On May 11th, 2018, Jedediah Purdy, Robinson O. Everett Professor of Law at Duke Law School, delivered the Third Annual Humanities Lecture, an event co-sponsored by the NYIH and Princeton University Press. For those who could not attend in person, we're pleased to share this recording of the lecture.
André Aciman is an American memoirist, essayist, and New York Times bestselling novelist originally from Alexandria, Egypt. He has also written many essays and reviews on Marcel Proust. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, The New Republic, Condé Nast Traveler, The Paris Review, Granta as well as in many volumes of The Best American Essays.
Aciman received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University and, after teaching at Princeton University and Bard College, is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York. He is currently chair of the Ph. D. Program in Comparative Literature and founder and director of The Writers' Institute at the Graduate Center. He has also taught creative writing at New York University, Cooper Union, and Yeshiva University. In 2009, Aciman was also Visiting Distinguished Writer at Wesleyan University.
Aciman is the author of the Whiting Award-winning memoir Out of Egypt, an account of his childhood as a Jew growing up in post-colonial Egypt. His books and essays have been translated in many languages. In addition, he has published several novels and collections of essays.
We talked to him about the feature-film adaptation of his award-winning novel Call Me by Your Name, nominated in this year’s Best Picture category at the Academy Awards.
Congratulations! What a pleasure to be talking to you. You've mentioned to me that the film
has taken eight years from start to finish. Was that process stressful?
My philosophy was that it'll never happen. Everybody would turn it down at the last minute because they’d get a better project. So even when they said, ‘We've already scoped out the town’, I said, ‘Yeah sure! You've scoped out many towns before.’ Even when they had started rolling, I said, 'Yeah yeah, let's see what happens.' That was my attitude.
So much for putting positive vibes out in the universe.
Oh no. Positive vibes from me? Are you kidding? But it is stressful now, because a lot of people are reading the book and a lot of people are seeing the movie. I get a lot of mail and its really good so I want to respond, but I have to tell myself: ‘Wait a minute, you're supposed to be writing another book, you're not supposed to be doing email!’
But you have to celebrate a little!
I don't know how to do that. But I'm not a cynic, I'm a stoic. When something bad happens, I don't take it that seriously either. It is my temperament to be very even keeled about these things. I don't let myself—or perhaps I don't know how to ride the tide when its really high. And it’s been very high. I know people around me who are very, very excited. And then there's André.
Could you talk to me about your emotional journey while writing the book?
I don't know that there was one. I wrote it because I was frustrated. We used to rent a house in Italy every summer. That year we decided we couldn't for a variety of reasons and I felt, gee, I’m cheated of that. I had this picture of Monet's house at home that made me want to go and live there. I remember exactly the day. It was April 5th , 2005. I got up out of bed and just started writing a story about a house in Italy. It was an alley of pines—that's the driveway. Gradually I realized I had written thirty pages within a few days. It was consuming, and within three months I'd finished the
The book deals with such profound subject matter—love and longing—it's incredible to me that you went through it in three short months.
Because I had thought about those issues a great deal. I've always thought about desire. I'm particularly fond of the idea of inhibited desire. Every time we desire someone when we first meet them, we're ashamed of ourselves. We may think of it as normal but we're actually ashamed to tell them that we desire them. That we want to see them naked and that we want to get naked with them. But the point is that any form of desire invites denial, repression, inhibition, shame. I've always felt an instinct to say ‘no, no, no’ whenever I’ve desired someone. I convince myself that I really don’t desire them, or that she’s married, or whatever. That's my specialty. To be inhibited and ashamed. All I was doing in the book was creating a character called Elio and giving him all my inhibitions. Elio is very upfront about what he wants. He knows what he wants but he doesn't know if he has the courage to say it. That it happens to be gay desire does not in any way impinge—he would be ashamed if he were with a girl as well.
Do you agree that that energy translated into film as well?
I think it so. It was captured very well by the director, Luca Guadagnino. He understood intimacy. And intimacy is something that I've always prized in my life. When you become them, and they become you, and you have no shame left. For instance, when something embarrassing happens to you and you want to share it instead of hiding it. A lot of people don't do that, especially in this country.
Right. Someone paraphrased a quote to me a couple of weeks ago that has stayed with me. It goes something like: in America you have friendship without intimacy and in India you have intimacy without friendship.
