This interview was conducted for Honi Soit. The condensed version can be found here.
To begin, do you think that our first love affects us in a way that last throughout the rest of our lives?
Yes, I think so. It could be the first love, it could be who we were before the first love. I don't know which came first, it's a chicken and an egg situation, but essentially the grammar of behaviour in the first love will seldom change. We will behave in exactly the same way, we will have the same hang-ups, we will make the same idiotic gestures and say the same stupid things. We can hide it, we can camouflage it, we can also learn to sound more deliberate that we actually are, but in point of fact the mechanisms are the same, the fears identical as at 12 as they are when you will be 82.
Do you think it's better to be young or old?
What a silly question, it is so far better to be young and to make all the mistakes one makes when one is young than to have all the experience, wisdom and clarity of an older person who basically doesn't have many years to live. It's better to be young, it always is.
Memory is a crucial aspect of writing, and in Call Me By Your name the book, narrated by Elio, I think his memory is an important element. How important is memory to you in your writing?
You know, I don't know. I'll tell you why I don't know. It's that the act or the gesture of reminiscing that allows me to write. In other words, I need the pretext of being in a remembering mode in order to write about an event. Is memory itself important? I don't think so. Nostalgia is not important either, although it plays a role. I need to write about a past that is still, to use a verb, perjurating, it still exists. That past has not gone away. That gives you the sense that maybe I am remembering, but that's not the point. The point is that what happened in the past still resonates today, and therefore we are affected by the past. But it's not memory though.
Sometimes we find ourselves in a love that we can't be in like Oliver and Elio's, or perhaps out of a love that affected us deeply. In the father's speech, he tells Elio not to deny the uniqueness of his relationship with Oliver. Do you think it's better to live with that longing and torment than to suppress it?
I think what the father is saying is that you don't really have a choice, but you can force yourself, by an extreme amount of will, to think that you are over someone. You can learn to hate the person. You can learn to denigrate what happened between you and say, "Oh it was just a little fling, it was nothing," or that it was "fun and games" as Oliver says. But in point of fact it doesn't go away. We can fall in love with many people , and not be out of love with the others that came before them. We are always going to be in love with the same people for the rest of our lives. We can think it's a mistake, but we're still in love with them. So what the father is saying is, "Don't kill it." He's right. You're wasting your time. Enjoy it, because there will come a time when you won't be able to have this anymore.
I think part of the essence of Elio and Oliver's relationship is the brief period in which they share it, and we see this later on when they meet again in the future when they both have very different lives. Do you think they could've ever been together, married or as partners?
I don't know. I'm married, but I think marriage is not essentially what happens between two human beings who are in love. Marriage is something totally different. I don't know how they would exist as a couple. Part of me dreads the idea of them as a domestic couple. You've probably heard me say this many times, but what do they do on Sunday evening? They do the laundry, they fold the towels. That's kind of boring, it's not what Elio and Oliver are supposed to be. But there is a return to the beginning. He comes back to the house, the way he came the first time, and I have a feeling, I've always thought this and nobody agrees with me, that he's come back to live there. Elio can't believe that it's happening and he assumes he's going to leave the next day. But I don't think he will.
The ending of the book really resonates with me. Though they've learned to think of each other less, what they had is still there when the meet again many years later.
Well, Elio has had other affairs and Oliver's been put on the back burner, but when Oliver says to come and visit him at home, Elio says that he just can't, which tells you that however much he's over him, there's still a part of Elio that can't accept the fact the Oliver is married and that he is going to hurt. And so he doesn't go.
It's a part of the isolation of their affair. Also, I find the setting in some ways enhances their relationship, and I think that's what the movie does so well, it enhances these beautiful surroundings which don't enhance the love, but more accommodate it.
