Call Me by Your Name Book Club, Part Two: Boundaries Begin to Blur

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Photo: Sony Picture Classics

And we’re back: Vulture’s book club has returned to Italy, to the 1980s, to Billowy and apricocks, and of course, the summer love of Oliver and Elio. This second installment is a supersized edition, where we’re talking through the two middle chapters of André Aciman’s novel Call Me by Your Name: “Monet’s Berm” and “San Clemente Syndrome.” (If you need a quick refresher, here’s our conversation about the first chapter; if you just want the movie’s trailer to leave you bleary-eyed again, have a look at that here.) We mentioned in our introductory post that we’d combine chapters two and three because they’re natural companions: This is when Elio and Oliver’s relationship snaps into focus. There’s less time devoted to deciphering each other’s curt replies, and this is when is when they take their weekend trip to Rome.

A reminder: We’re giving away copies of the novel signed by Aciman, courtesy of our friends at Picador. Keep tweeting, DMing, and commenting your thoughts, and we’ll gift our favorite book birds with a copy of this holy text. Enough housekeeping — onto “Monet’s Berm.”

Hunter: Elio opens chapter two with a visual I really like: He and Oliver are like an M.C. Escher lithograph. He’s confused if he desires Oliver or if he desires to be Oliver, and the young man isn’t sure if these are necessarily separate. “Is it your body that I want when I think of lying next to it every night or do I want to slip into it and own it as if it were my own, as I did when I put on your bathing suit and took it off again.” (page 68) I feel bad calling this narcissism, that sounds too harsh. But this feels like an undercurrent through today’s section, which includes the first time they sleep together, their doublespeak, the peach scene, the poop scene, their trip — Elio feels something for Oliver that’s different than just a lover or a boyfriend. He loves him as reflection of himself and as an extension of himself.

Alex: I keep thinking about Plato’s Symposium, particularly Aristophanes’s speech where he discusses the origin of love (famously rendered in Hedwig and the Angry Inch), because it runs throughout Call Me by Your Name. In the beginning, Aristophanes (or Plato, if you prefer) says that there were three types of people — round cylindrical beings with two sets of faces, arms, legs — male-male, female-female, and male-female. Together, they were one entity and their power came from their togetherness. When they began to challenge Zeus and the rest of the gods on Mount Olympus, he split them asunder into two parts. That is where love comes from, because we’re forever looking for our other half to make us whole again.

Even with Symposium, the narcissism of gay men (which maybe is just a specific form of patriarchy) comes into play, because Aristophanes says that homosexual male desire is the very best kind of love: “Some say they’re most shameless, but they’re wrong: they don’t do it out of shamelessness but out of boldness and courage and masculinity, cleaving to what is like themselves.” He extols the fact that gay men don’t concern themselves with procreation, but instead love what is like themselves. That obsession with sameness is something we see even today with gay men wanting to be “boyfriend twins” where they look for a carbon copy of themselves.

But back to Call Me by Your Name. Take the first time when Elio and Oliver have sex: “Something unexpected seemed to clear away between us, and, for a second, it seemed there was absolutely no difference in age between us, just two men kissing, and even this seemed to dissolve, as I began to feel we were not even two men, just two beings. I loved the egalitarianism of the moment.” (page 132) This desire to blur boundaries, to literally become one person, one purely male being, is the emotional core of the book. It’s why Elio and Oliver want to wear the same clothes, to have sex, to swap spit, and, of course, eat the other’s cum. Oliver says, “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine” because they would fuse together if they could.

We should probably talk about the peach.

Hunter: Yes, exactly! That reminds me of the bathroom scene in “San Clemente Syndrome,” where Elio asks that Oliver not flush so they can defecate together. That felt like an intimacy that I appreciated but couldn’t entirely connect with. I’m not sure that egalitarianism, that total synchronicity happens in heterosexual relationships. That scene has a lot to do with keeping their bodies totally united, but also keeping things a little mischievous. By the time they’re in Rome, Elio seems tickled that he’s had this whole “secret” romance. He’s using the word shame still — “Each time we swore my body is your body, it was also because I enjoyed rekindling the tiny lantern of unsuspected shame” (page 172) — but differently now. And so I wonder if he was ever ashamed or just embarrassed in chapter one, uncomfortable that Oliver could get him in such a flurry.

