Former U. professor André Aciman on “Call Me By Your Name,” teaching, and his craft| Mar 5, 2018
“I want to become a human being who understands what being human is about,” explained André Aciman, a New York Times bestselling author and former University professor of French literature. Aciman conducts his classroom, his craft, and his life with this aspiration in mind. Although he first established himself as a writer with his 1995 memoir “Out of Egypt,” which earned a Whiting Award, Aciman has received the most acclaim for his 2007 novel “Call Me By Your Name.”
The book tells the poignant story of the relationship between a graduate student, Oliver, and his adviser’s son, Elio, during a sun-drenched Italian summer. In 2017, it was adapted into a full-length feature film starring Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, and Michael Stuhlbarg.
Though the movie, helmed by director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory, has been dubbed an indie flick by some, have praised the actors’ performances, Guadagnino’s masterful directing, and its beautiful screenplay. The film earned four nominations at the 90th Academy Awards, winning Best Adapted Screenplay.
“Whether straight or gay or somewhere in between, we've all gone through first love, I hope, mostly intact,” Ivory said in his acceptance speech. Ivory was the oldest Oscar winner in history.
“Call Me By Your Name” on the page and the screen
“I’m not the kind that gets derailed or super excited by any of this,” Aciman explained, pointing to the film adaptation’s considerable success. “I’m working on another book and my anxieties and intellect go towards that book.”
Aciman has remained grounded throughout the book’s evolution from one medium to another. He is nonetheless thrilled at the way the film has affected audiences.
“The movie has an impact,” Aciman said. “You can’t ignore the fact that it’s there, that people stop you on the street and talk to you [because of it].”
According to Aciman, “Call Me By Your Name” is unique because it was heralded by critics as a classic shortly after its release. Though his relationship with the book has stayed the same over the past decade, the movie has entirely changed how he views the world created in his book.
“As a writer, I no longer have any recollection of what my characters looked like when I wrote them. I see Armie Hammer and I see Timothée Chalamet and I see Michael Stuhlbarg,” Aciman said, slightly chuckling. “Yeah, [the film] has colored my view of things…. That’s the price you pay for writing a book that’s made into a movie: You no longer remember what you wrote!”
While the film stays mostly true to its source material, slight modifications to the text serve to elevate the work, explained Peter Spears, one of the film’s producers. According to Spears, the early stages of the script were much more faithful to Aciman’s original text. The end result, however, was tailored to the screen and even more powerful, Spears added.
“By the time the movie that you see came out, you had something that was wholly a Luca Guadagnino movie … with the spirit still of André’s work,” Spears said. “[The movie] really became a beautiful companion piece. Each piece stands on its own and complements the other, but without being a carbon copy of the other.”
“I think that both [the book and movie] now will be forever linked in this sort of symbiotic way but more as fraternal twins perhaps as opposed to identical,” Spears added.
Spears’s involvement with the film dates back to 2007, when he first encountered the book and immediately saw its potential for the screen. He recognized that the book was something that would speak to audiences far and wide, so he began the decade-long process of adapting it to the screen.
“Being gay, being Jewish, having been the age of the characters at the time that the story takes place…. That experience was very relatable,” Spears said. “The internal monologue, Elio’s internal voice, felt just like someone had found a way to have been in my head at that age and have that experience.”
It was not only Spears who felt a personal connection to the text. The “Call Me By Your Name” set, which boasted a crew that represented several countries and ethnicities, was unified by the message conveyed in Aciman’s text.
“It really was this global effort to come tell this story,” Spears explained. “Everyone who came along to the relay race and picked up the baton came because they were moved by what André had created and that message that spoke to all of us.”
However, this message, which speaks strongly to audiences, readers, and crew members, remains a mystery even to Aciman.
