… as she teaches me the special care necessary when playing variations (don’t study them linearly! focus on structural similarities not visible in the melody! play in a sequence of different ways (eyes closed, fingers lingering not pressing the keys, air playing, repeating note names, mute playing, etc.) each passage…) I start to see the potential dreariness of variations not well played out, the possible drift into vapidness … and by symmetry, the extreme richness and brutally meditative mind state that may be attained when really playing variations linking the various possibilities opposing richness and structural similarity…

the final movement of Hob. XVI 24 (cf. Richter)

Enigma Variations (not the Elgar orchestral piece, but the Aciman novel) is a long-winded, extremely well-crafted extended novella. Aciman takes up the main subject of his now very famous Call Me By Your Name and literally unfolds it through variations in later life, variations of an early, burgeoning sensual/sexual experience of ¿love? that leaves a boy, a man, marked throughout his entire life, and whose many additional loves are lived as variations of some sort of the first (unaware) one. Paolo falls in love (without really knowing it, without even being able to detect it, let alone phrase it, without as much as a language for his feeling of infatuation) with a cabinet-maker, a falegname in an island off the coast of Italy where his family spends summers. Paolo, at twelve, slowly discovers his own love for twenty-something year-old Gianni, for his hands and nails, for his trim frame and green eyes, for his face he doesn’t dare look directly – and in uncovering his own outsidification and othernessifaction ends up building from rough pieces a language for what his eyes, his racing heartbeat, his breath, his arms, his skin hair raising, his balls tickling, his ¿unwanted? erection have already given him the knowledge he cannot yet phrase… This first theme, so reminiscent of Elio’s story in Call Me By Your Name, has later some variations. Alternating love for women and for men, in a kind of odd nod to Virginia Wolff’s Orlando, the rest of Paolo (later Paul in New York)’s loves continue playing a note of untold arousal, mental courting, projection of images, smells, textures that Paul knows are often best left unexpressed. A triumph of the non-explicit (made explicit in Aciman’s prose, of course). An endless set of variations of his early theme.

Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations (mentioned often in Paolo’s conversation with his father in the island in Italy, hummed by both to the exasperation of the mother, as a secret key-code between father and son) – and then Paolo’s understanding of his own father’s infatuation with the same young man that he as a young adolescent lived through – Paolo’s un-judgmental and again implicit camaraderie with the memory of his own father. And the Diabelli underscoring those memories.

Photographic variations (on Finnish glass geometries):

Mathematical variations are always tricky. In some unacknowledged sense, whole swaths of math are really sophisticated variations on themes. But we do not really, we do not truly call them that, we do not truly think in those terms. Usually.

(I feared when first seeing this overhanging Möbius strip that it would be too contrived, too cliché. The Möbius strip is an almost immediate image coming to mind when evoking the main theme of the Salón Nacional de Artistas this year, “the reverse/back of the threading/of the weaving” (el revés de la trama) and the special exhibition Aracne’s Fable under the curatorship of Alejandro Martín. Yet on second view I found this variation on a classical theme, by Adrián Gaitán, very powerful. The heavy physicality provided by the used mattresses, apparently taken from some whorehouse in Cali (at least according to our guide at the exhibition). And that seems to be the case. The mattresses, made of cheap polyester-like material, woven and rewoven and repaired after many uses, bear stains and traces of bodily exertion, of many possible sexual acrobatics but also of sweat and blood, sperm and urine, vaginal and anal secretions, saliva and tears; all those human fluids and traces of people (and suffering and moaning and exploitation and delight, money transactions and childbirths and hopes for the lives of those children) also woven into the fabric, also immanent and impossible to efface. All that heaviness turned by Adrián Gaitán’s variation into a floating symbol of a primal kind of reversion, into a pristine and ideal and immaterial shape.)


La ambigüedad que permea las visiones y descripciones de Proust es algo que ha sido muy comentado, muy estudiado. Estoy en este momento con el narrador en la playa veraniega de Balbec, en algún lugar mítico entre Normandía y Bretaña. En un lugar de luz marítima y oscuridades sociales, de gente pobre mirando el hotel iluminado de noche repleto de gente rica que se observa, se trata según título o posición social, según provincianismo o parisianismo.

