How to begin when you have already experienced an ending?
That was the question I asked myself when confronted with the imperative sentence that is the title of Andre Aciman’s follow-up novel — OK, sequel — to his best-selling Call Me by Your Name (2007). The preening appreciation of many Call Me by Your Name readers borders on the cult-like, and they have for months expressed a mixture of measured anticipation and possessive concern that this sequel, Find Me, will, in fact, find them disappointed by the continuation of the first novel’s story about the affair between a 17-year-old boy and a young man of 24. That affair allowed Aciman to preen a bit himself with his knowledge of Greek literature and philosophy and music, as well as the enticing geography of both the verdant northern regions of Italy and the virile southern regions of the male body. He also got to write about a peach.
The acclaimed 2017 film based on Call Me by Your Name was, to me, an improvement on the source material. The keen-eyed screenwriter James Ivory rightfully won an Oscar for gleaning a more stringent strain of love story from the gloss-and-dross of Aciman’s prose, which has a geography all its own filled with isthmuses of metaphors and olive groves of allusions with alas neither an inland nor an inside leg left for irony.
That much-needed irony, even a whiff of ennobling wit, was found in the lovely performances of Timothée Chalamet as Elio and Michael Stuhlbarg as his father, Samuel, a deeply empathetic archeology professor — as well as Armie Hammer as Oliver, Samuel’s graduate assistant, who visits the family at their Italian compound that enchanted summer and not only reshapes their lives, but also, ultimately, it seems, their very concept of time.
That’s a whole lot of reshaping to shove into the mighty allure of one character. But just as Hammer transcended what was, to my eye, his miscasting, Aciman’s prose transcends its own grand neediness for knowledge and all that knowledge cannot know when distilled into another imperative sentence issued as an unspoken, unwritten admonition from both books: the Delphic maxim, “Know Thyself.” Elio and Oliver indeed know themselves more deeply for having known and loved each other.
Luca Guadagnino, the director of the film, found a way to navigate the story with a swooning kind of poise that eludes Aciman, with all his swanning and swerving. In Find Me, the author is still flaunting that way he has found to allow a story to occur in the temporal musings that swarm the mind — delighted by its own education and erudition — rather than in linear time’s own stricter, less bemused demands. Yet I sometimes find the swanning and swerving more maddening than masterly. I often long to stop it in its expensively shod tracks in order to scrape the academic mud from the Wellingtons in which Aciman strikes a pose, for example, in this sequel’s second section. That stretch of the novel strands us in the French countryside with Elio, who now teaches piano in Paris about 15 years after the first book began, and a new male lover, a much older lawyer named Michel.
But even with all the epistemological falderal, these two books are, at their hearts, highfalutin romance novels. That is their deep and understandable appeal, and their undying folly. If Greek-Egyptian poet Constantine Cavafy had experienced literary coitus with English romance novelist Barbara Cartland, the result would have been something like Call Me by Your Name and Find Me.
Find Me begins with a resurrection. Elio’s father, Samuel, has died by the end of the first book, but in the opening section of the new novel he is very much alive. On a train to Rome to meet up with Elio, Samuel meets a young woman named Miranda in the compartment they share along with her dog. It is a decade before the ending of the first book; Samuel is more than a decade older than this woman, who takes him to her enfeebled-though-still-fabulous father’s place for lunch when they arrive in Rome after much flirtatious badinage flutters between them, a veritable aviary of deflection and desire.
Samuel and Miranda fall into bed and madly in love in a hoary whirlwind of messy sheets and florid writing. Aciman actually describes Miranda’s vagina as feeling as if it were a ripened fig opening onto Samuel’s penis as she lowers herself onto it; Miranda, when it’s her turn, describes Samuel’s erect penis as her “lighthouse.”
That word choice made me think of Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, which had its own sectioned structure, the second of which is titled “Time Passes.” Find Me’s plot, like Woolf’s, is also but an adjunct to its more deeply felt philosophical musings about love, absence and death. (It’s a close call as to which I find more audacious: Woolf’s technique in achieving multiple focalizations in To the Lighthouse or Samuel’s lighthouse and its technique in achieving for Miranda, one presumes, multiple orgasms. Facetious? Not really. This is Aciman’s literary lane — a byway of soft shoulders, hard bodies and surprising intersections where the wolfish and the Woolf-like collide. Reading him is much like rubbernecking at such collisions.)
