By Sahir Avik D’souza
André Aciman’s first novel, Call Me By Your Name, was published in 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It is the story of the brief and intense romance of two young men in Italy of the 1980s. Elio is seventeen years old, spending the summer with his parents, swimming, listening to music, reading; Oliver is an American student who comes to stay six weeks. In this short period, the two of them discover a deeply affecting bond. But their time together is transient, and Oliver returns home; he is married soon. The novel ends by skipping ahead fifteen and twenty years and describing Elio and Oliver’s brief late-life meetings. It was adapted into a film of the same name in 2017; the film, however, ends with Oliver’s departure after the summer. Here, I will be focussing largely on the book.
Call Me By Your Name is narrated in the first person by Elio, so we are always inside his mind, listening to his thoughts. We follow him through his agonised back-and-forth coping with his feelings for Oliver, their eventual coming together and fleeting love, their three-day trip to Rome (where they are, for the first and only time, entirely alone), and then his brief encounters with Oliver in the subsequent years of his life.
Throughout, Aciman never uses words critics and fans have used countless times: “homosexual”, “bisexual”, “same-sex” and so on. He allows for the relationships of the characters to take shape before our eyes without any effort to define, label or box them. This refusal to name or pin down is an inherent trait of a novel whose narrator is ferociously undecided while also being ferociously passionate. He knows exactly what he wants, and yet he wants the opposite as well. In this article, I will examine ambiguity in Call Me By Your Name, with relation to sexuality and self- discovery.
SEXUALITY AND SELF- DISCOVERY IN CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Sex and sexuality are major themes in Call Me By Your Name. Elio’s passion for Oliver is as deeply physical as it is emotional. However, once again, his and Oliver’s sexuality or sexual orientation is never labelled by Aciman. As I have previously observed, words like “homosexual” or “gay” are never used to describe their relationship. Both Elio and Oliver are shown to be still figuring out their sexuality. While Elio’s feelings for Oliver rage, he also carries on an affair with a young woman named Marzia. And while his desire for Oliver is the book’s focus, his relationship with Marzia is never depicted as less than attractive to him.
In fact, it is possible to theorise that the disgust he feels the morning after he and Oliver have sex is a manifestation of his in-built learnt homophobia. He writes after he and Marzia have sex on the beach,
“I loved her smell on my body, on my hands. I would do nothing to wash it away. I’d keep it on me till we met in the evening. Part of me still enjoyed luxuriating in this newfound, beneficent wave of indifference, verging on distaste, for Oliver that both pleased me and told me how fickle I ultimately was. Perhaps he sensed that all I’d wanted from him was to sleep with him to be done with him … To think that a few nights ago I had felt so strong an urge to host his body in mine … Now the idea couldn’t possibly arouse me.”(Aciman, 118)
But ultimately, he is unable to control his urges, his inclination towards Oliver. Barely a few lines later, he writes of his ostensible distaste for Oliver, “I knew the feeling wouldn’t last long” (Aciman, 118). And we are led to believe that he has felt these urges for a year or two now. However, once again, it is important to assert that Aciman does not trap Elio with labels like “straight” or “gay”.
Is Elio bisexual? This is a question that is not easily answered, not only because Aciman does not bother to, but also because Elio is only seventeen years old – an age at which men and women tend to go through a fluid sexuality. Even Oliver is seen to have inclinations towards women; Elio is jealous not of other men around Oliver but of women. And, traditionally, homosexuality was seen as an experimental kind of sexuality.
The reformer Jeremy Bentham, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, wrote extensively (but privately) about homosexual relations and sodomy. He found “that same-sex relations were not normally permanent or exclusive: it was only persecution that tended to encourage that. Sodomy itself did not preclude or delay marriage” (Dabhoiwala, 136). Indeed, at the book’s conclusion, Oliver gets married to a woman a year after his stay in Italy, and remains married to her for the years to come.
It is clear that both men experience attractions to both men and women. However, for Elio, his feelings for Oliver are so sudden and so passionate that they eclipse the other desires he feels. When he suspects Oliver of having slept with a woman, he becomes silently furious, but “[i]t never crossed my mind that I too was a traitor, that somewhere on a beach near her home a girl had waited for me tonight, as she waited every night now, and that I … hadn’t given her a second thought” (Aciman, 96). Writes Dr Charlotte Wolff, “The difference between bi- and homosexuality lies in the exclusion of the heterosexual component” (89). So while Elio certainly does experience bisexual attractions, his urges towards Oliver override any others.
His sexual awakening is also something of an awakening of the self. Elio questions himself throughout his involvement with Oliver, identifies himself with Oliver at times, and generally seeks to form an identity for himself. Whether he is successful or not is once again ambiguous, but it is clear that he struggles with selfhood. In a 2019 undergraduate thesis, Marina Novenia writes that Elio has a “self-loathing mindset” (31).