Después de mucha observación acompañada de mucha reticencia, mucha compañía de damas ancianas (la abuela, su amiga noble Mme de Villeparisis – lo de noble es importante en el contexto del comedor del hotel, donde observan siempre quién saluda a quién), mucha conversación y ensoñación simbólica (los tres árboles en el paseo en carro con las dos ancianas – trío de árboles que parece anunciar mucha sensualidad a futuro – que parece enredado al encuentro con el grupo de campesinas que atraen al narrador).

Ahora llegó Saint-Loup, el joven sobrino-nieto de Mme de Villeparisis al hotel. Al principio antipático con el narrador, no le pone atención – y el narrador está embobado con el pelo rubio, la claridad de los ojos, el porte a la vez altivo y despreocupado de Saint-Loup.

[Leer este pasaje justo un día después de escuchar la entrevista a Aciman hace ver la influencia muy fuerte de Proust, de este momento, del encuentro del narrador con el marqués de Saint-Loup sobre el encuentro inicial de Elio y Oliver…]

Finalmente se lo presentan y Saint-Loup pasa de la antipatía extrema a una cercanía enorme con el narrador. Empatía fuerte en gustos literarios e inclinaciones políticas hacia el socialismo en el joven aristócrata.


An interview

… art of introspection …

… how do you look at yourself? … what grammar is there for that, besides Freud?

Proust: the best company you could ever have…

He doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know – … you rediscover something you already knew… never quite formulated, never grasped

Proust and teenage boys (reading him)… – after all, it’s about them!

Aciman, on Proust

Listening to Andre Aciman being interviewed by Christopher Lydon – on his novel Call Me By Your Name now famous because of the movie, the way he intended to capture how two people fall in love with inhibitions, how time passes, ebbing slowly, the way reticence and expectation play a central role – was a magnificent way to spend the past hour. In the interview, Aciman slowly describes way his own growing up in Alexandria in a family that was so similar to Elio’s parents, to their openness and support, their careful permissiveness – the way he is trying to provide a sense of how our own knowledge of ourselves unfolds at moments when we go from nothingness to absolute obsession with another person.

He mentions something that is intriguing: he ended up writing a story about the love of two men, one of them 17 years old, the other one 24 – and perhaps this gay perspective happened to give the novel a sort of internal timing that would have been very different had it been a story between a 17 year-old boy and a 24-year old woman (Aciman says he himself as a teenager had many girlfriends who were much older than he was – he seems to have very fond memories of his own infatuation for much older women – he says “it was just perfect” and he certainly communicates a longing many of us may relate to). However, the sort of reticence, of slow unfolding, of inhibition, that seems so crucial in the novel (and is so beautifully captured in the movie) was probably more natural because of being a love story between two men.

There is also the age question – Aciman says “look, I never think about such things; as a 14-year old I was in love with women in their 20s”. In the movie the difference in age is there, but also a fundamental respect of the differences of age. The 24-year old student, much more experienced in life than the 17-year old Elio, responds extremely carefully to his infatuation.

Alexandria (and formerly Istanbul) figures in the background. His father’s attitude, his boldness and at the same time his carefulness in dealing with people, the openness and fluidity of the general sexual conduct in that city – all that is an essential part of Aciman’s background, of his sophistication and attention to human variations.

I particularly appreciate Aciman’s reluctance to allow other people to label him, to classify him as “L”, “G”, “B”, “T”, “S” or whatever. He describes how in many ways people seem now to be rediscovering something that was already there all the way along, in places like the Alexandria of his early youth before exile, in families like his: he says the labelling is just “not enough” for him, for his novel. He calls upon the richness, the incredible variety of our human experience, and how our time has the paradox that people are on the one hand very open about their sexuality and at the same time brutally constraining – allowing the world to divide them in what in the realm of food would be pescatorians, vegans, etc. – losing so much in the process.

The interview lands a few times on Aciman’s loving description of his own father, whose boldness combined with extreme tactfulness inspires the father figure in the movie. His father’s attention to the shape of an ankle or a shoe of a woman passing by on the street, his incredibly sensitive approach to life.

