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Charles Shafaieh meets the Proust scholar who wrote Call Me By Your Name.

Both in conversation and through his work, André Aciman upholds writing as a serious undertaking. Being careless with words almost inevitably produces what he abhors: prose that doesn’t seek to do any more than provide information.

Grasping Aciman’s attention to precise diction and a sentence’s cadence requires only reading a page of his many essays, his memoir of childhood in Alexandria, Egypt, or his fiction—including his 2007 debut novel, Call Me By Your Name, which last year was made into an Oscar-winning film.

Take this passage from Lavender, an essay which expands from a meditation on his father’s cologne to the themes of displacement, absence, desire and longing that run through Aciman’s writing: “For all I know, everything could start all over again… the life we think of each day, and the life not lived, and the life half lived, and the life we wish we’d learn to live while we still have time, and the life we want to rewrite if only we could, and the life we know remains unwritten and may never be written at all, and the life we hope others may live far better than we have…”

This refrain on groundlessness can partly be traced to past experiences. He grew up speaking French in a Sephardic Jewish family, who was pressured to leave Egypt following growing anti-Semitism after Gamal Abdel Nasser became president. In 1965, Aciman, his mother and brother moved to Rome, while his father went to Paris; they reunited and settled in New York City three years later. Now a professor of literature, Aciman didn’t publish until his late thirties, following stints as a stockbroker and working in advertising.

Aciman’s sensitivity for uncertainty and duality connects also with his initial urge, at age nine, toward verse. In his prose, he retains the adherence to the multiplicity of meaning engendered by poetry, which, as one character in Call Me By Your Name says, will “help us see double,” like wine.

Thus in his intimate chamber pieces, pleasure and pain, dismissal and longing, hatred and love are bound together in his probing of the pregnant physical spaces between his characters as well as the depths within them. He captures the bliss and terror of seduction, and in doing so—like Proust, Sterne, and other writers he admires—pushes prose to new limits.

  • Words:
    Charles Shafaieh
  • Photography:
    Christopher Ferguson
  • Styling:
    Carolyne Rapp

What is the writer’s task?
Not to have the reader discover the writer but rather himself. Great writing makes you think what the author is thinking and believe that you have come up with it yourself, whereas in fact you may never have thought those things but were always vaguely aware of them. The author articulates things in such a way as to make you believe they were yours.

That merging of two consciousnesses has an erotic quality.
Erotic is a highly charged word. I prefer a fouler one: libidinous—which is at once sexual, intellectual and emotional. Writers need to open up the page to allow the reader to slip into the spaces between clauses, enmeshing you in the rhythms and cadences, so that eventually you’re seduced without even being aware of it.

One of the difficulties I have as a writer who wants to read contemporary prose is that I look at the first few sentences of a new book and become horrified. And it’s not just the prose’s flat-footedness and the reportorial manner used to get you in right away. There’s absolutely no search for deeper meaning. These writers don’t do the one thing I ask of them: enchant me. I want to be taken to that magical realm where great words, put together, will make me happy—or whatever other emotion they arouse.

In Call Me By Your Name, language, specifically the act of calling someone you feel passionately about by your name, fuses the two main characters—Elio and Oliver—in a way that bodies can never accomplish.
Skin-on-skin contact is the most amazing thing. It’s irreducible. But when someone with your name tells you that theirs is the same, and begins to discuss names with you, a bond is created. It’s a flimsy bridge, but something exists between the two of you. Using the name a couple of times, back and forth, creates an electrifying, almost arousing, traffic.

Calling each other by the other’s name displaces you entirely and makes you superconscious of yourself and the other person, and the transfer of identities becomes almost orgasmic. It might even bypass the physical connection and be more powerful. The cliché in lovemaking is that you say “I love you” even if you don’t mean it, because it makes things more rhapsodic, and at that point, we realize that the words themselves carry a resonance with which even the body can’t catch up with.

“The author articulates things in such a way as to make you believe they were yours.”

Elio and Oliver never tell each other “I love you.”
I didn’t want them to! I wanted to avoid that cliché. That word—“love”—in most of my books is used in phrases like “I love fish,” “I love the sunset.” My characters never say it to each other because you want them to say something more powerful, like “I worship you.”

Do the most enchanting words ever replace the pleasures of “real life” for you?
There’s absolutely no question that literature is secondary to the experience of life. My father was a great reader, but he understood reading was an escape. When he saw me reading as a young man, he would say, “Why don’t you go out? Have fun, get laid! Just do something other than read books.” I’ve internalized that and have been very lucky in that I have a life and wonderful children for whom I will forgo having anything to do with writing.

But what about the way in which art mediates life—how films now “teach us” how to kiss, for example?
Literature has taught me how to read, understand and relate to people. I may be entirely wrong in how I read them, but when I question people’s motives, it’s because of something I’ve picked up from novels—particularly Dostoevsky, Stendhal and Proust. They taught me that people are not who they seem to be, that they’re full of contradictions one needs to excavate, interpret and explain.

Is there anything that literature is incapable of achieving?
Art is extremely important, but it’s not the real thing. Real life is people, love, pleasure. A beautiful sunset never did it for me and I hate the countryside, but being on the Mediterranean in a nice house, having a wonderful dinner with people I love, makes me very happy. A page of literature doesn’t do anything like that; it doesn’t beat good company. Writers who believe that writing is superior to their lives offer a paradox I am unable to resolve.

