ESSAY: Call Me By Your Name vs Enigma Variations by Christa Wojciechowski

After reading the first few paragraphs of Call me By Your Name, I was like a starved woman shoving food into my mouth as fast I could. André Aciman is the writer of love that I have been waiting for all my life, since I was a girl who read Marguerite Duras and felt the delicious ache of longing without having ever yet experienced it.

Aciman is meticulous and fearless. His writing about desire, eroticism, the passage of time and the subtle changes that take place in perspective as we get older, the many different ways in which we can love, the sadness, the yearning, the absolute beauty of the messes we make, is symphonic and shamelessly honest.

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Call Me By Your Name is about a teenage boy named Elio. His father is an academic who invites students to stay at the family’s villa in a small village in Italy. When Oliver arrives to spend the summer, Elio discovers that he is attracted to him. Instead of repressing his feelings, he follows them like clues through the passage to the mystery of his desire. Once I finished Call Me By Your Name, I wanted all of Aciman’s writing. After a brief pause to let Elio’s story settle in, I bought Enigma Variations and devoured it.

We begin again in Italy, where Paolo recounts a crush on the cabinet maker named Nanni in their village. The descriptions here are Aciman’s trademark delicate, candid sensuality and Paolo is fueled by the same boyish determination as Elio in Call me By Your Name. Nanni mysteriously disappeared, leaving Paolo with a residual emptiness that will affect every part of his life. Here I, expected to set upon an odyssey in the search for this beloved who was lost by time and circumstance. What happened to Nanni? How would he find him? We are sent on a quest, but not the one I expected.

The book is broken into five parts: First Love, Spring Fever, Manfred, Star Love, and Abingdon Square. In Spring Fever, we are brought to New York where Paulo, now called Paul, is attending university. There, he is involved with a woman Maud who he believes is cheating on him. They go to a dinner party together, and her supposed new lover is there. Paul is wondering how he is going to act now that he knows he’s being duped. Instead of confronting her, he begins cataloging which guest he can latch onto if Maud indeed is out of his reach.

We remain in New York for Manfred. This part is written in second person, making the reader feel as if they’ve stumbled upon someone’s elicit letters. Paul plays tennis at an old, rundown country club where he secretly longs for Manfred. This is where the beauty of Aciman’s writing about lust is at its finest. Like a virtuoso, he enlaces us in all the tendrils of Paul’s desire. It is almost unbearable, and the reader begs for release just as much as Paul does.

Star Love is the next variation on Paul’s relationship with Chloe, a woman who he’d been in an on and off relationship with since college. Once in a while the two reunite, have dinner, make love, and inevitably go their separate ways. Their love is always quickly reduced to embers, and they part rather than extinguish the fire of their star completely.

Reunion after reunion, Paul and Chloe walk their old campus trying to recapture their feelings for one another, but the memories are drained of the meaning they once had. In holding onto them too tightly, the essence has been squeezed out like stale water from a sponge. The two claim to love each other, but they are two magnets with the same polarization.

In this segment we are introduced to Old Brit, who is a character much like Signor Alfredo, the poet in Call me By Your Name. He is a soothsayer who invited the students to gather, drink wine, and smoke at his house on campus. As we explore Paul’s relationships with Old Brit and those around him, we are given more clues to his underlying hunger. He is still seeking something to fill him ever since his childhood when Nanni gave him that first rush of infatuation.

In the last variation, we have an older Paul pursuing much younger girl. Manfred writes him from Germany, so we know that the relationship that so consumed Paul dissolved and has now sunk into a comfortable friendship that spans an ocean. Manfred actually gives Paul advice on how to win the young girl. We feel for Paul now. He is self-conscious of his age and it makes him seem a paler, pandering version of himself. We fear he might end up alone after all. He has never found what he so earnestly sought – someone to complete him. But there is a twist in the end and we are reminded that these are variations. It’s going to be the same story for Paul again.

I enjoyed Enigma Variations for its exquisite and intense prose, for the emotional nudity of its flawed character, but I didn’t love it with the giddy enthusiasm I had for Call Me By Your Name. I’ve read the same opinion in reviews elsewhere, and I think the difference is this: we simply don’t like Paul as much as we like Elio.

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Elio is innocent. With him, we experienced first love again. We watched him bravely explore his new feelings with bafflement and curiosity. Elio is a victim of his desire and we feel compassion for him as he wrestles with his emotions with incredible courage. He gives himself over freely to love, even at the risk of pain and destruction.

Paul is a predator. He is a love addict, seeking a perpetual limerence that does not exist. He is eternally incomplete, a severed being like any of us when we seek happiness in something or someone other than ourselves. We fear he’ll never find wholeness and peace because he is looking in the wrong place, oblivious to his selfish folly and the wreckage he is leaving in his wake.

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Christa Wojciechowski

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Christa (Wojo) Wojciechowski is the author of The Wrong David, The Sick Series of novellas, and is currently working on dark fiction novels and novellas. Her story, Conviction, was published in the 13Dark Anthology’s second issue, Cursed Crossings. Greatly influenced by Russian and Gothic literature, her characters explore existential turmoil, mental illness, taboos, and the complexity of romantic love.

Christa currently resides in the cloud forests of Panama with her husband and a house full of pets. She works as a freelance digital marketer and loves to help fellow authors build their brands and platforms. Christa enjoys foreign movies, yoga, moderately-priced wine, and the outdoors. Most of all, she’s passionate about books and writers, and loves discussing them with people all over the world.

Wojo is on Twitter here.

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