The twenty-four year old university student named Oliver who is one of the two main characters in this intense novel is writing a manuscript about the Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus. I took a Pre-Socratic seminar in graduate school and translated some of Heraclitus’ fragments which, to say the least, are mind boggling. Even in antiquity he was known as Heraclitus “the obscure.” Heraclitus could not be a more fitting author with which to compare the emotional turmoil, upheaval and even confusion that both Oliver and Elio share in this book.
Elio is a shy seventeen-year-old who is interested in music and literature. He spends all of his summers at his parents’ villa on the Italian Riviera; and each summer Elio’s father, a university professor, invites a young scholar to come and live with the family for six weeks as a type of mentorship. There have been a string of writers and house guests for Elio’s entire life, but this particular summer becomes unforgettable and life changing as soon as Oliver steps out of the cab and greets Elio.
The author is a genius at describing, in beautiful and intense prose, the initial resistance between lovers when the first stages of attraction are felt. Elio finds that he cannot stop thinking about Oliver, he craves Oliver’s attention and wants Oliver’s approval in all he does. When Oliver is not around the house and when Oliver is not in a talkative mood then Elio feels like he has had a bad day. We have all had these experiences where our mood and our happiness are dependent on the small scraps of attention we may or may not receive from the one with whom we are in love.
One of the most significant and symbolic scenes in the book is when, after they play a tennis match together, Oliver puts his arm around Elio and Elio at first leans into his embrace but then feels embarrassed and shrugs Oliver off. Throughout the first part of the book Elio and Oliver repeat the scenario of this embrace by coming close to having a physical relationship but then resisting and pulling away from each other.
One of my favorite fragments of Heraclitus is one that is attributed to him by Plato (Cratylus 402A): “Heraclitus, you know, says that everything moves on and that nothing is at rest; and, comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says that you could not step into the same river twice.” As Elio and Oliver finally confess their feelings to one another and fall into a very intense physical relationship they know that the six weeks at the Italian countryside can never be replicated again. They meet again at Christmas and several years later when they are older but they can never recapture the physical and emotional intensity of their summer on the Riviera.
The mutability of life, identity, and sexuality are all highlighted in this book through Elio and Oliver’s relationship. This is one of those books that is very difficult to describe fully and to do justice in a short review but I promise that it will bring out a variety of emotions in every reader.
I first discovered this book on my of my favorite blogs, roughghosts. Joe has a beautiful review of this book (and many others) so please check out his site as well.
Aciman is the author of the Whiting Award-winning memoir Out of Egypt (1995), an account of his childhood as a Jew growing up in post-colonial Egypt. Aciman has published two other books: False Papers: Essays in Exile and Memory (2001), and a novel Call Me By Your Name (2007), which was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won the Lambda Literary Award for Men’s Fiction (2008). His forthcoming novel Eight White Nights (FSG) will be published on February 14, 2010