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.

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through his eye

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With my two sisters, my grandmother, my mother – and my father’s face behind a camera…  A mirror in London, 1980.

This is a post partially inspired by conversations with Roman and Wanda, our companions in the Project Topoi adventure. It is also inspired by very personal feelings at this time in my life – a conversation with my father (who has been having serious health problems in the past few months) that spans decades, a (usually silent) conversation that now seems to spill away from the original topics and into earlier moments of our lives. A conversation that needs images to trigger connections, a conversation where photographs of earlier days plays a central role. A conversation not only with him but now with my sisters and my mother as well, as they feature prominently in many of the old (forgotten) photographs we have been digging with María Clara.

A collection of slides taken (mostly, perhaps 75 or 80% of them) by my father during our four years in Europe (late 1977 to late 1981), is the main bulk of it. There are a few earlier photographs, very few of them – and then, I remember both the camera and the projector seemed to break down around 1982, and slowly other interests and the return to Bogotá seemed to bring to an end that spur of photography, that visual impulse.

[There are also of course photographs taken by my mother and perhaps even some taken by myself – I remember I learned to use the Minolta they had but cannot quite remember which photographs did I take – some group photographs where I don’t appear may very well have been taken by that earlier version of myself. I myself had a Kodak Instamatic of very low quality; I doubt any of those Instamatic photographs remains…]

So a few days ago with María Clara we started rephotographing those old slides; armed with a projector, a tripod and our cameras, projecting, deciding what to keep and rephotographing. Then a few days of edition, selection – and here are more than 400 old slides spanning those few years (and many places and visits). And of course a ridiculous amount of lost memories resurfacing – to the point of re-dreaming moments lived when I was 10 or 11 years old. And of course, re-conversations with my sisters and with my father and mother.

What really emerges from those hundreds of photographs, in addition to the moments and faces and places and memories, what really emerges is the eye of the photographer. Although my father was just recording life as it came, with no special pretensions of artistry (although there is a series where he seems to have been inspired by something – that series has a more intentional character than the rest and I still seem to recall that day he told my sister María Piedad and me “let’s go to the Bois des Rêves, the Forest of Dreams – a small wood some 10 km from where we lived – I want to take photos of the two of you”; those photos seem to have a different character from the rest).

The eye of my father when he was living through an intense period of his own life, his way of seeing for some years between 1977 and 1981, it is all there. (It was impossible not to think of tes mnemês topos, one of the topoi of our project with Roman and Wanda and María Clara, while opening that eye.)

In no particular order, a (very) few of them:

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A photo of me, when I was 12 years old, holding with my left hand my Kodak Instamatic camera, on the Cutty Sark in East London.

Here is one of my favorites (I find it very atmospheric):

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This is the Danube somewhere in Austria. I remember we camped there with an uncle and aunt who visited and went with us all the way from Belgium to Athens in the summer of 1979, camping all the way. In the middle I stand with my uncle.

Those long (one month!) camping summer trips were incredibly intense – and an occasion to meet Europeans from everywhere – Poles in their Polskis or Zastavas, East Germans in their Trabants (no Russians, few Czechs, many Yugoslavs of course) – in addition of course to the French and Germans who seemed to crisscross the continent in camping.

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Somewhere in Catalonia – El Vendrell? I don’t remember exactly. 1978, with my mother and two sisters.
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This blurry, badly composed photograph, was the view from the apartment in Louvain-la-Neuve. Nothing special except for the people who lived there. I wonder if  those children in the bicycle are my sister and I. Impossible to know.

In contrast with the previous, here is a much better photograph (well, the general feel is ok – if he wanted to photograph us (I am there, very small, with my mother and sister and a friend of hers), he definitely should have tried a different composition. Yet there is a magic in this photo (to me).

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Here is a photo I really like, on that famous day we went for a long walk with him and he was photographing carefully.

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Here with my sister María Piedad.

But many slides are more like this:

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I appear there (although that wouldn’t be very clear from the photo itself). The place is very non-descript post-industrial Mont-St-Guibert, a row of workers’ houses… Not too fond memories of that place.

This was the first decoration of the lamp when just arrived to that new place – the lamp with older photos of the family:

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Some of the old slides look very atmospheric, very interestingly lit:

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My grandmother is here with my mother and youngest sister. The grandmother visited us when my grandfather died, a couple of months after. It was a beautiful visit, but of course she was (quietly) mourning.

There is more and more. But I particularly like this photograph with my mother in Switzerland (in the Valais) in the summer of 1981. For some reason it brought back to my mind my love for the French-speaking part of Switzerland (St-Luc, Nendaz) where I had the chance of spending a couple of weeks in winter with my school from Belgium and then a couple of weeks in summer with my parents. I now see the photo and think of Tony Judt’s book (that Roman brought to Bogotá). I would like to go walk there some day again…

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In addition to the connection Switzerland-Tony Judt-Roman Kossak through the book and the gift of book with memories of walking in Switzerland, this photo reveals very sharply to me the eye of my father – and a time of my mother’s life when she participated in a feminist movement. Her t-shirt has a map of Latin America inscribed in the middle of the symbol of women. (For some odd reason, I also see the thirteen-year old boy in the photo, it is me yet in many ways yet that life was cut short by our return to Colombia soon after – it feels like a very different person as well.)

Camping somewhere (seems more Western Europe than Eastern Europe but we were in both) in 1979…

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Perhaps by the Danube in Austria…

Another one of those photos he took of my sister and I, walking near the Bois des Rêves…

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Those pictures look inspired by something. With my mother they used to go a lot to movies; I wonder if some of that was subconsciously there…

And finally, a photo of the photographer (taken most likely by my mother).

 

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The sea in Ostende, José Luis Villaveces. 1977.

Coda.

When we saw the photographs of his thesis defense with my father yesterday he said he had never actually seen them! That’s quite possible: the slide projector broke down that day (he used it for his presentation but in the middle of the fuss asked someone to project the slides; that person turned down the projector while it was hot and… it melted). Also the camera’s light sensor seemed to break a few months later. With the move and no projector, it is not so strange he didn’t see the photos of the party after his defense (until yesterday, many many years later).

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After his successful defense, surrounded by some Colombian friends. His expression of relief is amazing. 1981.