Elio and Oliver, the lovers at the center of André Aciman’s 2007 novel, Call Me by Your Name, and its 2017 Oscar-winning film adaptation, have a claim to enjoying one of the most cherished gay trysts in all of modern fiction.
Their love story was almost a death story.
Aciman’s novel began as a writing exercise about the author’s plans for a visit to Italy. Along the way, it mutated into a tale about a boy lusting after a woman at his family’s villa. It then mutated again so that the object of obsession became a man: Oliver, a swaggering American grad student on a summer residency. As Aciman unspooled the 17-year-old Elio’s inner monologue of desire for the handsome intruder down the hall, he implanted references to the writer Percy Shelley’s 1822 death off the Italian coast. These references were meant to foreshadow that Oliver would drown. Or that maybe he’d go back to the United States. “I didn’t want to consummate their love,” Aciman told me when I visited him at the sparsely decorated but spacious Upper West Side apartment where he has lived with his wife for three decades. “I didn’t want to go there. I don’t like to write about sex, believe it or not.”
But at every juncture when it came time to kill off Oliver, Aciman spared him. It was more “fun,” he said, to write him alive than dead. And so Aciman ended up having to describe plenty of sex, including a now-legendary scene involving the penetration of a peach.
In the decade since its publication, Call Me by Your Name has grown from an object of niche devotion to one of mainstream interest, in great part because Aciman chose to give Elio and Oliver what they wanted: each other. Gay literature has been largely defined by thwarted desire and tragic endings, stretching through Victorian fiction’s closeted subtexts to the persecution elegy of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room to the AIDS-era anguish of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. If Aciman defied this tradition with Call Me by Your Name, it was only by accident. Queerness as a social force—as a community and an identity with history and politics—wasn’t on his mind. The nature of wanting was.
Now he has, again, followed his whims—and his characters’—in a way that would, again, seem to serve a wider cultural hunger. Fans have begged Aciman for years to write a sequel, and the 68-year-old’s fifth novel, Find Me, indeed returns to Oliver and Elio. Rotating among three different characters’ points of view in four chapters that span decades, Aciman reveals that the men have spent swaths of their life separated but nonetheless pining for each other. The tension of the novel stems from the same dilemma spelled out in Call Me by Your Name: “Is it better to speak or stay silent?” Put another way, should desire win, no matter the consequences? Fans will ache to hear how Oliver and Elio answer that question. They may be challenged, though, by some of Aciman’s other riffs on the subject.
As before, the novel originated as a play on autofiction. In 2016, Aciman traveled to Bordighera—the Italian city where Call Me by Your Name was set—to receive honorary citizenship. Later, as he departed by train, he opened his laptop to work on an essay about his late father. A young woman sat down next to him. They began chatting. Then she got off at her stop. “As soon as she left, I started writing about a guy sitting on a train meeting a woman who’s half his age,” Aciman said. “Four, five pages later, I realized: This is Sami.”
Sami: That’s short for Samuel, the name James Ivory’s Call Me by Your Name screenplay gave Elio’s father, who went unnamed in Aciman’s novel. Both the book and the movie culminated in Samuel expressing approval of his son’s affair with Oliver—as well as jealousy. Over the years, and especially after the movie, readers and viewers of Call Me by Your Name have wondered if the speech meant that Samuel was gay but had never acted upon it. That reading hadn’t occurred to Aciman initially, but he liked it, he said.
Find Me doesn’t suggest that Samuel was in the closet, though. The follow-up to a beloved portrayal of adolescent same-sex desire begins with an elderly man eyeing a beautiful young woman and asking, “Why so glum?”
In Find Me, that beautiful stranger is an American named Miranda. She wears a stylish biker jacket but also “wild, untamed boots,” which Samuel speculates to mean that she “liked her things worn and broken in.” She is frank to the point of rudeness, and yet she is also friendly. Samuel, an American expat too, finds her attractive but assumes she won’t requite. “Definitely an older man’s fantasy,” he thinks. At no point does she treat him as a creep, though. In fact, she insists that he come with her to lunch when their train arrives in Rome, and is annoyed whenever he mentions their age difference.
