Jessica Gross | Longreads | November 2017 | 20 minutes (4,900 words)
I spend the first day in any new place, particularly when I’m traveling alone, feeling massively out of sorts and wondering if I should turn right back around and come home. By now, I know that by the end of my stay that initial despair will feel almost unreal. But last summer, on a trip to Vienna, my sense of dislocation was so acute I didn’t know if I’d last. I’d spent the long train ride over from Paris re-reading my great-grandmother’s autobiography—as told to my grandmother—which details my Jewish family’s flight from Vienna in 1938. Arriving in the city so many decades later, I still couldn’t shake the sense of terror they’d described. No matter how much I tried to talk myself down, I couldn’t seem to stop conflating the cold stares of the Austrians I passed on the street with the fact that this country had wanted my relatives dead.
So: It was fraught. Until, that is, a friend sent me an essay by André Aciman. In “Parallax,” the epilogue to his essay collection Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, Aciman—a Jew and an exile from Egypt to Europe, who now lives in New York—writes of the dislocation that seems by now intrinsic to his personhood. He cannot, he writes, appreciate one place unless through the projection of another. “What we missed was not just Egypt. What we missed was dreaming Europe in Egypt—what we missed was the Egypt where we’d dreamed of Europe,” he writes. “Parallax is not just a disturbance in vision. It’s a derealizing and paralyzing disturbance in the soul—cognitive, metaphysical, intellectual, and ultimately aesthetic. It is not just about displacement, or of feeling adrift both in time and space, it is a fundamental misalignment between who we are, might have been, could still be, can’t accept we’ve become, or may never be.” I can’t remember whether reading this made me abruptly stop crying or, in the way that transcendent literature can, made me sob even harder.
Since then, I’ve read enough Aciman—a memoirist, essayist, and novelist—to know that dislocation is one of several central and vital themes. He also grapples with evasion of the present, and of pain; with ambivalence; and with desire. These last two are on particular display in his masterful novel Call Me by Your Name, which has now been adapted into a gorgeous film. Aciman expresses what it’s like to inhabit a human mind with more intricacy, subtlety and lyricism than almost any other writer I’ve read. We met at a café on the Upper West Side, where I tried to keep my reverence in check, and spoke about his distaste for realism, mitigating joy, trying to induce a sense of immersion in the reader, his respect for editors, and the new film. He began by telling me there was only one question I couldn’t ask: whether he thinks it did justice to the book.
Are there any other questions you absolutely loathe?
How do you generally answer when people ask that question?
“I loved it!” Okay, now you’re asking the question. [Laughter] Okay, fine, I’ll answer.
As a writer, you have two choices. You can be very proprietary—in other words, you own the book, you own the story, and the movie has to follow, otherwise you get upset, you go crazy.
Or, you can say, “I’ve written the book. You want to make a movie, you want to make a play, you want to make an opera out of it? Do with it what you want. And if you want my opinion, I’ll give it to you; if you don’t want to hear it, I won’t give it to you.” I’m probably the easiest author to edit because I feel that an editor knows what they’re doing. So if they say, “This sentence is horrible,” I’ll listen. I disagree one percent of the time.
In one interview, you said that often when you do disagree with an editor, it’s because they want specifics in a way that you feel is too concerned with realism.
Yeah. Oh, no, I hate that. Editors will say, “Well, how did he do this, how did he do that? If he did this, how could he have done that?” I don’t care! Just go with the plot. It doesn’t matter.
And why doesn’t it matter?
Because it’s fiction. You know? And so what if fiction reports facts that are improbable or impossible? The real importance is not what can happen, but what should happen. And “should” is a very loose term. And I’m very comfortable with that.
So I would not have asked you if the film does justice to the novel, but what I would have asked you is what the emotional experience of watching a film based on your book is like, which is maybe a very similar question.
It’s very hard to say I was emotionally moved by the movie because I’m so close to the story. I’ve been close to it for—now it’s 10 or 12 years. And so it’s very hard for me to say I was very moved. I loved the movie. I loved watching it. I loved the setup; the actors are fantastic. I could see how I might get moved. But it’s very hard to be moved when you are the person actually who has done this thing.
