Call Me by Your Name Book Club, Part One: Longing Stares and Unreliable Narrators

By
Photo: Sony Picture Classics

Here we are, as promised: It’s time to join us for the first installment of Vulture’s new book club, which we’re launching with André Aciman’s novel Call Me by Your Name. Last week, we discussed the question of whether you should read the book before watching the film, so if you’re here, it means you’ve made the right choice. Also, this is an official announcement that we’ll be giving out copies of Call Me by Your Name signed by André Aciman as part of a lovely partnership with our good friends at Picador. We’ll be giving them to our favorite commenters, chosen by us, because this is our book club dammit, and someone has to make some choices.

For this first chapter, we’ll be discussing Part One, “If Not Later, When?” when our narrator, the precocious 17-year-old Elio, first meets Oliver, the 24-year-old grad student studying pre-Socratic philosophy, who begins his stay with Elio and his family for six weeks in the summer. So let’s dive in: It’s all suntan lotion, charm, and billowy blue shirts from here on out.

Alex: While Joan Didion wrote that it was easier to see the beginnings of things than the ends, for our narrator Elio, it’s supremely difficult. It’s hard for him to pinpoint exactly when “it started” — that is, the love, the lust, and the obsession. Starting the book, you’re thrown midstream into his memories, and I love the way time moves — or rather, doesn’t — in this section. It’s somewhat chronological — he begins by remembering the first time he sees Oliver, espadrilles worn down, a casual Later! to the cab, but everything starts to overlap, like waves crashing in on one another. We’re in Elio’s head from the outset, and it’s a place of utter transfixion that feels both boundless and finite. The days are filled with the monotony of poolside lounging, afternoon bike rides, and dinner drudgery until there’s finally something to linger on, like when Oliver picks up a glass that falls onto the grass for Elio, and he tells him, “I wanted to.” There’s not enough time, so instead Elio stretches these moments out further, to infinity, so that he can truly luxuriate in them. To apricate, as it were.

Hunter: I kind of love that there isn’t one moment — one conversation, one glimmer of intimacy — that started Elio’s obsession with Oliver. All of a sudden, Oliver is there, and Elio is obsessed with him: It reminds me of a line from one of the movie’s last scenes, when Elio says very plainly that “Oliver was Oliver.” They just naturally fall into this awkward dance of intimacy: the glares, the silence, the codes, the desire disguised as apathy. Is it because Elio isn’t sure exactly what he wants, just that he wants it all, and so ferociously, that they build their own language? Some days they’re talking and some days they’re not not talking. Elio gives codes to Oliver’s green, blue, and red swimming trunks to classify his mood shifts.

I particularly love this line, when the house is empty except for Elio and Oliver, and he’s sitting alone in his room willing Oliver to come visit: “Fire like fear, like panic, like one more minute of this and I’ll die if he doesn’t knock at my door, but I’d sooner he never knock than knock now.” There’s something about that ambivalence that is so childish and devastating. I know you’re struck by the time element here, Alex, but I’m so moved by how deeply insecure and almost self-hating Elio can be. He sees Oliver as this perfect, aloof creature, but also seems to suspect that Oliver is a higher, greater version of himself.

Alex: Desiring someone else is often about seeing attributes in someone else that you would like to have yourself. Oliver is comfortable with himself — sometimes maddeningly so — in a way that Elio envies. Part of this is about Jewishness, which in turn, is about home. Oliver is comfortable with his Jewishness in a way that Elio and his family, “Jews of discretion,” have never been. In Oliver, Elio finds a “brother in the desert” (sidenote: I loved this phrasing as a way to say that Elio was checking out Oliver’s dick). Moreover, desiring Oliver allows Elio to be more himself. He says, “When I’m with you and we’re well together, there is nothing more I want. You make me like who I am, who I become when you’re with me, Oliver.”

Something I like about this first section too is how it’s clear that Elio is an unreliable narrator. He doesn’t actually know what’s going on, or even how he feels. For instance, there’s the perceived courtship that Elio suspects between Oliver and a female friend, Chiara. When Elio comes upon them out in the town, he assumes they’re on a date, so when he sees that Chiara “[seems] upset” he assumes it’s because he’s crashing. Only later on, Oliver outright tells Elio that he’s not interested in Chiara, and he tells him, “I’m not playing this game with either her or you.” It’s clear that Oliver is his own person that exists outside of Elio’s mind. It throws all of Elio’s other interpretations, “the cold and icy glare” and the perceived slights, into question. How do you think Oliver emerges in this text outside of Elio? Can he exist outside of that desire?

