Real or Not?

Updated: Apr 16

Find Me, by Andre Aciman, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019

Personally I would love to be a character in an Aciman novel. For one, his protagonists occupy the easy middle ground of everything: they are neither wealthy nor impoverished, neither gay nor straight, neither devoted to anyone in particular nor entirely free from the coddling pangs of love, neither a citizen of one country nor of any other, care nothing at all for age, are largely unhindered by professional obligations and seem to come and go in one another's lives with an ease completely relieved of all tension. They are, in other words, true romantics: if only they were remotely real. Then again, it's not surprising that Aciman has revealed that he cares nothing for modern literature and does not read any of his contemporaries. His template is that of the wanderer hero of antiquity, or the neo-classicist thinker contemplating the Age of Enlightenment, or the late Victorian aesthete embarking on a Grand Tour across the liquid sensibilities of the pre-modern age. And his characters are just that: they are fluid to a degree so disconnected to our own current lives of rigidly-defined labels, boxes and categories that they indeed appear to come from a different existence altogether. The question is whether they can be real?

Debating this question is both invigorating and infuriating for a reader. I confess that as much as I adore Aciman's advocacy for a return to the unhindered indulgences of high romanticism, (and I really do think his schema is an inspired motivation for a better dispensation, a better way of living) all the time you read you are aware of the very fact that Aciman himself is creating an illusion, a fabricated lyrical distraction into which he is constantly escaping. It's almost as if he has set about to write a counter-narrative to anything approaching modern realism. Two of the central encounters in Find Me occur completely by chance, as if Fate itself has been called upon to weave its magic spell, or Cupid summoned to fire off an arrow. Indeed, the number of times wistful (and improbable) conversations take place just on this theme of fate belies an authorial over-preoccupation which strains any sense of you believing in the truth of the detailed and microscopically observed relationships which grow out of them.

The first encounter happens on a train journey. Samuel (Elio's father from Call Me By Your Name), strikes up a conversation with a woman called Miranda and then, in the space of a few hours, he's having birthday lunch with her father and falling head over heels in love with her. Who invites a complete stranger (a considerably older man no less) home for Pa's birthday lunch two hours after you meet him? Yes, it's nice, it's wistfully impulsive, but it also doesn't happen: not in the sour, suspicious and self-preoccupied modern world we live in. They then cavort about Rome for another few hours (Rome in Aciman world is always brilliantly lit, never over-crowded and the cafes always have a spare table. Oh, and the wine is always the perfect vintage!) and then, presto, they are committing their future lives to one another. Just like that, utterly and completely confessing their undying love. The second encounter happens when Elio, now a concert pianist, is propositioned by an older man called Michel at a church concert and a similar fairy-tale romance follows in swift haste. Next thing they are taking long romantic strolls together at his country home and sipping single malts by the fire. Is Aciman trying to drown us with longing of what we know will never happen to us and for what we will probably never have?

The biggest problem is not that any reader minds being transported into an alternative universe - a large part of why we read is to be provided this very route to escapism - but for much of the novel Aciman unwisely surrenders all his inhibitions to a series of verbose dialogues which simply never ring true. It's one thing for the interior monologue of a first-person narrator to think to themselves a certain idea of how a romantic conversation may go, but for two people - virtually complete strangers - to actually speak in this way to one another just defies all sense and works against the credibility of the action which in the meantime is unfolding. For example, we have much of this kind of exchange:

"Of course I have a secret. We all do," I said. "Each of us is like a moon that shows only a few facets to earth, but never in full sphere. most of us never meet those who'll understand our full rounded self. I show people only that sliver of me I think they'll grasp. I show others other slices. But there's always a facet of darkness I keep to myself."

"I want to know that facet of darkness, tell it to me now ..."

I mean, who actually speaks like this aloud? What's more improbable is that every character speaks in exactly the same idiom: it may be understandable if, say, one character were given to poetic grandiosity, and perhaps another the converse to establish the effect of individualism, but for all five main characters to think and speak in exactly the same manner just strips them of any sense of self: they are all Aciman, he is speaking through them all, apparently unable to pare back his preoccupation with Proustian affectation (the trove of memories triggered by encountering certain paraphernalia is also woefully overdone). The sheer number of times one of the characters (in whatever part of the story) turns to the other and says, "Kiss me, just kiss me" becomes something of a running joke. This kind of self-indulgence is excusable in a novel like Call Me By Your Name, where the narrator is a naive seventeen year old afflicted by that first true blinding wash of passion and love which comes in those dreamy rural summers of youth, or The Enigma Variations when much of the initial action unfolds in the quiet sanctity of a carpenter's workshop on some tiny Mediterranean island, but when transposed to a series of adults in the middle of bustling European capital cities, it just destroys all sense of authenticity. Can you really imagine someone standing on a thronging Roman street, with the clamor of crowds and the clatter of buses going by and drolling on about half-moons?

All this said, I do wonder, though. I mean are there still pockets of people out there who enact romance in this bygone fashion? Do people still have random encounters which lead to immediate, yet sustaining bliss? In its defence, the novel is set slightly behind the whole dating app phenomenon and world of cyber narcissism which has perhaps eroded the humanity out of making visceral connections with other people so swiftly that it's hard to think of a time when such an approach must still have been a necessity. There is something undeniably nostalgic in Aciman's view of the world and I can see his argument for wanting to establish the validity of the spoken word as the centerpiece for the beginnings of true human connection, but it's just the pace at which his characters seem to hit upon these compulsions which place it all at a strained remove.

Those gripes out the way, Find Me is nonetheless a triumph of narrative structure and perspective. Each section has a different narrator and each is named after a different musical term: tempo, cadenza, capriccio and capo. No section really concludes, but the next picks up a few years later and gradually we fill in the pieces. In this regard, the book reminds me of another disciple of Proust - Alan Hollinghurst - and where Aciman is similarly brilliant is at underscoring a certain constant current which somehow ebbs and flows throughout the whole overarching narrative and discreetly links everything together. Here it seems to be the figure of Samuel, Elio's wise and understanding father, who provides much of the propulsion which gives emphasis to Elio's quest to investigate a musical score which was a parting love emblem from a Jewish musician about to be deported to the concentration camps. This is an affecting and beautifully rendered love story and it then gives Elio the insight he has been seeking in order to finally go in search of his one and true love, Oliver, whom he has never forgotten and never been able to replace. Meanwhile, Oliver too has been having similar recollections of Elio also tied to a piece of music - the Bach Arioso which Elio played to him as a teenager when they had their first dalliance. And so it is another kind of grand lyrical 'speaking' which brings the two old flames together at last, which resolves their lost years wandering essentially alone and unfulfilled. Perhaps Aciman was onto something with all that dialogue after all? Perhaps certain things just need to be said?


All original materials and texts - Neal Hovelmeier 
Website artwork - Frank Auerbach