However, the other part of the question is: How does it feel as an author to know that somebody went through a great deal of trouble, with a lot of people, to create a movie out of a story that came out of your head and that you were probably just as willing to let go of altogether if it didn’t work? So you feel a certain degree of satisfaction. I won’t call it pride, because I’m not that kind of a person. But I do get a touch of joy—which I immediately mitigate, because I am too embarrassed to feel joy about something I’ve done. But there is a sense that they’re making a movie, there is a musical score, there’s a beautiful image, a beautiful cover to the book taken from the movie—I am very happy. And then it just withers away.
When you mitigate joy, what does it turn into?
I mean, that’s the kind of person I am. It’s very hard for me to get very excited about something. It’s like when you hear a song or a piece of music that you like and you listen to it again and again and again and again and again until you’re sick of it. And then once you get sick of it, there is no undoing that feeling of, “Why am I not able to recreate the original enthrallment?” It’s gone.
That’s funny, though. When I have that feeling about a song—that I need to listen to it a thousand times—I actually feel quite relieved when it’s been played out because I find that the intense desire is almost too much of a feeling, and it’s nice to have it dissipate a little. So I wonder if that’s an element of it too?
I hate to tell you this, you’re too young to know, but you can have the same feeling about people, too. You have a total crush on somebody and then, like, three weeks later, you say. “What was I thinking? This is terrible, this is awful.” It happens.
At the same time, I feel like you take young love and young lust very seriously, which perhaps contradicts what you just said.
I don’t know if I take it seriously. It’s much easier to write about young love and young lust than it is about middle-aged lust. I mean, who cares?
Probably middle-aged people.
No! They’re interested in young people too. Everybody likes young people. Middle-aged love affairs are about, say, the politics of the affair, not the actual lusting. I mean, we do lust, but it’s not the same thing as young lust and young love and young enamorment. So I think it’s easier to do.
On the other hand, if I think of all the passions I have had in my life, some of them occurred when I was 12, then when I was 15, 16, 22, 23. Then they began to decline, because then you know what it is. You see where it’s going. You know what the other person is going to say. You can even write it for them because you are a better writer than they are a speaker.
Call Me by Your Name came to you very quickly. You wrote it in the span of four months.
Has that ever happened another time?
Yeah, it does. I mean, once you get carried away then suddenly it’s just writing itself. Parts of Enigma Variations were dashed off, too. But Out Of Egypt was a longer book, and it was also my first book, so it was a bit more nervous and more careful. Usually, I rewrite a million times, everything, every sentence, every clause. It’s horrible.
What do you find that you rewrite for most of the time?
It has to be right. And I don’t know what “right” means. You have to use the right words. You have to use the real words, the words that have a zing to them, so that you know for the reader, it’s going to register as a meaning and then also as something else, as an inflection. You want to capture that inflection so that the reader gets the inflection and says, “Oh, I know what he means, it’s not exactly the words themselves, there’s something else going on.”
You write a lot about music in your work—do you play any instruments?
No, I’m just passive. Totally passive.
An appreciator. But I get that sense from your work almost of being—and this goes back to what you’ve said about literality and how distasteful it is to you—of being steeped in the imagery and the emotional core and this sensory world. And I come out with a very clear image, but then when I go back, it’s not always because you laid it out so explicitly. It’s because you submerged me, as the reader, in something.
Right, right. If you’re a decent writer, you manufacture an impression, a sensation. And that’s more important than “he had brown eyes and no eyebrows and he had a crooked nose.” That’s bullshit, that’s Dickens stuff, and it doesn’t work.
I have never described a character and I don’t always describe the scenery but I will drop a couple of words, like the rolling hills or the trees, one tree, one stupid tree, okay? Or like the smell wafting up indoors, to the house. And that gives you a sense of everything. Now you see the sea. I didn’t even mention the sea, but you see it because you know it’s next to a beach. And a lot of this has to do with the sentence structure, and not just that, but the music of the sentence. It has to take you into my mind.
That’s where I want it to be, in my mind. And if you read me well, then you are really thinking my thoughts and you’re seeing what I am imagining. Otherwise, I am just giving you what I call reportage, which is not that interesting to a fiction writer.
