Is the primal and all-consuming feeling the characters share realistic on any level? Or better, is it to be considered in any way desirable?
It’s hard to discuss love in concrete terms. The ineffability of the feeling both defines it and prevents us from assigning it an appropriately universal definition, sparking a feeling of loss and confusion that André Aciman’s 2007 novel Call Me By Your Name is built around.
The novel, set in Northern Italy in the 1980s, follows the summer adventures of 17-year old Elio, focusing on his overpowering infatuation with visiting 24-year old scholar, Oliver.
Whilst profusely acclaimed for the literary mastery with which the story is narrated, the novel has also been at the center of a debate concerning the verisimilitude of the profound love which links the two characters.
There is something both deeply fascinating and terrifying about the idea of falling in love with someone to the point of defining yourself in relation to them. This metaphorical bonding on a spiritual level is what happens to Elio and Oliver, and its literary ineffability is perhaps the reason behind such controversy regarding the feasibility of this level of romantic passion in real life.
As their souls entwine, the connection and the intimacy they share is simple, almost primal, and only expressible through the melding of heart, mind, and soul in to one single entity. As Oliver mutters to his lover “call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine” for the first time, he is begging Elio to recognise a feeling that seems to transcend the sexual act, and which culminates near the end of the novel, with Elio realising that Oliver would forever remain “my brother, my friend, my father, my son, my husband, my lover, myself.“
Is the primal and all-consuming feeling the characters share realistic on any level? Or better, is it to be considered in any way desirable? Perhaps the public’s attraction to the novel, and the fascination which Elio and Oliver’s love story elicits, is just a result of its over-romanticisation and consequent unlikeliness.
Historically, human beings have had the purely evolutionary instinct to be spontaneously attracted to beauty. As a consequence, the allure of a love story which takes place in the beautiful hills of northern Italy during an idyllic summer is perfectly understandable. From the pure romanticness of sharing a first kiss where French Impressionist Monet is rumored to have painted, down to Elio’s passion for playing Bach on the piano and the way the melody entwines the two characters together like branches on the garden’s flowering apricot tree.
Our desire to always strive towards the goodness and the beauty which songs praise and paintings depict, and which manifests itself in every aspect of our lives, rationally explains the novel’s success and can be argued to be the purpose of art itself. However, is there a risk to confusing this over-romanticised version of love with reality? Or preferably, is there any possibility of everyday life ever resembling the dreams inflicted on us by fiction?
When Oliver leaves Italy and attempts to return to normal life, the reader is led to interpret this as the biggest mistake the character has ever and will ever make. His failure to recognise, or perhaps only to embrace, the uniqueness of the love he shares with Elio is what relates the ending of the novel to the tragedy of reality.
Maybe our profound disillusionment with a romantic vision of life and love is the reason why many define Call Me By Your Name as “unrealistic” and “over-rated”, but it’s also what gives the novel such authenticity. Perhaps the expectations and norms that society imposes on us, and which lead Oliver to relinquish his love, constrain us into submitting to rules and behaving rationally even though, when it comes down to love, we are everything but.
Is calling love anything but an “over-sentimental rendering of reality” ever feasibly realistic? Possibly, but the dread of experiencing something as real, permanent, and all-consuming as love may sometimes be what traps us in a constant limbo of duty and desire. As the novel culminates with Elio and Oliver meeting again after over twenty years, the two muse that people can lead two parallel lives, one in reality, and one a fantasy that is denied to them by external forces and society’s expectations. Perhaps by pursuing reason we are embracing the fundamental rationality of our humanity, or perhaps we are unknowingly forsaking the romantic sentimentalism which connects dreams to reality. Which of the two dimensions does love really belong to?