In his remarkable fourth novel, Enigma Variations, André Aciman continues to explore themes of alienation and panic as his characters brazenly explore shameless thoughts about their carnal and emotional longings. The effect is a more relatable understanding of what motivates obsessive, neurotic behavior, and how identities and desires shift to achieve self-worth and actualization. The book takes a prismatic approach to revealing the life of its protagonist, Paul, through five stories that recount his relationship with various men and women over time. Paul is compulsively in his own head, where fantasies, both erotic and flighty, coexist. Aciman initially explored the search for identity in his exquisite memoir, Out of Egypt, which captured the personal journey of his family into exile. The theme of “recapturing the past,” which haunted his family, is echoed in the Enigma Variations, albeit to a lesser degree. Here the characters grapple with time as well, positing statements like, “The past is a foreign country,” and, as a teacher asks, “Have you drunk the wine of life?”
Gary M. Kramer What did you want this book to reveal about desire and obsession?
André Aciman Enigma Variations is about wanting. We may want different things at different times in our lives, but the way we want and the assumptions we make about how people will respond to these wants never change. Wanting is by definition obsessive because desire is obsessive. If we are not obsessive in our desires, then they are only whims. We may not stalk people in the streets or in bars or online; but to think of someone all the time is to stalk them in our hearts. Waiting for someone to call us or to walk up and talk to us is—let’s call it—reverse stalking. Nothing energizes me more as a human being or as a writer than writing about that untamed desire for someone else’s body. If I write about it, it’s probably because I don’t understand it.
GMK Why did you tell Paul’s story in five loosely interconnected episodes?
AA I think all of them are very different and discrete. They do connect in ways, and they suggest our identity is fundamentally an open question and that we are enigmas unto ourselves and will remain so until the very end. There is no solving this.
I thought that perhaps the best way to illustrate the problem of the enigmatic identity was to put the subject of the story vis-a-vis other people. The assumption is that whoever we are and whatever we turn out to be is without material unless we are confronted with another individual. The genre was difficult for me. Each segment of his life is discrete; it doesn’t have to connect with another the way a novel does. Seen globally, they are different chapters of one life and each is written in a totally different voice [depending on his stage in life].
GMK You write, “We lead many lives, nurse more identities than we care to admit, and are given all manner of names, when in fact, one and only one is good enough.” How do names and identities shift over time?
AA I do think it would be wonderful if we had one name and one identity. But we don’t. The ultimate dream of every human is to belong to one city, one country, one family, one home, one profession, one religion, etc. If you take away our name, profession, country, mother tongue, we won’t know who we are. We are a chaos of ideas. We may have one identity but it’s always chaotic, nomadic. It goes from one person to another, and from one sexual desire to another. I don’t believe in straight, bi, gay—I don’t believe in any of that. We’re just a mess.
GMK In “Spring Love,” Paul filters all the relationships between him and Maud, him and Gabi, and between Maud and Gabi through his own lens. But he may be an unreliable narrator here. Can you describe how you developed this chapter?
AA He’s unreliable because he doesn’t have all the facts. The story began with Paul seeing his girlfriend have lunch with another man. It may be an innocent business lunch. Or it could be more? But his mind wanders. He is almost persuaded she is cheating on him. Only later do we find out that she is the one who might be cheated on. He’s cobbling a narrative of what he saw—the filthiest story, and the only one he can come up with. He gets pleasure out of it.
GMK In “Manfred,” Paul imagines the life of a man whom he sees regularly at the tennis club, but knows little about. What’s it like to invent the lives of your characters as other characters imagine them?
AA Manfred is entirely Paul’s invention. He could be totally different [than imagined]. Paul has no idea who he is. What if this meeting is going to be disappointing? Do I want this to happen now? After all this energy and two years [of desire], you have to confront the reality of meeting. The dream is much better.
GMK In “Star Love,” Chloe says, “You make me like who I am,” which shows his effect on others. They talk about “drinking the wine of life—at last.” Which leads to talk about regret. Can you raise your hand and honestly say you have drunk the wine of life?
AA (laughter) The wine of life, when you have it, is the apex of your life, and it makes you say, “I have lived!” I wrote the story because I think I’ve had it.
GMK Can you talk about that experience?
AA No. It was extremely short. You feel everything comes together and makes sense, and all the roads lead to one point. And yet this could be a mistake. This wine of life may not be the wine of life at all.
If my characters were asked about the wine of life, they would say, “I’ve had two sips here and there.”
GMK My partner says, “Regret is a wasted emotion.”
AA He’s probably right. Most of us live with more regrets than we wish to admit. Regret, as I write in Enigma Variations, is when you are haunted by the feeling that things did not go your way in the past. Remorse is the opposite: remorse occurs when you wish to undo what did happen, when you can’t live with having something tarnish your life because it did happen. These are [terms we use to] quarrel with time.
