Two of the most sophisticated and beautifully written novels, both dealing with the dynamics of desire, sexuality, gender, and a strong emphasis on memory and time–appeared recently. “Find Me”, Andre Aciman’s sequel of sorts to his wildly successful “Call Me By Your Name” (which was also made into a much-praised movie), contains some of the most astonishingly gorgeous writing this year.
“Find Me” is divided into three parts, all equally magnificent. It helps to have read “Call Me By Your Name”, though it’s not essential. In the first third, the father of Elio, the young adolescent in the first novel, finds himself an older widower on a train from his house by the sea in Italy into Rome, where he’s to visit Elio; they have a habit of walking around the city together, going to places that evoke memory (Aciman’s strongest suit: the influence of Marcel Proust roams through all of his writing). Samuel, the father, has settled into a lonely, but predictable, middle age. He meets a young woman on the train; they happen to share a compartment, and their casual, pass-the-time train conversation begins to set off sparks between these two people (Miranda, the young woman, is young enough to be his daughter). That kind of candor that often can appear while traveling between two strangers is most admirably described, when, suddenly, at the end of the journey, Miranda invites Samuel to her father’s house; he is dying and Miranda’s become his primary caregiver.
Aciman’s descriptions of how these two seemingly mismatched people fall in love are magnificent, compelling, and urgent. As in Anita Brookner’s novels, Samuel steps out of character for once and we watch these two on all kinds of small and then larger adventures. Aciman’s particularly fine in writing about atmosphere: the food, the interiors of rooms, changes in mood, and his word choices are superb. Miranda will transform Samuel’s life; she actually brings him back to the land of the living, offering love, adventure, youth, and candor. The reader is witness to a transformation of two people, and it’s persuasive and loving and beautiful (and elegiac).
In the second part of the novel, the now grown Elio, a pianist, goes to a musical performance randomly, where he meets a much older gentleman, a corporate lawyer whose loneliness becomes clear, and these two men begin a romance which is absolutely parallel to his father Samuel’s and Miranda’s, the difference only being gender. Aciman writes with equal passion and longing about the dynamics of desire between two men as he does between men and women. His eye for detail is remarkable. The older gentleman becomes aware that he will have a limited time with Elio, who’ll be going to America in the spring for a series of concerts and a teaching gig, but is willing to take the one winter that life gives these men. Elio, too, brings this man back to life, just as the lawyer brings Elio back to life; the parallel narratives are flawlessly rendered, and Aciman’s insights into aging itself are amazing. A mystery in the lawyer’s life runs like a thread through these two men’s relationship; suffice it to say that when Elio figures it out, both men are transformed, and it’s a great plot addition as well. Life in the London countryside, where the lawyer has a family home, is erotically charged and, again, time and transformation are perhaps the key elements at play.
In the third, shortest narrative, Oliver, the older man in “Call Me By Your Name” returns as an American professor at Columbia, on the edge of returning to his teaching job in New Hampshire; he is married with two sons. At a going-away party for him and his wife, he fantasizes about falling in love with both a woman and a man at this party; again, the writing is magnificent, and memory serves its functions. Oliver’s decision to return to Elio and start another entirely new life is how Aciman brings these plot strains together (though I’m not certain this ending is necessary, but it’s certainly romantic). The novel is about time and memory and how both can be resparked. Aciman’s a very sophisticated, cosmopolitan writer, elegant and precise yet romantic and elegiac. He’s clearly one of America’s finest writers, whether in fiction or nonfiction, and “Find Me” is the most Proustian novel of the year, and that’s the highest praise I can offer any novel.
The relatively little known (in America) Deborah Levy’s new novel “The Man Who Saw Everything” has similar dynamics at play as Aciman does in” Find Me”. Levy, whose last novel “Hot Milk” was splendid, is a three-time Booker prize nominee now; she lives in Italy, and I think Italy is a fine country to induce memory; Italy’s own aesthetics, natural and built, provide a lush backdrop to writing.
Two young people, Saul Adler and Jennifer Moreau, meet while she’s in art school in London; she’s been photographing the handsome/beautiful Saul who has become a kind of muse to her; Adler is flattered and thinks he’s in love with her, while rarely ever commenting upon her work, which is just beginning to find a real audience. Adler’s on his way to East Berlin, right before the Berlin Wall falls; he’s doing research on the former GDR, and is living there for awhile with his hosts, a woman with a daughter and a son who’s often there, who is Adler’s guide to and through East Berlin. The narcissitic Saul, who’s also quite likeable much of the time–he’s seductive, approachable, narcissitic– will have affairs both with Walter, his guide, and Walter’s sister, rather recreating his mostly superficial relationship with Jennifer. The erotic and non-binary relationships all make sense, and Levy, like Aciman, writes admirably about the interplay of desire and friendship and occasionally love. Levy’s splendid in evoking the small indignities of daily life in Communist East Berlin, and contrasts them admirably with the spoiled Saul (he’d been asked to bring only one thing to East Berlin, a tin of pineapples, which of course he forgets and rather wheedles out of it when he meets Walter, who truly wanted them): it’s a perfect Saul moment, as Saul really is only able to think of himself. He is oblivious to his freedoms, his possible impacts on Walter and his sister, and his paranoia about being “watched” by East German spies is wonderfully rendered, as Walter is both lover and informer, but Walter concludes that Saul just isn’t smart or self-aware enough to be a security risk. That’s damning with faint praise.
Saul remeets Jennifer–or does he?–after he’s injured in a car accident in London; his mind wanders in and out of the past and present, back and forth to his original relationship with Jennifer, never understanding that her photographs of him are about her, not him, as he relives his life, slipping in and out of the present, in a kind of surreal prose at which Levy so excels (as she did in “Hot Milk”). Saul never leaves the surfaces of life, likeable though he often is (as well as spoiled and too used to being admired for his clearly bisexual appeal). Levy approaches all these themes and topics–East/West/binary gender ideas/time and memory , with a very light touch; her writing is sensitive and pitch perfect. “The Man Who Saw Everything” is oddly tender, written as with a very fine watercolor brush, sensitive, smart, and very appealing. Levy really is a writer to watch.