“It’s moving, it’s gratifying... I don’t understand it, but it’s a great pleasure,” says André Aciman of the cultish status which his 2007 novel Call Me by Your Name has taken on since the release of the film of the same name last year. He now receives tweets with images of fans who have made pilgrimages to locations from the book, and peach-themed memorabilia from readers all over the world.
The book’s inspiration was a set of Monet paintings of a villa, which became a fantasy for him, somewhere he wrote about as a form of wish-fulfillment: “Then it was out of my control. I went with it and went with it.”
The characters came after the house, then the story, though the importance and atmosphere of the location pervades the book: “If I were writing the same story in New York it would be a totally different story – solid, not so many plants – you would have a different tempo and feel – even to the point that the characters would begin to behave differently.”
Monet is a source of inspiration in a number of ways: “We are both impressionistic – we exist only in our impressions.” Aciman spoke about Monet’s instantaneousness of impression, and the necessity of capturing it: the central character and narrator Elio became an embodiment of that impressionism.
“Elio is a font, a vessel of impressions: all he has is impressions – desire, smell, sound, touch – usually in the form of desire or nostalgia – which are the same thing. Monet was an inspiration for that, Monet speaks to me.”
Though Elio is based on Aciman himself, the novel is not autobiographical, he emphasised: “Everything is composite – nothing happened to me in exactly that way.” He told the audience how he once wrote to the owner of a villa, asking if he might stay there for a Summer, while he finished his academic dissertation. The owner never replied. “I incubated that fantasy for 20 years” - and so, Oliver arrived.
Many have asked him to write the novel again from Oliver’s perspective, but Aciman says he wouldn’t know how: “I don’t understand Oliver. He is an unknown quantity, which is why he’s attractive.”
The novel of intentionally avoids being a love story: Aciman avoided using the word entirely: “It reduces the ambiguities which are implicit in this form of desire. I also hate the words lust and infatuation. They are small change - not the big bill, which can only be desire.”
So why Call Me by Your Name? “It was a way of defining the absolute intimacy – for one person to incorporate the other person or project himself into the other person – the definition of total intimacy: I don’t know where I begin I don’t know where you end. You have my name – my heart, my body, my identity - but I have yours as well. It’s powerful: it doesn’t last a long time, but it’s powerful.”
Memory is a key element of Aciman’s writing, because it is how he lives, he said, “I don’t know how to be in the here and now. I can understand the past, and the future as an anticipation of the past, but the here and now - I don’t understand it at all."
This, he said, is the human condition: “Nobody knows how to live in the present. Some people say they do. I don’t trust them.”
A much-loved (and much wept-over) scene for fans of the novel and film alike is the speech by Elio’s father, for which Aciman says he channeled his own father: “It was exactly the kind of thing my father would have said. We had many conversations which were close, but not exactly this.
And on that scene with the peach? “I promise you, I have never done anything like that in my life...”