Elio and the much older Michel fall in love as quickly in the second section as Miranda and the much older Samuel do in the first. This is a novel about the stirrings of father fixations as much as it is about fate’s steering mechanism in the making of the narrative of lives, loves and novels. The lovemaking of Elio and Michel is rendered with a kind of tender resolve that borders on treacle; it’s all rather quaint and queer, in every sense of that latter word, especially compared with the first section in which Samuel and Miranda boff with abandon.
The sections of Find Me are titled with the annotations of musical composition. The first is called “Tempo,” and has a pace that is rather startling, jump-starting the book with Miranda’s jaunty air pushing back against Samuel’s jaundiced one. The section is filled with the wondrous smell of her.
The novel’s second part “Cadenza” — which, in music, denotes a solo passage of virtuosic talent (Elio may be performing a duet with Michel, but it feels like a solo) — has not the smell of flesh but of emollients lining the shower and shelves in Michel’s country estate, as well as of the soaps he uses on Elio’s naked body as he insists Elio keep his eyes closed. That encounter makes for a rather creepy scene that is, one presumes, supposed to be about adoration and trust but instead reminds one of a father giving his child a bath.
The third section of Find Me is titled “Capriccio,” which, musically, connotes something improvised and brief — and in painting means that there are facets of fantasy present, and one must ferret out what is real and what is imagined. This part of the novel catches up with Oliver, now a father of two grown sons, and his wife, Micol, as he is finishing up a teaching sabbatical from his school in New Hampshire. He has spent the sabbatical in New York City, where he has been lecturing on the pre-Socratics, whose inquiry was based on the natural world.
The section centers on Oliver yet again departing — specifically on a going-away party for his wife and him at which Oliver moons over two guests he has invited: a young gay colleague at the New York City university and a young woman who stretches on a neighboring mat at his yoga class. The section is infused with the fluidity of Oliver’s bisexuality, as well the internal dialogues he is having with the idealized Elio, each still trying to find himself in the ether of time and the either of the other.
We are informed that the gay colleague has been working on a book about the Russian pianist Samuil Feinberg. And thus he sits down at the old Steinway during the party’s denouement — as well as the book’s — and begins to play Bach’s achingly beautiful “Arioso,” which is what Elio had played during that other long-ago departure that still underscores Oliver’s musings.
The current objects of Oliver’s desire — the pianist who has served his purpose (and the author’s) and the afterthought of a yoga partner, the latest stand-in for the parameters that women have offered Oliver in a kind of purloined life — exit the party and Oliver is left with his wife. She heads to bed. No boffing with abandon for them; not even the treacle of reticence. Oliver stays behind to clean up and descries, no longer mooning over others, the moon itself outside noticing him with its accusatory fullness, this professor closing in on 50 who forms public notions about the natural world within the context of classical thought — and private notions about it within the context of his memories of an idyllic Italy.
“Music is no more than the sound of our regrets put to a cadence that stirs the illusion of pleasure and hope,” Bach says in another of Oliver’s internal dialogues, speaking to him amid the deafening silence of the life he has chosen even as the life that once chose him — and which he rejected — refuses to remain unheard. It beckons him through Bach to find it again. “It’s the surest reminder that we’re here for a very short while and that we’ve neglected or cheated or, worse yet, failed to live our lives. Music is the unlived life,” the composer explains. “You’ve lived the wrong life, my friend,” says Bach, “and almost defaced the one you were given to live.”
“What do I want?” asks Oliver. “Do you know the answer, Herr Bach? Is there such a thing as a right or wrong life?”
“I’m an artist, my friend,” Bach says. “I don’t do answers. Artists know questions only.”
In Find Me’s final section, called “Da Capo” — a musical term that means “back to the beginning” or, translated literally, “from the head” — we are transported, in essence, to the ending of Call Me by Your Name. Oliver is back in Italy with Elio. There are still, however, a few unanswered questions.
But as for the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this review — How to begin when you have already experienced an ending? — I would suggest you read some Cavafy and Woolf. Skip the Cartland. Listen to Bach while reading Aciman’s sentences, which can be maddening but adhere hauntingly to the rhythms of Bach’s brilliant clarity when you expect them instead to vault into the realm of Vivaldi ruined by Liberace.
More important, listen deeply to the longing of your own heart and its own language while reading Aciman’s. Allow them to coalesce. Continue to read. Continue to love. Continue to find yourself. Call yourself by your own damn name.
Kevin Sessums was a contributing editor of Vanity Fair for 14 years, where he wrote 28 cover stories and over 300 articles. He has authored two New York Times best-selling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain, and is currently the editor and publisher of sessumsMagazine.com.