It is perfect. It is absolutely perfect. I would throw friendship out the window in a minute. It’s nice but intimacy...I think the concept of real friendship is holy, the kind you had when you were a kid. Those are intimate friendships. There is a scene in the film which nobody has ever spoken about, but for me it is so clear. The two guys are sitting together by the window. Timothée [Chalamet] has his legs over Armie Hammer. At some point Armie just raises his foot and kisses it. You don't do that with just anyone. In other words, these people have become so close that it doesn't matter what part of the body they touch.
Speaking of this, do you feel like the film could have been more sexually explicit?
A lot has been said about that. I've been following it on and off. There are times when I feel the film may have been too chaste. On the other hand, at this point in my life, I don't like to see sex of any kind on the screen. Just the intimation of two people together is enough. The book tends to be far more graphic. There are certain specifics which are mentioned which emphasize the degree to which they were close. You can't show those things because then it becomes porn. And I think that Luka was very, very cautious to avoid that. If he keeps it erotic, that's already plenty. The famous peach scene is a case in point. In the book, he eats the peach. In the film he just dips his finger in it. That's good enough. We get it.
I thought that scene was hauntingly beautiful because of the way in which Elio breaks down just after that.
Isn't that amazing, the fact that he burst out crying just at that moment?
I think that' one of the most powerful scenes in the film—and there are a lot of powerful scenes—but that one is in the book. The one scene that I could never have done, and never anticipated doing, and couldn't have written is the last scene.
The crying. Well he's not even crying that much. He's tearing up a bit. That was such a surprise to me.
That was phenomenal.
I think so, I think so. I told the director that that scene was better than anything I could have done to end the book. I thought it was done beautifully. Its superb art.
You’ve talked often about how you’ve had your say and now it’s somebody else’s turn. Could you say more about that?
A woman once said this to me when I published a book. She said, “You've had your say now let the critics have their say. There's nothing you can do to stop them.” This is why I was always accepting of the new voice, whether it was of a critic or a filmmaker. I sold my book. It did well. It was very well reviewed. End of story. I should be happy. I trusted the filmmakers because there was no point in not. I had the story, of course, and I had a style. I took that more seriously than the plot itself. I knew that style could not be transcribed or adapted. You couldn't do that in the film unless you had a voiceover, which would have been too heavy handed. The book is extremely interior. It’s all Elio and nobody else. So they had to find a way around that. On Elio’s face in the film, you're always seeing what he's thinking and feeling. He doesn't always cry or erupt but you can see it on his face. That, for me, was the perfect translation of the stream of consciousness in the novel itself. I had seen Luca's previous film called I Am Love and I thought to myself: he is a direct inheritor of the tradition of Visconti. Visconti did Death In Venice, he did The Leopard. I'm in very good hands,
whatever happens. He is the perfect person. I totally understood that they are artists. And eventually it was just like I thought.
Can you talk to me about your new work?
No! It's a series of three novellas. They're all interrelated - not plot wise, but it's the same issue that comes up repeatedly. It's about young people who have a relationship with an older person, and about what that the younger person is looking for.
Interview by Anaka Kaundinya
Photo ©Sigrid Estrada
Congratulations on your new position at the Times. What has the transition from Slate been like? How does the culture differ at the Times, and does that affect what you write about or how?
Obviously at the Times I am very aware of being a part of a venerable institution. Slate’s been around for twenty years but it still has a little bit of the feeling of a startup. I was one of the older people in the circle I worked with at Slate and I’m one of the younger of the people I work with at the Times. Slate is still a “new media” company. I’m still getting used to the “grown-up-ness” of the Times, let me put it that way.
In terms of coverage and style, the sensibilities are different. At the Times there is less of a “knowing” sensibility than at Slate. You have the privilege of this incredible reach, and your audience is a lot more heterodox, which means that at the Times you are more likely to be presenting a story to readers who wouldn’t otherwise know about it. I think one example is my writing a few weeks ago about the Jane Doe abortion case in Texas, about a 17-year-old migrant girl from Central America basically being held hostage by the Trump administration.
What is like to be a political journalist, especially a commentary writer, in the Trump era?
Being a human being in the Trump era is a fucking misery. But being a journalist and commentator in the Trump era is, in some senses, a privilege. I’ve never had a week at the Times—it’s early days yet, of course—where I have a column coming up and I’m casting about for something to write about. There is always something to write about—more things than any one person could write about.
