André Aciman’s 2007 debut novel, Call Me By Your Name, was a sensuous, captivating account of the passionate love a cosmopolitan teenage boy bore for an older American man, which has since been made into an elegant and successful film, directed by Luca Guadagnino. For readers of all sexual persuasions, there was universality in young Elio’s desperation, the false starts and misreadings in his interactions with his desired; the consummation and the final disappointment.
Love, unrequited or not, is something of an Aciman speciality, and he returns to it here in his fourth book, Enigma Variations. More of a collection of vignettes than a straightforward novel, it examines the emotional turbulence of the narrator with an exacting, often lyrical eye. The first section is the best, in which Paulo, as a 21-year-old, returns to the Greek island where he spent his childhood holidays. The house has burnt down, symbolising at once destruction and also the possibility of renewal. Throughout the book we see Paulo in a number of different guises, as if he is constantly rebuilding himself, right into middle age.
On the island, at the age of 12, Paulo falls deeply in love with Giovanni, a furniture restorer in his twenties. He hangs about the studio, drooling over Giovanni’s marble chest, and fantasising about things he’s not even sure exist. At one point he even dabs his penis with acid simply in order to feel the pain. When returning as an adult, he discovers the truth about Giovanni and his own family, setting off a symphony of tender elegies, demonstrating a powerful interplay of loss and love.
The rest of Paulo’s life is a series of violent, all-encompassing passions: at first for Maud; then for a tennis player, Manfred, whom he stalks and dreams about every day; for Chloe, a girl with whom he was at university; for Claire, who is barely noticeable; for Heidi, whose essay he rejects; for boys at college that he sleeps with in the stacks. In his multifarious loves, he is like a character in an Iris Murdoch novel: ‘No one has the foggiest notion of the gathering storm within me. It’s my secret private little hell,’ he notes.
Aciman’s great strength is the delineation of passion, and he is excellent on memory, truth and identity. But when there are quite so many beloveds, it begins to be difficult to believe in the strength or sincerity of Paulo’s claims. Yet, there is an urbane, worldly wisdom here, which charms, and the book urges us to drink the wine of life while we still can.