Progress through Enigma Variations, André Aciman’s fourth novel, is best calculated not by the number of pages read, but by the strength of readerly connection with the narrator. The project is one of recognition and revelation within the reader: the book wants nothing less than the dissolution of your consciousness into its pixellated moments of psychological precision.
The novel opens with Paul, at 22, returning to the small Italian island town San Giustiniano, where he and his family had spent his childhood summers until he was 12 and where, crucially, he first fell in love. The object of his affection was an older man, a carpenter named Giovanni, or “Nanni,” a name that “meant far, far more” to Paul “than it did to anyone else.” During his visit Paul investigates the mysterious burning of his family’s summer home by the locals and in the process uncovers an open family secret, a revelation that resituates his feelings toward his father, Nanni, and himself. “We love only once in our lives,” Paul’s father told him as a boy, “sometimes too early, sometimes too late, the other times are always a touch deliberate.” Through Aciman’s smooth layering of time, we witness both Paul’s pure first love and how it has aged. This initial section also sets the stage for what’s to come: four sections, each centered on a different lover in Paul’s post-San Giustiniano life.
The novel’s title refers, at least in part, to Edward Elgar’s opus 36, Variations on an Original Theme — popularly known as the Enigma Variations — in which the composer sketched a series of variations on a theme, each representing some aspect of a real-life friend from within Elgar’s inner circle. It’s a subtle way of toying with genre, of puncturing the fictional membrane — or suggesting that’s what’s happening — to let in some nonfiction. Maybe the characters are pulled from Aciman’s life, maybe not, but the title invites such speculation, which, if anything, amplifies the novel’s photorealism. Other writers have played with this conceit (one of the most thrilling recent examples I’ve read is Laurent Binet in HHhH), but the literary progenitor here — and not just in this respect — is, of course, Marcel Proust.
Loneliness, fear of shame, unrequited love light these pages. At a dinner party in the third section, beset with desire for Manfred, a man Paul sees at the tennis courts and in the locker room but with whom he’s hardly shared a full sentence, Paul thinks, “what if each of us at this very table is a monsoon-ravaged island trying to look its best, with all of our coconut trees bending to the winds till hopelessness breaks their back and you can hear each one crash,” because, after all, “we’re each waiting for someone’s voice to tear us out of our bleak and battered husk and say, Follow me, Brother, follow me.” Here and throughout, the minute mapping of Paul’s shifting emotions convinces and compels. What Wyatt Mason in The Proust Project, a collection of essays inspired by In Search of Lost Time and edited by Aciman, has said of Proust holds true for Enigma Variations: “[E]ven as we move forward, we grow no closer to the end than we were at the beginning.” Depth, not breadth, is the treasure, and grasping after the ungraspable present along with Paul becomes the point of the quest itself.
That said, the third section, “Manfred,” grows a little tedious. Unlike Aciman’s steamy first novel Call Me by Your Name, most of the skin-to-skin contact in Enigma Variations occurs in the narrator’s head, and in “Manfred,” Paul wallows longwindedly in the agony of delayed avowal. But this section also reveals something at the heart of Paul’s character: he’s happiest in the throes of yearning after new love because he knows that acquisition never leads to contentment. Obsessing over his feelings for Manfred, Paul thinks, “The circuit is always the same: from attraction to tenderness to obsessive longing, and then to surrender, desuetude, apathy, fatigue, and finally scorn.” Familiarity is the come-down; Paul’s drug is feeling itself, the more intense the better.
When Paul finally screws up the courage to come out to Manfred, he pulls out his phone and shows the man a picture of his 12-year-old self and says, “This is who is speaking to you now. Earnest, horny, so scared.” Love, infatuation, desire — these most powerful of feelings, this novel says — reduce and enlarge us in ways that are wonderfully juvenescent, at once simplifying and magnifying the world.
And complicating Paul’s romantic desire is his need, seemingly always, for two others — that is, if character A, the new inamorato, is seen as the destination, and he himself is B, then there seems always to be a need for C, an old lover, as the necessary starting point. What Paul becomes is the span between them. The cuckolded catalysts all seem okay with their status (Manfred in particular moves surprisingly smoothly from A to C), and in this manner the novel defers any overused tension around infidelity. Paul’s focus isn’t on the repercussions from leaving an old lover as much as it is on savoring the possibilities of new love.
Intriguingly, as we witness Paul repeatedly rearrange his life around a new magnetic north, it becomes clear that his bisexuality abets his serial monogamy. “I’d grown to love serving two masters,” he thinks, “perhaps so as never truly to answer to either one.” Yet Paul’s state isn’t a dilemma in search of an answer. We go with him the way we go with Anton Chekhov’s characters, enmeshed in the humanness of the drama. When Chloe, an on-again, off-again lover since college, confronts Paul, asking about his new lover, “Did you tell her you’ll always want something else and something more?”, we see it for the tender inquiry it is.
In the A-B-C equation, Paul is the bisexual bridge between A and C, and this metaphor is mined to profit—subtly in the first section when a San Giustiniano local says that all that happened to Paul’s family is “acqua passata,” water under the bridge, and elegantly in the scene of the New York City dinner party. As the partygoers admire the view of an East River bridge, Paul thinks, “what I really long for this evening is neither to be on this side of the river nor on the other but on the space and transit in between.” Aciman has captured Paul’s bridge life delightfully well.