Book vs. Film: Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

Review published on February 6, 2018.

The 2017 movie adaptation of this book starring Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer had a limited release in this country yet caused a considerable stir. It appeared on many discerning end of year lists and The Guardian proclaimed it the Best Film of 2017. Nominated for four Oscars, it was unfortunately deemed too uncommercial for my local Cine-Plex and so I will have to wait patiently for the DVD release, which is scheduled for March.

The film version was written by James Ivory, who with Ismail Merchant has been responsible for superb films, and is an adaptation of a 2007 debut novel that has been reprinted as a tie-in.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that it doesn’t seem to be an obvious candidate for a movie. Set mainly during one Italian summer in the mid 1980s, it is a quiet, introspective novel, the tale of a relationship and very little else. Seventeen-year-old Elio’s father invites a twenty-four-year-old American academic to spend the summer with them in order to finish his manuscript. Elio comes from an intellectual family who seem to spark by having a studious house guest each year. For Elio, it just means giving up his bedroom until the sparks certainly start igniting when he meets Oliver.

Narrated by the younger man, this is an undeniably intense examination of the minutiae of first love and lust, with it building into obsession. Elio narrates with such soul-bearing honesty that it’s almost like having an exposed nerve in a tooth to read it. The introspection feels like writing from an earlier era, at times it even recalled Henry James, but unlike what I remember of James’ writing (it has been some time), the plot does move along, even if at the languid pace of an Italian summer. I appreciate that this book is not going to appeal to everybody but I cannot recall reading a book where the relationship of one same-sex couple is exposed in such minute details. The uncertainty, the shyness and the all-encompassing nature of this first love is conveyed quite brilliantly, and often very poetically. When other characters are moved more central stage, as they are in a section in Rome towards the end, the power of the novel is almost instantly defused.

At times I did feel like bashing the two main characters’ heads together but I cannot deny the power of the writing. I’m even more fascinated now to see the film version.

Phil Ramage

Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
Atlantic Books 9781786495259 pbk Sep 2017

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