Do you have any writing rituals?
None. No system. No timetable. I usually write on a computer, but I find it very freeing to be on a bus or subway with a piece of paper with something already printed. Yesterday, on the way to a party, I wrote this [he picks up a printed page covered with handwritten notes]. It’s all nonsense. It doesn’t count and isn’t serious, but it frees me to write things later that I wouldn’t have thought of, because when you’re typing on the computer, you’re thinking, you’re being “serious.” But when you’re dashing things off, you’re not editing.

In a previous interview, you said you “had to write for America, in America”—are you succeeding?
To write for America is weird because you want to maintain your own idiom, to safeguard that from the intrusion of the public and the market. People say I’m an American writer—because I’ve lived in America for 50 years—but I’m not an American writer, or a French or Italian writer. I speak and write notes in French and Italian, but I wouldn’t dare write in either—the frame of mind of a person writing in Italian is not that of an Anglo-Saxon person.

I may be a French writer who writes French novels in English that have a Mediterranean cast. I’ve learned what Americans want and what I want, and they’re not usually compatible. You have to meld the two in order for both voices—one voice and one expectation of a voice—to find a moment of compromise.

“Being on the Mediterranean in a nice house, having a wonderful dinner with people I love, makes me very happy. A page of literature doesn’t do anything like that; it doesn’t beat good company.”

A style, ultimately, is a compromise between what you might jot down in a diary and what the reader is expected to understand. You have to come up with a language that mirrors what you want to say and that will be understood, emotionally, by the reader. Style is a manufacturing, or compromise, of what your vision is.

Your cosmopolitan identity is connected, in certain ways, to the sense of homelessness and exile you experience. How does that foundation—or lack thereof—inflect your writing?
You don’t know where you belong partly because you can’t build roots anywhere. You also don’t want to make roots. I don’t want to belong to America; there are many things I don’t like about it. I like New York up to a certain point, but there is nowhere I like better. I like Rome and Paris, but I couldn’t exist in them beyond two weeks. Ultimately, I always long for 110th Street. In Enigma Variations, I wrote about not wanting to be on either bank of the river but in the little island in-between that doesn’t exist.

The place I live is on paper—but then I call one of my essay collections False Papers, as if to undercut whatever presumption there is that a writer can live his whole life in books. That’s why my other essay collection is called Alibis: You don’t belong anywhere, just alibis of places. I don’t belong in the 21st or 20th centuries, and I certainly don’t belong in 4th-century BC Athens. I don’t know where I stand nationally, sexually, religiously. They’re all mobile. I write about this as a plea to resolve it in one way or another, but I’m unable to. I don’t know how. I don’t know where I belong. Or who I am.

I do know that I cannot deal with people who are totally French or American—people who are fully immersed in their culture. I need people who are slightly off, slightly unhinged, interested in something else. If you’re just one thing alone, I can’t deal with you.

The Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote that a person is “a product of the historical processes to date, which has deposited in [them] an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.” Is your writing a constant attempt to compile that inventory?
I’m very careful about this because, on one hand, the attempt to find ligatures between X, Y, and Z and create a kind of narrative around them is the compulsion to write. But you have to be distrustful of writing’s power to create this sense of order—again False Papers. Paper will automatically want to create order, symmetry, harmony and meaning. You have to distrust that about paper. There’s no order. I always end up untying what I have tied up because I don’t trust it. Paper will always try to bring you home, but I will remain rootless and eradicated forever.

Is your fiction also imbued with this archeological project and its paradoxes?
Or are you writing as a means of distancing yourself from the past? You don’t know whether you’re writing to see better or in order not to see at all—to stop seeing.

When writing about the past—as in my memoir and my fiction—you’re trying to resolve or repossess the past, to take hold of it so you can say, “Now you’re in my pages.” It’s not true though, because why am I then writing another essay about the past or about being elsewhere? I haven’t solved it yet. I don’t think I can. I keep writing because I’m still trying to come up with the right key, so I write the same book with a different plot, voice, characters.

Writing is allegedly the means of burying the past. But the next thing you know, it just comes back up. It’s like writing a book about somebody you loved very passionately. Sure enough, you wake up one morning, after you thought that book got rid of them, and you’re in love with them again. Possessing and dispossessing are the same gesture.

I’m writing an essay now that I’ve written many times before. I rewrite it because the resolutions promised by writing give me the slip each time. I’m trying to ground myself in time or place, or even on paper, and yet find that the very devices that allow me to do so are the very ones that undo what I’m attempting to do. That’s why I think I’m a pure ironist, because everything I do is already being undercut. As I’m writing a sentence, I’m already rewriting it before I’ve even finished it.

That awareness of the task’s impossibility is always there, but you’re still going to keep at it in whatever manner you can.
I’ve devoted my life to paper, and yet I’m constantly demoting and derogating it. I refuse to take it seriously, because of my father’s injunction: “Don’t keep writing all the time—go out and get laid!” If I lie in my writing, so what? If I’ve changed a few things, who is to know and who cares? There’s nothing sacred about paper. At the end of the day, one wraps fish with paper.

“I’ve devoted my life to paper, and yet I’m constantly demoting and derogating it… There’s nothing sacred about paper. At the end of the day, one wraps fish with paper.”

  • Words:
    Charles Shafaieh
  • Photography:
    Christopher Ferguson
  • Styling:
    Carolyne Rapp

“I’ve devoted my life to paper, and yet I’m constantly demoting and derogating it… There’s nothing sacred about paper. At the end of the day, one wraps fish with paper.”

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