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January 2024

Interview: André Aciman

Interview by Ben Harvey

Co-managing editor, Mount Hope

In a piece that you wrote many years ago for The American Scholar, you recall the pain and beauty that came from your time of youth in Rome. In it, you asked: "Does writing seek out the words the better to stir and unnumb us to life? Or does writing provide surrogate pleasures the better to numb us to experience?" Yet you never wrote which one was your answer. What do you think about this question now? Would you say that you have found an answer to it since?

I have never found an answer to that puzzle. Writing is supposed to free us, to open us, to help us stay authentic to our core selves. And yet, writing provides substitute truths and unforeseen pleasures that aestheticize those selves and give their sorrows a better cast without falsifying them, but by seeing them under a different limelight. On one hand, writing stirs what is painful, on the other it numbs it. We turn to writing to reach what we may never have encountered, much less considered, and probably avoided, until we’ve shaped them with words. Words have their own logic and magic, their own cadence that seems far better equipped to excavate what has always lurked in the shadow. But writing does not free-associate or psychoanalyze; instead, it gives psychology form. It does not resolve our sorrows; it stylizes those sorrows. Van Gogh’s chair is a perfect example of sorrow, solitude, misery. But it is also a great painting. So is writing an honest attempt to reach into things as they are, or is it an honest attempt to reach a higher order of truth? I don't have an answer for that.

And you can't have an answer because both could be true?

Both could be true. But I can't think of a third term that would stand as a compromise between the two. So as I'm writing, I'm always aware that I might be making things up. But then I say, "I'm making some things up because they make more sense than what actually happened." So how could something that never happened actually make more sense than something that did happen? Why is it that I chose fiction in order to unearth something that is supposedly truer about who I am? I love coming up with paradoxes of this kind because a paradox is essentially a statement for which I don't have the answer, and maybe, maybe, I like not having answers rather than living with more graspable solutions.

It's like a great irony that goes with writing.

Basically, the word that I always use is irony because you need to have a sense of irony to realize that if a writer is too sentimental, or too touchy-feely, then that writer isn’t moving. On the other hand, if the writer is too comical, then the writer becomes frivolous; I may laugh but I won’t take the work seriously. I need misery and humor braided together or given, as Emily Dickinson says, on the slant. This is what stylizing means to me. And that's what I've always tried to do. Ultimately, form is what art strives for. I didn't want to camouflage the pain of leaving Egypt, but I was also aware that, even at fourteen, I couldn’t wait to leave Egypt. I couldn't reconcile the two. Irony allowed me to paint both sides of the coin. I was ironic about my relatives, about those I liked, and about a country that I wished to put behind all the while dreading to forget it.

Do you think that the scars or pains of when you were exiled from Egypt are a part of what has motivated you to write, to make sense of that pain?

No. I'd be dishonest if I said, "I'm writing because I'm haunted by certain memories of my life in Egypt, and the only way to come to terms with them is to write about them." But that's not the true reason. I write because I want to write, and I've always wanted to write. Even as a kid, since I was nine years, ten years old, I wanted to write.

I wrote a version of Out of Egypt when I was twenty-six or twenty-seven, and I realized that it related the honest truth. I was telling it as it was, making nothing up. And that was a terrible, terrible book because I was simply cobbling together facts. There was no voice, no modulation to that voice; there was plot, but no narrative. So I said: "I'm not able to write at all." And I waited probably fifteen years to write the book. And when I did that, I knew that I wanted to be both humorous and moving. Otherwise, I was going to be one or the other. And I didn't want that. Only then did I discover that I was always partial to irony. In fact, Out of Egypt is written in the key of irony. Another way of saying this is to say that I refused to be declarative about anything. The book upholds nothing.

So almost if you remain too truthful or honest in your writing, it can take away from the effect of literature?

I didn't want my book to be overwritten the way some people do when they want to produce literature. I wanted my tale to be ordinary, but studiously ordinary.

Then, is it better to be ordinary or unordinary in writing?