His back-and-forth questioning nature makes him castigate himself for his indecision. He also tends to think of Oliver as superior to him. “I think he was better than me,” he says to his father (Aciman, 223). Elio “thinks that in order to be accepted he must be like Oliver” (Novenia, 31), and so he tends to feel angry towards himself.
A teenager, his identity is as yet fluid, as is his sexuality: “Self-discovery leads to sex-discovery which, in turn, leads to self-help” (Wolff, 88). When he falls for Oliver, physically and emotionally, his sexual desire for Oliver’s body combines with his emotional attachment, which leads to a semblance of identity formation. Once again, nothing is defined or expressed in clear terms:
Did I want to be like him? Did I want to be him? Or did I just want to have him? Or are “being” and “having” thoroughly inaccurate verbs in the twisted skein of desire, where having someone’s body to touch and being that someone we’re longing to touch are one and the same, just opposite banks on a river that passes from us to them[?] (Aciman, 67-8)
And so Elio’s identification with Oliver subsumes him and he cannot separate his desire for Oliver from his idea of selfhood and identity. As Novenia has observed, he sees Oliver as better than him, perfect in some ways, an ideal – and this both angers him and makes him covet Oliver further. Judith Butler writes, “The love of the ideal will … always be ambivalent” (133). She extrapolates from Freud’s concept of the boy child’s narcissism and identification with the idealised mother by speaking about an individual’s identification with an idealised person:
The one I idealise is the one who carries for me the self-love that I myself have invested in that one. And accordingly, I hate that one, for he/she has taken my place even as I yielded my place to him/her, and yet I require that one, for he/she represents the promise of the return of my own self-love. Self-love, self-esteem is thus preserved and vanquished at the site of the ideal. (Butler, 134)
Butler’s words perfectly encapsulate Elio’s intense emotions and also help us understand how his love for Oliver is also an identification with Oliver, which creates both self-realisation and self-doubt.
Aciman was aware of the subtext of a fluid sexuality in his characters’ interactions and thoughts. In one striking episode in the book, Elio’s so-called bisexuality is clearly brought out, but again without ever using any such definite vocabulary. This is a scene where he masturbates into an overripe peach. One afternoon, he lies naked on his bed and wishes for either Oliver or Marzia to pass by and use the peach at hand as a frotting mechanism of sorts.
He eventually decides to do it himself, rubbing the peach against his erect penis. He constantly imagines either Oliver or Marzia (never just one or the other) entering and joining him. Eventually when he tears the leaking peach into two pieces, “I saw that its reddened core reminded me not just of an anus but of a vagina, so that holding each half in either hand firmly against my cock, I began to rub myself, thinking of no one and of everyone” (Aciman, 146-7). This event underlines his twin desires for both men and women, without ever expecting him to decide one way or another for sure.
At the book’s end, Elio’s father has a talk with him, where he tells him to value forever his relationship with Oliver and not to deny himself the pain of parting. He ends by telling his son, “I may have come close, but I never had what you had. Something always held me back or stood in the way” (Aciman, 225). Is Mr Perlman, Elio’s father, hinting at his own bisexual tendencies? Elio muses, “We’d all heard about his women when he was young, but I’d never even had an inkling of anything else. Was my father someone else? And if he was someone else, who was I?” (Aciman, 225). These questions are left unanswered, which takes me back to the theme of ambiguity.
The emphasis in Call Me By Your Name on ambiguous relationships, sexualities and interaction gives its characters space to breathe and grow, developing “the purity of [their] passions” (Kaiser). No character is tied down or straitjacketed by any labels or boundaries; they are only prey to the restrictions of time and geography. The connection that Elio and Oliver form in the six weeks they first know each other remains throughout their lives, but runs very thin and is largely sustained by Elio. Still, neither is demonised or glorified: both are resolutely human, passionate and forever ambiguous; herein lies Aciman’s great skill and the true appeal of his novel.
- Aciman, André. Call Me By Your Name. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
- Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter. Routledge, 1993/2011.
- Dabhoiwala, Faramerz. The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution. Allen Lane/Penguin, 2012/2013.
- Kaiser, Charles. “Love That Knows No Boundaries.” Washington Post, 22 March 2007.
- Novenia, Maria. Elio’s Defence Mechanisms in Concealing His Homosexuality in André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. 2019. Universitas Sanata Dharma, undergraduate thesis. https://repository.usd.ac.id/34684/2/154214009_full.pdf.
- Wolff, Charlotte. Bisexuality: A Study. Quartet Books, 1977/1979.
Sahir Avik D’souza is a student and writer based in Mumbai. You can find him on Instagram and Twitter @sahiravik