…if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it. Withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night, and watching others forget us sooner than we’d want to be forgotten is no better. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste! …
But remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. Most of us can’t help but live as though we’ve got two lives to live, one is the mockup, the other the finished version, and then there are all those versions in between. But there’s only one, and before you know it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, must less wants to come near it. Right now there’s sorrow. I don’t envy the pain. But I envy you the pain.
—André Aciman, Call My by Your Name
Carson McCullers is interested in the feelings and the states of understanding of adolescents and other marginal people who are on the cusp of self discovery or transformation. She also writes in slow motion, capturing their subtle emotional variations and incremental changes in perception. She sets the tiniest stages of a thought in sharp relief. As a result, following her narration of a scene takes patience.
McCullers’s novel made me conscious of how—during important periods of my life, yes, but also in ordinary days and boring weeks, in conversations with others but also when I’m alone—my feelings operate as a process and develop through variation. Yet in memory, the process isn’t retained. I remember my feelings as nouns rather than verbs. McCullers’s novel reminded me of the busy work of feeling that I continue to forget and restored (at least for a moment) the complexity and significance of that work to my sense of the fleeting moments of daily life. (Aciman’s in Call Me by Your Name reminded me of this as well.)
Frankie, the novel’s young protagonist, is difficult and cantankerous. Yet everything about her bristles with life and enthusiasm: she is alive to herself and is working as hard as she can within her limited means to make the materials of her childhood into a Self. She’s fierce, takes risks and is playing for stakes, yet she remains open to being touched by others as she struggles to be different, elsewhere and better, three terms that to her are largely synonymous. How can you not be charmed by that?
Finally, it’s worth saying that McCullers’s diction here is a feat of strength. Without resorting to odd neologisms or showy deep-dives into the OED, she describes subtle difference of emotion and of setting while maintaining a consistent register of lanugage. If this novel were a painting it would be richly monochromatic. The effect is so seductive that, by the end, I found myself nostalgic for a Georgia summer heat I’d fled years ago because her description of it convinced me that I’d somehow missed its beauty. I hadn’t—I’m sure of that—but if you’ve ever endured that heat without air conditioning for any length of time, you can appreciate what a powerful spell McCullers must weave in order to make me think I had.
I first read Call Me by Your Name as I flew to Rome in December 2009 to work on a translation for a friend. I was staying in an apartment a couple blocks from the Coliseum, the Forum wasn’t much further away, and I was excited. The work was intense though, and for three weeks I was indoors all day every day, going out only for coffee and sandwiches, both taken standing up in nearby cafes in the mid-afternoon. My Rome, like Elio’s, was the nighttime city we walked through to go to restaurants and bars.
The book has been on my mind again recently because Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, The Big Splash) has filmed a soon to be released adaptation that I’m eager to see. So when an old friend asked for some book recommendations, I suggested it to him. Once I had, I decided I wanted to go back and read it again myself.
Reading it was, thankfully, less overwhelming than it was the first time. I knew what I was in for, which meant I wasn’t dying inside every few pages. Yet the power of the book was undiminished. Aciman writes a story of desire that is narrated in terms of desire. Chronology is indistinct but the experience of time is palpable. Identity is indistinct and yet every detail of every scene testifies to the presence of a person.
What was most astounding to me though was the extent to which the various wild and roaming feelings sparked by and constituting desire and love are represented clearly and authentically by the narration. In my own memory of being young and in love, I retain my feelings whole. Aciman remembers the pieces constituting that whole and brings them back to life for me as I read. It’s intoxicating stuff.