Going astray with André Aciman

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The author of “Call Me by Your Name” talks about the Oscars, his Upper West Side favorites and all the lives that could have been.


  • Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer  star in “Call Me by Your Name," the Oscar-nominated film based on André Aciman's 2007 novel of the same name. Photo courtesy Sony Pictures

  • Novelist André Aciman. Photo: Sigrid Estrada

In the beginning, the writer André Aciman wasn't taking the story of two young men who fall in love on the Tuscan Riviera one summer very seriously. Aciman, struggling with a novel, did what he often does when feeling blocked: he rode the subway, took out his pen and started writing. That's when Elio, a 17-year-old student, and Oliver, a research assistant who comes to work for Elio's professor father, found their way onto the page.

But for Aciman, subway writing didn't count, so there was a freedom that came with chiseling away at Elio and Oliver's courtship and romance. One thing led to another, and what started as off-the-record subway writing became the acclaimed novel “Call Me by Your Name.”

It's more than a little ironic that the novel, now an Oscar-nominated film, began as a detour. Director Luca Guadagnino's film starring Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet brings Aciman's coming-of-age narrative and piercing study of desire to life. When we caught up with Aciman at a café near his Upper West Side apartment, he reminded us that “Call Me by Your Name” is also a story of the power of what's left off the page.

First thing first. “Call Me by You Name” is nominated for four Oscars, so congratulations. What was your reaction when you first heard about it?

About the Oscars? Because I'm very superstitious, I won't allow myself to think that it's going to happen. But then if I deny that I do that, then I'm still guilty. So there's a part of me that is ecstatic, and then another one that is totally repressed and won't even admit that it's happened.

Whenever a book is turned into a film, people always want to know what it got wrong. But you've spoken very highly of the film and the director, so I'm curious if you learned anything about your own novel by watching the movie.

The film does things that are amazing. I thought the father scene, though it's lifted almost verbatim from the book, I thought it was so beautifully done that I forgot what the words were. I knew the words, but it was powerful. And then the final scene was exceptional. It was something that was not in the book. I think you've read that I've said to the director, “The ending of your movie is better than the ending of my book, because it just arrests you.”

That must have been very validating to see your novel inspire a piece of art that you admire.

What validates it even more, almost palpably, is when I walked into the theater the second time — the first time was in Berlin, and I don't know the audience in Berlin — at Alice Tully Hall and it was the premier here in New York City. I walked in, and I was sitting among the audience, and I kept thinking to myself, my god, everybody in this room — and it's filled to capacity, a thousand people or more — they're all here because of something that I cooked up right across the street here [motions to his apartment building] and I said, are they really here for this? Could it be?

For me, the most amazing moment was when somebody on the stage said you know, the author is in the audience, could he please stand up? And I'm going no, I'm not going to stand up. But my son was with me, he says you've got to stand up, otherwise they think you're not here. I said OK, that's a good reason to stand up. So I stood up and everybody sort of turned — it was an acclamation, before the movie even started. For me it was a highly New York experience. Basically the best of New York was there.

My experience of reading the book was that Elio knew my heart, and what I mean by that is his self-doubt, the sense of being fractured, the way he anticipates loss before it happened, all felt very personal. What was it like to write something that resonates with so many people?

I've always written about how we react to other people who intimidated us. I've always written about people who make me feel ashamed of wanting to touch them. And I've also written about the fear of offending someone. I mean, these are things that I've lived through, and I know them.... All hope I've done, for those people who never took the time to understand what they were going through, was to give them a kind of map, or a kind of grid, where they can chart the course of how they themselves went from A to B to C.

The best example I can give you is we all use the words “in love,” “in lust,” “infatuation,” and these are words that are given to us, but what do they really mean? I have no idea. So I've never used the word love in this book. I didn't want to spell it out because you do, then you close the door, you don't leave it open so that other things can come in. And I also have never used the word gay. I didn't want this to be a political tract, or a book that was engaged with what was going on. Because I said that even using that word would harden the fluidity of desire, and desire's a very weird thing because we can never know when it rises and abates. It's always easier to writer from the point of view of a young person because that gives it a sort of innocence, a sort of directness.

One of my favorite passages from the book is about the other path, the traviamento. It made me wonder about the other path that you might have taken. What would that be?

Oh god, I don't know. But the idea was that Dante is meant to have had a moment in his life when he went astray, as he said. There's a whole debate in the book about all the possibilities: do we go astray when we don't go astray? Or, you know, you have to go astray at least once in your life. But I think that is the real story of the novel, the thing that never did occur. In Elio's case, there was a lot of courage in ultimately letting the truth out. He didn't make a speech, he let it slip out.... But I think that most of us, when it comes to that dangerous moment, that revelatory moment, we kind of shy away, or we find an excuse, or we disbelieve what the other person actually meant.

Has teaching at CUNY informed your perspective as a New Yorker, and as a writer?

I'm a very good teacher. This is one of the few things I can say with a straight face. Because I think that when you read a book, one reads for many reasons, but I only look at one thing. I look at the style of the writer, and I want to speak about the humanity that is dying to speak itself though the style. Which means that I hate any kind of -ism that is attached to any form of literature. Bad literature, I don't care, you can do with it what you want. But if you're going to be studying Thucydides, which is my favorite book, you can't just talk about the point of view of the Jew, the point of view of the gay person, the point of view of the women, the point of view of the subaltern, the oppressed, what is it, post-colonialism? All that stuff, I hate it, because it's a way of not really delving into what the actual book is struggling to say.

I read that you really like Straus Park. Why is that?

The real reason is that I like it. I like the statue, and the spot. But if I try to use the word excavate.... I tried to see Straus Park as a place where I could be at the center and imagine that I am in those places of the world that I have been close to: London, Paris, Rome, Italy, particularly the beaches. It's all fantasy and projection, but being in Straus park allowed me, as a writer, to write about Straus Park as if it's a construct of a displaced person trying to find his own home. Through time, and through space.

But is this what really happens? I don't know. When I go to Straus Park, I like to either have a pizza or read a bit.

Oooh. Where do you get pizza?

That's a good question. Now you're talking. I go to Sal & Carmine's, on 100th and Broadway. Among the best pizza in New York I think.

Is there anywhere you find foods from your childhood in Egypt?

There's a place, I think it's called Jerusalem [Restaurant], which I have not been to in probably 25 years because it's so full of garlic, but the smell instantly takes me back to Egypt, and I love that. The irony is that when I was in Egypt, and I'd pass by a falafel vendor — they're all over the place — I would just feel myself nostalgic for New York, on Broadway, where there's Jerusalem falafel. Here I am, in Egypt, the capital of falafel for me, where I grew up with it, and I'm thinking of New York.

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