I read chapters from Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City in the bath.
It’s a fascinating book which I can only read in increments (because I Google all the art I don’t know). So I was excited to see she was on the bill for this year’s Manchester Literature Festival alongside Andre Aciman (Call Me by Your Name, Out of Egypt). But when I arrive at Manchester’s International Anthony Burgess Foundation, we’re informed that Laing has had to pull out of the event due to illness. Cue big pin in my balloon. Host Katie Popperwell jokes that they’ll have to be “doubly interesting” to make up for the absence.
Confession time: I’ve never read anything by Aciman and I feel a bit silly because I don’t know much about him other than he’s the author of Call Me by Your Name. His book was made into a hugely popular film I haven’t seen so, I’m not off to the best start. But as soon as Aciman starts reading, in a beautifully soft lightly-accented voice, I realise I might like his novels.
Aciman’s latest offering, Enigma Variations, charts the life of Paul, whose loves remain “as consuming and as covetous throughout his adulthood as they were in his adolescence”. It’s a tale of the “duplicity” of desire – so, a bit like a few months spent on Tinder, then.
“Every form of desire stems from shame,” says Aciman. “There’s this word – single-hearted – which is a wonderful British word which means you’re single-heartedly devoted to the pursuit of something, but what if you’re double-hearted? Or quadruple-hearted?”
The novel takes its name from Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, popularly known as the Enigma Variations, and Aciman was attracted to this piece of music because “it seems to me something that it isn’t” which resonated with his interest in desire and attraction. “We don’t know what our core is much less what we’re truly and ultimately always going to be desiring.”
“So, don’t get married, OK?” he adds with a laugh.
Continuing the theme of desire, Popperwell asks why Aciman doesn’t used the word ‘love’ in Enigma Variations.
“As a writer, if you use the word ‘love’, you are making it into an immediate crystal. It fossilises everything. Desire changes all the time. If you use the word ‘love’, you cannot go back on it, you cannot change it. It’s like a brick you throw into the soup and it splashes all over the place and then you can’t remove it. The soup is now inedible.”
He turns to look at the crowd and flashes a wry smile. “And that’s why you should never use the word ‘love’.”
Talk soon turns to the phenomenal success of Call Me by Your Name which won the 20th Lambda Literary Awards (the novel scooped the prize for Gay Fiction) before being turned into a film in 2017. Aciman reveals that he received a huge amount of correspondence from people asking for his advice. While he tried to answer as much of it as he could, he remarks: “I can’t give advice. I’m the one who needs the advice. That’s why I am writing this book, to figure myself out.”
Aciman also wrote an essay where he reflects on an anonymous letter he received about the novel “because it was so moving and so beautiful”.
As the event ends, Popperwell considers the moral implications of talking about the sexual desire of youth (at the beginning of Enigma Variations, Paul is aged just 12), and asks Aciman if he was cautious.
“Yes, but isn’t that boring? I am not predatory with children. I am in league with the children who are predatory with adults. I love that phase of childhood because it is innocent but it also full of shame.”
As I shrug on my coat, and Aciman makes his way to sign copies of his novel, I decide that he has secured my favourite quote of the entire literature festival. “There’s a certain type of joy that exists just being attracted to someone and, OK, you might not have them. But you’re alive and that’s a wonderful feeling.”
By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor
Enigma Variations is published by Macmillan and out to buy now.