Infatuation is often synonymous with teenage crushes and belonging to something unattainable. It’s all consuming and yet, confusing, existence can overcome both the recipient of such infatuation and the one afflicted. In its own way, infatuation is an illness. Born of an uncontrollable desire that blurs the lines between obsession and love.
One important consideration is whether to call infatuation ‘love’. The qualities of such an emotion mimic those we associate with love – strong admiration, deep caring for another, in romantic ways, a physical attraction. But infatuation pushes love into deeper waters, where obsession merges with possession and the afflicted becomes consumed with the mere idea of the one they desire. Underneath it all, this is the true nature of infatuation.
Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name encompasses all sides of infatuation, love and, most importantly, desire. It examines the very core of desire and what it means to be intimate.
Set in the 80s on the Italian Riviera, a powerful romance blossoms between Elio, a seventeen year old, and his father’s twenty-four year old house guest, Oliver. What follows is a fascinating blend of obsession, fear and an unrelenting desire from Elio. Over six weeks, both find themselves in the depths of total intimacy, something both fear they may never find again.
What can’t be forgotten throughout this novel is that it is a romance between two men, neither of which identify as gay. In fact, it is this realisation through Elio, that he is attracted to what is often perceived as a sin, that creates one of the biggest obstacles, yet also the drive, of the desire – it is unattainable and therefore, something he craves only more. This obstacle is made even stronger with the simple knowledge that both characters are Jewish. Elio’s family refer to themselves as “Jews of discretion” whereas Oliver isn’t so discreet. In a conversation between them, he notes how his upbringing in a small town in New England found him comfortable being the only Jew. This only makes it more poignant for Elio, who has hidden almost in the shadows and who finds it harder than anyone to accept the desires that overwhelm him.
Elio’s desire is the main focus of the novel. The narration is told from his perspective many years in the future (20 years, to be exact). In a nostalgic tale of love, the older Elio recounts his obsession with Oliver that eventually overstepped the boundary into possession. His thoughts became consumed with Oliver; wondering where Oliver was, wondering who he was with and who, if anyone, he had been sleeping with. A possession that sparked only jealousy when Elio thought Oliver might be with another man. The thought of him with a woman excited him more than anything, perhaps due to its normalcy, or, in a much more complex way, that it somehow signalled to Elio that it may be nothing more than just sex. Yet, the thought of being with a man crossed the line that they had not yet crossed together. It meant something far more and brought with it the possessiveness and jealousy that often accompanies desire.
Elio’s world almost revolves around Oliver. He ‘worships’ him as one would worship a god, something both men already do and so, both understand the sentiment. Even when with Marzia, a girl that he ends up having a sexual relationship with, he uses it as “proof” he no longer desires Oliver. Even with her, his world is focused on Oliver and his words resonate more with denial, as if trying to prove to himself more than anyone that his desires are nothing more than temporary. This is displayed again once Elio and Oliver cross the line, consummating their desires. Elio’s initial feelings are of disgust, no doubt stemming from his religious and cultural background, seeing the act was “wrong”. However, this is shortly overcome and there is no longer any denial to themselves.
His infatuation with Oliver mimicked that which many could understand from their own experiences. Much of the novel talks about Oliver’s words and expressions, their meanings and what they may be hiding beneath. In fact, one of the first words Elio becomes obsessed with is Oliver’s use of the word “later”, often used as evidence of his disinterest in Elio. Oliver couldn’t possibly feel anything interesting about Elio when he uses such a throwaway, careless term. And yet, further into the story, it is a word described as a way of avoiding goodbye, a sentiment that encapsulates somebody who cares too deeply for leaving things behind that he’d rather pretend that he will return, even if he won’t.
The relationship between Elio and Oliver is often paralleled in the story itself. Elio’s mother recounts the story of a 16th century Knight who is besotted with a Princess. His uncertainty in telling her leads him to ask, “is it better to speak or to die?” This becomes an important question for Elio; just as the Knight asks the question, so does Elio. Is it better that he tells Oliver the truth of his feelings, or should he remain silent but feel as though he is dying? This fits well with another phrase Elio often recites, “Zwischen Immer und Nie” – Between Always and Never. For the beginning of the story, Elio’s desires are fantasy. They exist only in his mind and unbeknown, at least Elio believes, to anybody else. His true feelings therefore exist in a place between always and never. If he spoke the truth to Oliver, then he is forced in one direction. Oliver could reciprocate and therefore it could last forever. Or he could reject Elio’s feelings and the fantasy he had held onto would never come to fruition.
The idea of ‘between always and never’ encapsulates their relationship as a whole. Oliver, entirely aware of Elio’s feelings all along, reciprocates with a desire almost as consuming as Elio’s. Their romance lasts as long as possible, through Oliver’s remaining time in Italy and then a short trip for them both to Rome. Yet, when Oliver leaves, through promises of keeping in touch, both accept that nothing more will come of it. Both move on with their lives and that summer becomes a story that will forever exist zwischen immer und nie…
…between always and never.