André Aciman’s book tour for “Find Me” was hosted by Literati bookstore in Rackham Auditorium this past Saturday and featured a conversation with Zahir Janmohamed, M.F.A. creative writer in the Helen Zell program. I approached the event with great admiration for Aciman, being that I am particularly fond of “Call Me By Your Name,” his 2007 novel which was made into a film with Timothée Chalamet in 2017. The novel follows 17-year old American Italian-Jewish boy named Elio who falls in love with a visiting scholar, a 24-year old American Jewish man named Oliver, in 1980s Italy.
The piece showcases a thoughtful commitment to relationships under the circumstances of Elio and Oliver, while bridging love and naiveté through their coquettish desires for each other and eventually wonders about loss and connection. But the sequel surprises us. We’d assume it would center on the immediate aftermath of the fiery passion between Elio and Oliver, but instead Aciman takes a more unique route.
“At first I was writing about Elio,” Aciman said when asked about the new book. “I was writing an Elio that was 18, 19, 20 but then I thought, ‘Okay Elio misses Oliver … Oliver misses Elio, that’s all. It ends there.’ I knew that I had to go somewhere else. I needed a conflict.”
Some time later, Aciman was writing a story about a man on a train going to Rome. At first he wasn’t sure what he was writing about, but then he realized he was writing about a father going to visit his son — his son being a now older Elio.
Janmohamed steered the conversation well, shedding light onto not just “Call Me by Your Name,” but some of Aciman’s other major works as well. Despite the author’s blunt yet romantic caveats and tangents, Janmohamed asked poignant, astute questions that led to some really interesting takeaways.
When asked about his many essay collections and nonfiction pieces, which center around his family being exiled from Egypt in the ’60s, Aciman said, “You write about a thing to understand it. We work around painful moments and look for the undisclosed humor to survive. That’s the gift of writing, it’s like going into an old attic to find things there that you haven’t paid much attention to.” Aciman takes a mature, seasoned approach to his writing. Throughout the talk, it became clear that he follows his own impulse over commonly recited wisdom about writing.
“I don’t use the word ‘love’ at all in my writing. It does not appear once in ‘Call Me by Your Name,’” he said, when asked about the role romance plays in his work. “I don’t write ‘I love you’ because if you use that word ‘love’ in writing, you close the door to everything else. You want to express the inflections of desire and wanting. If you mention the word ‘love,’ you don’t have the courage to examine all the tension that comes with it.”
In “Call Me by Your Name,” homoerotic love and the fumbles of falling for someone are explored, and Jewish identity plays a subtle role, bridging an initial connection between the two men.
“It’s the first thing they have in common. Being Jewish. Even if nothing were to happen, they have something binding them. They cannot undo it, they can only build upon it.”
Despite not being extremely religious himself, Aciman writes about his Jewish identity often in his writing. In “Call Me by Your Name,” he specifically states he uses Judaism as a metaphor for Elio and Oliver’s larger feelings toward one another. Other than that integral part of their identity, both men are not overtly described in the novel.
“I give you three sensations in the book. The smell of rosemary, the sound of the knives being sharpened on Wednesdays, and when everyone naps, the coffee being made. I do not care for physical description in my writing because it does not interest me. I don’t want to know what the people or places look like, I want to know what goes on in the heads of two human beings who are sitting, drinking coffee, trying to find out if there’s anything between them,”
His new book is no exception. Its commitment to the internal emotions which drive the characters’s impulses and actions is flowery and articulate.
“Writing is about doing better than what real life has given you. What writers do, is that we put our work between us and life. And reality. It’s a filter, and that filter is how some of us survive,” Aciman said before reading some passages from his new novel.