What We're Reading: Enigma Variations By André Aciman

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“From a youthful infatuation with a cabinet maker in a small Italian fishing village, to a passionate yet sporadic affair with a woman in New York, to an obsession with a man he meets at a tennis court, Enigma Variations charts one man’s path through the great loves of his life. Paul’s intense desires, losses and longings draw him closer, not to a defined orientation, but to an understanding that ‘heartache, like love, like low-grade fevers, like the longing to reach out and touch a hand across the table, is easy enough to live down’.

André Aciman casts a shimmering light over each facet of desire, to probe how we ache, want and waver, and ultimately how we sometimes falter and let go of the very ones we want the most. We may not know what we want. We may remain enigmas to ourselves and to others. But sooner or later we discover who we’ve always known we were.” 

The film adaptation of Aciman’s previous novel Call Me By Your Name was one of last year’s biggest cinema hits, and it’s not hard to see why. Even when you take away Luca Guadagnino’s captivating cinematography and Sufjan Steven’s delicate soundtrack, Aciman’s carefully crafted storyline of love and heartbreak is what remains and holds the audience throughout, and Enigma Variations holds these same trademarks of his penmanship.

The novel is divided into chapters which describe each of the significant loves/crushes/relationships of protagonist Paul’s life, taking us between a remote Italian fishing village where he grew up, and his adult life in New York, with multiple stops in between, although not necessarily in chronological order.

Paul is a hopeless romantic, he believes in love at first sight but lets the feelings overwhelm him whilst telling no one; he believes in the transcendental nature of love and floats between relationships as the whim takes him. His partners (both male and female — Aciman writes queer relationships in a believable way, without making it a big deal or a plot point, they simply exist as in real life) are interconnected and remain in his life, yet each could form their own little novella. Each person he meets and falls in love with reveals something new about him, his personal growth and flaws. The relationships are written in such a personal and heart-wrenching way, I think it would be impossible to read this book and not feel you can relate to him at some point in his life. Even the way Aciman writes arguments plunges to the depth of your soul, he knows the full spectrum of human emotion: “In her mouth truth had no use for velvet sheathes. It spoke serrated daggers. I learned to speak serrated too”

Although a story of past relationships is inevitably full of heartbreaks, the book is overall a hopeful one - Paul is an optimist and cherishes his interactions with those he loves, even if he can be scornful at times. The first chapter, in which he returns after many years to his old village to seek out his first, but unrequited, love also takes you to the beautiful Italian scenery which drew so many people to Call Me By Your Name. Aciman bathes his stories and memories in sunlight and beautiful surroundings, making the reader nostalgic for a place they’ve never known. Sat in my cold flat in Milan, his words made me long for the summer to come to Italy again, and somehow I felt lonely in my singleness, but strangely comforted at the same time.

Enigma Variations is available now from Faber & Faber for £12.99.

Anna WardComment