Lessons in love with André Aciman

Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer in 'Call Me by Your Name.' Sony Pictures Classics

We fell in love with the pages of Call Me by Your Name back in 2007, and with it again on-screen in 2017. Now, Aciman reunites Elio and Oliver in Find Me, which begs the question: does true love ever die?

Does true love ever die? This is the first question I ask André Aciman, author of Call Me by Your Name and its upcoming sequel, Find Me. I don’t think so,” he says, before continuing. We can, of course, survive and find new people and might not even think about the people we’ve truly loved every day, but they’re there and they hover in our lives constantly. They never let go.”

Such is the way for Elio and Oliver, protagonists in Aciman’s fictional world, where gays roam free without the fear of homophobia and juicy peaches are a tool for seduction. Meeting in an idyllic Italian seaside town in the summer of 1983, Call Me follows the stages of a love affair from the steamy first snogs to a teary goodbye, with themes that span first loves, time, sexual awakenings and sexuality.

It was the 2017 big-screen adaptation directed by Luca Guadagnino which propelled the film and subsequently Aciman into the spotlight, with fans and critics applauding its telling of a non-cheesy, beautifully shot gay summer romance, going as far as to receive a standing ovation at its Sundance Film Festival premiere. Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer received critical acclaim for their empathetic roles – Vanity Fair dubbed it a modern gay classic”.

We’re 20 years on and the characters are set to return. Fans have been longing for this moment ever since they were first introduced. But with the book having been released well over ten years ago, it begs the question of whether Aciman intentionally left Call Me open, knowing that there was a sequel waiting around the corner…

I don’t think I knew at the time that I was going to go back to it, but over time, after I finished the subsequent book, I felt that it needed to be revisited but I didn’t know how.”

Instead, the author had already started writing the sequel without actually knowing it which is, apparently, a common practice for the novelist who doesn’t rely on strategically planning plots or structures, rather preferring to let his hand roam free.

I always start something having no idea where I’m going with it, and certainly no idea what the plot would be,” explains Aciman. I was writing about a gentleman who was in his 50s – I wanted to see what that felt like. Eventually, I realised this would be Elio’s father on a trip to visit his son. That brought in the whole plot – I knew I was writing a book about the love of Elio and Oliver.

I’m interested in ambiguous feelings as opposed to the obvious one: A touched B and B reacted very passionately. That’s not me.”

The author is referring to Sami, Elio’s father, who’s perspective takes up one-third of the book’s opening. Throughout, you can’t help but wonder: where the hell are Elio and Oliver? Elio isn’t introduced until halfway through, while Oliver makes his first appearance in the penultimate section. This would appear to be a conscious approach from the author, making use of his knack for developing a sense of yearning right up until the reader turns the last page.

Either Aciman is painfully modest or he really isn’t a fan of planning for the longed-out introduction to the protagonists – the characters we’re dying to meet again – seems not to be thought out, either. Otherwise I’m putting in conventional grooves and that makes it very dull for me,” he explains.

At the core of it, both Call Me and its sequel revolve around the yearning of true love, made evident through lines from Elio like, I feared I was starting to forget your face, your voice, your smell”. But how does a writer create scenarios so relatable, to the point it echoes the feelings of being on a first date, or having a Tinder conversation that goes really well?

I find myself drawn to people in intimate situations; in a train, cafe, restaurant – people who are having a conversation with one another as opposed to what’s going on in the rest of the world.”

Anyone familiar with the author’s work will know he’s referring to his direct, no-nonsense approach to intimate detail. He continues: “ I’m interested in the tensions that exist between two human beings who happen to like each other. There’s a degree of reluctance even in pure lust – I’m interested in those ambiguous feelings as opposed to the obvious one: A touched B and B reacted very passionately. That’s not me.”

Coined Mr Romantic (“I’m supposed to be this Mr Romantic, but I’m not so sure that I really am”), it’s easy to wonder how much of Aciman’s own experiences fill the pages of Find Me. I borrowed things from my life and from other people’s lives and especially from other books,” says Aciman. But everything is so moved around, changed and altered to the point where nothing is recognisable.”

So not many of them. But has the story of Elio and Oliver taught the author anything about intimacy?

Fiction can make you create things that teach you lessons you never even knew you had in yourself to learn. It taught me not just about vulnerability, but the desire for people to constantly seek out in situations that would allow them to be intimate with other people and to open up, so there are no more secrets between two human beings.”

For the author of arguably one of the most successful – and celebrated – romance stories in the past 15 years, romance isn’t just about falling in love, nor is it just about shagging. It can be as simple as enjoying the company you’re in, but Aciman encourages us to be more vocal, and why not?

As my father used to say: it’s very important to speak about the fact you’re feeling well with other people.”

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