I don’t think there’s much use in trying to persuade people, except perhaps on the margins, but I do think there is value in helping people think through this calamitous place in which we have found ourselves. To show those who are grieving and discombobulated that they are not alone and their reactions are valid.
How would you describe the overarching themes or preoccupations or intellectual questions that drive your writing?
For a long time I was interested in the changing role of women in society and the connections between that and modernity and the backlash to modernity. Now, to be honest, I feel like I have one subject, like everyone else, and that is the dismantling—whether temporary or permanent—of American democracy under Donald Trump.
One of the major subjects of your writing is sexual politics. Your book The Means of Reproduction, for example, looked at the international battle over reproductive rights and the legacy of the emancipation of women. Where do you see sexual politics going after Harvey Weinstein?
I think it is hard to say because the situation is strangely bifurcated. You have all this accountability in liberal institutions where it is possible to hold people to account mainly because they are acting hypocritically. Harvey Weinstein was espousing a certain set of values while acting in a starkly different way. Eventually the tension between what people are saying they believe and how they are acting becomes too much to bear. And in this case it gave all these brave women and journalists leverage and a way to force change. You don’t really have that with Trump and the Republicans. They don’t espouse women’s equality and they don’t enact women’s equality. I think that’s one reason for the disappointment among the people who have been harassed by Trump—this apparent new age of accountability and progress hasn’t extended to them.
There has been a lot of debate lately in liberal circles about identity politics and their role in progressive politics. What are your thoughts?
It’s a broad question. I think it’s misleading to act like there’s a bright line between what we call “identity politics” and economic issues. A lot of the things that we think about as identity politics—reproductive rights, pay discrimination, family leave, civil rights protections in employment and housing—are all economic issues.
I think it is a mistake to think that the future of the Democratic Party lies in trying to win back a white majority. Obviously the Democrats need to speak to all of the working class, including the white working class. But I think one of the lessons of Trump’s election was that, actually, a lot of the white working class is also driven by “identity politics” and cultural concerns. I think the Left should be willing to meet all the economic demands of the white working class and basically none of its cultural demands. But everything we’ve seen so far suggests that that’s not a bargain the white working class is interested in. My sense is that the future of Democratic politics lies in reanimating the Obama coalition.
The media industry has changed a lot during the course of your career. Where do you see journalism going? What advice would you give to young journalists trying to break into the field today?
The media industry is in such dire straits right now that I don’t think I can even venture a prediction. I also don’t think I can really give advice about the business side of it. I’ve been so lucky. The one constant in my career is this amazing good fortune. For that reason I sometimes feel that to give advice would be like thinking you can give investment advice because you won the lottery.
Are you working on any projects you can talk about? You’ve already written three books; is there another one on the horizon?
I was about to start work on a book about the aftermath of the election, and I put it on hold briefly so I can devote all my attention to the Times. But I plan on revisiting it at some point. I think it will be a book about what we’ve lost in this disastrous period, and if and how a democracy can recover from what’s being done to it right now.
Interview by J. Oliver Conroy
Photo by Matt Ipcar
How did this project come about?
This project came about because of a remarkable day – biographers are very attached to exact dates – April 21, 1995. I was halfway through my biography of Saul Bellow, and I had spent another weird, stimulating day with him, and he said, “You should really write a book about writing this book.”
Which is something I had been thinking of for some time, being an assiduous student of Boswell and his Life of Johnson, in which Boswell becomes a character, perhaps the major character of his book – not at the expense of his subject and certainly not in competition with his subject, but as a way of seeing his subject whole. I didn’t do that at the time, but I kept thinking about it and thinking about it and some fifteen years later I realized this was what I wanted to do.
The Shadow in the Garden is how Bellow described a biographer. He said the biographer is “the shadow of a tombstone in the garden.” In other words the harbinger of death, but I left the tombstone part out because it was more felicitous.
How would you describe the art of biography from the point of view of the biographer? What makes biography different from other genres of nonfiction writing?
It’s really an effort to see your subject from within. That is, we imagine the biographer as an objective figure, standing outside his subject and recording and investigating what can be learned and known, but what I discovered after a lifetime of this is that the biographer is utterly emmeshed in the subject and can’t separate himself out. So the only way you can really write biography – whether the biographer’s presence is explicitly in the text or not – is to be aware of this relationship. You can be “correct,” you can be “accurate,” but you cannot be “objective.”
