Sunday, December 2, 2007

Call Me by Your Name, André Aciman

André Aciman Call Me by Your NameA professor of mine once said, wisely, that Wodehouse's work is the last word on the aesthetic possibilities of the cliché. Aciman's novel may not be the last word on the aesthetic possibilities of the adolescent fondness for rhetorical questions about love, desire, and self-exploration, but I can't recall anyone who explores the territory more deftly.

More deftly? I can't recall anyone who is actually able to bring grace to the histrionics inherent in this mode of expression. The perfect negative example is Carrie Bradshaw: her narration of Sex & the City is execrable on its own demerits, but also because of the efforts of the Jimmy Choo generation of young women to think, apparently, in her voice.

Perhaps there are not, numerically speaking, that many actual rhetorical questions in Call Me by Your Name. The key one is "if not later, when?" which is, along with the title, a fit synechdoche of both the spirit and plot of the book. But even if there are not that many rhetorical questions strewn in its pages, the novel is canted as if it were itself a rhetorical question, an open-ended meditation not meant to be answered or even struggled with. It resides, one resides with it or in it, it fades softly but persists. Not meant to be answered, its role is to reset the field or frame of the topic, to show the tendentiousness of both real questions and real answers pertaining to its subject.

It would probably be a smart thing to say that this is a very Proustian feature, as Aciman is a—even theProust scholar, but to be frank, I haven't read more than 100 pages of Swann's Way and I don't think I am qualified to say such a thing.

I may sound disappointed in the novel; quite the contrary. I am astounded. The strength of the writing is so pure that one feels Aciman could say nothing that would be banal or formulaic. That is not a sensation one feels while reading a minor author, or even a major author at less than his best. Aciman is a major author, and this is a major work.

Here is a passage to demonstrate what I mean. I don't know if, displaced from its context, it will retain its power; it might come off as a weak bromide in isolation. If that is the case, let me assure you that, in its proper setting, it is neither weak nor platitudinous:
In your place, if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don't snuff it out, don't be brutal with it. Withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night, and watching others forget us sooner than we'd want to be forgotten is no better. 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!

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