Author Q&A: André Aciman
(Faber & Faber, hardback £14.99/Audible, £17.49)
(Faber & Faber, hardback £14.99/Audible, £17.49)
Published in 2007, André Aciman’s debut novel Call Me By Your Name concentrated on the intense relationship between Elio, a precocious teenager, and Oliver, an older doctoral student. While most of the book was set during the summer at a rural villa in 1980s Italy, the novel skipped forward in time as the story came to an end. Aciman’s sequel takes place in the intervening years between the beginning and the end of his first book. It focuses not just on Elio and Oliver, but also on Elio’s father, in a story that is haunted by that first romance, but where chance meetings lead to new passions developing.
What made you want to return to these characters?
First of all, the story felt quite unfinished, as there were massive gaps between Oliver’s return to Italy in the mid-1980s and Elio’s visit to see him 15 years later. So there was a lot of catching up to do. Over the years I made several attempts at filling in the blanks, not always with much success. But I always planned to return to Oliver and Elio and to the father as well because I love these characters and I love their love and their kindness.
What interests you about the dynamics at work in the relationships you explore in this book?
Relationships, for all their intensity, don’t always last. And if they do last, things frequently occur to disrupt the projected bliss of those involved in them. Love lasts; relationship don’t always. I don’t think that stability is a constant in human relationships; people change, friends part, lovers tire, people sometimes cheat. People always have another, unsuspected side to them.
The sexuality of your characters is fluid rather than fixed. You don’t use words such as gay or bisexual to describe them, for example. Is this a deliberate statement about the way sexuality is constructed and described, and if so, why?
I have seldom liked being too specific. I sometimes won’t name a city or a town, I won’t even give a character a name, and many readers have told me that they didn’t know if Elio was a boy or a girl at first, until the narrator made it obvious. I have frequently said that I hate realism. It may be a mode of writing that reporters like, but artists prefer to hover above ground, not be buried in it! I also harbour a particular antipathy for labels. Religion, nationality, sexual orientation don’t need to be specific or spelled out. Why? To what end? A writer never wants things defined. Writers sow doubts, questions, paradoxes, enigmas, not answers or solutions. I prefer a character who does not know himself than one who is determined to know exactly what he likes, who he is, etc. I love ambiguity and ambivalence. I like what is unanswered, not what is unquestioned.
The language of desire is central to this book, but the word “love” is never used. Can what we witness happening between various characters in this book be described simply as love?
Yes, it could be love, and I am a strong believer in love at first sight. Love at third sight seems a bit shallow, and it wouldn’t be something that a partner would take as a compliment. I like attraction, desire, infatuation, obsession – these open doors for me. I never use the word “love” in my fiction because I think it funnels everything and narrows things down. Love is so powerful a word that it automatically shuts the doors. Once you say you’re in love, well, that’s it, there is nothing else to say.
How do you feel about the movie adaptation of Call Me by Your Name? And how do you feel about a planned movie sequel – will it be based upon this book?
I loved the film adaptation of Call Me. It ended beautifully. It captured the internal lives of both lovers and it steered close to the plot. I was so taken by the last scene that I told the director that his film ended the story better than my novel. I meant it from the heart. There was talk of a sequel, but I have no idea where things stand right now. I would be very happy to contribute to the screenplay.
One of your literary interests is Proust. What is it that fascinates you about his work and what can we learn from him as a writer?
Proust is interested in style, in memory, and in the internal life of his characters. He does not care much for plot, other than to narrate how one suspects the other of disloyalty or how one goes about cheating on the other. But everything happens in the mind – where in fact 95 per cent of our lives take place. Style, memory, the mind: I think these are the pillars of my own work, and I owe it to Proust.
As well as being a writer, you’re a teacher and an editor of The Proust Project. How do you find time to sit down and write fiction, and do you have any rituals to help you find that space to write?
I have no rituals, and I don’t have a schedule or a system for writing. I write whenever I can. I am lucky that whatever else I do to earn a living allows me to devote a great deal of time to my writing. I do teach, I do direct dissertations, and I take these tasks as well as many others very seriously. But writing is what I like to do best, and I do very little else.
It seems like your characters in this book are destined to cross paths with one another. Do you believe in fate?
I believe that life is not as original as one claims to believe it is. There are x number of scripts available to our lives, and frequently life repeats itself, probably because we make the same mistakes, but also because most lives, for all their unpredictability, are scripted by a not very imaginative author. My father once told me that his father’s life was repeated in his own life, and that I shouldn’t be surprised if my life repeated my own father’s. Well, in more ways than one, for three generations, we’ve led very similar lives, with near identical ups and downs. Did we bring it upon ourselves by believing in something like fate or were we simply fated to lead similar lives? Don’t know. Even when my life takes a totally different trajectory than my father’s I sometimes suspect that this is an aberration and that the old script may unavoidably reassert itself.