But yes, let’s get to the peach: Oliver isn’t just eating the cum Elio ejaculates into the fruit after masturbating with it, and that’s what I love about it! I think it’s different than how they reach toward sameness by wearing one another’s clothes or repeating the other’s sentences. He’s swallowing all of Elio and every version of Elio, which includes those ancestors he names after. “Just think of the number of people who’ve come before you — you, your grandfather, your great-great-grandfather, and all the skipped generations of Elios before you, and those from places far away, all squeezed into this trickle that makes you who you are. Now may I taste it?” (page 148) Elio says it made him so emotional because “something that was mine was in his mouth,” but really I think he’s taken with the idea that someone else can be so enamored and curious about all the Elios before him, so devoted to whatever Elios there will be after him. Am I reaching here? Elio goes on many tangents wondering if his children will know about this summer, about him and Oliver. The irony is that he thinks these things while showing a total lack of curiosity about his parents’ inner — or former — lives.

Tell me if I’m reaching about the peach scene, but I also want to know what you think about Elio juggling two relationships this summer. He’s with Oliver, of course, but he’s also pursuing this side thing with Marzia. At first it’s out of convenience — he has all of these desires and doesn’t think things with Oliver will pan out — but then it grows into this whole other type of affection for her, which I discounted at first. It’s like you said in our first conversation: Call Me by Your Name doesn’t obsess over nomenclature. There’s no talk of defining these relationships or coming out or identifying as anything, because Elio identifies as Oliver. I keep going back and forth on how Marzia fits into this, because I think she’s an important relationship, and not just a foil.

Alex: Desire feels really fluid in this book, which is why I would say that Elio and Oliver are in a gay relationship, but aren’t necessarily gay, because I do think it’s a fairly recent category. (That said, I think Oliver is actually more “gay” in this sense of the word, but we can revisit this next week.) Elio in particular seems to love love. When he’s at the bookstore in Rome and he’s holding onto the older woman’s hand, he’s so swept up by the scene that he feels like he could have had “made love to her this minute and wept with her.” He is, as he says, like a livewire. I think he gets caught up in moments like that with Marzia too, where he’s taken by how she’s interested in him, her own lack of guile, her defense mechanisms, which I think mirror his own. In some unwitting ways I think he sees himself in her too.

But the peach. After he eats the peach, Oliver says, “Whatever happens between us, Elio, I just want you to know. Don’t ever say you didn’t know.” (page 150) Elio is plagued by an inner monologue of doubt, and Oliver eradicates it with one peach.

Reading it this time around, there’s a passage that I keep returning to. Elio realizes that fall is coming, which means that Oliver will leave, and that their relationship will be over. “I suddenly realized that we were on borrowed time, that time is always borrowed, and that the lending agency exacts its premium precisely when we are least prepared to pay and need to borrow more.” (page 162) So Elio keeps taking mental snapshots of Oliver so that he can keep them for the future when he is gone. And that’s so much of what the book is, these bright, almost overexposed images that he’s holding onto. The loss is palpable.

Hunter: I want to talk more about that doubt, because Marzia summarizes it really nicely when she confronts Elio with her feelings for him. “People who read are hiders. They hide who they are. People who hide don’t always like who they are… You’re always changing your mind, always slipping, so no one knows where to find you.” (page 115) Elio always puts himself down and can get so self-conscious, but his real fear is of Oliver going out to play poker, of Oliver having other friends and girlfriends, of him living within their love and outside it. Him eating the peach is his way of saying there’s only this for him.

I keep having to remind myself that all of what we’re reading right now are memories. Elio is a great storyteller, but when the book starts, he’s telling this story in the past tense. We’ve talked at length about how Elio is an unreliable narrator because we’re only seeing his perspective, and maybe he’s warping certain interactions bigger or smaller in retrospect. In these two chapters, though, we’re get a much fuller portrait of Oliver. He says his first real “moment” with Elio wasn’t even a story Elio assigned any significance to (they were just talking about poetry, and held one another’s gaze for a beat too long when Elio blushed). Oliver is much shier than Elio gave him credit for in the first chapter. I like thinking about Oliver’s boyishness, and maybe about how he’s gotten used to being, ahem, looked at, but not really being seen.

Call Me by Your Name Book Club: Blurring Boundaries