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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Books: Love and Longing in "Enigma Variations" by Andre Aciman

Andre Aciman's book, Enigma Variations, is the story about a life of love and longing.  It is similar in to Aciman's prior book and movie, Call Me By Your Name, in that both books are looking back at an earlier time in life of a young, naive boy.  Both books also have a poetic and musical quality to them.

Books: Love and Longing in Enigma Variations

The book, Enigma Variations, is named after Edward Elgar's musical composition, Variations on an Original Theme Op 36 (1898-1999), which is popularly known as Enigma Variations.

Elgar composed 14 variations on the original theme.  Each variation is a musical composition about people who are close to him, including his wife and close friends.

Books: Love and Longing in Enigma Variations

Similarly, Aciman's Enigma Variations is based on the life and loves of the protagonist, Paul.  The variations allude to the many different selves that are part of Paul and the people he loves throughout his life starting at age 12 and continuing through his late middle age.

Similar to Call Me By Your Name, in the first chapter of the Enigma Variations, "First Love," the narrator, Paul, is immersed in memories of an earlier time.   He is thinking about his 12 year old self when he developed his first unrequited infatuation for a man, the local cabinetmaker, Giovanni, on a small island in Italy, San Giustiniano.

The first words of the first chapter, "First Love," are "I've come back for him" as Paul takes us on a journey back in time.

After being away for 10 years, Paul, who is now in his early 20s, returns to San Giustiniano where the family house burned down to the ground under mysterious circumstances after the family went back to the mainland.

Just as mysterious, Paul's family never returned to what was left of the house or the land.  His parents abandoned the area for reasons that, at first, are puzzling (part of the "enigma").  Eventually, the house was ransacked by the neighbors and nothing is left.

From there, Paul's 12 year old self takes over the story of his unrequited love for Giovanni, who is Paul's father's friend and who is restoring a treasured old table that Paul's mother inherited from her father.
Books: Love and Longing in Enigma Variations

Twelve year old Paul marvels at how Giovanni discovers a secret compartment in the table that no one knew about.  Inside that compartment they discover a Pelikan pen that belonged to Paul's maternal grandfather.

The Pelikan pen is the exact type of pen that Paul has been asking his mother to buy him and which she refuses to buy because he isn't doing well in two classes at school.

Interestingly, the pen is inscribed with the grandfather's initials, which are the same as Paul's initials, so his mother gives him the pen.  It's as if the secret and the pen are meant for Paul.

Just as the secret compartment of the table opens up to reveal this treasure, metaphorically a secret compartment in Paul also opens up as he discovers his infatuation for Giovanni.

Back then, the 12 year old Paul had no one to talk to about his feelings, so he struggled with his infatuation and confusion on his own.

Even though he was struggling with his feelings, Paul tried to find ways to get closer to Giovanni physically and emotionally.  He frequently visited Giovanni in his shop and wanted to learn to work the same way that Giovanni did.

When Giovanni, who was a patient and perceptive man, realized that Paul is staring at him with love and sexual longing, he told Paul in the most gentle way that Paul shouldn't stare at people that way.  He also told Paul in a paternal way to "behave" himself.  Then, he gently suggested that Paul go home.

Paul left, but he was filled with anger, sadness and shame for his feelings.

For the 22 year old Paul, who still remembers the love he experienced for Giovanni as a child, these feelings are still close to the surface.  He hasn't forgotten.  But he longs to find out what happened to Giovanni after Giovanni mysteriously disappeared.

As he talks to people who still live in the town and who remember Paul's family and Giovanni, Paul is surprised to learn things about his family that he never knew before.  Now, certain unanswered questions begin to make sense to him.

This first chapter, which is like a novella, sets the tone for the rest of the book about Paul's life and loves from childhood through late middle age.

A phrase from Call Me By Your Name, "We are not written for one instrument," applies to Enigma Variations as well.  Paul loves men and women equally, and he experiences the same fears, doubts and longings in his romantic relationships with men and women.

It seems to me that part of the enigma in Andre Aciman's Enigma Variations is the many variations of Paul throughout his life.  Although he changes over time and has many different selves, as we all do, in many ways, the core remains his 12 year old self, whose romantic yearnings are still poetic and all-consuming.

Andre Aciman has been compared to Proust, and Enigma Variations is a beautiful work of art.

Similar to Proust, the book's surprising twists and turns will make you want to reread the story when you get to the end and your understanding of what you thought you knew about the story is upended.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.