Between the Body and Soul
by André Aciman
2007 (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)
An American graduate student has been invited to spend six weeks by a host family in an unnamed town along the Italian coastline to work on a translation of Heraklitus. Oliver is twenty four, handsome, and immediately stirs positive interest from everyone in town as he rides his bicycle, swims in the water, plays tennis, and sunbathes with some of the young Italian women in town, who have crushes on him that rival at least that of their mothers.
Another who has feelings for this magnetic stranger is the younger Elio, seventeen and son of Oliver´s host family, whose bedroom is donated each year for whichever visiting scholar comes to stay. Introspective and seemingly knowledgeable beyond his years, Elio spends most of his days at his piano, transcribing Hadyn or improvising off of Liszt, as well as attempting to be within Oliver´s proximity as much as possible, whether under the sun or in the water. Eventually, inevitably, Elio and Oliver will consummate a passionate affair that will permanently alter them for the rest of their lives.
André Aciman´s debut, Call Me By Your Name (later beautifully adapted into a film directed by Luca Guadagnino in 2017, starring Timothèe Chalamet as Elio and with Oliver played by Armie Hammer), is probably the best known of the five novels he´s published over the last fifteen years. It is also one of his most insightful and sensual, particularly surrounding the complexities of desire, longing, and sexuality.
Quickly upon Oliver´s arrival, teenage Elio is in a state of swoon. And while the two will definite consummate their attraction towards one another before the summer is up--in exquisitely rendered scenes which are gorgeous, raunchy, intense--Aciman is more about the build up, the emotional feelings leading up to one´s skin coming into contact with another. Call Me By Your Name is also about what happens after: after the sexual act, after the summer ends, after years pass by. Rather than conclude this tale in tragedy (like James Baldwin´s 1956 classic Giovanni´s Room), Aciman´s romance of bisexuality ends not with a bang, but with a whimper. The two try to stay in touch over time, but when they do meet again years later, one at least is married and a father, while the other´s romantic life is vague and elusive.
Call Me By Your Name is a coming-of-age story, a tale of sexual awakening. But the characters here do not seem to be awakening towards a specific or fixed identity. Instead, they seem to wander amidst an endless beach of questions, doing their best to sort out the complexities of their own desires as they go. During this pivotal summer, both Elio and Oliver have intimate contact with opposite-sex partners; however, none of these, nor the experiences both have in the future with others, contain the same potent or life-changing quality that theirs had.
With the precision of a poet or an anatomist, Aciman plunges into each chamber of the human heart in this book. The prose is like cut crystal, and the story is about far more than beautiful bodies sweating beneath the Mediterranean sun. Call Me By Your Name seeks deeper truths than that, exploring more than infatuation, longing, or homosexual vs. heterosexual sex. It´s a book about how little we understand what we want, and how we seek others to help us understand more about ourselves.
Aciman´s novel is explicit. Maybe because it is thought as literature instead of erotica, but I found it fascinating that if this same story were self-published on Amazon as an erotic novel, it would most likely be banned. The fact that Call Me By Your Name centers on the intimate sexual relationship between a 17-year-old and a 24-year-old would immediately flag it, not to mention a number of scenes were Elio is intoxicated while with Oliver. Elio describes Oliver pressing up against him while he sleeps, or confronting the teenager aggressively before they have sex--"dubious consent", anyone? There is also an infamous passage in the book that involves a peach and some ejaculatory fluids which might make the gatekeepers online blanch.
My point in bringing this up is that, thankfully, Aciman´s book is available, and while the book is highly erotic, it is not categorized as "erotica." Call Me By Your Name is up to far more than individual acts between men and women. The author knows, just like the reader, that teenagers sometimes have intimate relationships with older people, and that this is not pedophilia, abuse, or inherently non-consensual. Rather than attempting to write a "homoerotic novel" or a "gay coming out story," Aciman instead has written a book which will touch the innermost selves of every reader. May more erotica strive for this level of insight, this degree of understanding of how real people live and experience their lives, their bodies, and their desires in the world.