A life told through its loves
Beoordeeld in het Verenigd Koninkrijk op 28 maart 2017
This subtle, shimmering novel is about different states of love and the enigma of desire, both straight and gay; it provides a complex web of inner speculation, about the reading of bodily signs, the interpretation of silences, the sensing of mood changes, about the decoding of texts, of finding hidden meanings in conversation, about dreaming endlessly of what might be and what might have been. It's about trying to penetrate the mystery of other people, those that one tries to get closest to, merge with. It's about who defines not just who we are but who directs the path of our life or who indicates other, more ghostly paths, the ones we might have taken if we had read the signs more accurately and had the courage to act on them. It's told with such an acute candour, in such a beautiful, lapidary style, and with a sophisticated appreciation of the novel's fluid form, you feel you are in the hands of not just a modern master but someone who has the uncanny ability to anatomise the human heart in its most defenceless, self-deluding and self-restraining states, especially within the context of key relationships. When I read Aciman's first novel 'Call me by your name' I did not think he would be able to better it, but this, though covering different territory, is its match in quality.
The title is a good one. The opening section picks its way through the tricky subject of a twelve year old boy's infatuation with a young carpenter who is doing some work for his parents. Seen through the boy's innocent eyes, the older man's feelings for him and his evasive behaviour is an enigma that the boy, Paul, does not unravel until years later when he revisits the scene of this love affair and discovers a shocking truth. As a portrait of a first, callow, immature love, it is perfect; it stands in contrast to what follows. In the next section Paul has graduated and is living with Maud, but their relationship, cool and reasonable, is an enigma, not least because Paul is lusting after a guy at the tennis courts, called Manfred, and is also vaguely attracted to a silent girl called Claire; in this section we get to know Paul's adult self and the contradictions in his nature which will inform the rest of the narrative. The third section covers the two year 'courting' of Manfred who, all that time, remains inscrutable, giving away no signs that he's interested until near the end when truth finally erupts. This section is enigma at its simplest, born of inhibitions, fear of exposure, a paucity of signs and signals, shyness. In the fourth section, which for me is the most profound and serious of them all, Paul is now reigniting an intermittent affair he had at University with a fellow student, Chloe. He is living with Manfred, she is married with children; neither are satisfied with these domestic relationship, especially Chloe; they meet every four years or so. This relationship, more than any other, takes us deeper into the elusive, contradictory, perverse, persistent nature of love and sexual desire; I think it's the most satisfying section of the book. It's followed by a final short, rather surprising section - I thought, to balance the sexes, the focus would move on to Manfred, who has remained in the background, an enigma, to balance what is essentially the story of a bisexual nature. But no, rather boldly, Aciman introduces, later in Paul's life, yet another possible love interest, which Paul feels might be his last chance, Heidi, a journalist. It needn't be, of course. Much is made of Edith Wharton's enigmatic exclamation in her diary that, at the late age of 46, she has 'at last tasted the wine of life' - for some, love, the epiphanic, life-changing kind, can come late in life. Paul feels, that despite all that he has gone through with the carpenter, Chloe, Maud, Manfred, Heidi, the silent Claire, he has still not fully quaffed the wine of life, that somehow the essence of love has eluded him. The reader might beg to differ.
It's written in stylish prose full of intimacy and wisdom, sometimes so good I couldn't help reading it aloud to savour its pleasures and to bring out its many nuances. It shows how you can tell the essential story of a soul by homing in, not on the humdrum details, nor captured in a plot, but through its most life-shaping relationships.
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