“Every single time I ask people what is it that has moved you about this film, answers are basically nondescript, they are wordless. Nobody knows why they are being moved, and yet they go back and back, and cry every single time,” Aciman explained. “So there’s something happening which nobody can explain, much less I. Because I’m trying to understand what aspect of the story has caught everybody in this kind of what I call a whirlwind of emotion that nobody can quite name.”
On teaching, but never teaching a symbol
In addition to being a prolific writer, Aciman has dedicated most of his career to teaching. His focus is primarily on 17th-century French literature, with special attention to the works of Marcel Proust. At Princeton, Aciman taught a slew of courses in the French and Italian departments as well as the comparative literature department. However, Aciman’s favorite instruction experience remains a freshman seminar he taught, which was centered on Proust.
“Possibly the best course I’ve ever had in my life was with those freshmen,” he said. “That will remain in my memory for the rest of my life…. It left a mark on why I taught.”
One of Aciman’s colleagues, Lionel Gossman, who is the M. Taylor Pyne Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Emeritus, recalled how their shared interests in 17th- and 18th-century literatures brought them together, even years after Aciman left the University. The pair would meet at a small café in New York once a year to catch up with each other.
Gossman particularly admired the book “Call Me By Your Name” when it first came out, calling it “very poetic, and at the same time very real.”
“He can write with both poetic flair and really concrete, realistic, vigor,” Gossman said. “I really thought very well of ‘Call Me By Your Name.’ I thought it was a really beautiful book, and I remember other people [at the University] felt the same way.”
The University’s creative writing program had not yet been formed during Aciman’s time here, so Gossman was excited for his colleague when he was given the opportunity to teach at Bard College. There, Aciman would be able to expand and explore his style of teaching.
“When he went to Bard, I really was pleased because I thought he would be appreciated there for the kind of writer/scholar that he is,” Gossman said.
His time at Bard later led to a post as Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at the City University of New York, where Aciman currently works.
When asked about his teaching style, Aciman described how the way he constructs his classroom environment stems back to his experiences growing up and interacting with books.
“I want people to go through what I experienced when I read all the great classics at a very, very young age. I think that by the time I was 20 I had read everything that was to be read,” Aciman explained.
“Great books teach us not how to become better human beings but how to know ourselves better,” he explained. “[All the great writers] never told us anything we didn’t already know. What they do tell us, though, is something we knew and have never put into words before.”
For this reason, Aciman is careful to never teach a symbol or theme in his courses, since he believes that defeats the point of reading. Therefore, he aims to teach his students how to engage in this dynamic between text and reader.
Humility and Aciman’s legacy
For a New York Times-bestselling author, Aciman has a striking, refreshing humility about him. When discussing his succes, especially the success “Call Me By Your Name” has enjoyed, Aciman is quick to express his gratitude that others have been moved by his words. He is also appreciative of how the film handled his text.
Aciman trusts his words and the weight that they carry, so he did not feel compelled to get attached to the afterlife of his book.
“I was totally detached,” Aciman explained, describing his involvement with the movie. “Even when we signed the initial option, I decided that I have written my book, I’ve said my piece, I’ve done my job. And now it’s up to somebody else to do their job.”
Spears expressed how such strong faith in creative teams who adapt to the screen is rather uncommon among authors. Yet the strength of Aciman’s words acted as a guiding force for the entirety of the film, Spears explained.
Everyone involved in the project was reliant upon the text from start to end, added Spears. “It was all there on the page. [The actors and directors] would always go back to what an amazing gift it was to be able to have that book to go back to…. They had a bible that they could go to,” he said.
As a teacher and writer, Aciman’s reputation is already well-cemented, and the wide acceptance of the film and book confirms that his contributions to humanity are ongoing.
Spears conveyed this sentiment when discussing the crew members of “Call Me By Your Name” and their deep attachment to the project.
“Whatever it was, they expressed themselves artistically; they wanted to bring to the parade of being a part of this thing that all began when André sat down in his apartment on the Upper West Side of New York ten years ago, looked at a blank page, and wrote chapter one,” Spears explained. “It all starts there.”