Since I started reading again this year, I’ve had the great fortune of stumbling upon a number of wonderful books. The quirky and delectable Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, or the wonderful literary gem The Sea by John Banville, even the blood curdling Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. Nowadays I don’t read as much as I used to or as much as I’d like to. Had I known back during my university studies that those five years were the best ones of my life, academically speaking, and also time wise, I would have read all the compulsory classics, for one, and I would have definitely perused more library items. Oh well, it’s spilt milk that I’ll never drink again. The other reason for my sporadic reading bouts is the writer’s dilemma – what’s more important, reading or writing? “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write. A man will turn over half a library to make a book”, quoth Samuel Johnson; “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that”, says Stephen King; “Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window”, claims William Faulkner. Do you see my point? While I do agree that without reading, one cannot write, I will state that these gentlemen probably never had to juggle work expectations with raising a family and trying to squeeze in the creative hours. I do not have children, so in theory I’m a time billionaire but my interests are branching in so many directions that when it comes to words, it’s either reading, or writing for me. If I read, I’m too distracted and influenced by the author’s style; if I write, then I simply don’t crave anyone else’s words, because I have my own. It’s a difficult balance for me, one that I have yet to find.
Back to the point of this post, I think that so far this year my favourite read has been André Aciman’s Find Me. Honestly speaking, I was a bit reluctant to get it, because as a rule, sequels to perfect stand alone books are very hard, if not impossible to pull off. Maybe the author planned the sequel all along, maybe he gave in to the pressure of his agents and fans of the spectacular instant cult Call Me By Your Name, I don’t know. It feels like the latter, but even so, hats off to Mr Aciman for preserving his writer’s integrity and giving us a memorable literary piece of art while keeping the original story untarnished.
I am trying not to gush but it’s difficult. The moment I started reading the book I was struck by the beauty of the inner monologues and the profundity of the dialogue. Writing dialogue that works, dialogue that adds to the story, dialogue that feels genuine and dialogue that keeps the attention of the reader is an art in itself, and Mr Aciman has clearly mastered it. I think I must have read the first pages with my mouth hanging open. Stylistically, this novel sets the bar so high that even the most highbrow literary snob would giggle happily in a corner of a café, and yet the story feels modern in its timelessness. The events unfolding in the first part of the book, Tempo are rolling by slowly like waves in slow motion. If you’re looking for action-filled, quick paced chick lit, you’ve come to the wrong book. This one’s all about introspction, slowing down, savouring the moment, enjoying the quiet joy of meaningful thoughts taking form on paper. Sammy and Miranda are two strangers who meet on a train, start a coversation, and connect. It took me a while to figure out that Sammy is Elio’s father, but then it all started to make sense. The premise reminded me of Richard Linklater’s unique cinematic feat Before Sunrise, which also starts with two strangers, Jessie and Céline meeting on a train and deciding to spend a day walking around and talking in Vienna. Little did we know in 1994 that Linklater would then make the sequel ten years later, Before Sunset and then ten years after that, the sequel to this one, Before Midnight. Movie fans around the globe are probably eagerly awaiting the fourth installment, hopefully coming in 2024. While the sequels to Sunrise were not planned immediately after the movie aired, Linklater and his two co-stars made both sequels work wonderfully, because the story revolved around the same characters and it shows changes in real time; the viewers have aged with Jessie and Céline and it all feels organic, genuine, real. Feats like this are not easily accomplished, but Aciman took a ballsy turn in his sequel and rather than write a clean, straightforward, linear continuation of the beloved story, brought the original story back mostly through reminiscing and references by the different characters that pop up in the different parts. Tempo is followed by Cadenza, and later Capriccio. Lovers of classical music can rejoice, for beside the musically themed titles there are a number of music related passages, descriptions of musical score and even a musical mystery Elio is trying to solve. I looked up the Waldstein Sonata (which I of course knew, or knew the melody of, because back when I was a kid my oldest brother used to play the piano and I turned the music sheets for him; Beethoven was widely played and loved in our household) and the Kol Nidre, an Aramaic declaration recited before the evening service on Yom Kippur, only to see if I can see the underlying similarity in the melody or the cadenza that Elio was so excited about. I couldn’t, but bigger music experts will probably discern the similarities better than I.
I won’t tell you what happens or what doesn’t. It’s all very relative and very introspective. Everything that happens is organically fused with the past and the future; characters reminisce and reference back all the time and there’s a vast sense of nostalgia sweeping across the entire book, making it a truly beautiful contemplative read. I really loved Elio’s and Oliver’s slowly unfolding romance in the first book, but this one is in my view far more accomplished and more mature, both in style and content.
There are numerous passages I’d love to copy paste here, just to savour them over and over but I chose only two that struck me most. Let them speak, as they do it endlessly better than I.
You know, life is not so original after all. It has uncanny ways of reminding us that, even without a God, there is a flash of retrospctive brilliance in the way fate plays its cards. It doesn’t deal us fifty-two cards; it deals, say, four or five, and they happen to be the same ones our parents and grandprents and great-grandparents played. The cards look pretty frayed and bent. The choice of sequences is limited: at some point the cards will repeat themselves, seldom in the same order, but always in a pattern that seems uncannily familiar. Sometimes the last card is not even played by the one whose life ended. Fate doesn’t always respect what we believe is the end of a life. It will deal our last card to those who come after. Which is why I think all lives are condemned to remain unfinished. This is the deplorable truth we all live with. We reach the end and are by no means done with life, not by a long stretch! There are projects we barely started, matters unresolved and left hanging everywhere. Living means dying with regrets stuck in your craw. As the French poet says, Le temps d’apprendre à vivre il est déjà trop tard, by the time we learn to live, it’s already too late. And yet there must be some small joy in finding that we are each put in a position to complete the lives of others, to close the ledger they left open and play their last card for them. What could be more gratifying than to know that it will always be up to someone else to complete and round off our life? Someone whom we loved and who loves us enough.(Find Me, Faber & Faber 2019, p. 210)
Perhaps, says the genius, music doesn’t change us that much, nor does great art change us. Instead, it reminds us of who, despite all our claims and denials, we’ve always known we were and destined to remain. It reminds us of the mileposts we’ve buried and hidden and then lost, of the people and things that mattered despite our lies, despite the years. Music is no more than the sound of our regrets put to a cadence that stirs the illusion of pleasure and hope. It’s the surest reminder that we’re here for a very short while and that we’ve neglected or cheated or, worse yet, failed to live our lives. Music is the unlived life.(p. 238)