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Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007
Erotica is the literature of desire, both unrequited and consummated. This might be a critical distinction between erotica and pornography (if one were motivated to define such a distinction): in pornography, desire is rarely unconsummated for long. By contrast, in Andre Aciman's novel Call Me By Your Name, teenaged Elio suffers in the throes of unspoken, unbearable and unsatisfied desire for the entire first half of the book. The resulting erotic tension is so acute that the reader practically cries tears of relief when Elio and the object of his longing come together at last.
Every year Elio's family spends the summer at their idyllic villa on the Italian Riviera. Every summer, they invite some promising young scholar to join them in this sun-splashed sabbatical; in return for assisting Elio's father, a well-known professor, with his correspondence and research, the guest has six weeks to enjoy the myrtle-scented air and the gentle sea, dinner conversations on philosophy and literature, the moonlit, musical nights, the lazy and sensuous Mediterranean days.
Oliver arrives, blue shirt billowing, breezy and informal, brilliant and moody, and Elio is entranced, even obsessed, by the slightly older man. The attraction is simultaneously physical and spiritual. Elio is as captivated by Oliver's intellect and charm as he is by the man's lanky body. But Elio is shy beyond belief, introspective, unsure, knowing in some sense what he wants but entirely incapable of asking for it. All he can do is watch Oliver, and ache:
Maybe it started soon after his arrival during one of those grinding lunches when he sat next to me and it finally dawned on me that, despite a light tan acquired during his brief stay in Sicily earlier that summer, the color on the palms of his hands was the same as the pale, soft skin of his soles, of his throat, of the bottom of his forearms, which hadn't really been exposed to much sun. Almost a light pink, as glistening and smooth as the underside of a lizard's belly. Private, chaste, unfledged, like a blush on an athlete's face or an instance of dawn on a stormy night. It told me things about him that I never knew to ask.
The physical is a cipher that, unlocked, reveals the truths of the soul. Elio wants to possess Oliver entirely, to become one with him. However, he's a teenager, and hopelessly awkward. One still summer afternoon, he sneaks into Oliver's room (actually his own room, relinquished to the honored guest for the season) and finds Oliver's bathing suit in the closet:
I picked it up, never in my life having pried into anyone's personal belongings before. I brought the bathing suit to my face, then rubbed my face inside of it, as if I were trying...to lose myself in its folds. So this is what he smells like when his body isn't covered by suntan lotion, this is what he smells like, this is what he smells like... On impulse I removed my bathing suit and began to put his on. I knew what I wanted, and I wanted it with the kind of intoxicated rapture that makes people take risks they would never take even with plenty of alcohol in their system. I wanted to come in his suit, and leave the evidence for him to find there.
Elio suffers terribly from his desire, and we suffer with him. Finally, he manages to speak, to tell Oliver the truth, only to discover that Oliver desires him equally. Their first coupling is confused and somewhat traumatic for the teen, but soon their relationship evolves into an intimacy so complete that it's not clear where one person ends and the next begins.
Their joy in each other reaches a climax at summer's end, when Elio accompanies Oliver to Rome for a two-day holiday, before Oliver returns to America. Every moment is perfect, incandescent, lit by the knowledge that these days may be their last together.
Leaning out into the evening air, I knew that this might never be given to us again, and yet I couldn't bring myself to believe it. He too must have had the same thought as we surveyed the magnificent cityscape, smoking and eating fresh figs, shoulder to shoulder, each wanting to do something to mark the moment, which is why, yielding to an impulse that couldn't have felt more natural at the time, I let my left hand rub his buttocks and then began to stick my middle finger into him as he replied, "You keep doing this, and there's definitely no party." I told him to do me a favor and keep staring out the window but to lean forward a bit, until I had a brainstorm once my entire finger was inside of him: we might start but under no condition would we finish. Then we'd shower and go out and feel like two exposed, live wires giving off sparks each time they so much as flicked each other.
Still, at the end of the dizzying, ecstatic sojourn in Rome, Oliver leaves, Elio returns to the villa, and the distance between them begins to grow. Even perfect connections are finite in time. The pain of lost love mirrors the agony of unfulfilled desire.
Call Me By Your Name is a mainstream novel by a respected professor of comparative literature. However, it is as raw and as tender as any erotic romance. I am amazed and perhaps a bit annoyed that a book this graphic and intense, especially one with a homorerotic theme, featuring a protagonist who might well not yet be eighteen, can be published freely and reviewed by the New York Times, while self-styled "erotic fiction" is censored, hidden away, or ignored. On the other hand, I suppose that I should be grateful that it is still possible for a book so centered in desire to be taken seriously.
This is a beautiful, and beautifully written book. It will wring your heart and stir your senses. I don't know whether the author would agree, but as readers of erotica, I submit that we should claim this book as our own.