Few interviews manage this sort of empathy between the subject matter, the writer being interviewed and the general tone.

Another intriguing point: Aciman describes how he was stuck for a summer in New York wanting to be in Italy, stuck writing another novel – when he imagined the house, the place – and somehow himself being there and also arriving to the house. Both Elio and the American visitor Oliver seem to be reflections of Aciman’s own persona. In this sense the game of reflections of love between a man and … himself – himself through a different lens, at a different time seems to explain part of Aciman’s own taking up writing the novel, and then the urgency of the writing (apparently it only took him three months or so to finish!).

Here, some pictures of today’s afternoon in Chía – rain, the neighbor’s dog Amapola, the curtain.







rivulets and maki

These have been slightly schizo days: on the one hand, the hiatus in teaching caused (again, how boring and unimaginative) by a blockade of the campus (this time, however, I decided against getting too involved, both emotionally and at the level of writing – I just did a few hangout session with my students and tried to optimize things for which I normally do not have enough time). On the other hand, projects – many of them. Dreary situations right in front of the richness of possibilities.

And an unfolding eight-hand project, combining art and math (more on this, if successful, later).

So, a research proposal (if successful, will post on it) that leads to new directions, a Geometry and Model Theory seminar in Bogotá (first week with lectures by Hugo Mariano from Sao Paulo, Alex Cruz from Tokyo, Pedro Zambrano from our university and Johan García, my master’s student who is working in Tannakian formalism). Organization of the next session (with Zilber, in October). And my own lectures on model theory and modularity, next two weeks.

Reading in the nick of time André Aciman’s Harvard Square – much better than I imagined it! I really regretted Aciman’s late cancellation of participation in Simplicity – I really believe he could have added much to the conference in terms of balancing toward writing, toward literature.

Outsideness (personal, sentimental, cultural) could be one of the topics that Aciman explores best. His former novels Out of Egypt and Call Me by Your Name were two incredible exercises – the first, a memoir on a Jewish family from Alexandria being forced to leave Egypt (but not only “Egypt” as a country – they really left a cosmopolitan life that could only exist in a place in North Africa that mixed Italian, Turkish, Greek, Jewish from different origins, Syrian, Coptic, what else? communities in a tapestry of languages, culinary traditions being interwoven – people like Claudia Roden, like André Aciman, Lawrence Durrell, Edward Said while growing up, Rogelio Salmona’s parents, Cavafis, Moustaki – just to name some of those who pop to mind without recurring to Wikipedia or internetelse, just my own mind without effort – they left all that for drab quarters in Paris or Cambridge, MA), the second, a coming-of-age and love novella, one of the most thoroughly accomplished short novels on the utter outsideness a person lives when falling in love (but read on Call Me by Your Name if you want to experience first-hand a mental, sensorial and intellectual treat), and now Harvard Square, a novel of two North Africans lost in Cambridge, MA – one of them a Harvard graduate student whose presence at the University seems to be hanging on preliminary exams that he has to take a second (and last possible) time after a first failure, the other a cab driver from Tunisia – the first a Jewish boy from Alexandria, the second a Berber from the desert – both of them thrown into one another by Harvard’s manigances and by the ideal of France and the French language – a France of their minds and memories, different from real France, in many ways better than real France…

How close to my own feeling of outsideness living in this country…

Aciman – on Mainhattan and Frankfurt-on-the-Hudson

… They made me think of 1950s pictures of New York, where it seems to grow darker much sooner in the evening than it does nowadays, where everyone wears long gray overcoats because winters were much colder then, and when the Upper West Side teemed with people who had come from Europe before the war and then stayed on, building small, cluttered lives, turning this neighborhood into a reliquary of Frankfurt-am-Main —- their Frankfurt-away-from-home, Frankurt-on-the-Hudson, as the old joke goes, but not an inappropriate name for a city which, in Germany today, dubs itself Mainhattan, and which is, ironically enough, a far stranger city to them, now that it imitates Manhattan, than their adopted Manhattan imitating old Frankfurt. …

André Aciman – Shadow Cities – False papers