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