But isn’t it the opposite too, which is that you’re prompting the reader to create something completely unique in their own minds? It relates to what you’ve written about cities being scrims onto which we project our own selves, our own desires—so that, if I’m reading you right, my Paris is only mine, actually, and nobody else’s.
Would you believe that everybody has the same Paris, but everybody is convinced that it’s only they who have it?
If you had to describe your precise Paris, the one that has this articulation and that smell, everybody would say, “Of course,” even if they have never thought it. They recognize it as theirs because you have seduced them. And I think that’s what writers do. We sort of pollute your mind with our own thoughts so that you now are buying into ours, and ours are much better than yours, because that’s the way it goes. Anybody telling me something about the place they went to see is far better than the one I remember.
Because if they word it correctly, then they have portrayed it for me without telling me anything about it. They have allowed me to immerse myself in their language and through their language, to get into their brain. You know when you go to an eye doctor he says, “Can you see with this? How about this?” We love seeing through other people’s lenses. And basically a writer does that gratis, that’s what his job is, is to give you a lens into something that you’ve seen all your life and that you will recognize as soon as you put on his lenses.
That’s beautifully said. I wanted to go back to what we were talking about earlier, how you’ve sometimes resisted when an editor has asked you to be more specific. Can you talk about those conversations when you were editing Call Me by Your Name?
I had written another ending to the book—same idea, but it wasn’t as well built. And then I wrote this one, which I truly love. And they fiddled around with it a bit. I said, “No guys, this is staying.” Basically, I know when I do something right. When I’m not sure, I listen to somebody else.
If writing is a way of discovering and clarifying what you actually think, what are you trying to figure out in writing about lust?
Well, the first thing that you want when you write about lust—and I would be lying if I said I didn’t want it—is to re-experience the lust. But I want to capture it exactly as it was happening. It’s so easy to say, “I was attracted to her, she got undressed, I saw her naked, I was going crazy.” But that’s not what happens. What really happens is that whenever we feel desire for somebody, there is a good part of us that says, “No you don’t, no, you’re not going to do this, it’s not going to happen, find a defect.” And you find a defect and you find that you now are willing to overlook the defect. Lust always hits you in the most improbable ways.
But I don’t call it lust, I call it wanting. When you want somebody, you actually don’t know what you want. You don’t know for how long you want it. But they are there and you are there and something has to give. And there is a whole dynamic that is as subtle as a dinner conversation between four friends, who are basically cheating on each other. There is a lot of negotiation that goes on not just with the other person, but with ourselves. “Do I do this now or shall I wait? Shall I not wait? I don’t want to wait. Okay, then go for it.” That sort of thing.
My book Eight White Nights is about a situation in which two individuals desire each other and don’t do anything. They meet every single night and they go to a bar and they sit at the bar and they clearly are in love with each other. But it’s not that easy and eventually when one makes a move on the other, the other one asks to take a rain check. They are not quite ready for it. How many times have we said that or have we changed our minds and then changed our minds again?
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Yes. Right. That’s all too familiar. In both Enigma Variations and Call Me by Your Name, the protagonist’s father criticizes him for being inside and urges him, in both cases, to go out into the world and make more friends. Did that come from your own experience?
What’s interesting is in your memoir, Out of Egypt, you describe how your father also had that experience with your grandfather. So I guess he received this critique, and then he passed it down to you?
Oh, yeah. It was a given that you do not read books all day long. That’s not a good thing. You should go out. “What are you doing home?” It was a different universe back then. And in a sense, this has inhabited me in very weird ways, because yes, there is the call to go out into the world and live, meet people, fall in love, make money. That basically, the world is a real place. Books are good and writing books is fine, but writing a book is not real life. It’s not real life.
I have always said this, and in fact the title of one of my books is False Papers, which doesn’t mean that you have a false identity card, it also means that the act of writing, of putting things on paper, is not life, my friend. It is unreal, it doesn’t compete with real things, because real life is the real deal. And I believe that. I mean, people who sacrifice their life in order to write? There is something wrong with that. You have to live. I mean, you don’t have to live every hour of the day, but you need to socialize.