To me, regret and remorse matter because through them we get glimpses of the life we feel we’re “owed,” of the life we suspect has our name written over it, but that we cannot seem to attain because of who we are and because we have no idea of how to overcome ourselves. We want, and we plod alone, hoping. Paul wants to hold Nanni, and he wants Chloe, and he certainly desires Manfred with all the lust and the love he is capable of, but he needs something to spur him and to come to his aid. Each time he fails to speak to Manfred, he is filled with regret and remorse. He is never in the here-and-now, but ironically it is Manfred who will teach him how to accept who he is and be in the present. His divided loyalties and his divided sexuality is simply another instance of how he has no real center; it explains his feeling perpetually dislodged. I am, after all, exiled from Egypt. I feel that the itinerary of life was interrupted—dislodged—the moment I was exiled.
Many of us have a sense that all the while we were pursuing the real trajectory of our lives, something stymied us and threw us off course. Some bounce back and pick up where they were interrupted. Others simply wander off and become lost nomads, lost tribes, lost souls, living what I like to call an internal exile.
GMK Paul returns “home” twice in these stories, which suggest he’s nostalgic and wistful for brighter days. You explore that in Call Me By Your Name as well. Can you discuss how me move through time, how time moves through us, how we change, if we can ever come back the same?
AA I have trouble with the word “nostalgia.” It means we want to return to something or incubate the past in a way that it doesn’t come fully to life, or does not die. I don’t live that way. But as a writer, it facilitates my entering into the psyche of people by using [nostalgia]. Time passes—we don’t live our lives fully. We are cheated by something that is easiest to call time—but it may not be time.
How many of us know how to live life? It’s a fundamental question. I can ask folks—if I get them drunk enough—about this, and their lives are catastrophes.
When we speak or write about the past we do not necessarily wish to return to it or undo it. Most people who consider me a nostalgic person think I want to go back to a place, time, way of life, or to my childhood even. Not the case. What I’m doing instead is talking about two things: first, that the past is always with us and that to understand who we are we need to go back to examine who we once were, where we once lived, how and whom we once loved; and second, that time is a devastating thing that brings about loss and ultimately the end of life.
Nostalgia is sometimes a way of opening up the way all of us live in time. It’s nothing more than a conceit—a way of speaking about time in an attempt to speak about life itself. Nostalgia is a makeshift, raw, and facile term. There are others. Let me mention four: ritual, rehearsal, regret, and remorse. As I’ve written elsewhere, “Rituals are when we wish to repeat what has already happened, rehearsals when we repeat what we fear might yet occur. Maybe the two are one and the same, our way to parley and haggle with time.”
GMK What I admire most about your writing is how you expose the reader to the character’s most urgent and compelling desires. Why this approach?
AA Wanting someone automatically means fantasizing about them. What would it be like to hold his or her hand? What if we should kiss in a movie theater, how would that be? Who would start? I will. And what would it be like lying naked together afterward? We are at a board meeting and yet all we’re thinking of is that wrist across the table. We’re at a funeral, and yet we can’t let go of a dream we had that very night about being naked with this person we dare not look at, much less speak to. Obsession and fantasy, like desire and fear, happen in the mind, and the mind is the most powerful, fixated erotic organ known to man. It’s not that I choose to write about fantasy, as though there was something else or something more concrete about sex; it’s that fantasy is the most sexual and compelling thing we know.
GMK Your writing about desire and longing can get under a reader’s skin. We feel that desire and want the characters to couple up. But your writing also runs the risk of being criticized for being overly analytical.
AA I totally agree! It depends on if you are living in a city where everything is overanalyzed. In a subway you catch someone looking at you and right away you begin an interpretive game: She’s interested in me… or in someone behind me? Interpreting is the first thing we do with someone else. We don’t listen to them; we try to read them because we are afraid they’ll hurt us. I like to disassemble them and discover whether they are a good or bad person, and if bad, will they try to hurt me? You don’t do that if you’re a strong alpha-male type. I’m a weakling, a scaredy-cat. I have my radar on all the time, so do my characters.
GMK I find your portrayals of desire so palpable. I ache reading your books. How can that be?
AA One automatically aches for the shy character. The most difficult thing in life is to walk up to someone you desire and begin a conversation. I clam up, I am intimidated, fearful, ashamed of my own desires; part of me hopes the other person desires me as well so that we could help each other; but another part of me hopes the person I desire will have absolutely no idea that, though we speak about nothing special when we finally do speak, all I wanted is to stick my tongue in their mouth.
The first assumption I make when I write anything that many consider bold—and one has to write about bold stuff, otherwise it’s just benign pap—is that what I have to say is shared by every living soul. The dirty, shameful twists in each of us, the spiral of desire, attraction, and remorse that follow desire is not unique to me; everyone feels these tensions that few of us admit to.
The writing that I love and that emboldens me is when I stray from the conventional “clean,” acceptable route and enter a zone that I know has been mine since childhood; I slip into it and then decide not to leave until I have found what I know is mine and only mine. The skill—if it’s skill—is to enter that dark chamber with a voice and a pair of eyes that everyone can borrow and recognize as theirs. The skill is to speak these bold and shameless thoughts in a style that allows everyone else to believe that this is exactly how they would have spoken those thoughts.