"Nature loves to hide," wrote Heraclitus. Like so many of the pre-Socratic philosopher's sayings, this fragment puzzles as much as it illuminates. Certainly it rings true with respect to our own natures. We're often most hidden from ourselves. What's more, we sometimes take a baffled pleasure in our hiddenness. As we get older, we turn to memory for clues to ourselves; we search out a pattern, real or imagined, in our lives. But memory too likes to hide. When we summon up the past, we realize that what we remember isn't only the facts of some past event but also all the accompanying sensations. A forgotten fragrance, a stray glance, come back as powerfully as the happening itself. To complicate the process, we call to mind all the emotions which lay entangled in that vanished moment. Not simply how it felt but how many hopes, delusions, and expectations — now also vanished — crowded about that moment, even including how we anticipated remembering it at the time. To remember is also to summon up how we expected to remember.
These riddles lie hidden throughout André Aciman's intricate new novel "Call Me by Your Name" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pages, $23.). But this is no cool disquisition on human memory. Rather, the novel — Mr. Aciman's first full-length work of fiction — is an unsparing account of an adolescent love affair. That this is a story of passion remembered makes it only more immediate. For it is, of course, the body which remembers. The feel of a lover's skin, the smell of his hair, the color and texture of a favorite shirt, even the precise intonation of a banal phrase, along with a thousand other sensations, are the true repositories of memory. Mr. Aciman, like Cavafy, an Alexandrian to his fingertips, knows that to evoke such tiny events is to touch the very nerves of memory.
Anyone who has read Mr. Aciman's previous work will not be surprised to find Proustian echoes throughout his novel. In essays and reviews, as well as in "The Proust Project" (2004), he has proved himself perhaps the subtlest reader of that novelist. The spirit of Proust suffuses "Call Me by Your Name," showing not only in the quest for "time regained," but in Mr. Aciman's painfully lucid exposure of all the follies, self-deceptions, yearnings, and disappointments, of sexual love. Rather than imitating Proust, Mr. Aciman has learned from him; his allusions to the master are sly acts of homage rather than mimicry. Such delicate hints often appear in Mr. Aciman's metaphors. Elio, the narrator, remarks of Oliver, with whom he is desperately in love:
How I loved the way he repeated what I myself had just repeated. It made me think of a caress, or of a gesture, which happens to be totally accidental the first time but becomes intentional the second time and more so yet the third. It reminded me of the way Mafalda [the family servant] would make my bed every morning, first by folding the top sheet over the blanket, then by folding it back again to cover the pillows on top when she folded the whole thing over the bedspread — back and forth until I knew that tucked in between these folds were tokens of something at once pious and indulgent, like acquiescence in an instant of passion.
In Proustian fashion, this is a homely metaphor which opens continually outward. The folds of the sheets evoke not only the longed-for bed but the way in which passion itself lies in plain yet hidden pleats or even the way memory itself is made and unmade in the mind. The metaphor pays its respects to Proust but is brilliantly original.
The love affair between Elio, the precocious 17-year-old narrator, and Oliver, the impossibly brilliant 24-year-old American scholar and expert on — what else? — Heraclitus, follows its own impetuous logic. I don't want to give the story away, though in a sense I can't help doing so. Anyone who's ever been infatuated — as only a "teenager in love" can be — will recognize each swerve and lurch of the heart, often with a familiar wince. But as the denouement reveals, subtler surprises are in store. When Elio, years later, remarks, "It was the measure of loss that was going to strike me," he is remembering in advance what hasn't yet occurred. His story unfolds in "B.," an unnamed Italian seaside village. But as we read, we realize there is no "A." which leads to "B." The starting point in love, as in the memory of love, is always dislocated; it shifts as we seek it. This is a novel of seduction in which the final prize is to win back something small but precious from the coquettishness of memory.