Enigma Variations by Andre Aciman 2017. A review by John Cook

I feel I have been sentenced, cooped up on a cruise ship as I am with two Aciman texts to read while I have started the more recent first – probably the wrong order of attack.  Nevertheless, it seems appropriate as people watching, listening and speculating is a popular activity for me on board, glass in hand. Aciman has a complex background, lectures prestigiously in Literary Theory and is a Proust expert. This shows as he brings an exquisite eye to thoughtfully examining and evaluating a series of evolving scenarios combining exhaustive analysis of what his characters are thinking/ doing with a delightful eye for beautifully evoked contexts, especially Summer on the Italian Riviera (no place names supplied).

This novel, and I suspect his previous, is about people observation but very internally and at great breadth and depth. Therein lies its great appeal or otherwise. Some will enjoy the depth of self-analysis and speculation involved while others may find it extremely tedious and self-absorbed. It is about a young boy (12 – 13 years old), Paul, initially as a youth and later a mature man, who responds in minutiae to what is said to him, a look, a glance, certainly every e-mail (later) is checked and examined for its meaning and significance. The mature man opens the story returning to the scene of his growing sexual focus as a bearded older man who wants to get to the bottom of the disappearance of his youthful focus, Giovanni the furniture repairer. He had been so obsessed with this 20-something handsome individual, he even ‘apprenticed’ himself to him in order to be closer to his physicality.

The style is easy enough to read though shot through with many literary and place references (Italian Riviera, NY Manhattan and Oberlin College). There are plenty of allusions to classical literature while old movies and opera are also mined as points of interest – again a problem for some readers. I will repeat it has to be said that problems may arise for some readers with these detailed external references and the extended nature of the self-examination especially with a young person however privileged and remarkably self-aware.

The piece is essentially about the nature of relationships seen from a very personal viewpoint – how they are initiated, play out and/or are incorporated into different phases of a life. In this sense, I enjoyed this kind of play as I have often reasoned that a great strength of the gay life (when seized) is the possibility of structuring one’s relationships without heteronormative requirements and with a fluid sexuality – certainly that is so in this case.

Add in the fact that the Paul’s voice is strongly two dimensional. He is intensely physically aroused and in search of physical satisfaction primarily and initially yet he is simultaneously constantly questioning and analysing the nature of his relationships, their progress and possible outcomes. This means that there is a continuing interchange between his physical life and his musings upon it. The writing on his physical observations, needs and responses is arresting and often lyrical.

There are three main phases in the novel which occasionally link and reference with answers to questions previously formulated. The first is his early adolescence (15-16 years old) enjoying his annual family summering on the Italian Riviera – is it an island? I am not sure. Certainly, the evocation of space, time and his budding sexuality is excellent, there is a mid section in NY focussing on a battered tennis centre in Central Park where he encounters someone who could become his rock bottom (and very understanding) partner. This is not to say that a publishing career and wife are not simultaneously possible – they are. There is a semi-final relationship which involves looking into his mid-years past and I found this extremely unlikeable – couldn’t bear the woman. And finally there is a coda ‘almost’ relationship that brings into focus those that are more enduring, even if surprisingly so. I now go to read ‘Call Me By Your Name’ which Google informs me has recently received been filmed with rave reviews. I look forward to it.

Clever, very clever, too clever perhaps, I think, for some readers. I enjoyed its detail and scope but failed to make the journey completely.


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One response to “Enigma Variations by Andre Aciman 2017. A review by John Cook

  1. I haven’t read Andre Aciman’s books; but the film adaptation of Call me by your Name (which you’ve mention) is superb. It ought to grabbed the BEST PICTURE Oscar, last week. A pity!!

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