Socializing came very hard for me, as it did for my father, which is why he was pushing me to do it all the time. He was a great reader, too. He had read everything. But as you can see, the character of the father in Call Me by Your Name is the real deal. What he is saying is, don’t jimmy around with your emotions. You know? Feel whatever you’re feeling, don’t kill it.
I heard one interview with a writer who said that an editor had advised him not to have children because he was such a good writer that he must devote all his attention to writing.
Did he follow that advice?
Idiot! He should have had children.
I’ll tell you a story. On the day that the first review of Out of Egypt came out— [Here, appropriately, Aciman’s son called him on the phone, and we paused for a moment.] So the book review comes out. I’m much younger, and I have been told it’s a good book review, but I don’t believe people. I say, “It’s probably crummy, and they just want to make me feel good.” This is in 1994, so I can’t read it on the internet.
So I walk, and I find a newspaper stand that is closed, but has a whole pile of newspapers on the side. The New York Times is there. I open it and I read my review and I say my God, this is amazing. It’s the best review I’ve ever had. I mean, I have never had a review before—but this is amazing.
That same day, I’m with my three kids, because it’s Christmastime and they are not in school and two of them are very, very young, two or three years old. The eldest one is four. So I’m walking with them through in the subway station, we’re about to go to get lunch, and one of my sons steps in shit. And if it’s in the subway station, it’s not going to be a dog’s, is it? It’s human excrement. I have all kinds of things on me—wipes, Q-tips, whatever—and I say, “Okay, just sit quiet, don’t cry, don’t be upset, I’ll clean it.” And here I am with a piece of newspaper that I found in the subway station, cleaning up the excrement, and I’m thinking to myself, “This is the best day in my life as a writer, and look what I’m doing.” And I will never, ever say that having a book well reviewed is better than having these amazing kids. So, seriously? What kind of a dope do you have to be to think that having no kids is good for your writing?
[Laughter] Yeah. The other thing that came to mind as you were talking was writing versus real life. Have you read Nicholson Baker?
No, I haven’t. I don’t read contemporaries, by the way.
Right, right. So he writes some very sexually explicit work. In a piece on him, Katie Roiphe writes about the disjunction between “the drama and wildness” in his mind and on the page, and his “gentlemanly, soft-spoken” manner and devotion to his wife in real life. I didn’t find that so surprising. I thought, anyone who is having torrid sexual affairs all day long would be less likely to spend so much time fantasizing about them in private and crafting narratives about them. But maybe that’s wrong. What do you think?
We all think that a writer is a consistent. But no one is ever consistently who they are. We have at least nine selves and we don’t even talk to some of them. At the end of the day, when you are a writer, you have a family, you have friends, you have people you speak to on the phone—and then there comes a moment when you retire and you go into your little hovel, whatever it is, and this is where you write, this is where you actually create new things. You have no idea what’s going to come out, but you want to follow it.
And sometimes it gives you a thrill to follow it: “Oh my God, my God, I’m writing a gay sex story and what do I know about gay sex?” I didn’t know anything! So I’m writing about it, and then I have the scene with the peach [a scene in Call Me by Your Name that’s both very tender and very raunchy]. Now, are you serious? Have I ever done anything like that? Never! Would I? Never! Okay?
But you go with this, and then you have second thoughts: “A peach? Really?” But then you say to yourself, “No, it has to stay.” Not because it came to me, because half the things that come to me go out anyway, but because there was something implacably real about that scene and I wanted it there. It said something about who they were as characters.
When you finished writing Call Me by Your Name, was there any sadness?
No, not at all. In fact, that’s what I never understood. I got two emails a day apart. One person says, “I’m on the subway, I’m reading your book and I’m bawling. I’m crying.” Why would anybody cry at this book? It was just totally out of my frame of reference.
And the next day I get another email from somebody who says, “I’m on the subway, I’m reading your book and I’m trying to hide an erection.” [Laughter] So that I can understand, okay? I can understand, because it’s a very graphic novel. But the sentimental part, the people that cry? I couldn’t understand that, because that’s not how I wrote the book, that’s not what I was feeling.