I think so, I think the locale is important. In the book it's on the sea, it's much nicer. It's something very sort of myth-making, and their love is myth making as well so it all goes together. Did I plan it this way? No. In order to write the story, I had to have that house in that place. How the two work together? I have no idea. There are parts when I describe the smells, even the sounds. There's a part when I even have a knife sharpener who shows up once a week who makes noise, and then disturbs their sleep. That automatically tells you that their sleep was deep, that their windows are open, there's a nice draft. It's all the clichés of Italy, you can find them in any post card. I needed to do that to accompany the story. Did I think that I needed to describe the locale or the place to enhance the story? No, I didn't think that.
I think the film does it though visually, and very well. Were you glad to have Italian director?
Yes, I was. Very glad. That makes the difference. I was also glad that he was the director. A lot of directors were quartered and they all said they couldn't do it and backed out because they had other assignments. When they said that his name had come up, I said that he had made this amazing movie called I Am Love. It's a beautiful movie. He was the perfect person for this. So we met and I thought that I shouldn't show how interested I am, otherwise he's going to think that I'm a freak, but it was a wonderful moment. James Ivory also got on board, and it was very nice
I noticed some connections between Call Me By Your Name and I Am Love. There are these moments when Luca might use an effect or a particular shot that seems rather out of the ordinary. I remember one of the love making scenes in I Am Love. It's so sensual and the movement is so unusual. It's similar to the scene where Elio replays the scenes from his memories through a red, what seems like heat sensitive filter.
Oh yes, that was actually an accident. It was not intentional, but they said they would include it.
I think it beautifully encapsulates the retracing of his memory.
Yes, that's exactly it. It's one of those accidents that you keep because it just plays itself so well. I think it worked. It's a good thing they never cut it. But it worked.
I wanted to ask you about the character of Vimini in the book, who's not included in the movie. Her character fascinates me. What were your motivations for writing her?
There was no motivation to be honest, but I liked the idea that this was a kid who was very very smart, who saw through things. She may not have known the first thing about sex, but she is the one who reports that Oliver thought the Elio didn't like him. She is the voice of truth. Her function, I realised late in the book, is that she knew that she was going to die which allowed her to have this prophetic aspect to her. But what it does do at the end of the book is that when you find out that Vimini dies, that Anchise died, that the father died, you realise that time has happened here. These people have all gone away and it's never going to be the same again. It's totally different. You begin to sense that there's a tragedy brewing underground. And so I use her that way, and I like the fact that in this town, Oliver, I mean we know that whatever he was doing at night was ambiguous, was liked by everyone but the only relationship he had other than with Elio was with Vimini. He was like her big brother. And there's a part of Elio that's jealous of that.
Going back to what you said about emphasising the passing of time, in the book you write, at the end, "Time makes us sentimental. Perhaps in the end it is because of time that we suffer." What do you mean by that?
I don't know, I remember writing that sentence and saying to myself, "Is that clear? I don't know how to make it any clearer." Time is a horrible thing. It really means one thing only. It means death. It announces and foreshadows one thing; death. So death is there, and the more time passes the closer death comes. Also, some say time is a healer. I don't think time is a healer. Time is something that sometimes keeps the wound open. When you realise that thirty years have gone by since Elio last saw Oliver, that's terrible. That's more years than they had when they met. Time can have ways of really devastating us. I use a metaphor for this. When the used to have manuscripts when they first began printing, they had quartos and octavos. Basically you have a sheet of paper and you fold it in four or in eight. Time is divided in that way. When you realise that your whole life was divided into a series of octavos and you have none left, it's terrible! What have you done with all that time? You haven't lived well, you haven't been in love with the person you've been in love with all your life, you found other people. You made a mistake. You cannot fix it, or at least you can try to fix it. Time also does something else. It changes people, so that even if you're in love, the magic can go. And so you're stuck with that. Yes we're still in love, but the magic is gone.
You're here to talk about your new book Enigma variations, which I haven't read yet. From what I understand it's the story of a character in different stages of his life. Could you tell me about the protagonist, his name is Paul?