Well, that's a difficult question. If the sentence is too ponderous, too loquacious, you end up sounding artificial and self-conscious. But if you're too slangy, then you will sound shallow, unless, of course, the slang is totally intended. You always have to calibrate. You always have to ask: "Does the story I'm telling accord with ordinary language or with classical language?” There are moments when I write in very long sentences because the sentiment is complex.

And sometimes I want to say, "I hate so-and-so,” period, because that's how I feel, and I don't mean to hide it. So, yes, I can be declarative at times, but you have to always be on the lookout for something that is unnecessarily ornate or unnecessarily simple. You are always questioning yourself, and, well, if you're a writer who doesn't question himself, then you probably shouldn’t be a writer.

In your work, it seems that you use questions as declarative statements, such as when you ask in Find Me: "What good is the map if the end's already known?" Or, in Call Me by Your Name: "If not later, when?" Does putting and asking questions like these in your work help you to write them, creatively speaking?

Well, usually in the first sentence of most of my books — not in all of them, but in most of them –– I quote somebody's words. Somebody might say something, like, “Later," or when a character says, "Are we or aren't we?" These openers set the tone of the whole book. When I started Out of Egypt, I didn't have, "Are we or aren't we?" I had something like: “The sea is calm today…” à la Lawrence Durrell. Now, "Are we or aren't we,” hurls you right into the story. And so does, "Later." Initially, I started Call Me by Your Name with: "A car arrives down the pine alley and stops in front of our house….” But "Later" is much more pugnacious, so I went with that. And most of the stories that I write –– take Eight White Nights –– start with something like, "I am Clara." Now, whoever has the courage to come up to you and say, "I am Clara," when you haven't even been introduced? But that three-word sentence is taken up many times for several opening pages. What kind of person would step out from behind a Christmas tree at a large party and say such a blunt thing? Who is Clara? Is it important, or is it not important? But "I am Clara" gives you the voice and the character of the person, and this stampedes you right into the story.

The narrator of Eight White Nights is always asking himself questions about Clara too. He is constantly worrying about her, and it feels like that is what moves the story along: he is asking questions and diving deeper into an emotional hole.

Correct. He is problematic. I know this because every question he asks is unanswerable, and he realizes this. And so he asks more questions, having more doubts and more thoughts and more of this and more of that. And he never acts until the very end where he might have acted. We don't know.

But in terms of when you write questions like these in your work, like with him, does it help you find and possibly put answers within them?

Not necessarily. If I ask a question, it's because the question is interesting, not its answer.

Writing itself is not an attempt to answer a question, as it is an attempt to raise a question. That, for me, is more meaningful.

So does a book not fail if it does not provide answers?

If you want answers, billions of places will give you answers. It's when writing asks you questions to which you don't know and cannot even begin to imagine an answer –– that, for me, is more problematic and ultimately far more enticing. If I had to come up with answers, I'd be like a person resolving an issue. And most of the issues that I'm interested in are insoluble. So that's not where I want to go. Who am I to give you answers about life?

Would you say then that if writing is the proposing of questions, is reading the finding of answers in those questions?

That question is complicated. Reading is the ability to follow the writer and say, "Yes, I see why this is important. I see why this is a question. I never thought of that. I never thought of this contradiction. I never thought of this paradox. This irony baffles me, and I've always known it yet never considered it." That's what reading is supposed to do. It doesn't give you answers. In point of fact, who gives us answers? I mean, whoever has answers? I don't know anybody who would give me answers. I'm always more interested in people who are helping me debate a question with them. We may think we’re looking for answers, but what we enjoy is the debate itself. And when you look at two people in a cafe, in any cafe in any university, and let’s say they're discussing their problems with their partners, what they’re looking for are not answers but a way to keep deepening their understanding of their relationships.

Is reading about coming to an understanding of something instead of answering it then?

