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6th November 2018

Review: ‘Enigma Variations’ by André Aciman

Shaheena reviews Andre Aciman’s new novel, Enigma Variations after seeing him perform at the Manchester Literature Festival.
Review: ‘Enigma Variations’ by André Aciman
Andre Aciman. Photo: The Mancunion.

Love was on the mind as André Aciman, author of the critically acclaimed novel Call Me By Your Name, made his way onto stage at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation as part of the Manchester Literature Festival.

His latest novel, Enigma Variations, thematically linked to Edward Elgar’s compositions of the same name, is, to put it simply, about love. Two distinct manifestations of love in Enigma Variations elicit discussion: familial love and romantic love. As seen with the success of Call Me By Your Name, Aciman is a master of writing romantic love; descriptive scenes of intimacy are kept succinct, leaving much to the shared imagination of reader and writer.

As a book of ‘parts’ or shorter ‘novellas’ following the same character, Aciman explores distinct time periods throughout Paul’s life. There’s an ever-changing cast of lovers throughout the book, each charting a different point in Paul’s own self-perception.

After reading a passage about Paul’s hopeless infatuation with a cabinet maker, Aciman talked about Paul’s relationship with memory. In the novel, Paul takes a journey through his childhood town in Italy. Space acts as a repository for memory and while moving through the contemporary setting, Paul uncovers a past with nostalgic familiarity. From this vantage point, Paul reflects on his childhood and by vicariously re-experiencing his past and articulating it in a way he couldn’t as a child. The act of remembering becomes an act of healing.

The relationship between Paul and his father is central to Enigma Variations and within the first few pages, we are introduced to an intimacy between the two characters who pass their evenings together in conversation. Paul’s father ensures the time spent together in the languid walks taken in the “ancient hilltop town of San Guistiniano Alta”, allow for “making memories”. There is a nuance in the way Paul considers his family; he is a child who nurtures and is nurtured by his parent’s love.

Love, lust, and romanticism are blended together in the different parts of the novel. Aciman married very late in his life and was questioned about marriage at the event. He said that he believes in marriage, adding that stability becomes integral in your later years. The autobiographical aspects of the novel, made Aciman’s readings all the more powerful.

On writing about love, Aciman had much to say about the art of understatement. Over-complex and ambitiously romantic language can often lead to disappointment in both realised romance and sex, he explained. It is “that which is left unsaid” that really creates a world for the reader to explore on their own.

Aciman proves a delicate touch in the descriptions of bodies. By writing about bodies together and beside on another, Aciman subtly communicates what the characters feel as well as say. What Aciman achieves in Enigma Variations is showing that love is a theme rather than an abstract noun. It is carried throughout a life, re-blossoming in different bodies over different time periods.

Enigma Variations is now out in paperback.


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