In terms of the second part of your question, when you think of writing history, it is possible to remove yourself from the story you are trying to tell – well, except in the deepest psychoanalytic sense. But in biography, there is one central figure, and you have established a human relationship with the subject, and you have to mediate somehow this illusion of objectivity. Which, again, is not to absolve the biographer of responsibility for accuracy. But what you have there is a relationship, like any other relationship – a marriage or a friendship. You’re in it, whether you want to be or not.
Your book is partly about the relationship between a biographer and his subjects, and how strong that relationship can be even in cases, as with Delmore Schwartz, when the subject is dead before you begin writing. What would you say drew you to your subjects, Schwartz and Saul Bellow?
I have a distinction I make in the book between “overt” and “covert” biography. For whatever reasons I seem to be a writer of overt biographies, in which the connection between subject and biographer is quite explicit in the biographical sense.
In the case of Delmore, I was a young poet, and he was born the same year as my father, and he came from the same Jewish immigrant background, and he went to the same colleges, and he knew my teacher at Harvard, Robert Lowell, and all of this conspired to make him a very intriguing figure to me and someone in whose life I could perhaps find certain keys to my own.
This was even more the case with Bellow. I’m from Chicago, and his life intersected my family’s life in tangential, not significant, ways. Nonetheless it was a way of thinking about, writing and researching about, a world I knew about secondhand and wanted to know firsthand.
There is that old adage that cautions against meeting your heroes, because you’ll inevitably be disappointed. Do you think that’s true?
Yes. I feel quite definitively I understood Delmore better than I understood Bellow because I was able to write about Delmore without my perspective being adulterated, as it were, by familiarity. Whereas with Bellow, as great as he was – a Nobel laureate and the greatest writer of English prose at that time – he was also a person, and unfortunately a rather annoying person. And I was probably annoying too, so we got rather entangled there.
I remember Scott Turow, my friend and writer colleague from the North Shore of Chicago, wrote a piece in The Atlantic where he said he didn’t want to meet Bellow. And he never did. Because Bellow was his hero too, but he thought, wisely, that he would just keep his distance. I don’t think he has any regrets about that.
This is a book in which you are partly the subject, but that doesn’t mean you just sat down and wrote; you clearly did a lot of digging, just as you would when doing a biography of someone else. What kind of research did you do, and how does one go about researching one’s own life?
How does one do this kind of research? I wish I did more. But I did write down everything Bellow said to me, for a decade. I had the sense to just do that, without knowing why. And I had other scattered notes, and so on. But what I would say is, if you want to write about your life in any way, you need to keep a journal. Alfred Kazin fanatically kept a journal for every day of his life. And then he would quarry them for a book like New York Jew. All the material was there. That made his books very vivid, that one in particular. You just can’t remember otherwise. You have to write it down.
One of the settings that your book conveys very vividly is this lost world of New York intellectuals – a time and place when someone could live in New York on the income of a poet or a literary critic and have a decent standard of living. That world seems so far gone. Is it?
When I got to New York in 1977 it was already over. I didn’t know anyone who lived like that. Me and my friends were all professionals. We had careers. My first job was a corporate job at Time Magazine and I was paid lots of money by those standards. But I couldn’t have lived in the Village like these people did. The ones that I interviewed and knew – Kazin and Rahv and all these Partisan Review intellectuals – were harking back to the 1940s, to the postwar period. My book is not only an elegy for a lost period, but an elegy for a period I didn’t even know.
Now, of course, it’s worse. Even the life I led when I first came to New York you couldn’t lead now; those magazines are dead or dying. Well, there are people who do – staff writers in their 40s and 50s who work for magazines like The New Yorker and so on. They seem to be making their way. But they aren’t writing for little magazines and they aren’t living on Horatio Street.
What is your next project?
Alas, I can’t talk about it. I just can’t. I am even further from realizing what I am trying to do with this one than with my last book. One thing I don’t think people understand is that when you start a book you have no idea what you’re doing. I would say: if I have a really good proposal a year from now I will be happy. That’s how that works.
Interview by J. Oliver Conroy
Photo by Michael Lionstar
We mourn the passing of long-time NYIH fellow Linda Nochlin, whose groundbreaking work changed art history and criticism and enriched all of our lives. A great teacher whose scholarship and engagement encouraged a generation of students to follow in her footsteps, she was also a tremendous colleague and friend to decades of NYIH fellows.