The Joy and Pain in Romantic Love in André Aciman’s “Call Me by Your Name” and “Find Me”

Prepared by David G. Hallman for

The Toronto Gay Men’s Literature and Arts Salon (Zoom Edition)

November 17, 2020

In June of 2013, I picked up the novel “Harvard Square” by André Aciman because I had heard good things about Aciman from friends … apparently, he had written a gay novel in 2007 that people loved entitled “Call Me by Your Name.” I had somehow missed that earlier work. With “Harvard Square”, I found the storyline relatively interesting but I was irritated all the way through by various aspects of the author’s writing style.

In particular, we as readers were constantly being told what the narrator is thinking and feeling. Listening to a character’s internal dialogue can be a powerful story-telling tool when it is done subtlety and nuance. But it’s off-putting when it is used obsessively and depicts the obvious and/or the predictable as I found it to be in “Harvard Square.” I am more engaged as a reader in a piece of fiction when I have to surmise what a character is thinking and feeling by observing their actions and speech. As editors are fond of saying, “show me, don’t tell me.”

Fast forward to September 2017. I went to see the film version of “Call Me by Your Name” at its première at the Toronto International Film Festival along with almost every gay man in the city. I fell totally in love with it. 

I then read the 2007 novel on which it was based and loved that too. In “Call Me by Your Name,” Elio is the narrator. We experience the whole story through his eyes, including his thoughts and feelings. But I didn’t have the same negative reaction to reading so much of the internal monologue of Elio’s heart and mind as I had in “Harvard Square.” Was that because of differences in Aciman’s writing style between the two books or had my perceptions changed? 

In February 2018, I was thrilled that James Ivory won the Academy Award for best screenplay for “Call Me by Your Name”, his first ever Oscar. He was 88-years-old at the time. He and Ismail Merchant were romantic life partners and creative professional partners for forty-four years from 1961 until Merchant’s death in 2005 and the two were responsible for the beautiful Merchant/Ivory films “A Room with a View,” “Maurice,” “Howard’s End,” and “The Remains of the Day.” 

What impressed me so much about James Ivory’s screenplay of “Call Me by Your Name” was how he had captured so perfectly the tone, the poignancy, the essence of the novel which is difficult to accomplish with a novel written in the first person. A common device used by screenwriters when translating such a personally narrated novel is to use voice-overs in the film. That sometimes works but it is also, in my opinion, a lazy way out. Much more difficult is what James Ivory did. The screenplay was so brilliantly crafted that it is as if we are Elio, falling in lust/love with Oliver from the moment that he sees him arrive at the villa, struggling with Elio to decipher whether signs from Oliver are positive or negative, riding Elio’s rollercoaster of emotional responses as the relationship takes on an intimate reality while Oliver’s summer sojourn in Italy draws towards a close. What James Ivory did in the screenplay was to evoke the atmospheric essence of the novel — the soul of Elio.

Which brings me to André Acimon’s newest novel “Find Me”. Since I had loved both the book and the film of “Call Me by Your Name” so much, I was looking forward to “Find Me” billed as a sequel. I was initially somewhat put-off by the structure. I wanted more of Elio and Oliver and what I got in the first section “Tempo” was 115 pages of a heterosexual bawdy romance between Elio’s father Samuel and Miranda whom he meets on the train. Elio appears in the second section “Cadenza” but no sign of Oliver. Instead, we’re introduced to Michel with whom Elio sort of falls in love but with the shadow of his soul-shattering love for Oliver hovering in the background. A drunken moping Oliver surfaces in the third section “Capriccio” pretending outwardly to be enjoying himself in his straight persona while longing for his long-lost Elio. Finally, in “Da Capo,” the last ten pages of the novel, our lovers are reunited for what appears to be a happy ending. 

Despite my initial misgivings about the structure and my glib synopsis above of the four sections, I came around to the judgement that, in “Find Me,” Aciman has produced a brilliant non-sequel sequel to “Call Me by Your Name.” 

  • Firstly, each of the four sections are written in the first person, three different first persons: Samuel in “Tempo,” Elio in “Cadenza,” Oliver in “Capriccio,” and Elio again in “Da Capo.” And the voices are all distinct and perfectly reflective of the characters. With a few minor exceptions, I was not distracted but rather thoroughly entranced by being privy to the thoughts and feelings of these first-person narrators through the internal monologues as Acimon writes them.
  • Secondly, as I moved further and further through “Find Me”, I came to an appreciation of the brilliance of structuring this sequel in such a way that we readers are thrust into three substantively different stories whose common thread is that each are built around protagonists who are the principal characters in “Call Me by Your Name.” This is so much more interesting than if we just had been bequeathed a second novel of Elio’s and Oliver’s romance, part two. In fact, the weakest part of “Find Me” is the final section where Elio and Oliver are back together. I think that’s partly because there’s no real tension to the storyline at that point.  
  • Thirdly, I loved the interweaving of musical motifs, metaphors, chapter titles, and critical plot elements. This worked most effectively for me in “Capriccio,” the Oliver chapter, that I think is the most beautifully written part of the book with its overwhelming poignancy.
  • Finally, I guess I am a romantic at heart. I was swept up in the various love stories in “Find Me”, those that burst forth in passion and joy so suddenly and unexpectedly for the characters and those that gave way to the searing and poignancy of loss. They come close but don’t quite match the heart-rending conversation between Elio and his father in “Call Me by Your Name” after Oliver has left when Samuel says, 
    • “You had a beautiful friendship. Maybe more than a friendship … if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it … we rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what a waste … right now there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it, and with it the joy you felt.”   

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