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“The word love is terribly heavy-handed!” says André Aciman

Author of Call Me By Your Name explains why he hates the word love and why he prefers to create someone who doesn’t know whether he loves or not!

brunch Updated: Mar 09, 2019 23:49 IST
Ananya Ghosh
Ananya Ghosh
Hindustan Times
Call Me By Your Name,2017 Sundance Film Festival,WGA
André Aciman’s seminal 2007 debut novel, Call Me By Your Name, became the toast of the town with its movie adaptation in 2017(Getty Images)

André Aciman’s been tagged as “the most exciting new fiction writer of the 21st century” by the New York Magazine. This accolade hides the fact that before he wrote the novel he’s known for, Call Me By Your Name, Aciman was already the award-winning author of Out of Egypt: A Memoir and The Proust Project.

But the 2007 book, which was to become a bestseller 10 years later after a stunning movie adaptation by the same name, was not the story Aciman started to write!

“I wrote the book in three months as I was having a difficult time writing another novel,” says Aciman. “I thought the book would not live long, but the reviews were positive. Then a year later came a film producer’s bid. The rest is history.”

Call Me By Your Name, the debut novel of the college professor, is a heartbreakingly beautiful elegy to human passion and desire, which is at once a coming-of-age story and a coming out story that traces the brief but heady summer romance between 17-year-old Elio and 24-year-old scholar Oliver.

It’s a Movie!

The novel that Aciman will be known for forever worked like a slow burn for a decade, mostly gaining readers through word-of-mouth reviews. Then sales spiked almost overnight thanks to the movie adaptation that, ever since its world premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, has won the WGA, BAFTA, Critics’ Choice and USC Scripter awards and got James Ivory his first Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

“I am one of the very few authors who have loved the film adaptation of their novel,” smiles Aciman. “The film of my novel has made all manner of changes that do not alter the emotional and aesthetic and psychological impact of the story. The end of the film portrays a scene that is not in the novel, but the end result – emotionally – is identical.”

Queer is not queer

Call Me By Your Name is hailed as a queer love story that’s effortlessly established itself as a universal love story. How difficult was it for a heterosexual man to create an honest portrayal of gay love, we ask him during his India visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival 2019. “I’m a writer of fiction. Writing from a gay person’s perspective was not difficult. As a writer, I can write from a child’s perspective, an adolescent’s, an adult’s, and an elderly person’s point of view. What is required is the ability to get out of ourselves and place ourselves in someone else’s mind/body. This is what actors do,” says Aciman.

Call Me by Your Name is hailed as a queer love story that has effortlessly established itself as a universal love story

Aciman agrees with author Alan Hollinghurst’s view that gay novels have more or less disappeared from the literary scene, but adds that this is because they have entered the mainstream. “I believe they are here to stay,” he says. “I hope to read love stories that’ll no longer be punctuated by the fears, dangers, and violence that used to punctuate all gay and coming out stories.”

Before making his debut as a novelist, Aciman was already an award-winning author with non-fiction works like Out of Egypt (1995) and The Proust Project (2001) to his credit

But he is reluctant to call either of his novels, Call Me By Your Name, or his recent release, Enigma Variations, love stories. “I seldom use the word ‘love’ in my fiction. I prefer someone who doesn’t know whether he loves or not, even as he agonises over and is obsessed with someone, as the word itself is terribly heavy-handed and so definitive,” he says.

Aciman says he prefers people who are multifaceted, ergo uncertain, undecided, who straddle all manner of identities.

Anatomy of desire

Aciman believes that desire is rooted in conflict. “We want, but also want not to want,” he explains. “We are ashamed of wanting to love people, of wanting to touch them – particularly when we don’t know where they stand vis-à-vis us. Desire is entirely normal, but how we deal with our libido is always troubling, awkward, difficult, challenging and problematic. We may know what we want now, but will we still want it tomorrow? Or will we regret having wanted it?”

He also adds that he hates anything that is established, that suggests oneism or the one and only one belief system. “This is why I’ve never understood patriotism and religious identities. What I ask of my friends is to nurse a sense of irony. If you are without it, I cannot be your friend. Ironic people are not easy to trust – true. But I prefer a person with a sense of ambivalence because I cannot stand, and certainly cannot trust, people who claim to have only one side to them.”

Call Me By Your Name, directed by Luca Guadagnino, won the Best Adapted Screenplay at the 90th Academy Awards

But according to him, his approach to writing about desire has changed over the years. “There was a time when I was younger when writing about desire and sex came very easily. Indeed, in many ways writing about love, desire, sex was almost a way of finding some sort of release and gratification. The need for hesitation was never there. As I’ve grown older, however, the consequences stare me in the face; therefore I hesitate, I doubt, I question the very validity of my desires.”

His approach to writing has morphed accordingly. “My characters may desire someone, sometimes very powerfully, but they are also aware of what we may loosely call the ‘morning after syndrome.’ It is not that my characters lack experience; it is that they have too much of it. They are wise to the world and to themselves—wise enough to know they are almost always mistaken,” he says.

Also read: The James Ivory interview

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From HT Brunch, March 10, 2019

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First Published: Mar 09, 2019 23:12 IST