Reading makes us wiser. You don't become totally wise, but you've acquired some wisdom, especially if you acquire it over time. That sort of wisdom is not necessarily going to help you. What it will do, however, is give you a broader way of looking at things that you couldn't have done before reading this or that book. For example, one of the people who helped me identify this is Dostoevsky. If you read Dostoevsky, you realize that people are spiteful, mean, stupid, arrogant, kind. Sometimes they cry too easily. Sometimes they want the best for you, and then the next thing you know is that they've been unbelievably cruel. I never knew that people were this contradictory. But I said, "Yes, it's true. I am that way too." And basically, you start saying this with every great work you read. When I read Proust, I couldn’t help myself from saying: "Oh, yes, me too, me too, me too." That's what good books do for you. Some books can entertain you. Others reveal things about yourself you never knew existed— and, let’s face it, we’re always, always interested in ourselves.

What's interesting with Dostoevsky though is that in a number of your books there are many mentions and traces of him, and in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (an old favorite of yours) there's a translation that reads: "Love is such a priceless treasure that you can redeem the whole world by it and cleanse not only your own sins, but the sins of others." In this case, Dostoevsky seems to present love as a sort of consolation or antidote to the pains brought by experience. And in your work, it seems that this too is a familiar and important idea. Do you think that the point of writing is similar to this point, that it is to provide solace and to cleanse and redeem?

I would be lying if I said, "Yes, that’s a nice idea. It is to cleanse you and purify you and give you love instead of despair or whatever it is that love is not." No. I was always interested in how and why we desire somebody. That is what always fascinated me. I seldom mentioned love in my books because I thought that the word love was too obvious an answer. But desire, what is desire? Desire, it's like wanting to love, not wanting to love. It always wriggles away from you the moment you try to catch it. So I have always been more fascinated by desire than with love, and in Dostoevsky’s case, it is a more spiritual kind of love. It's a religious, soulful, lyrical love, which I have little interest in.

I have always been more interested in somebody who shows up in my life and is suddenly desired. Confronted by this new desire, I don't know what to do. That has happened to me several times. And I love that feeling because it comes as, "What is it that I want?" Probably nothing. It's probably going to go away a minute later. But you want to understand what it is, and you don't have the tools to understand desire. I can understand love, love for children, love for a wife, love for a partner. But desire is unfathomable, and for me it is a far better territory for a writer. It is totally unexplored.

Would you say that the beauty that comes from love is the same beauty that comes from desire?

I would say that love is a very ennobling feeling. It is a nice, clean feeling. It is a feeling that we desperately long for and that we'd like to settle for, and we hope that it lasts a long time. Desire is much more fugitive, uncertain, and unreliable, and therefore sometimes quixotic, even fragmentary. It just doesn't quite exist the same way it did two minutes earlier. You try to stoke desire. And at the same time, you fight it. Love is a bit different I think, especially the love for something noble. For instance, take the love for one’s mother. You might have fights and arguments with your mother, but you still love her. This doesn't interest me, and I loved my mother. But it's not what I want to write about. If I'm going to write about my mother, I would most likely focus on her foibles, her lies, her irresponsible ability to seek risk.

Do you think that desire is a part of what it means to be human?

I don't know. It certainly is savage and beastly sometimes. But I don't know what it is. I've always thought that you forget what it is, or what having sex is. You know the motions. You know a lot about it, but you forget why it exists.

Almost, it comes back to that question of, "What is it that I want," in the moment of it all.

 

Do you think that to continue to feel desire, to always be asking that question, is a mentally draining exercise in and of itself?

The good thing about desire is it doesn't always happen. Sometimes it recedes, but then it comes back. And it can come back with all different kinds of faces. If you don't desire though, what are you doing? What are you looking for? As soon as I start writing, I'm desiring something. I don't know what. But I know I'm desiring something, and if ever I stop desiring, then maybe I should stop living.

Yet in your works, there's always this sense of peace or a peacefulness. But it's alongside this thing of desire too. Can you desire something and be at peace, or do they not go together at all?

