It’s not an unfamiliar scene: sun-dappled streets, tanned legs beating past on bicycles, the air heavy with the scent of saltwater. Italy, 1957, 1983, 2011; the time periods shift, narratives coil into different directions, names and faces change, but Italy is always the same. Always sun-drenched, always brimming with dolce far niente. Such sweetness in doing nothing.
Names and faces change, but Italy is always the same
The Italian summer has existed as the inspiration for so many lines of poetry, music and literature, from Patricia Highsmith’s debonair Mr Ripley to Phoenix’s ode to fior di latte ice-cream. The most recent usurper of Italy’s sultry shores, however, is André Aciman’s bestselling novel, Call Me By Your Name.
Published in 2007, it catapulted to fame in 2017 when Luca Guadagnino adapted it for cinema. And it’s not just the notorious peaches, Timothée Chalamet’s face, and Sufjan Stevens’ glorious score that earned the film its accolades. It is also the allure of the Italian summer. Aciman’s prose drips with luscious descriptions of wine-drizzled soirees on the veranda, feet dipped tremulously into Trevi Fountain-esque pools, and books about the fragmented cosmos scattered idly around windowsills. Everything is wreathed in apricot-tree sunlight.
The Italian summer has existed as the inspiration for so many lines of poetry, music and literature
The appeal of Italy, a place suffused in histories both regal and terrifying, is one that seems everlasting. While Paris is beautiful, it is also stained by the cheesy commodification of the Eiffel Tower and the ASMR crunch of the croissant. Its grunginess is almost intentionally scrubbed out by everyone’s efforts to glamourise it. Similarly, take Tokyo, home to some of the most magnificent imperial gardens in the world. All we really see of it, however, is the neon cityscape of Shibuya crossing in every commercialised postcard.
Italy seems free of those clichés. It sells itself warts and all, magisterial beauty untainted, and perhaps even accentuated, by its refusal to airbrush the cracks in its edifices.
This reminds me of something Marilynne Robinson said in an interview with the Paris Review, about being able ‘to see beauty for yourself rather than something that has been put into quotation marks to be understood as “beauty”’. Italy’s appeal exists both inside and outside those quotation marks: it claims the scuzz on its pavements as authoritatively as it does the Sistine Chapel. To be proud of the chinks in one’s armour facilitates the celebration of the surviving whole, of one’s dogged refusal to be anything but beautiful. And Aciman’s novel recognises this. In it, Italy is more than just a backdrop; it is a concrete character, an ongoing metaphor for Elio and Oliver, for beauty, and also for ugliness.
Italy is more than just a backdrop; it is a concrete character, an ongoing metaphor
‘Is it better to speak or die?’, Elio asks himself, sick with lovelorn melodrama. After a night of revelry, he throws up in a Roman square, speckling the picturesque with human fluids that are decidedly grotesque. The squalor of his drunkenness is held in perfect tension with the soft beauty of Rome, encapsulating the aches and exultations of his relationship with Oliver, the tumultuous pain of impending separation but also the sweetness of their time together. It captures the visceral explosion of saying too much and the invisible nausea of saying nothing at all.
The juxtaposition of what is lovely and what is decidedly unlovely is amalgamated in Aciman’s novel. The two halves of that infamous peach and the secret lust they encase; Elio’s luminous shame and abhorrent desire; even how the groundskeeper Anchise is both the picker of apricots and the killer of fish; everything divine in Call Me By Your Name is also, in some way or another, damnable.
While Elio wrestles with feelings of inadequacy, pleasure, and rage, the Italian summer stands as a manifestation of all those emotions, collectivised into one stunning force. It acts as a landscape that guides and jostles things into action. It is a humble but omnipresent character, at peace with its paradoxes and frailties before the protagonist is. And yet, it doesn’t impose itself on Elio. Italy does not lead by example; in fact, it does not even lead. Rather, it provides.
The Italian summer is a trope that never ceases to enthral
At a time so painfully judgemental, where Elio fears censure from everyone, including himself, he is never afraid to reveal himself to the landscape, to openly take the opportunities Italy offers. He listens for the wind’s whisper in the doorways to learn when Oliver is home. The two skim their feet in the ocean and use the forgiving glow of the moon to talk about things seemingly unspeakable by daylight. The external doesn’t just mirror the internal; it creates a space gentle enough for it to realise itself.
The Italian summer is a trope that never ceases to enthral. Languorously confident enough to harness its beauty and decrepitude for humane purposes, it never relays a false sense of perfection. It exalts what is mundane, and what could even be perceived as monstrous, to a state of grace and majesty, be it traces of vomit on a lamplit Roman square, human effluvia in a voluptuous fruit, or two men kissing in 1983.
I’m returning to Robinson’s notions of beauty again. ‘Cultures cherish artists,’ she says, ‘because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.’
Image via Pixabay