“Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman (2007)

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“‘Later!’ The word, the voice, the attitude.”

I’ve been away at a wedding this weekend, and a trip away always requires at least two books to be packed. As it was (and as I think I expected) I had hardly any time to read, so most of this was completed once I was back. It felt right to take a romance with me to a wedding, and this one ties into the fact it’s Pride Month, too. Where better to spend a few days at this time of year than the Italian Riviera. Come with me, let’s go.

It’s the late eighties, and seventeen-year-old Elio has just met the man who’ll be staying with his family for the summer. His parents take in a lodger every summer, someone who is working on a book and needs time and space to write. This year, it’s Oliver. He’s twenty-four, intelligent, effortlessly cool, and utterly beautiful. Elio is smitten from almost the moment Oliver gets out of his taxi and becomes conflicted about whether he should make his feelings known. Oliver is at times friendly and perhaps encouraging, but at others distant and determinedly ignores Elio, who begins to wonder if he should start a relationship with the local girl Marzia instead.

As the weeks progress, the two young men grow closer and become more entangled in one another’s lives and emotions. The six weeks of the summer may not mark a particularly long time on the calendar, but they will forever change Elio and Oliver as they seek out true intimacy for the first time, and maybe the last.

At its heart, the book is simply about the difference between sex and intimacy and how they can easily be confused. Pure intimacy is perhaps the rarest relationship one can have with another human, and while at times you could argue that Elio tries to force it here, there’s no denying that they do have something pretty special, if at times somewhat bizarre. Although the sex scenes with them together are kept discreet and half-hidden, there are still enough scenes of Elio pleasuring himself – often in fetishistic and unusual ways – to counterbalance.

Anyone of any sexual stripe will be familiar with this sense of lust; a longing for someone that you can’t be sure returns the feeling. This being literary fiction, however, the characters are not necessarily people we know, even if their emotions are. Elio is precocious at seventeen, transcribing music and blending artists together for his own compositions. Oliver teaches at Colombia and spends most of his time in Italy working hard on his new book. The characters around them all have an other-worldly sheen, too, as if the Riviera polishes everyone to a high gleam and makes even their faults look more acceptable.

As for the prose itself, like much literary fiction, the book is awfully fond of itself and its use of extensive paragraphs that detail very little action at all. Elio spends much of his time fretting and while he’s not unpleasant as a person, some may find him beginning to grate after a while. Fortunately, the book’s wise words and descriptions of life are rather good. It’s also notable that despite being a book about two gay lovers, I don’t think the words “gay” or “love” make a single appearance. The book is open and aware of bisexuality, which is a novelty, and does its very best to avoid labels. Love is love, after all.

A warming and thoughtful novel, which can make even the hardest heart believe in the worth and power of intimacy.

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“The Swimming-Pool Library” by Alan Hollinghurst (1988)

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swimming-pool“I came home on the last train.”

I’ve never really understood what is meant by “literary fiction”. That is, I understand what books generally get classed as such, but I’ve never understood why. It feels snobbish, and implies a seriousness about the works that renders “genre fiction” – all the really good sci-fi, fantasy and crime – somehow beneath these “proper books”. I only mention this, because Alan Hollinghurst is one of those writers who is apparently writing literary fiction, and yet still seems accessible and good fun. I read The Line of Beauty a few years ago and enjoyed it, so I thought I’d pick him up again, and the fact that this title contains two of the places I most like to spend time, it felt like I was on to a winner.

Will Beckwith is young, gay, jobless and horny. Living off the vast wealth of his family and not bothering to make himself into a useful member of society, he spends every day swimming at the Corinthian Club and sleeping with the men and boys that he finds there. One day while potentially soliciting in some public toilets, he saves the life of an elderly peer who collapses. When he finds the man, Lord Nantwich, at his swimming club, he finds himself befriending the old man. But there is more to this than mere friendship, and Nantwich has a job in mind for young Will.

Nantwich wants someone to write his biography before he dies, and so hands off all his old diaries and notes to Will to read through and see if he’s up for the task. In between bedding his latest beau, the muscular and shy Phil, Will reads the old man’s diaries and finds himself coming up against some harsh truths about his privileged lifestyle.