Well it depends, it's Paolo if he's in Italy, it's Paul, it's Paulie on the tennis courts. When he's twelve years old he falls in love with his family's cabinet maker who's 27-28 years old, and he doesn't know anything about sex but he's not even in love, he's just obsessed with this man. It's only later in life that he realizes he was in love with him. But at twelve he doesn't know that, and he's very aroused but he doesn't know what do with that arousal, he doesn't even know how to please himself. Then you see him with a woman who he's living with, but he's attracted to a tennis player . So he begins to court this man even though he's with another woman who he thinks is cheating on him with another man who turns out to be gay. He drops the woman, and has an affair with the tennis player, and as he's having the affair he hooks up with his old girlfriend from college and they're really still in love. But he's sleeping with his boyfriend. Then later in life he's fallen in love with a woman, and the only person he can turn to for advice is his boyfriend, they've now broken up, who now lives in Germany. He says, "Don't do what you did with me. Go after her, be direct." So that's sort of the here and now of the story, and it's about a person who is totally confused about his sexuality. Or maybe he's not confused at all, maybe he's just attracted to a whole lot of people.
Would you say that him having these various lovers is caused by a certain ambiguity or lack of clarity in how we look for love, or a deliberate lack of clarity. I think we see it in Call Me by Your Name as well.
Well I can only understand that. I cannot understand how if you're a man you're just attracted to women. That's not true. I don't understand how one can be attracted men and not be attracted to women either. I mean obviously there are cases of people who are just interested in one thing and not the other, but I think that everyone I've talked to in my life, everyone I've known, is bisexual. Women and men. In essence that's what fascinates me. We're not confused, because there's nothing to be confused about. You like coffee and tea, you like both, that's it. Now if you have to decide which you're going to live with, that requires some facts and organising. But most of my characters don't want that, and they like the freedom to move from one to the other. Ultimately they're enigmas. They don't know what they want. They don't know who they are. Most of my characters in all my books have no identity. Religious, political, nationalistic, sexual, whatever. They don't belong anywhere, and they don't want to.
Is that something you identify with?
Yes, I identify with not identifying with anything! I don't want to identify with one thing only. I hate people who are patriotic. I hate people who are fanatics. People will tell you, I'm proud of being x or y. I automatically don't take them seriously. What's there to be proud of? Why not just say you accept being x and y. The pride factor annoys me. I hate political statements of any kind. On the other hand, people disagree with me. They say, "You have to belong somewhere! You have to believe in something!" I have no patience for it.
I suppose that would relate to Call Me By Your Name, which is, in terms of representation, monumental as a story about a gay relationship and has surely been used in a political way. But on another level it is about universal love. How do you rationalise those two?
Well there are two points of view. The first is, let's face it, it is a gay story. It's not a straight story, it's a gay love affair. On the other hand, it is about love. I get so much mail from girls and teenagers, more girls than older men or gay men. So obviously girls are finding there the promise of love, the kind of love that they want. I do resent that fact however that a lot of people, in order to blandify the fact that it is a gay story, say that, "Oh no, it's not a gay story. It's just about love." It's a gay story, but it's also about love. The two exist coterminously. I don't want to privilege on position vis-a-vis the other. It's not incidental. But yet I still say to people that this could very easily be a story between a man and a woman.
I think we still that apprehension and reluctance between them that would resonate with the qay and queer community though.
I mean what? I don't know. When I had desire for a woman, I wasn't exactly excited, I fought it. I denied it. I didn't want it. I was too embarrassed to tell her. You can't open up that easily. So I think desire is a fundamentally shameful emotion to feel. You're embarrassed that you desire someone, because you want something from them. Whether it's gay or straight it doesn't matter. We're apprehensive as you said. We're afraid.
I'd like to finish on Enigma Variations, particularly the title. Music is a common thread in your work, could you explain why you chose this title?
Enigma Variations is a piece of music by Sir Edward Elgar, and I like the title, not just because the stories are all variations and because he is enigmatic unto himself. The title of the pieces of music is interesting because usually when you have the Diabelli Variations, you have a theme and then you have variations on it. In the enigma variations, Elgar does not give us what the original theme is. We will never know what the theme of those variations is, so that even theme itself is absent. I think that this is the story of Paul, or Paulie or Paolo. Whatever it is that he is at the source, we don't know, and we will never know.