André Aciman on first love and the brutality of time in ‘Call Me By Your Name’

The acclaimed novelist speaks to Honi about love and loss

This piece is from our coverage of Sydney Writers’ Festival this year. To check out the rest, click here.

On a glary afternoon in Sydney, André Aciman meets me in the lobby of his hotel, greeting me warmly. I’m here to interview him during his visit for the Sydney Writers’ Festival, but I’m also delivering him his glasses, which he left in the SURG studios at his previous interview. I’ve been carefully nursing them for an hour.

Speaking to the creator of something that has moved you deeply is a surreal experience. I’ve written questions in my journal alongside some of my own reflections, among them musings on love.

Love is a topic Aciman is well-versed in. He approaches it with an often brutal honesty, acknowledging that love, despite its wonder, comes with longing, torment and obscurity. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, and having lived across a multitude of cultures, languages and lives, he tells me the essence of his identity is “not identifying with anything.” Aciman says this is reflected in his characters too, and how they fall in and out of love. “They’re not confused, they just don’t know who they are.”

When it comes to love, Aciman says the “grammar of behaviour” will seldom change from our first to our last.

“We will behave in exactly the same way, we will have the same hang-ups, we will make the same idiotic gestures and say the same stupid things.

“We can hide it, we can camouflage it…but in point of fact the mechanisms are the same, the fears identical at 12 as they are when you will be 82,” he says.

I ask him if it’s better to be young or old. He laughs.

“What a silly question! It is so far better to be young and to make all the mistakes one makes when one is young than to have all the experience, wisdom and clarity of an older person who doesn’t have many years to live. It’s better to be young, it always is.”

I mostly want to talk about Call Me By Your Name. I read it over the lazy summer I spent in my hometown. It’s the story of an immensely passionate love that blossoms between the adolescent Elio and Oliver, an older student who stays with his family in their villa during the Italian summer of 1987. Their affair is life changing but brief, leaving the young Elio devastated at Oliver’s departure. I wonder if it is worth living with the longing and torment for such a deep love.

“You can force yourself, by an extreme amount of will, to think that you are over someone,” says Aciman, “but in point of fact it doesn’t go away.

“We are always going to be in love with the same people for the rest of our lives. What the father says is, ‘Don’t kill it.’ He’s right. You’re wasting your time.”

Could Elio and Oliver have ever been together? I can’t help but wonder, like many of his readers, if there could ever be a resolution.

“Part of me dreads the idea of them as a domestic couple…It’s not what Elio and Oliver are supposed to be.”

“But there is a return to the beginning,” he tells me, with a slight hesitation. “Oliver comes back to the house, the way he came the first time, and I have a feeling, I’ve always thought this and nobody agrees with me, that he’s come back to live there. Elio can’t believe that it’s happening and he assumes Oliver’s going to leave the next day. But I don’t think he will.” Perhaps even Aciman himself doesn’t know what their future could’ve been—the way he speaks of the topic suggests he doesn’t see much point in wondering.

In the ending of Call Me By Your Name, Elio and Oliver meet again some 15 and then 20 years later, a denouement not included in the novel’s Academy Award winning adaptation. It’s my favourite part of the book, filled with a lingering melancholy caused by the years between their last encounter. Yet both are eternally marked by their affair.

“At the end of the book you find out that Vimini dies, that Anchise died, that the father died, you realise that time has happened here. These people have all gone away and it’s never going to be the same again. It’s totally different. You begin to sense that there’s a tragedy brewing underground.”

Our discussion reminds me of a quote from the novel: “Time makes us sentimental. Perhaps in the end it is because of time that we suffer.”

He says he remembers writing that sentence and saying to himself, “Is that clear? I don’t know how to make it any clearer.”

It’s evidently a topic Aciman has spent contemplating. “Time is a horrible thing,” he says. “It announces and foreshadows one thing: death.”

“I use a metaphor for this. When they used to have manuscripts, they would fold a sheet of paper in four or in eight, called quartos and octavos. Time is divided in that way. When you realise that your whole life was divided into a series of octavos and you have none left, it’s terrible.”

“You haven’t lived well, you haven’t been in love with the person you’ve been in love with all your life. You made a mistake.”

He pauses, and draws into himself.

“Time also does something else. It changes people, so that even if you’re in love, the magic can go. And so you’re stuck with that. Yes, we’re still in love. But the magic is gone.”