Miranda’s humor and energy propel the first 100 or so pages of the novel even though they’re told from the point of view of the hesitant, lonely Samuel, who can’t believe how well he’s hitting it off with her. After the first section of the book, she drops out of the story almost entirely, having fulfilled her purpose—as Aciman put it, to shake Samuel “out of his doldrums.” Some readers might think of the phrase manic pixie dream girl, coined by film critics to refer to the quirky female character who primarily exists to spur a man’s emotional development. Aciman had never heard the term before I brought it up. He seemed to recoil from it, shrinking into his couch.
“It might be something like that, if you reduce it to that,” he said. “It’s more like, I’ve always been very shaken by certain women who have a degree of boldness, because I was always a very timid type. It’s not always easy for a woman to be bold. Usually it’s the man’s role to do that sort of thing.” He then went out of his way to enumerate how out of touch with modern culture—and thus unaware of the whole manic-pixie-dream-girl debate—he is. He doesn’t watch movies. He doesn’t go to plays. He doesn’t read magazines. I pointed to a copy of The New Yorker on the coffee table between us. “It’s under my name,” he said with a wave, “but my wife reads it.”
It’s true that the pop-culture phenomenon of Call Me by Your Name, peach souvenirs and Timothée Chalamet fan art included, sprouted from a mind cloistered away from the now. A scholar of Proust who teaches literary theory at the City University of New York, Aciman began his public writing career with the well-reviewed 1995 memoir Out of Egypt, which told of his family’s 1965 expulsion from Alexandria as part of an anti-Jewish purge. Find Me contains lengthy passages of characters meditating on Mozart and the fall of Constantinople. Even though portions of the novel involve characters texting and Googling, the only mildly modern cultural reference I noticed was a mention of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Any semblance of relevance Aciman’s books have to current debates is, then, almost entirely unintended. Take sexuality, for example. Call Me by Your Name’s depiction of same-sex desire brought it acclaim at just the moment when the battle for gay marriage was heating up. Aciman’s 2017 novel, Enigma Variations, told of a man’s love affairs with both men and women, and the characters of Find Me seem to discuss everything but the labels “gay” and “straight.” Yet Aciman said these books do not track some cultural shift when it comes to queerness. “I had never thought of the word fluid,” he told me matter-of-factly when I noted that his motifs seemed in vogue. “Now, you want to use the word fluid? You want to use all of those modern tropes? Fine, they work. But that’s not where I’m coming from.”
Aciman described his disinterest in the contemporary discourse as a form of liberation: He’s channeling the “permissive” attitudes he grew up around in ’50s and ’60s Alexandria rather than the “residual puritanism” of today’s New York City. With Call Me by Your Name, he did not only write a gay novel that made almost no mention of homophobia; he also wrote a novel about a 17-year-old hooking up with a 20-something without any discussion of stigmas or legalities around the age of consent. In Find Me, Samuel and Miranda have a May-December flirtation, which is plenty familiar in literary—and real-world—history. “She’s interested in the kind of staidness he projects, and maybe the wisdom,” Aciman said. “He’s interested in her energy, youth, spunk.” He writes relationships like these not to comment on the tropes of age difference, power, or gender. Rather, he said, he likes that “there’s some degree of bridging that needs to happen” between the parties.
As the book proceeds, age recurs as a conquerable obstacle to such bridging between other characters who share a profound attraction. Desire also tests distance, time, tribes, and personal hang-ups. At one point, a character insists to another that before they have sex, they need to share their deepest secrets—one of which turns out to involve a graphic violation of a taboo (which I won’t spoil here). “You’re coming at me with questions of an entirely moral caliber,” Aciman admonished when I prodded about the issues surrounding that character’s transgression. “It’s not a subject that has ever interested me, ethics.”
