IMPRINTS 3: Andre Aciman and David Markson
"We are not written for one instrument alone; I am not, neither are you." As diary entries go, this inscription carries more heat than many – especially as it’s authored by a 17-year-old. Elio, the protagonist of Andre Aciman’s first novel, Call Me by Your Name, is an unusually sophisticated child; but next to Oliver, the 24-year-old American come to his parents house for the duration of one summer, he is as susceptible to raw longing as the next teenager. Aciman, a memoirist and scholar turned novelist, has taken nostalgia and the gleam of coming of age amidst a specific place and season as his subject before—in Out of Egypt, a recounting of his idyllic childhood there, and in False Papers, a book of essays on, among other things, Proust and lost love. Elio, Proustian to the core, has a Madeleine of his own: a peach, eventually shared with Oliver. But Aciman’s subject, roughly split, is even more visceral—flesh, and the way the language pauses at its edge.
Oliver, the newest student and scholar to be offered summer refuge in the family’s Italian Riviera home by Elio’s father, himself an indulgent academic, arrives in a taxi-cab, “billowy blue shirt, wide-open collar, sunglasses, straw hat, skin everywhere.” Elio, though smart and somewhat worldly (his parents are liberal; his father congratulates him after various midnight trysts with girls his age and older) is still basically naïve. “It never occurred to me that what had totally panicked me when he touched me was exactly what startles virgins on being touched for the first time by the person they desire,” Elio realizes after his first contact with Oliver. Complicating things—though Aciman treats it as normal —is the fact that neither of the two men is gay, in the usual sense: Oliver will go on to marry, and Elio, even during their affair, has a female lover.
What Call Me by Your Name is, or is superficially anyway, is a summer romance, a courtship story narrated by Elio, many years later, after a kind of dusky, backwards-looking glow has set in. It seems like forever that the two circle one another. For Elio, “Smells and sounds I’d grown up with and known every year of my life until then but that had suddenly turned on me and acquired an inflection forever colored by the events of that summer.” After an early kiss and a prolonged flirtation, the two men finally consummate, and Aciman charts their remaining few weeks together in detail, tracing out in retrospect what they could not say to each other when they first met.
As the title suggests, Aciman sees language as a mutable way of being in the world, of making connections—Elio is obsessed with what people can and can’t say to each other. At the summer’s end, he and Oliver travel to Rome, and fall in for an evening with a crowd of charismatic artists and poets. Elio is entranced.
I loved this world. And I would love it even more once I learned how to speak its language—for it was my language, a form of address where our deepest longings are smuggled in banter, not because it is safer to put a smile on what we fear may shock, but because the inflections of desire, of all desire in this new world I’d stepped into, could only be conveyed in play.
This discovery comes as an incredible relief to Elio, who describes his own halting, 17-year-old language earlier in the novel. “I stammered all manner of things so as not to speak my mind. That was the extent of my code.” Later, in trying to unburden himself to Oliver, he says
“I’m not wise at all. I told you, I know nothing. I know books, and I know how to string words together—it doesn’t mean I know how to speak about the things that matter most to me.”
“But you’re doing it now—in a way.”
“Yes, in a way—that’s how I always say things: in a way.”
“In a way” – to Elio’s eternal gratitude – turns out to be enough. The line echoes, perhaps intentionally, the famous first proposition in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: “The world is everything that is the case.” Like Wittgenstein, Elio learns to relegate what he cannot speak about to silence. His feelings for Oliver and about the summer they share belong to the realm of things that cannot be said.
Just be quiet, say nothing, and if you can’t say “yes,” don’t say “no,” say “later.” Is this why people say “maybe” when they mean “yes,” but hope you’ll think it’s “no” when all they really mean is, Please, just ask me once more, and once more after that?
Aciman locates ambiguity – sexual, historical, and linguistic – and being quiet (saying nothing) as a kind of world of play, a place where fragments and unfinished urges can become more fulfilling for not being spoken. Oliver and Elio are never able to characterize fully what they have, or what they had, even when they meet again, more than twenty years later. Aciman suggests that that some experiences—perhaps the most coveted—lie beyond words, which only reflect the heat of what they describe.
Call Me by Your Name, with its thick, almost formal, prose and modernist ambition to paint with exactitude the physical world in which a small courtship takes place, does not have much to do with David Markson’s landmark experimental novel, Wittgenstein’s Mistress. Yet both books are in large part concerned with the question of how language interacts with experience and thought—how the larger world is or isn’t available to us at the edges of our ability to express it.
Wittgenstein’s Mistress tells, in paragraphs of one to two sentences, the story of a woman, Kate, who believes she is the last woman on Earth. On a typewriter, she records her thoughts—on history, art, culture, and her own life. But she also interrogates the way her language, and internal monologue, can be inaccurate, false, or misrepresentative. Mostly, she deals in facts, but even these give way. She describes, in Markson’s spare style,
…the case of Guy de Maupassant, who ate his lunch every day at the Eiffel Tower.
Well, the point being that this was the only place in Paris from which he did not have to look at it.
For the life of me I have no idea how I know that. Any more than I have any idea how I also happen to know that Guy de Maupassant liked to row.
When I said that Guy de Maupassant ate his lunch every day at the Eiffel Tower, so that he did no have to look at it, I meant that it was the Eiffel Tower he did not wish to look at, naturally, and not his lunch.
One’s language being frequently imprecise in such ways, I have discovered.
Kate stalks the thread of meaning through her language, revealing the misdirections and false truths her seemingly reliable thought provides. It is also a way of pausing at the edge—we find out later that Maupassant, like many other artists that appear in the novel, eventually went mad: a fate that awaits, or may have already descended upon, Kate. But madness – if genuine – is not something the mad have the words to describe. Kate is forced to deal with her predicament in indirect ways.
This is the tragic pull of the book – a lonely human being wading messily through what she knows, what she thinks she knows, what she knows she doesn’t know, and above all else, what she wishes she didn’t know at all. – Suddenly, you realize that everything, each Sebald like digression, is relevant. Like Aciman, Markson allows Kate only to reflect the direness of her predicament, to allude to it in lieu of confronting or explaining it. When she comes closest to being candid, the depth of she can’t say is palpable, and heart breaking. Towards the end, she has seen “rosy-fingered dawns,”
Even if how I happened to feel through most of the week was depressed, to tell the truth.
I believe I have said that I felt depressed at least once before, actually, while writing these pages.
Although perhaps what I more exactly said I felt once before was a certain undefined anxiety.
What in that instance would have only been because of my period coming on, however.
Or because of hormones.
And so which would have not really been anxiety at all, but only an illusion.
Even if one would certainly be hard put to explain the difference between the illusion of anxiety and anxiety itself.
There is a difference, of course, but Kate has access to only one side of the divide. As her loneliness deepens and her facts and speculations grow more garbled, her emotional and mental state become more clear to the reader. Her problem is that as the only person left, there is no more than language—that and the unthinkable.
But where Aciman allows Oliver and Elio, if not to be together, then to share a memory and common experience of the high point of their respective lives – in other words, he allows them to transcend with one another what they cannot say – Markson, and Kate, are mute. When the Wittgenstein’s Mistress comes to an end, and the propositions stop, one cannot help but think they do so for a reason. As the last words in the Tractatus go, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”