Maybe the word peace is not exactly the word that I would choose. I would use the word serenity instead. My work is always quite serene. In other words, even when Elio is in agony, he's still serene. And nobody is ever really evil in my books or spends any time spiting others either. There's just a sense that life and Earth are beautiful things, and I'm glad that they've been given to me. My dominant key is always going to be serenity. In fact, writing for me is a way of putting on a veil of serenity over things that have not been particularly joyful. But then I also ask the question, "Now that you've put the veil, let's remove it," because writing is a way of, as I said before, aestheticizing what happens in life. And I'm honest enough to know that aesthetics may also be a form of makeup that we put on things. But good makeup — and I stress the word good — enhances our features. It does not falsify them. But I like to give the other voice in me a chance to speak.

What is the other voice?

The other voice is the voice of uncertainty, of fear, of anxiety, of pain, the stuff that life throws at our doorstep which is not always happy and serene. And I'd like to say, "Wait a second, I've made this marketplace beautiful for you on a Sunday afternoon. The fruits are beautiful. The people are kind. Everything is happening in that marketplace. And I feel joy walking through it.” But I can't keep that up. I have to say, "Wait a second, this marketplace is full of dirty people who aren’t inclined to kindness, people who have to travel long, tiresome distances to go back home and as a result are acrimonious with me as well as with others." These aspects of the brutalities of life hold no great interest for me.

Would you say then that the voice of serenity, or that the job of writing rather, is to give consolation and reassurance in the face of that other voice, in the face of that anxiety?

I don't think so. First of all, I've never known consolation. I don't even like the idea, basically, because when you comfort someone, you're telling them, "Things are going to be fine." I don't buy into that as a way of operating. But I do think that writing highlights the shortcomings of life. And yet, as I've said many times now, it presents them on a slant. And it does both gestures at one and the same time. At least in my writing, I try to do that. I try not to become fraudulent so that I'm giving you false hope. At the same time, though, I also want to make sure that I'm serene because that is what I'm looking for. It is to find some way of reaching a balance in my life with all the pains that I've gone through. And the only way I know how to do this is to write in such a way that I feel some degree of pleasure from having written something that reminds me of the pain I’ve always known in life. A big paradox, this.

How then do you battle what the reader gets out of your work, that consolation, and why you ultimately write your work?

Well, let's go back to one of the questions that always comes up when I'm giving a talk: people always assume that when I wrote Call Me by Your Name, I was on a mission. Yet, all I wanted to do was to write a story that gave me pleasure and that left me feeling that the love of Elio and Oliver could have lasted years. That’s all I was doing. The fact that no gay man was beaten, killed, bullied, or made fun of gave the story a cast I liked. And so did my readers. In other words, people saw that it was not only beautiful to love somebody of one’s own sex but also to draw comfort from that love. Then there was the father who approves of his son and basically tells him to coddle that love and not squelch it. People found inspiration from my novel, some to out themselves to their parents, while parents were inspired to help their sons and daughters come out to them. Did I plan all this? No. But obviously, I must have.

Then, were you going off of the emotions while writing Call Me by Your Name, ultimately being motivated by them?

The emotions were there of course. I fell in love with Elio and Oliver as well as with their love. But I was not thinking of love exactly. I was thinking that they were viscerally attracted to each other, which is sometimes superior and more complex than love.

So, it comes from desire rather than that word, love, that you do not like to use because by stating the word –– it states the obvious. Does that mean then that writing is at its best when it is subtle?

It has to be. I mean, put it this way, supposing –– if you like lasagna –– I asked you to describe your feelings for lasagna. "Lasagna is good," period, "Lasagna makes me happy," period, "I love lasagna." You've said it all. But if I asked you, "Explain to me what about lasagna stirs you, without going into specifics about the meat, the dough, etc. –– what is it about lasagna that brings out happiness?” At that point, you might say, "Oh gosh, now I have to work and think this through." Basically, you're asking, "Why do I love lasagna? Is it the feeling that comes before I start eating it? Or is it the feeling of plentitude after I've had it? Or is it while I'm eating it? Actually, it's all of these…." Now you've made it more complex. You've basically ruined lasagna. So you also have to watch out that too many probes may ultimately destroy what it is that you're feeling. And that is the problem with my book called Eight White Nights, because it asks so many questions that they might ultimately unsaddle the passion that brought these two people together.

