When author André Aciman goes on holiday

The Call Me By Your Name author on how travel makes him feel and why he desires solitude

April 12, 2024 02:59 pm | Updated April 15, 2024 05:29 pm IST

Themes of migration and displacement are common in André Aciman’s fiction.

Themes of migration and displacement are common in André Aciman’s fiction. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The Italian-American André Aciman had been a well-known and widely respected writer since the 90s, when he published his memoir Out of Egypt and a string of popular short stories in magazines like The New Yorker. But his fame exploded with the release of his debut novel Call Me By Your Name in 2007, making him an international sensation. The book went on to be adapted into an Oscar-winning film of the same name, starring Timothée Chalamet, who was soon catapulted to global heartthrob status.

In 2019, Aciman wrote a sequel to the book — Find Me — and most recently, he has published a novella called The Gentleman from Peru. The book follows three college students who find themselves stuck off Italy’s Amalfi coast, with a mysterious and taciturn stranger. It is a part of the world that Aciman has written about previously as well, in a 2023 travel essay set in the small town of Orvieto, close to Rome.

Interview with author André Aciman 
| Video Credit: Yuvasree S

The essay is a great example of Aciman’s strengths, like his gift for fusing the mythic and the mundane in a singular turn of phrase. For instance, he describes an Orvieto carpenter thus: “The carpenter who seems to be a direct descendant of medieval guild members stands outside his shop with a lit cigarette, which he clearly doesn’t want to put out and which gives him the thoughtful, meditative air of an Italian Einstein still working on the theory of relativity.”

The travel essay

During a recent video interview, the 73-year-old Aciman spoke about what the idea of travel means to him. “That particular piece about Orvieto, it was never intended as a ‘discovery’ essay. Orvieto is a lovely town, but I am not interested in it at all. I am interested in how the town makes me feel. I leave it to other people to describe a new sight, its history, what it means, and so on,” Aciman said. “What I am interested in is what I see, what I imagine. And it took me a long time to realise this. Sometimes, what I see and what I imagine are not the same thing. They’re not necessarily congruent with each other.”

Themes of migration and displacement are common in Aciman’s fiction. Characters, especially young men, are often found adrift in strange lands, seeking their ‘rightful’ place in the world, both geographically and metaphorically speaking. They seek meaningful, human connections but at the same time, are too wrapped up in their own little solipsistic mind-space. In the Orvieto essay, Aciman touches upon this phenomenon by calling it “the big paradox that defines my life” — a fear of loneliness that coexists with a love of being left alone. “I think that this feeling of desiring solitude while also being quite afraid of loneliness, this is something a lot of people struggle with. During my childhood, my father kept telling me to ‘enjoy myself’ but I did not know how, at least not in the accepted or conventional sense of the phrase. We are told, we are almost indoctrinated straight from childhood, to ‘seek out the world’, to seek, seek, seek. But what about when we want to have a cup of coffee in the morning, alone?”

André Aciman’s latest novella ‘The Gentleman from Peru’

André Aciman’s latest novella ‘The Gentleman from Peru’

Longing and belonging

Aciman famously wrote Call Me By Your Name in a matter of 3-4 months, which was unlike him. “I had nothing to do and I wanted to get this novel off my chest. It was written very, very fast and it was almost like a vacation for me, writing-wise.”

His usual method, he said, is much slower, much more deliberate. During the interview, he joked that his agent gets bored of him writing “the same story over and over again”.

Aciman has lived in New York for over two decades now, the longest he has ever stayed in one place. And according to him, the city is ideal for someone like him, someone who revels in diversity, someone “who doesn’t belong anywhere” as he put it. “I would be quite bored and uncomfortable if New York contained people of one ethnicity or one religion. Had that been the case, I would certainly not have belonged there and I’d have been cast out.” These days, he said, he is working on “three different essays” as well as a new book of non-fiction, a memoir which will be released in October. “It is a memoir about a year I spent in Italy as a very young man, 16-17 years of age. Now, I never turn down an invite to spend time in Italy, not least because I am no longer an Italian citizen. I lost my citizenship, which is so typical of my life.”

The writer and journalist is working on his first book of non-fiction.

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