Instead, Aciman is interested in the “psychological maneuvers” that enable connection. The character with the secret “is saying something which is so true and people don’t notice,” Aciman said. “If we become a couple and I haven’t told you that before, I will never have the courage to tell you and it will hang on me for the rest of our relationship.” In this observation lies Aciman’s insight on intimacy: It requires saying the unsayable.
That insight may apply to the relationship between the writer and the reader as much as to the ones among characters. Find Me is written in the same spiraling prose—nebbish and self-interrogating yet full of grace, with some sentences approaching page length—that Call Me by Your Name was. I devoured the novel quickly, and on rereading have found myself unable to break away from Aciman’s hypnotic rhythms. Rather than building momentum with cause and effect, he does it with “excavation”: “You have something on the surface, but it has another narrative, and then underneath that narrative there’s another one and another one.” His advice to writers is, “As you get to the end of a sentence and put a period, cut the period out and put a comma instead.”
The experience of reading Find Me, however, may also involve some amount of groaning, as attested by the largely exasperated reviews to roll in so far. Many unsayable but urgent thoughts in the book’s world simply resemble clichés in the reader’s. The first chapter’s events amount to “what every man my age dreams of,” as Samuel puts it, which is hardly a recipe for surprise: It’s kind of like hearing a kid expound on how much he loves ice cream. Throughout the novel, in fact, adults use their great erudition for the purpose of childlike gushing. At one point, two characters lengthily plan to get matching tattoos; at another, they daydream about bargaining with God in heaven to be sent back to Earth so that they can still be with each other if they ever die.
These over-the-top passages would seem to reflect Aciman’s insistence on honoring passion without judgment. “On paper, you take license with so many things,” he said. “I’ve got many lives. We all do.” The book’s grand speeches and unlikely consummations may also be dares to the reader—don’t you remember desire that is so consuming? Allow them in, and the novel’s other explorations hit more guttingly.
The most gutting of them might be Oliver’s. Over the years, Aciman has said that he couldn’t oblige fans who wanted a version of Call Me by Your Name from that character’s point of view: Oliver was too self-assured, too much of a “cowboy” to have the sort of anxious inner monologue that Elio had. But in Find Me’s third section, Aciman discovers Oliver’s voice, and it’s a melancholy one. Long-married and settled into an academic career in the U.S., the 44-year-old Oliver lusts simultaneously after a male acquaintance and a female acquaintance. But they only temporarily distract him from his real preoccupation—Elio, whom he hasn’t seen or talked to for years. Aciman portrays these longings in dialogues between the two long-ago lovers, which take place entirely in Oliver’s head. I pointed out to him that these conversations almost read as depictions of telepathy. “There is a form of telepathy, emotional telepathy,” he replied. “We do it all the time, don’t we?”
A surprising amount of the book concerns not romance but parenthood—or rather, the crossover between the two. Miranda’s father, who’s dying, shares a series of anecdotes about lovers thwarted by historical events to illustrate how, as he puts it, “time and life are not in sync.” Elio, in his 30s, starts dating an older man, Michel, and then looks into the secret of Michel’s father’s love affairs—an investigation that recalls the one the protagonist of Aciman’s previous novel, Enigma Variations, undertakes about his dad. Samuel seems to be inspired by Elio’s pursuit of desire, and Elio, in some ways, seems reawakened by Miranda’s effect on his father. “People have to pass on to their children better lives, and by ‘pass on’ I don’t mean just make sure they go to college and become better dentists,” Aciman said of his interest in this theme. “But more pass on, ‘Whatever mistakes we’ve done, don’t make them again.’”
The father-son relationships in Aciman’s work are also informed by his own dad, a bon vivant whose extramarital dalliances Aciman said he was aware of throughout his life. When his father was dying more than a decade ago, Aciman called a woman in Milan whom he believed his father had loved for years. She sobbed on the phone. He’s now planning to meet up with her in Italy sometime soon. “It’s a way of closing the circle,” he said. “Whatever circle it is—small, insignificant, huge, I don’t know. I just need to close it. For me.” That potential rendezvous sounds like something that could happen in one Aciman’s books, casting history as a log not of events but rather of desires, both improbable and ordinary, fulfilled.