As I have noted elsewhere, this title has been filmed (including the peach scene) and I look forward to it very much. The filming of that scene is symptomatic of much of what the book is all about. The scene could be taken as a piece of tasteless (sorry) piece of cheap porn, yet in the book it s a remarkable moment of intense sensuality linked to a metaphoric view of the nature of life and the world. Oddly it is too easy to make too much or too little of the scene on its own. Each reader must respond for themselves.
This relates to another key element in this book which is repeated in his more recent ‘Enigma Variations’ – the role of antiquity, philosophy and music. The handsome young (twentyish) American professor, Oliver, arrives as a working guest at the generational Italian Riviera seaside home of the incredibly precocious 17 year old Elio. Oliver is revising his manuscript on Heraclitus whose philosophy illuminates much of the views and behaviour of the key novel characters who are often intensely sensually located in their place and moment yet equally and intensely aware of the transient nature of experience and changeability.
I found this a very satisfying work at a number of levels. The locations and primary and secondary characters are a delight to experience and evoke brilliantly any reader’s favourite Summer holiday experiences (Caloundra and Straddie for me). Any experience of the Ligurian coast can only intensify this pleasure and satisfaction.
Young Elio is in some respects a typical adolescent, moody, more than a little self-centred yet precociously talented, skilled and knowledgeable (a professor’s son) who is hyper sensitive to his constantly challenging and developing self-awareness. He is ripe physically and ready for change.
Change is supplied by his fellow (quiet) Jew Oliver who erupts relatively briefly into his Summer holiday world and rapidly presents challenges to Elio’s previously presumed heterosexuality. Oliver does not seem to doing this deliberately but there is a clear growing physical intensity between the two as they dance around the central issue of their mutual attraction. Elio’s fascination for Oliver’s bathers and underclothes and their fetishization rings alarmingly true. Again, I look forward to how the film will handle this.
Eventually there is a resolution that sees each concede ground and achieve a brief period of intense sexual pleasure. Typically, however, even as this is occurring, there is meditation on its transience. At the very least, Oliver has to return to the US and Elio is still experiencing heterosexual urges with Marzia which he consummates. There is a brief stay away from the seaside at a Roman book promotion. This was an experience both ecstatic and rather earthy which again allows Aciman to contrast the experience, its memory and the context with a series of brilliantly executed word pictures – delightful!
There has to be a resolution and this is supplied initially by a ‘father’s chat’ of great compassion and wisdom and the passage of time which both protagonists experience as Oliver announces his marriage plans and their eventual outcome. This phase continues later in the US when the two meet and its seems there is still an interest that goes beyond academia but no more. This process intensifies when Oliver pays a return to the Italian house where Elio now lives with his mother only. They bond over the death of Elio’s father and the reader is left with Elio musing over the reality and nature of their relationship concluding that if there remained more, Oliver should “look me in the face, hold my gaze, and call me by your name.”