Hunter: Oliver is such an outsize presence from his entrance: He drops casual Americanisms like “Later!” and “Just a sec.” Everyone in the family has little nicknames for him, or responds to his nicknames for them: “il cauboi,” “Signor Ulliva,” “la muvi star.” That makes me think that some of Elio’s observations about him seem objectively true. But the way Elio spends so much time thinking and overthinking and then rethinking the minutiae of their interactions make it impossible for us to see him clearly. But do I hope that the way Elio sifts through every syllable and smirk and inflection allows him hear Oliver’s coded messages? Duh. I want Elio to be right, that this love is really beginning.

That brings me to my favorite element of this first part: Elio is such a romantic, unreliable narrator, and I’m glad you brought this up. His heady and neurotic gaze, these internal back and forths (“All I really wanted was one night with him, just one night — one hour, even — if only to determine whether I wanted him for another night after that”) really describe how we’re usually not the authorities on our own feelings. And especially, more to your question, on the people we like. Elio himself starts to wonder who Oliver is outside of his desire, and feels so uncomfortable about Oliver’s life outside of that gaze: “Don’t let him be someone else when he’s away. Don’t let him be someone I’ve never seen before. Don’t let him have a life other than the life I know he has with us, with me.”

Something that I’ve forgotten since the first time I read it is how lonely Elio is in this. Having a crush is really such a solitary thing, especially in this situation, when Elio is so ashamed of his sexuality. What are you making of the supporting characters in this?

Alex: Poor, poor Chiara. But really, poor, poor Marzia, who becomes collateral damage in this courtship. It’s even worse considering that Elio puts the moves on Marzia because of an interaction with Oliver. Elio is drunk on a sentence — a sentence! — that Oliver says to him in conversation. “He reads Paul Celan,” he tells Chiara of Elio. That, of course, was the morsel of attention that Elio had craved: simply that he referenced a prior conversation. The “heady elation” then prompts him to do the very stupid thing of going swimming, and then kissing, Marzia afterward. She tells him not to tell anyone, and in the next scene, he brags about it at breakfast. That scene is hilarious precisely because it shows just how young Elio is, and how he isn’t aware that he might be the villain in someone else’s narrative. Moreover, that he’s treating someone the way he doesn’t want to be treated by Oliver. Ah, perspective.

What makes you think that Elio is ashamed of his sexuality?

Hunter: Doesn’t he say as much? Flirting with Oliver is one thing, but he doesn’t want to tell anyone that he’s gotten so attached to another man. I’m thinking specifically of these lines: “I was still under the illusion that, barring what I’d read in books, inferred from rumors, and overheard in bawdy talk all over, no one my age had ever wanted to be both man and woman — with men and women. I had wanted other men my age before and had slept with women. But before he’d stepped out of the cab and walked into our home, it would never have seemed remotely possible that someone so thoroughly okay with himself might want me to share his body as much as I ached to yield up mine.” There’s horniness there — Elio’s aching to share his body — and the acknowledgment that he’s desired men before. Oliver is that desire manifested, which is part of what makes Elio such an unreliable narrator. He knows he’s feeling this passion, but doesn’t always admit to it.

Alex: I guess I got caught on the word shame. Reading this, I’m struck by the lack of shame around loving Oliver and possibly being a gay man. (Something we can discuss later too is the lack of identitarian nomenclature.) Exploring gay desire here seems almost utopian for Elio: it’s this small, insulated bubble where he can explore his love without much judgment or fear of recrimination. (I do think it’s different for Oliver, though). Elio’s parents seem perfect in this way: They’re supportive without being smothering; they encourage him to go out and be in the world rather than simply in books. This isn’t to say that the specter of homophobia doesn’t exist in the world, but that Elio is in a little oasis where he can explore the shape of his desire.

Call Me by Your Name Book Club: If Not Later, When?