Aciman’s novel showcases the significance of language in fraught relational contexts. Especially in the initial stages of his relationship with Oliver, Elio desperately scrutinizes the language he and his lover use, often obsessing over how Oliver has worded a phrase or how he has handled himself in a conversation. He pays such close attention to these nuances because they provide him with the only chance he has to express his feelings. Unfortunately, though, he feels ill-equipped to properly navigate the slippery linguistic landscape of his relationship with Oliver, which is always shifting. He’s too young to adequately process the complex ins and outs of an adult relationship, and he hasn’t yet learned how to use language to reflect the many “contradictory signals” Oliver sends him. By underlining Elio’s struggle to find a language that reflects his feelings and desires, then, Aciman presents communication as an important but volatile part of understanding a romantic relationship.
From the very beginning, Elio doesn’t know what to make of the way Oliver communicates. He’s dumbfounded by his casual use of language, especially when he says, “Later!” “I’d never heard anyone use ‘later’ to say goodbye before,” Elio notes. “It sounded harsh, curt, and dismissive, spoken with the veiled indifference of people who may not care to see or hear from you again.” When Elio posits that Oliver’s “Later!” sounds like it’s spoken with “veiled indifference,” readers see that he’s already reading deeply into the relational implications of Oliver’s words. Although they haven’t yet established a romantic relationship, Elio resents Oliver’s “dismissive” tone because it makes him feel insignificant, as if Oliver doesn’t care about him. In turn, it becomes obvious that Elio is someone who spends a great deal of time thinking about words and the effect they have on people.
Although Elio is attuned to the nuances of language, he hasn’t yet had enough experience to confidently communicate in fraught relational contexts. His bond with Oliver is complicated, and many of their thoughts and feelings remain unspoken. As such, they use other modes of communication, like the way they touch or avoid touching. One day, for instance, Oliver squeezes Elio’s shoulder, massaging it in a friendly way. Elio flinches and leans away because he fears that if he lets Oliver keep touching him, he’ll surrender to the embrace and thus reveal his feelings. And although Oliver doesn’t make a big deal of the situation, Elio suspects he has picked up on the subtext of this reaction. “I have no doubt that he must have already suspected something,” Elio notes. This is an important moment, as it is the first time Elio senses Oliver’s ability to pick up on something but act as if he hasn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary. This, it seems, is the mark of a mature communicator, someone who can act one way while feeling another way. This is the kind of complexity Elio yearns to possess in his conversations with Oliver, as he often wants to hide his feelings while simultaneously revealing them in subtle ways.
Elio isn’t yet able to embody the kind of communicative complexities Oliver is capable of affecting, but he does recognize this shortcoming. “[…B]ecause I didn’t know how to speak in code, I didn’t know how to speak at all. I felt like a deaf and dumb person who can’t even use sign language. I stammered all manner of things so as not to speak my mind. That was the extent of my code,” he writes. Interestingly enough, he uses language to avoid saying what he actually wants to say. In this way, he becomes evasive, protecting his inner thoughts even as he longs to make them known. Finally, though, this charade becomes too difficult to sustain, and he makes it obvious to Oliver that he has feelings for him. When he does this, Oliver asks, “Do you know what you’re saying?” This is an interesting response, as it indicates that Oliver wants to give Elio an excuse; he clearly knows Elio has feelings for him, but he’s afraid to hear him admit it, so he offers him an out by giving him the opportunity to play dumb. “Yes, I know what I’m saying and you’re not mistaking any of it,” Elio replies. “I’m just not very good at speaking.” In this moment, Elio stops worrying about speaking in “code” and finally states what’s on his mind. As a result, he goes from avoiding his feelings to stating them outright, once again failing to operate in the linguistic middle ground in which Oliver is so comfortable. In turn, Oliver doesn’t respond to what Elio has said, instead telling him to wait in the street while he goes to pick up papers from his translator—an indication that Elio has spoken too directly.
Several days after Elio makes his feelings clear, he tries to mitigate his blunt confession. When Oliver asks him, “Do you like me that much, Elio?” he strives to answer honestly without being entirely clear. “I worship you,” he says, thinking that this is “the safest, and ultimately murkiest, thing [he] could come up with.” He feels this way because the word “worship” can be interpreted as either a romantic obsession or a childish preoccupation. This gives Elio “a loophole for immediate retreat in case” he feels as if he’s “ventured too far.” This kind of linguistic ambiguity is exactly what he wants to achieve. Indeed, Elio is constantly looking for words and phrases that are “murky” or vague but at the same time accurate and descriptive when it comes to his feelings.
Because his attraction to Oliver is so complicated, Elio seeks a language that both reveals and conceals the inner workings of his mind—word choice, then, becomes extremely important, something he labors over in torment. He never stops trying to develop a linguistic mode that aligns with his and Oliver’s love, and this shows that Aciman believes in the importance of this effort. Finding an appropriate lexicon is a worthwhile endeavor, he suggests, even if some relationships are so nuanced that they resist language.
Language and Communication ThemeTracker
Language and Communication Quotes in Call Me By Your Name
A few hours later, when I remembered that he had just finished writing a book on Heraclitus and that “reading” was probably not an insignificant part of his life, I realized that I needed to perform some clever backpedaling and let him know that my real interests lay right alongside his. What unsettled me, though, was not the fancy footwork needed to redeem myself. It was the unwelcome misgivings with which it finally dawned on me, both then and during our casual conversation by the train tracks, that I had all along, without seeming to, without even admitting it, already been trying—and failing—to win him over.
