” ‘Later!‘ The word, the voice, the attitude.
I’d never heard anyone use “later” to say goodbye before. It sounded harsh, curt, and dismissive, spoken with the veiled indifference of people who may not care to see or hear from you again.
It is the first thing I remembered about him, and I can hear it still today. Later!”
In the first lines of Call Me by Your Name we see the beginning of Elio’s, an intelligent and impossibly well-read Jewish Italian 17-year-old, obsession with Oliver, a 24-year-old American academic who has come to stay with Elio’s family for the summer. Every year Elio’s father offers up their home to a young writer as a sort of residency so they can work on their manuscripts for a few weeks in the idyllic Italian Riviera. Elio usually resents this as it means losing his room to what he calls “bores”, but he falls in love/lust with Oliver at first sight.
Here Elio painstakingly analyses Oliver’s cool parting words, a fitting preview for the rest of the book where he overthinks and fantasises about every interaction with Oliver, real or imagined. For a little while, I got tired of hearing Elio rambling on about Oliver, but then I remembered that he is a teenager falling in love for the first time while trying to understand how to be in the world as a Jewish, gay young man, which in the 80s Catholic Italy of the book would be no picnic.
*Spoilers from this point onwards*
I think that what has impacted readers and fans of the film the most is their affair once it has begun, but for me the aching and urgency of Elio’s crush – yes, the memory of their short relationship endures but I still think this was a very, very explosive crush that stuck because it was Elio’s first – were most intensely felt earlier on when Elio had no idea whether Oliver would be interested in him romantically or even as someone worth talking to. I am convinced that unrequited or platonic loves are always the most poignant in fiction – think of The Great Gatsby, and of Jane Eyre before Jane and Rochester get together. All this longing takes place at one of the most striking book settings I have come across (a great read for lockdown!) and there is some stunning imagery in the book that captures the uncertainty and power of Elio and Oliver’s interactions.
Once the summer fling is over, Elio is crushed, as we knew he would be. He finds comfort where we least expect it: his father acknowledges the relationship and as someone who is old enough to have loved and lost and healed, warns Elio that “if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it… to feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what a waste!”
The relationship becomes a beautiful memory, and though the wound never fully heals, it becomes one of those scars that remind you that you have lived.