I mean, I felt some sorrow, because I was projecting from a life experience onto the book to make that scene work, but it wasn’t that moving for me. And people tell me they see the movie and they cry, too. Lots of people cry at the end of the movie.
I cried so much.
What? You did?
I did. I even thought about it again the next day and I cried more.
Did you really?
What made you cry?
I’ve been trying to figure it out, actually.
You don’t know—that’s the genius of the movie I think.
I know, it’s so beautiful. I’m a very easy crier, though; I should be no barometer. But have you come up with any theories as to why people react that way, even though it was mystifying to you at first?
A lot of people who wrote to me at the beginning, when it was just published, were in their sixties and seventies. They were all gay, and they were all saying, “My father was not that father.” And so you felt that it was very sad for them because they saw what a model father would have done.
But now it’s totally different. Now it’s very young people who are crying. And I’m going, “Okay, uh, it’s not how I wrote the book.” I had no idea.
You’ve written so much about identity and place, and how being in exile “disappears the very notion of a home, of a name, of a tongue.” How do you like living in New York at this point in your life?
To be honest, I don’t know. It’s my adoptive home. There are days where I think that I cannot live anywhere else but in New York, but that doesn’t mean that this is home. It basically means that every other place is not as habitable. Ideally I’d like to think that I belong in Rome, which I love, but if you told me I was going to be living there for three years, I would go crazy.
Because it’s not New York. I mean, we have a particular way of being. We are quick, we are fast, we are impatient. But we are also nice. I think New Yorkers are very, very nice people. But I don’t think there’s ever going to be home. That feeling of coming home? It doesn’t exist.
In your essay “Reflections of an Uncertain Jew,” in Alibis, you wrote, “perhaps all Jews are like me, in the sense that all Jews are other, lonely Jews, that no Jew can ever be authentically Jewish once he steps out of the ghetto.” Can you talk about how you think about your Judaism, and about this concept of the very existence of a Jewish identity being somehow tied to it being under threat?
I don’t know what our culture really is, because there’s the religious culture, which is very stable and immovable. Fundamentally, the reason Judaism exists is because of orthodoxy. In other words, these are people who practice a religion more or less the same way and have studied it forever and they are not going to give up. That’s fine.
But I do think that ours is a religion that has survived because of the walls around it. We don’t like walls, but we have used them: We have shut people out, we have shut out a lot of places, until two centuries ago, we shutout modernity, traffic with gentiles was sort of prescribed except as business transactions, and that kept us Jewish. Nowadays, we don’t have the walls, and we’re not threatened that much. Even Israel is not threatened that much.
But you’re speaking to somebody who is a very bad Jew. I have never been Bar Mitzvah’d, I don’t go to temple, I don’t like anything having to do with religion, any religion. But I am very pro-Israel. And not in a kind of crazy way, but I believe that it’s a good thing that a Jewish state exists, finally. But I feel funny, because I grew up in a family that was very, very secular and wanted to be secular. We had Christmas trees and we celebrated Easter and Passover. Who cared? But at the same time, we didn’t have that mold that is given to you when you grow up in a religious culture. And the mold, I think, is good for people. I don’t want a mold, but I can see where having had one could have made me a more stable person, a more anchored human being.
Why do you find you’re so resistant to religion?
Ultimately, I think it’s a form of arrogance. I don’t like believing in something that doesn’t exist. I don’t like the pieties that come with religion and the ignorance, and I don’t like the sense of confidence of when you go to a church on Sunday or to a synagogue on Saturday or Friday night. You go there with a sense of purpose, and there is meaning to it, and you feel good about yourself. And I don’t like feeling good about myself, especially not through some extraneous thing like going into a building that has funny things going on inside it.
[Laughter] It comes full circle.
It does. Yeah. I’m not a person who believes in things, and I’m critical of everything and everyone. I mean, I don’t leave anything unturned. No stone is ever unturned. I have seldom, in my whole life, been in love with someone and not seen their defects right away hoping that the defects might keep me alert to the dangers up ahead. I know that within a very short period of time, this is all going to burn away, and I’ll be back to being who I am. It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel things, but that I know that they never last. The best they can do is evolve.
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Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.