Today, the pain, the stoking, the thrill of someone new, the promise of so much bliss hovering a fingertip away, the fumbling around people I might misread and don’t want to lose and must second-guess at every turn, the desperate cunning I bring to everyone I want and crave to be wanted by, the screens I put up as though between me and the world there were not just one but layers of rice-paper sliding doors, the urge to scramble and unscramble what was never really coded in the first place—all these started the summer Oliver came into our house. They are embossed on every song that was a hit that summer, in every novel I read during and after his stay, on anything from the smell of rosemary on hot days to the frantic rattle of the cicadas in the afternoon—smells and sounds I’d grown up with and known every year of my life until then but that had suddenly turned on me and acquired an inflection forever colored by the events of that summer.
I knew exactly what phrase in the piece must have stirred him the first time, and each time I played it, I was sending it to him as a little gift, because it was really dedicated to him, as a token of something very beautiful in me that would take no genius to figure out and that urged me to throw in an extended cadenza. Just for him.
We were—and he must have recognized the signs long before I did—flirting.
Perhaps, in this, as with everything else, because I didn’t know how to speak in code, I didn’t know how to speak at all. I felt like a deaf and dumb person who can’t even use sign language. I stammered all manner of things so as not to speak my mind. That was the extent of my code. So long as I had breath to put words in my mouth, I could more or less carry it off. Otherwise, the silence between us would probably give me away—which was why anything, even the most spluttered nonsense, was preferable to silence. Silence would expose me. But what was certain to expose me even more was my struggle to overcome it in front of others.
He stared me right in the face, as though he liked my face and wished to study it and to linger on it, then he touched my nether lip with his finger and let it travel left and right and right and left again and again as I lay there, watching him smile in a way that made me fear anything might happen now and there’d be no turning back, that this was his way of asking, and here was my chance to say no or to say something and play for time, so that I might still debate the matter with myself, now that it had reached this point—except that I didn’t have any time left, because he brought his lips to my mouth, a warm, conciliatory, I’ll-meet-you-halfway-but-no-further kiss till he realized how famished mine was.
And yet, he had shown me that what I wanted could be given and taken so naturally that one wonders why it needed such hand-wringing torment and shame, seeing it was no more complicated a gesture than, say, buying a pack of cigarettes, or passing a reefer, or stopping by one of the girls behind the piazzetta late at night and, having settled on a price, going upstairs for a few minutes.
How I admired people who talked about their vices as though they were distant relatives they’d learned to put up with because they couldn’t quite disown them. That and other things. I don’t care to remember—like I know myself—hinted at a realm of human experience only others had access to, not I. How I wished I could say such a thing one day—that I didn’t care to remember what I’d done at night in full morning glory. I wondered what were the other things that necessitated taking a shower. Did you take a shower to perk yourself up because your system wouldn’t hold up otherwise? Or did you shower to forget, to wash away all traces of last night’s smut and degradation?
“Do I like you, Oliver? I worship you.” There, I’d said it. I wanted the word to startle him and to come like a slap in the face so that it might be instantly followed with the most languorous caresses. What’s liking when we’re talking about worshipping? But I also wanted my verb to carry the persuasive knockout punch with which, not the person who has a crush on us, but their closest friend, takes us aside and says, Look, I think you ought to know, so-and-so worships you. “To worship” seemed to say more than anyone might dare say under the circumstances; but it was the safest, and ultimately murkiest, thing I could come up with. I gave myself credit for getting the truth off my chest, all the while finding a loophole for immediate retreat in case I’d ventured too far.
I loved her simplicity, her candor. It was in every word she’d spoken to me that night— untrammeled, frank, human—and in the way her hips responded to mine now, without inhibition, without exaggeration, as though the connection between lips and hips in her body was fluid and instantaneous. A kiss on the mouth was not a prelude to a more comprehensive contact, it was already contact in its totality. There was nothing between our bodies but our clothes, which was why I was not caught by surprise when she slipped a hand between us and down into my trousers, and said, “Sei duro, duro, you’re so hard.” And it was her frankness, unfettered and unstrained, that made me harder yet now.
I couldn’t understand how boldness and sorrow, how you’re so hard and do you really care for me? could be so thoroughly bound together. Nor could I begin to fathom how someone so seemingly vulnerable, hesitant, and eager to confide so many uncertainties about herself could, with one and the same gesture, reach into my pants with unabashed recklessness and hold on to my cock and squeeze it.
I don’t know what happened to me at that moment as I kept staring at him, but suddenly I had a fierce urge to cry. And rather than fight it, as with orgasm, I simply let myself go, if only to show him something equally private about me as well. I reached for him and muffled my sobs against his shoulder. I was crying because no stranger had ever been so kind or gone so far for me, even Anchise, who had cut open my foot once and sucked and spat out and sucked and spat out the scorpion’s venom. I was crying because I’d never known so much gratitude and there was no other way to show it. And I was crying for the evil thoughts I’d nursed against him this morning. And for last night as well, because, for better or worse, I’d never be able to undo it, and now was as good a time as any to show him that he was right, that this wasn’t easy, that fun and games had a way of skidding off course and that if we had rushed into things it was too late to step back from them now— crying because something was happening, and I had no idea what it was.
“You’re too smart not to know how rare, how special, what you two had was.”
“Oliver was Oliver,” I said, as if that summed things up.
“Parce que c’était lui, parce que c’était moi,” my father added, quoting Montaigne’s all-encompassing explanation for his friendship with Etienne de la Boétie.
I was thinking, instead, of Emily Brontë’s words: because “he’s more myself than I am.”