Plotwise, the book is pretty slow going and things that seem to be leading somewhere have a habit of tailing off, which I suppose is much like life – you never get all the answers out here, but in books you tend to expect them. I liked the characters a lot from the off though. Will is attractive, slightly arrogant and apparently unable to learn from past lessons, but also human enough to be tolerable as a narrator, even if you wouldn’t want to spend too much time in his company. Because the story is seen through his eyes, many of the older gay men are painted with unfair descriptions and almost all come across as lecherous, past their prime and desperate. Will’s best friend James remains my favourite character, a rather sweet doctor who is insecure and seems to put up with a lot from Will, often getting little in return.

The book is deeply sexual in nature, dealing not just with changing (or rather, unchanging) attitudes to homosexuality, but also describing the acts that Will and his many partners perform during the course of the book. Sometimes these are brushed over, but other times they are very explicit. Oddly, and something I shamefully only seemed to realise towards the end of the book, there are no women in this book. I think you once get a phone conversation with Will’s sister, but otherwise I don’t recall there being a single female character. This seems to emphasise the fact that Will has eyes only for other men, and seems to live in a particular bubble, where everyone is gay and there’s no wider world to be seen. Will’s narrow way of looking around him almost proves to be ruinous – he is a man who sees only what he wants to see.

I found it an interesting read, with several parallels to My Policeman which I read last year, and it’s always shocking to be reminded of how society acted towards gay men only a few short decades ago. While occasionally a bit dry, Hollinghurst does have a wonderful turn of phrase. Two come to mind. In one, Will observes a street of people all doing such “nameable activities”, suggesting that they look like a picture designed to teach foreigners the basics of the English language. In another, after Will has been in a fight, the loss of one of his front teeth is said to make him look like a “defaced advertisement”. I’ll take many pages of dry discussion on old authors and changing room showers for lines like that.

“My Policeman” by Bethan Roberts (2012)

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my-policeman“I considered starting with these words: I no longer want to kill you – because I really don’t – but then decided you would think this far too melodramatic.”

Despite America’s attempts to drag us back into the past, we’ve definitely come a long way in the last few decades. My latest read was set in Brighton, a city notable for its collection of the weird and wonderful, as well as seeming to always have been a haven for anyone who felt like they didn’t fit in. It was for this reason, according to many, that it became home to so many of the LGBT community. But Britain wasn’t always so tolerant, even in Brighton, and this book explores the city in the 1950s.

Teenager Marion has just met Tom, the older brother of her best friend and she is in love. His blond hair, his strong arms – he’s perfect. They meet again when they’re a little older, and he teaches her to swim in the sea, and she becomes convinced that they are going to get married and her love will be enough to propel them though a beautiful future.

Elsewhere, Patrick has just met Tom, a policeman with an interest in art and culture, which seems very unusual. Immediately smitten, Patrick teaches Tom more about these subjects, and the two begin meeting more regularly until it becomes clear that there is a little more than art appreciation on their minds. But this is the 1950s, and so it will be safer for Tom to marry Marion. Both blinded by their love for their policeman and prepared to ignore what’s right in front of them for a sniff of happiness, they must share him, but it all becomes too much one day, and something’s got to give.

The novel opens with the three characters now living together in 1999; although while Marion and Tom are still married, Patrick is a guest and being looked after by them after his second stroke. Half of the book is narrated by Marion, writing to Patrick about what really happened back when they were young, as she hopes he’ll be able to hear the truth before it’s too late. The other half is from Patrick’s point of view, as taken from his journal in the fifties where he is very cagey about naming his lover, referring to him as simply “my policeman”. Despite the perfectly good reason the two have for hating one another, they are curiously similar, and it’s interesting to read their opinions on one another, and see the way they describe the same events from different points of view.

The world is conjured up beautifully, a slightly sad and tragic world in both the fifties and the nineties. We are given constant reminders of how homosexuality was viewed during the middle of the century, with a vast range of opinions on show, much like today. Still, this isn’t nearly as jolly as back then a man could still be imprisoned for being a “sexual invert”. The struggles they go through are writ large and people rarely seem willing to jump to their defence, while Tom, who is perceived by most people to be straight, coasts through life feeling loved by one and all.

Personally, I don’t understand quite what they both see in Tom. They both seem far more attracted to him physically than to who is he, Marion in particular, and while he does seem rather a kind man in some ways, he’s still willing to marry a woman just to act as a cover for his affair with a man. It’s heartbreaking to see both Marion and Patrick suffer, especially Patrick who suffers more than most. Nonetheless, it’s a wonderful story and full of emotional truths that can resonate with anyone who has had to lose the person they love to someone else.

Charming and cruel in equal measure.