me going, and it has to. It’s sort of the motor that you crank up, and it goes. I don’t know the name of the character. Sometimes I don’t even know their sex. I have no idea what they are up to. I never have an outline; I just go with it.
FM: One reviewer pointed out that child-parent relations are important to you. They appear in your novels with regularity, and obviously in Call Me By Your Name and Find Me. But I don’t see a lot of overt parenting in these two novels. Yes, there’s the father’s speech in Call Me By Your Name, but Elio’s parents seem to have taken a hands-off approach to parenting. So, I said to myself, where is the source of guidance for him? Is he just acting out his emotions and his desires?
AA: Well, autobiographically speaking, I didn’t get guidance in that way—certainly not when it came to sexuality. But the attitude of the family, as I mentioned, was extremely open, and there was no question that my parents loved me. They never had to say “I love you, André”; that would have been stupid. It was obvious. I loved my mother immensely. She noticed that most of the mother characters in my books are very muted. I didn’t want to go there. I just couldn’t write about my mother.
My father was extremely urbane, and it was known in the city of Alexandria that he was cheating on my mother constantly. I met many of his mistresses, because he would introduce me to them. On one level, I was nervous about the whole thing, but deep down, I really wasn’t. They were very sexy. At the same time as I understood my father, he was a man who basically could have been gay. Maybe he was gay. There were enough references that he was interested in that as well. My father once told me that whatever you do in bed with someone, once your clothes are off, everything is okay provided you don’t hurt the other person. There was this sense that once your clothes are removed, there are no inhibitions. This was very liberating for a kid at the time.
FM: This is a good segue to the fact that you chose your main character to be seventeen years old. Now, in puritanical America, that’s a hot button. Why did you choose that age? I know in the European context the attitude is very different.
AA: It is very different, but I was an American writing in America. So I should have been aware. I wasn’t. When I was seventeen, many things happened to me. I won’t go into them, but it was a formative time in my life. In essence, seventeen was a magical year for me, and I wanted to give it to Elio but transported it two decades later. It takes place in the mid-’80s, whereas I was in Italy in the mid-’60s. I can understand why people balk at this. On the other hand, I also need to say that not only was this a completely consensual relationship between two adults, but also that it was Elio who kept going after Oliver, not the other way around, which would, of course, have been predatory.
People have also raised this subject in Find Me, where there are people in their early thirties or maybe late twenties having a relationship with somebody who’s almost sixty. It never occurred to me that this was going to be a problem. My father used to go out with girls who were twenty.
FM: Did you notice a different national response to these two novels? Was there a French reaction or an Italian reaction as opposed to an American reaction?
AA: Yes. I can say with pleasure that the English, American, and Italian response to my books has been wonderful. The initial response to Find Me was terrible, because people said: “We expected a novel completely about the two men together again, but instead what we’re getting [in the first part of the novel]is this old man with this young woman. It’s not even gay!” All right, I can understand that. But then, after a couple of months, the reaction morphed entirely, with people saying they actually found Find Me to be more moving than Call Me By Your Name. It is an adult book. People were initially disappointed, but the past two years have been wonderful after the initial negative response.
Italy has been so fantastic to me; the fans in Italy are amazing. It’s as if I were writing in Italian for Italians. I’m writing in English and it’s translated, but it’s beautifully translated to the point that I was saying to people that the translation of a certain passage is superior to the English. So this is a wonderful thing that has happened, and of course Luca [Guadagnino, director of Call Me By Your Name] is Italian, and I told him several times that the last scene of the film is better than the last scene of my novel. There’s something very gripping and immediate in that visual image that prose simply cannot capture.
FM: Let me wrap up my questions with the subject of labels. So, in the future when they compile an updated anthology of American literary authors, what label will they give you? Are you a Jewish writer, a love writer, a French psychological novelist? What label do you think people will give you, and what label would make you happy?
AA: I’ll be dead, so I won’t know it.
FM: That’s true. So you don’t really care?
AA: I don’t care. I think the Jewish thing is basically too much, because I’m not really a Jewish writer. I haven’t even been bar mitzvahed. I have never cared for religion. There was a time in my life when I was actually Protestant, believe it or not. My father had converted. This was a perfunctory thing and we did it [out of necessity].
By and large, I would like people to mention two things, and they don’t even sit together. One is the classical element that characterizes my novels, and the other is that my sensibilities are Mediterranean—not Irish, like Joyce; not French, like Proust. I would like people to say that I captured in my writing the genius, the beauty of Mediterranean sunlight. That would make me very happy. My sentences may be too long for a Mediterranean writer, but at the same time they sort of have efflorescence in them, and I hope that is what marks me for as long as my books are published.
Franco Mormando, professor of Italian literature and history at Boston College, is the author, most recently, of Bernini: His Life and His Rome (University of Chicago Press).