It puts a barrier in between what is really there, which is this deep sense of desire.

Think of it this way, at some point, I think it's on the fourth or fifth night, Clara just asks him, "Why don't you come upstairs?" It’s because they’ve been kissing very passionately and almost doing everything in the bar. But he replies that he’d rather take a rain check. I think that on one hand, he's saying, "I don't want the romance to die," because we know it must die at some point. On the other, he's also saying, "I'm too scared to go to the next step." But if you don't seize the moment when things are hot, you're waiting for them to cool. And when they cool, you cool, she cools. It's done. And I think that's the problem with the book; it was waiting for things to cool down. You don't want things to cool down, especially not in a novel.

Something that I found to be interesting that you said one time was that when you initially wrote Call Me by Your Name, you added in the gay aspect as a way of creating tension. Could you explain that?

Initially, when I started writing the book, I wrote about a kid who's 17 and a girl who's probably the same age. And they meet. They like each other and soon enough they will have sex. What I wanted was for tension to exist, but what tension is there between a boy and a girl other than, "My parents said we shouldn't." But if you have something that is forbidden, or at least that feels forbidden, then you have tension. You have somebody who seems to hate your guts. And you don't want to like him either. You find yourself drawn to this person, but you don't want to be drawn to him. And so you fight it. Basically, this person intrudes into your life and there's a constant back-and-forth between the two of you. And this is what I was seeking.

Most of the tension that we see in your works is within a shorter span of time. Can tension not be in a longer sense of time?

It could. Of course, it could. That tension could last thirty, forty, fifty years.

So why then write in moments? You write about, for instance, a summer. You write about the moment that Samuel met Miranda. Eight White Nights is just a moment of seven days. Is it that you feel that there's more tension within a short span of time or that it can be represented better in that span of time?

I think the tension can be captured best in shorter spans of time, and it's because I'm not interested in a lifelong exegesis of what happens to A and B after they met at the party and what happened twenty, thirty, forty years later. I'm more interested in seizing the moments that reveal to us what is happening between them. For example, in Call Me by Your Name, I show you what happens five years later, what happens ten years later, twenty years later. I'm interested in that. But I'm not going to give you a whole biography of their lives. I assume that the reader respects this kind of skipping through time. I was interested in having Oliver invite Elio to his home to see his sons and meet his wife and have dinner with them; what a nice thing to do even if they had sex years and years before. But what does Elio say?

He says no.

Exactly. "No,” he says, “I’d rather not do that." And he realizes that the reason why he cannot do that is because he still has undiminished feelings for Oliver.

After all that time?

Yes. Otherwise, he would have gone to have dinner with Oliver’s family. When he refuses to do so, it's because he is still not over his love for Oliver.

But so, with emotion and love in time and space, as you seem to present it, there is a sort of beautiful, eternal after effect. Afterall, we were just talking about how the love, or the tension, between Elio and Oliver is one that cannot seem to die, and it is because of the words that they exchanged when they were young. Do you think that it is in the emotions, the thoughts, that words provide and in the effects of them on the human soul that they can't die, that words can never die?

I don't know. I think that the sentence that they said to each other, "Call me by your name," is powerful as an invitation to transplant yourself into me, and I will transplant myself into you. And the words are powerful because the feeling is powerful, because they understand exactly what they want and need from each other. And I think the reader does too. I think that the phrase that they say to each other, “Call me by your name," is a powerful statement of generosity and vulnerability. It says: "I want to be you. And I want you to be me. If I cannot be you, then you’ll never want to be me.” And to have those portals open that way happens, what, once in a lifetime.

Is it the words themselves, though? I think that the feeling itself would not exist had it not been stated in those words. So the feeling is inexistent without the words. On the other hand, again, the feeling is there. I know that in my life itself, people have said things to me that made a lot of difference and that have stayed with me because of the voice that they had when they said it. I'm grateful for that because I could have easily forgotten, and I thank god I haven't.

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