NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, February 3, 2018

Books: Call Me By Your Name: Part 1: Is It Better to Speak or to Die?

In a prior article, I discussed Andre Aciman's book, Enigma Variations.  In this article, I'm focusing on an earlier book by Andre Aciman, Call Me By Your Name.  

After I saw the beautiful movie, Call Me By Your Name, I wanted to know more about the two main characters, Elio and Oliver (portrayed by Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer, respectively, in the movie), so I read Andre Aciman's book by the same name.

Is It Better to Speak or to Die?
Both the movie and the book are a sensual feast: a lush Italian countryside, a beautiful villa, sunshine, a seemingly endless summer, delicious food, an abundance of Italian wine, the scents of flowers and herbs, beautiful music, the warmth of the sun, the beach, and sensual bodies.

The movie is a close translation of Andre Aciman's book, but it is, of necessity, more compressed. Even though the movie differs in some aspects from the book, it maintains the same emotional tone.

In the book and the movie, it's 1983 and Elio Perlman, a 17 year old boy, and his family are at their vacation home, a 17th century villa inherited from Elio's maternal grandfather in Northern Italy.  In the book, the story is told in retrospect from Elio's point of view many years after he and Oliver first met.

The Perlman family had a tradition of inviting a doctoral student every year to spend six weeks in the summer at their villa so the graduate students could complete their book manuscripts while enjoying all the villa had to offer.  In return, the students spent an hour or so each week helping Elio's father, who was a classics professor, with his paperwork.

Over the years, these graduate students maintained contact with the Perlmans by writing, sending packages for the holidays, visiting them again and remembering their summer as graduate students in their home.  The Perlmans also had many other interesting guests, gay and straight, from all walks of life, which added to the atmosphere of camaraderie and stimulating conversations at dinner.

When Elio first met 24 year old Oliver, an American graduate student from Columbia University, who was working on a manuscript about the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, Elio disliked the way Oliver said, "Later!" in such a flippant way whenever Oliver departed.

Even at the young age of 17, Elio was an introspective individual and he found Oliver to be too casual and detached.  At that point, Elio wasn't sure if he liked Oliver or not.  But as Elio continued to observe Oliver, who was a tall, handsome, muscular man, Elio found himself fascinated and obsessed with him.  He also felt an affinity for Oliver because they were both Jewish.

In the book, although Elio had enough self awareness to know that he was bisexual, he was confused by his developing romantic and sexual feelings for Oliver, and he was perplexed as to whether Oliver felt the same way about him.

Is It Better to Speak or Die?

When Oliver massaged Elio's shoulders, which Elio desired, but the feelings that Oliver's touch elicited in Elio also frightened him.  Elio jerked away because he felt himself about to go limp in surrender to Oliver.

Then there is the flirtation when Elio, who was a musical prodigy, played Bach's "Aria of the Postillon" from Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother.  Oliver was touched when he heard Elio play the aria on the guitar and then on the piano.  When Oliver asked Elio to play the aria again, Elio teased him by playing different variations of it, knowing that Oliver wanted to hear the original Bach rendition.

Is It Better to Speak or to Die?
Time was precious because Oliver would be leaving soon, so when Elio's mother, who seemed to sense Elio's dilemma, read aloud from Marguerite of Navarre's 16th century romantic Hempateron, "Is it better to speak or to die?" about a knight who was in love with a woman but was unable to express his love to her, Elio took this as a sign that he must tell Oliver how he feels.

This is a pivotal moment in the book and the movie because these words, "Is it better to speak or to die," embolden Elio to express his feelings to Oliver.  At that point, he knows that if he doesn't express his feelings, Oliver would leave and Elio would regret not speaking or knowing how Oliver felt.

This is especially relevant for gay or bisexual men and women when they're not sure if the person they're attracted to feels the same way:  Is it better to take the risk to speak or to allow the moment to pass and never know what might have been?

So often in life, for all of us, there are times when we must ask ourselves if it's worth the risk to say how we feel or to allow the moment to pass.  In this story, Elio speaks and, in retrospect, remembers one of the most poignant moments of his life.

I won't give away the rest of the book or movie.  If you haven't read the book or seen the movie, I highly recommend both.

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

I work with individual adults and couples.

One of my specialties is working with the LGBTQ population.

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.