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Uniquely Aligned Unrequited love: on André Aciman letting his protagonists love from afar

Jul. 16, 2019
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André Aciman’s novels are always love letters to love itself before they are love stories between people. I like to imagine he’s not too different from Paul, the protagonist of his latest book, Enigma Variations—so enthralled by the grandeur and minutiae of capital-L Love that he is never not feeling it, writhing in it, writing about it. 

And he has every right to. I never really understood what being “book-drunk” meant until I read his debut, Call Me By Your Name; even the mere act of typing out the title and being reminded of Elio and Oliver’s secret world in 1980s Italy reopens wounds and drives me to relish in a love I never had and mourn over a loss I never experienced. Aciman makes you feel like it was you who loved and lost, it was you who had this pluperfect lover. Elio remains one of my favorite fictional characters because he’s so unabashed about being in love for the first time—he is the perfect embodiment of this naïveté that is never quite the same after your first heartbreak; a beautiful portrait of first love; a lover stuck in time. It somehow feels wrong to dissect Aciman’s work because it’s the kind you’re supposed to live in, not look at critically; and if you get out of it not feeling like the author knows all your secrets, then it has failed you.

There’s no doubt that CMBYN is strongest in its second act, when we finally reach the conclusion of the “will-they-won’t-they” pendulum of the previous chapter. The last act is the most resonant, however, with our dear protagonist coming to terms with loss, tiptoeing toward acceptance for decades, but ultimately never getting there. CMBYN feels so lived-in because it presents a love from start to finish (“finish” is used abstractly here—is love ever finished, after all?), showing us the first kiss and the last; the realization and denial and desperation and payoff and grief of it all. But perhaps the most overlooked part of this beguiling romance—that isn’t really a romance as much as it is a character study of Elio—is the first chapter, where our protagonist meets his would-be lover. Elio debates internally what he feels about this Oliver, who seems rude and crass and curt and harsh and dismissive and why is performative resentment our first response to infatuation, Aciman asks. He paints a gorgeous, harrowing vignette of unrequited love, so personal and intimate that I feel like I have found what I’ve been looking for all my life, unconscious that I was even searching for it.

He approaches the subject of unrequited love tenderly and chooses his words so lovingly, something I have yet to see in all the love stories I’ve devoured as a hopeless romantic. It’s evident he doesn’t see this kind of love as pathetic, as most writers—or most people, including myself, until recently—would. In fact, he deems it more exhilarating, more heartbreaking, more damning because of the fact that it’s unreturned. Elio is proof of this; his internal monologue is so familiar it felt like words I’ve written in a past life. On one occasion, Oliver, unprompted, massages his shoulder jokingly, and he runs away, embarrassed and God knows what else. Aciman then proceeds to dedicate the next few pages to Elio just overthinking this one small interaction, and I couldn’t help but chuckle—that is precisely what unrequited love feels like. And I know Aciman is not the first to portray this “he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not” mental limbo in media, but his depiction was the first where I didn’t feel ashamed after I read it. I also do what Elio did, and that’s okay; that’s what it’s supposed to feel like, that’s what everyone else does but is too ashamed to speak about. I was reminded of a diary entry I wrote when I was 15: “Do you know what it’s like to feel this for you? Like I’m a magician—creating something out of nothing. You could give me a raindrop and I’d still drown.”

Aciman giving Elio permission to feel all these feelings in the intense, end-of-the-world way so indicative of the love only a 17-year-old can give is liberating, especially as a teenager myself. That is how I love, and yes, I know it’s foolish, and naive, and often unreturned, and I will laugh at myself when I’m older, but these feelings, albeit very young, are very real, and Aciman, through Elio, pays attention, listens, and comforts. He is able to permeate the protective mechanism all failed lovers put up over themselves, and this admission of secrets is reminiscent of sitting in a confession booth and whispering your sins to a stranger you can’t see—except this time, I actually feel salvation.

Unrequited love is seen more extensively in his latest effort, Enigma Variations. While CMBYN is a continuum of a love from birth to death, Enigma is an odyssey, one person’s—our protagonist Paul’s—several attempts at it, never quite getting there but never being out of it either. There are five stories within the novel, all set in different stages of Paul’s life, all about the different people he has fallen in love with. A standout chapter, and my personal favorite, is “Manfred,” aptly titled after the person our protagonist desires, but only in silence, only from afar.

“Occasionally, you’ll say ‘Excuse me’ when I happen to stand in your way, and ‘Thank you’ when your ball drifts into my court and I hurl it back to you,” Paul narrates in “Manfred.” “With these few words, I find comfort in false hopes and hope in false starts. I’ll coddle anything instead of nothing. Even thinking that nothing can come of nothing gives me a leg to stand on, something to consider when I wake up in the middle of the night and can see nothing, not the blackout in my life, not the screen, not the cellar, not even hope and false comforts—just the joy of your imagined limb touching mine. I prefer the illusion of perpetual fasting to the certainty of famine. I have, I think, what’s called a broken heart.” 

I think I’ve squealed about Aciman’s writing enough; very few authors can write about unrequited love like he does, it’s incredibly poignant and rich, etc. etc. But as much as I was destroyed while reading “Manfred,” I was let down by the fact that Manfred, the man we have loved from a few feet away and professed to through small talk and tennis matches, actually reciprocates Paul’s feelings. They don’t end up together, for reasons you need to read the rest of the book to understand, but they share a mutual infatuation, and what was a raw and emotionally honest depiction of being in love with someone who doesn’t love you back became…this story of failed lovers who met at the wrong time. I felt cheated, like Aciman was building up a point I identified with only to completely miss it.

As much as Aciman sees unrequited love as valid and as equal as the returned kind, he is, like everyone, very much afraid of it. It is, after all, usually underlined with a kind of heartbreak that feels synonymous with a personal failing. But isn’t this something we can combat, as artists, as people who feel more intensely? Painting these characters as pathetic because their love is not reciprocated is reductive; they are not defined by this failed love. They should not be deemed unlovable, because that is never the case; sometimes, love is just like that—Aciman did call it an “enigma,” after all. Sometimes people don’t love you back, and that doesn’t make any less of a person, or someone less worthy of love. No one has figured out this whole capital-L Love thing, so why gatekeep it? Why define something so non-tactile, why bear the responsibility of labelling which kind is truer than others? Why restrict yourself from feeling something that is so obviously consuming you?

I am no stranger to writing about unrequited love; in fact, I’ve written more about it than I have any other love, in diary entries and blog posts and secret notes. If you asked me what love was a few years ago, I would have had trouble answering, because I didn’t see unrequited love as love, and all the other kinds I felt fell short of what I defined it to be. But I now realize that while I have been afraid of the L-word for so long, I have actually felt it, just in a way I didn’t expect. Who’s afraid of unrequited love? Not me; I feel it more deeply, more fiercely. I nurse it, not quite like relics, but tokens; trophies, even—proof that I love and love even when nothing is presented in return, and to realize that about myself? Oh, it’s a relief.