I took a Swoon Dive this weekend. I read André Aciman’s “Call Me By Your Name” while playing Sam Smith on endless shuffle. It was almost irresponsibly intoxicating.
Say It First – Sam Smith
I first heard about the Gay Romance “Call Me By Your Name” when the film version premiered at Sundance last January. The early rapturous reviews of the movie (starring Timothée Chalomet and Armie Hammer, directed by Italian sensualist Luca Guadagnino, screenplay by “Room with a View” / “Maurice” / “Howard’s End” legend James Ivory) poured into the Internet movie sites I habitually read. I looked up from my laptop to my husband Ed and said “Guess what we will be seeing at the movies in about 11 months…”. A romantic, sexually frank gay love story with that cast and that pedigree in writing and directing? Even without the glowing advance word, it would be a must see. But 11 long months, that is how long I would have to wait until I could expect to see “Call Me By Your Name” released in the local theaters.
Lately that long wait has become its own kind of exquisite torture as more reports from the fall film festivals and the U.K. release of the movie attest to its embrace by a wide audience (not “just” the gay male cinema crowd) as a cinematic masterpiece, a sensual experience, a paean to love. Last weekend, even though my chance to finally see “Call Me By Your Name” was only three or four weeks away, I couldn’t bare it any longer and I took myself to the Park Slope Community Book Store to treat myself to the book. Initially I hadn’t yet wanted to read the book before seeing the movie, as it was the movie version that had been calling to me all these months; so I’d thought to myself, see the movie first, and then later, maybe read the book that inspired it. (Later, maybe…sigh; if you’ve read the book you understand the reference. I can only wonder how prominently those words figure in the film; probably not as weightily as in the book.) But like an impatient overstimulated teenager (much like the story’s protagonist, as I would soon find out) I just couldn’t wait any longer, and if I couldn’t have the movie yet, I would take the book.
Lay Me Down – Sam Smith
I wished to read it all from start to finish, with no interruptions, just as one would engage with a movie. But that would not be practical, as reading the book would take me many many more hours than watching the movie. Still, experiencing it parceled out over three days, with interruptions like social engagements and spending time with my husband, and sleeping, was more concentrated and quicker than the relatively slow reader I am usually can manage.
And as Sam Smith’s new album finally came out last week I decided that his songs of deep melismatic male longing would be the perfect aural accompaniment to this homophile literary couch cocooning. It’s not just that Smith is openly gay, many pop singers are (and I have many of their albums), his songs are so richly drenched in romantic and sexual longing, his voice so shamefully shamelessly expressive of yearning, oscillating between emotional (and vocal) highs and lows, and his personal experience so redolent of the passions and callowness of a young gay man’s experience of longing, heartache, “drama”, I intuited it would fit rather neatly with the burgeoning male sexual desire of “Call Me By Your Name”. I would be all too right.
Nirvana – Sam Smith
So while Sam Smith’s played at just the right volume to seep into my ears without distracting me from the words on the page, I cuddled up to the book, and was quickly sucked in. Almost plotless, richly and intricately exploring the shifting emotional terrain of a 17 year old adolescent’s physical and romantic desire for a 24 year old grad student, the book is nearly relentless in limning in exquisite aching prose every thought, every gaze, every touch, taste and scent overwhelming the protagonist’s equilibrium during the Italian summer days of his great infatuation. It’s an extended literary swoon that sustains itself with finely calibrated shifts and feints and overflowing pulchritude. Soaking in all this beautifully rendered literary exposure of nerves and needs over several hours was heady enough; including a steady diet of Sam Smith wailing and moaning in exquisite musical agony might have been overdoing it.
By the early evening of my first day with “Call Me By Your Name, Sam Smith”, when I put the book down for dinner and found myself more moodily than usual responding to whatever more bad news was trickling out the internet again, I confessed to Ed that this book was effecting me much like Lucy Honeychurch in Ivory’s movie adaptation of “A Room with a View”: Mother doesn‘t like me playing Beethoven. She says I‘m always peevish afterwards.
But was the story rattling at some specific memories? The book’s protagonist Elio is not like me, nor have I experienced his narrative, but there are still many points of personal identification. We are of the same generation, bilingual, bicultural, bisexual Americans growing up in 1980’s Europe (although Germany and Italy are about as unlike culturally as Western European countries can be). And as Aciman deftly calibrates every moment by moment oscillation of the adolescent psyche, desire, sexuality, insecurity, self-dramatization, I remembered all of my own youthful romantic dramas and roiling passions and fever dreams. (Frankly, I’d have preferred Elio’s youthful affairs of the heart over mine, but am at least relieved to find myself in more pleasant, equilibrious circumstances than him as a seasoned adult).
Burning – Sam Smith
By the third day my idea of unceasingly playing Sam Smith while reading was proving a bit much, in part because, as the book progressed towards requited passion and a less overheated final act, Smith’s overall tendency towards heartwringing melancholy wasn’t as on the nose tonally as before. Also with only approximately 30 tracks so far available in Smith’s oeuvre, my music device’s shuffle function was beginning to repeat some songs a little too often.
In the last chapters the book itself shifts to a somewhat less swoony, slightly more reflective tone. I didn’t abandon Sam Smith altogether though as the final pages made me tear up with adult remembrance and regret. Just chose to press pause for silence during some sections before allowing one or more song to join in for the end stretch.
And now I think upon the wrenching words of “Call Me By Your Name”, how they would again and again pull me into a churning vortex of desires, sensations, yearnings, misapprehensions, exultations. While a soulful tenor cries in the background.
I very much look forward to swooning in the cinema in just a few short weeks.
Love Is A Losing Game – Sam Smith
Update: Nov 28, I tweeted:
And now I’ve finally seen the movie, which quietly builds into one of the most sensually romantic films I’ve ever experienced.
Fun trivia: the book’s author André Aciman cameos as one half of the “ridiculous” older gay couple.