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Call Me by Your Name A Novel Andre Aciman Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 248 pp., $23

January 28, 2007|Judith Freeman | Judith Freeman is the author of several novels, most recently "Red Water," and the upcoming nonfiction book "The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved."

ANDRe ACIMAN is an author and comparative literature professor with a richly exotic background, a sophisticated and worldly outlook, and a remarkably supple and elegant prose style that he has displayed in two books of essays, "False Papers" and "Out of Egypt," collections that focus, above all, on the ideas of exile and memory.

Like Salman Rushdie and the late W.G. Sebald, Aciman has spent his life detached from the culture that formed him: Even his original home seems in some ways to have been a place of strange (and yet also beloved) exile. Aciman's grandparents -- Sephardic Jews from Istanbul, Turkey -- settled in Alexandria when the Egyptian coastal city was still a cosmopolitan outpost of the British Empire. It was there that the Jewish boy of European ancestry spent his childhood learning to speak the many languages of his family, including Ladino, the Spanish of the Jews who fled the Inquisition in the 15th century.

By the 1960s, Aciman and his family found themselves marginalized in President Gamal Abdel Nasser's increasingly anti-Semitic Egypt, harassed by the police, who regularly stopped at their apartment. They were among the last Jews to leave Alexandria, and by then the family's fortune had been lost. In 1965, when Aciman was in his mid-teens, he and his mother and brother resettled in Rome while his father moved to Paris -- and thus began Aciman's long journey of exile, the act of letting go while still remembering. From then on, he would create, in cities like New York, where he now lives, new places in the urban landscape that would serve as "mnemonic correlatives," devices to recall the hauntingly beautiful Alexandria he'd lost.

From that point on, Aciman began refracting the world around him: "Everything becomes a mirror image of itself and of something else. I am, insofar as I can speak of an I, a tiny thinking image caught in a hall of mirrors, thinking, among other things, about halls of mirrors. I am, for all I know, a hall of mirrors."

This idea of mirrors is central to Aciman's work, and it figures prominently in his first novel, "Call Me by Your Name." Set in a villa on the Italian Riviera, the story is narrated by 17-year-old Elio. Like Aciman, who has written of his own precocious childhood, Elio is bright and well-read, a budding musicologist, the son of liberal-minded, Eurocentric parents. His professor father each summer invites a young academic to live at the villa for a few months. The novel takes place over the course of one summer as Elio falls in love with Oliver, a 24-year-old American academic -- "Il Kaiboy" (the cowboy), as they call him, because of his good looks and independent ways.

The term "falls in love," I realize, is not quite right. "Becomes sexually obsessed" is more accurate. Yet what happens between Elio and Oliver seems to fit neither category precisely, though sexual obsession certainly figures in, as does a kind of transforming symbiotic affection. The novel is really about lust -- specifically the hyper-lust of an imaginative and questing 17-year-old -- the kind that can make one want to lose oneself in a lover. In the complicated gyrations of flirtation that precede seduction, Aciman mines his story for deeper revelations about longing and identity.

Like Frederic, who falls in love with a stranger, Madame Arnoux, glimpsed on a ferry in the opening pages of Flaubert's novel "Sentimental Education," Elio is attracted to Oliver from the moment he arrives at the villa. It is in the longing that Flaubert found his subject (Frederic never does consummate his desire for Madame Arnoux, though they come to know each other over a lifetime), and Elio's longings for Oliver also take up a great portion of Aciman's novel.

Elio and Oliver send each other contradictory signals like fencers at a match. They feint and parry, jogging together, swimming and bicycling into the nearby town, discussing music and philosophy, opening up repeated opportunities for intimacy, then closing them down as they become further enmeshed in a skein of desire.

Elio is surprised by his longing for a man. Of his nascent feelings for Oliver, he says: "I was still under the illusion that, barring what I'd read in books, inferred from rumors, and overheard in bawdy talk all over, no one my age had ever wanted to be both man and woman -- with men and women. I had wanted other men my age before and had slept with women. But before he'd stepped out of the cab and walked into our home, it would never have seemed remotely possible that someone so thoroughly okay with himself might want me to share his body as much as I ached to yield up mine."

Gradually, in scenes infused with the languor and sensuousness of the novel's Mediterranean setting, Oliver and Elio consummate their attraction. It gives away nothing to reveal this, because from the beginning, the reader understands this will happen. The tension in the story is in the pursuit, not the eventual conquest.

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