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.
Tom Nissley’s column “A Reader’s Book of Days” is adapted from his book of the same name.
July is the month of revolutions, so much so that in France’s upheaval even the month itself was swept away. The French Revolution that began with the liberation of the Bastille on July 14 tried to reinvent many traditions from the ground up—the metric system lasted longer than most—and the calendar was among them: under the new regime 1792 was declared Year I, with 12 newly defined months of three ten-day weeks each. (Since that only adds up to 360, the five or six days left over became national holidays, les jours complémentaires, at the end of the year.) The poet Fabre d’Églantine was given the task of choosing names for the new months, among them the two that overlapped the traditional span of July: Messidor, from “harvest,” and Thermidor, from “heat” (British wags were said to have suggested “Wheaty” and “Heaty” as local equivalents). Each day of the year received an individual name too, inspired by plants, animals, and tools: In Year II, for example, luckless Fabre d’Églantine was executed for corruption by his own revolution on Laitue (Lettuce), the 16th day of Germinal. He handed out his poems on his way to the guillotine.
By comparison, America’s revolution hardly altered its calendar, except for the new Fourth of July celebration (which didn’t become an official federal holiday until 1870). For fiction that evokes the American Independence Day, you can turn to Ross Lockridge Jr.’s nearly forgotten epic, Raintree County, which uses the single day of July 4, 1892, to look back on a century of American history, while George Pelecanos’s King Suckerman crackles to a final showdown at the Bicentennial celebration in Washington D.C., and Frank Bascombe, in Richard Ford’s Independence Day (a Pulitzer winner like Raintree County), attempts a father-son reconciliation with a July Fourth weekend visit to those shrines to American male bonding, the baseball and basketball Halls of Fame.
Here is a list of suggested reading for the heat and upheaval of July:
The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (1788)
Anybody can have a revolution: the real achievement of the American experiment was building a system of government that could last, as argued for in these crucial essays on democracy and the balance of powers.
Autobiography by John Stuart Mill (1873)
In July 1806, the scholar James Mill challenged a fellow new father to “a fair race with you in the education of a son.” It’s hard to imagine Mill didn’t win: his son, John Stuart Mill, was reading Greek at three and was a formidable classicist by 12. His memoir of his precocious childhood remains a legend of Victorian education.
The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922)
No Antarctic tourist would choose the height of the southern winter for a visit, but that’s when emperor penguins nest, so Cherry-Garrard and two companions set out on a foolhardy scientific expedition across the Ross Ice Shelf in the darkness of the Antarctic July, a “Winter Journey” that became the centerpiece of Cherry-Garrard’s classic account of the otherwise doomed Scott Expedition.
“Why I Live at the P.O.” by Eudora Welty (1941)
Why? Because they all ganged up on her: Mama slapped her face and Papa-Daddy called her a hussy and even Uncle Rondo threw a package of firecrackers into her bedroom at 6:30 in the morning, all because Stella-Rondo came home on the Fourth of July and turned them all against her, that’s why.
The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon (1959)
Before there was John Frankenheimer’s film in 1962, there was Condon’s original Cold War fantasia—the direct source of most of the movie’s deliciously bizarre dialogue and convoluted paranoia—which begins with an Army patrol that goes missing in Korea in July before being saved by their sergeant, Raymond Shaw, the finest, bravest, most admirable person they’ve ever known.
The Great Brain Reforms by John D. Fitzgerald (1973)
The fifth of Fitzgerald’s eight Great Brain books is perhaps the finest and most dramatic in the superb series for kids set in turn-of-the-century Utah, with a story of a rigged Fourth of July tug-of-war between the Mormons and the Gentiles and a rare comeuppance for Tom, the charming, swindling Great Brain himself.
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (1974)
“It rained all that night. The next day was Saturday, the Fourth of July.” There’s no danger of spoiling the ending of Shaara’s Pulitzer-winning novel of Gettysburg by giving away its final words, but knowing the battle’s outcome makes the drama no less appealing.
Saturday Night by Susan Orlean (1990)
Orlean’s first book, a traveling celebration of the ways Americans spend their traditional night of leisure—dancing, cruising, dining out, staying in—follows no particular season, but it’s an ideal match for July, the Saturday night of months, when you are just far enough into summer to enjoy it without a care for the inevitable approach of fall.
Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant (2002)
What better way to celebrate Canada Day and Bastille Day (and Independence Day, too, for that matter) than with the stories of Montreal’s great expatriate writer, who left empty-handed for Paris with a plan to make herself a writer of fiction before she was 30 and found an American audience for her stories in The New Yorker for six decades afterwards.
Remainder by Tom McCarthy (2005)
It’s July 11 and everything is in place: the glum pianist playing Rachmaninoff, the liver lady frying liver in a pan, the motorcycle enthusiast clanging in the courtyard, and the staff ready behind the scenes for the first re-enactment in McCarthy’s relentlessly provocative (and diabolically approachable) experiment in fiction, in which a suddenly wealthy man’s attempt to recreate his own fleeting past exposes the limits and seductions of memory and the tyranny of unlimited power.
The Damned Utd by David Peace (2006)
Brian Clough’s unlikely decision in 1974 to manage Leeds United, the club that had once been his bitterest rival, began a spectacularly disastrous 44-day summer reign that Peace transformed, with his propulsive and obsessive style, into what many have called the greatest novel on English football.
Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman (2007)
“This summer’s houseguest. Another bore.” Hardly. For teenage Elio, the intrusion of a young American academic into his family’s Italian summer sets off a summer’s passion whose intensity upends his life and still sears his memory in Aciman’s elegant story of remembered, inelegant desire.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)
Five years are all it’s taken for the marriage of Amy and Nick, a once-high-flying media couple, to curdle, and Amy’s disappearance on their wedding anniversary, July 5, sets off this twisted autopsy of a marriage gone violently wrong.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Martha Southgate is the author of three novels, most recently, Third Girl From The Left. Her previous novel, The Fall of Rome, was named one of the best books of 2002 by Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children and is at work on a new novel. You can find out more about her work at her website www.marthasouthgate.com.I’m not calling these books the “best” of anything – good literature ain’t a horse race. But the following books are the ones that leapt to mind as the most exciting and pleasurable I read in 2007 – the ones I wanted to grab people and tell them about.The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz: I wrestled a bit with putting this one on because he’s getting much respect from all over the place. But it’s well-deserved. This book sprawls, it brawls, it doesn’t apologize, it enlightens and delights. A welcome return from a major talent.Halfway House by Katharine Noel: Remember not wanting to put a book down? Sometimes I forget the simple pleasure of a book that is so beautifully crafted, so alive, that I simply can’t do anything else until I’m done reading it. This first novel reminded me of what a great feeling that is. I loved it so much that I emailed the author – that’s when I know it’s love.Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman: A really, really, really sexy book that is also an impressive work of literature. If you’ve ever been young and desperate to get your hands on the object of your desire (and lucky enough to find that he or she can’t keep his or her hands off of you either), you’ll vibe to this love story.The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter. Full disclosure: I am lucky enough to count Charlie Baxter as a friend, which is how I came by an ARC of this novel, to be published by Pantheon in February 2008. But just ’cause he’s my bud doesn’t mean I don’t know a hell of a book when I read one. Both a meditation on identity and on the nature of love, The Soul Thief is sexy, funny, romantic (without being sentimental) and strange (in the best of ways). It’s both a return to Baxter’s deepest preoccupations as a writer and an exhilarating departure from them. We already know he’s one of our best fiction writers. Don’t miss this one when it comes out.More from A Year in Reading 2007