February 3, 2007

Stay With Me That First Fling with Desire

My mother used to say that if a mid-life crisis was the fall-out from realizing that your dreams and talents were, in fact, finite, then what men have at 40, women are forced to face at 12 or 13. A girl of that age confronts a body that makes her (or fails to make her) an object of desire. At the same time, she starts navigating through a society that treats her as a woman, as well as a child. The wide-open world she used to live in suddenly narrows. A boy of 12 or 13 is rarely—if ever—looked at, judged, or desired the way his female counterpart is. It’s not until he is forty that a man’s ideas of boundless opportunity shuts down somewhat. Thus the crisis, as reality hits dreams. A woman of forty has long put this painful collision behind her.

I always liked this theory, but only gave it passing thought when I heard of a friend leaving his wife for a secretary or of another one taking up flying lessons when his second child was born. However, two new novels have made me revisit not just how gender will shape a mid-life crisis, but how it informs desire. André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name and The Law of Dreams by Peter Behrens are very different novels, but each is riveting, haunting, and beautifully written.

The Law of Dreams follows the fortunes of young Fergus as he learns to survive in the aftermath of the Irish potato famine. Call Me By Your Name limns how an affair between 17-year-old Elio and 24-year-old Oliver forever shadows Elio, even as it lights the path to his future. The writing style of each novel helps weave the story. Behrens favors a sparseness that eloquently mirrors how empty life becomes when survival depends on leaving behind everyone and everything one has ever known. Aciman, well known as an essayist and critic, allows his sentences to unfold and double back upon themselves, full of insight, regret, and nostalgia for the very moment being described.

But it struck me that both books share a depiction of how a man’s life and character are often formed by his first brush with passion or desire. The Aciman is, in fact, almost entirely preoccupied with this, but the Behrens also touches on how Fergus’ inability to have or to hold his objects of desire reflects his tenuous grasp on life.

Fergus’ first glimmer of passion is for Phoebe Carmichael, whose father owns the land on which Fergus and his family are tenants. He’s known her all his life, calls her miss and, over the years, “Phoebe became an ember in his mind, burning down through his thoughts, glowing.” In the early months of the famine, the chasm between Fergus and his passion becomes wider, impossible to cross. “She knew she was going to live a long time, marry a farmer’s son, have sons of her own. Fergus was going to die soon, and that was the difference between them.”

In fact, Phoebe doesn’t live quite as long as that, and his date with death keeps being postponed. But how Fergus first experiences desire—for a woman forever out of reach—is how he will go after life. A life that most hope to take for granted, one that is full of food, work, love and friends, is more than Fergus even knows to envision. First his potato crop fails (“purple balls of poison,”) and then his family dies of hunger, typhus and poverty. Fergus does, in fits and starts, find food and work. From time to time, friends and love come his way, but holding them is beyond what he can manage. He ends the novel with money, a career and a hired companion. But he has seen countless friends die and his one, fully-realized love is a woman whom he abandons after they make the crossing from England to Canada. “Longing burns down fear, consumes hesitation, ignores danger. You would die for a passion, easy—for a scented, gluey c**t—but you want something more from a girl, and can’t name what it is.” Fergus’ hunt for all that is elusive in both life and love gives the novel its shape.

In Call Me by Your Name, Elio’s object of desire is well within his reach. Oliver is a graduate student, who has come to Italy to help Elio’s father, who is a literature professor. Every year, the family hosts a student at their idyllic summer home. At first, Elio sums up and dismisses Oliver as, “This summer’s houseguest. Another bore.” Then Elio notices the bits of Oliver’s skin “which hadn’t really been exposed to much sun. Almost a light pink, as glistening and smooth as the underside of a lizard’s belly. Private, chaste, unfledged, like a blush on an athlete’s face or an instance of dawn on a stormy night. It told me things about him I never knew to ask.”

The courtship between the young men is at first unspoken, but fiercely analyzed by Elio. “I had wanted other men my age before and had slept with women. But before he’d stepped out of the cab and walked into our home, it would never have seemed remotely possible that someone so thoroughly okay with himself might want me to share his body as much as I ached to yield up mine.” They swim, jog, and study at a table by the pool where they discuss, among other things, “Athanasius Kircher, Giuseppe Belli, and Paul Celan.” It is the easy way that Oliver wears his Judaism which most thrills Elio. “But it was the gold necklace and the Star of David with a golden mezuzah on his neck that told me here was something more compelling than anything I wanted from him, for it bound us and reminded me that, while everything else conspired to make us the two most dissimilar beings, this at least transcended all differences.”

It is impossible to read any of this and not think that Aciman is interested in exploring what happens when you unleash the ideal of platonic love (chaste, but passionate love meant to heighten both beauty and wisdom) on real people. Or, at least, on men. After all, platonic love was thought up by men to describe the purest of love available to men.

Elio and Oliver do, finally, leave their books and hesitations behind and their physical coupling takes Elio “to a realm I never shared with anyone in my life before, or since.” They spend a few days in Rome and during an embrace on a city street, Elio muses, “I thought of coming back here in the weeks or months to come—for this was our spot.” Before the affair has ended, Elio is hurtling forward so that he can look back.

In fact, Elio grows up to be a man incapable of experiencing the present without intrusions from the past and the future. “Twenty years was yesterday, and yesterday was just earlier this morning, and morning seemed light-years away.” His first real desire was found in the perfect balance of body and brain. It was more than ideal—it was an ideal. And it is never found again.

The reader suspects that the failure of any subsequent lover to compete with this gleaming memory defines who Elio becomes. “Over the years I’d lodged him in the permanent past, my pluperfect lover, put him on ice, stuffed him with memories and mothballs like a hunted ornament confabulating with the ghost of all my evenings.” Who needs to settle for building a life on mundane love when one has that kind of memory? A memory of a love that was almost a memory even before it began.

There are rich rewards for any reader who follows the journeys (one literal and one emotional) of two different men and the desires which chart each man’s course.

A woman, I realized, after reading these novels, rarely has her initial experience of desire defined by what she covets. Instead, she first meets desire when she is the object of it—far before she knows to have her own. While she may be at her own mid-life point before she grasps that she was introduced to passion through someone else’s eyes, it won’t cause a crisis. Oh, she might think. And then go on to learn, with great interest, from both André Aciman and Peter Behrens what life is like when you are allowed to learn desire from what you see through your own eyes.

Published in: on February 3, 2007 at 12:51 pm  Leave a Comment  

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