#135: BOYS IN LOVE. Finding a young adult novel so marvelously sweet-natured and romantic as Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Simon and Schuster, 2012) is wonderful enough; finding such a book with a gay theme is a splendid reminder of how far we have come from the olden hypocrisies of literature in which all gay characters were expected to 1) live extravagantly unhappy lives, and probably 2) limp off and die at the end of the book. This is not to say that Saenz’s book is an idiot piece of grinning good cheer, or that his characters don’t have their fires to get through, but the prevailing mood is that of an intent and humane observation, honeyed with a prose that wastes no syllable (Saenz is a long-practiced poet) and is taut with the frustrations and tensions of its adolescent protagonists. Part of the atmosphere is no doubt set by the fact that both boys have caring and sympathetic parents; no traditional children’s-book orphans or cliché unaccepting elders here, and at a climactic point of the story Aristotle’s parents give him a much-needed beneficent shove. But most of the book’s charm comes from the push-and-pull of the boys’ dialogue and friendship, their discovery of each other; these two kids chime together like musical instruments, and when their emotions begin to pull them away from each other we feel the pang of it. The litany of questions that open the book—“Why is there a riot in the heart when we love?”—haunt the story all the way through; Aristotle and Dante is an open-spirited, generous book that delights you and leaves you a little shaken, with a sidewise sense of humor and not a single mean bone in its body.
Andre Aciman’s 2007 novel Call Me By Your Name has come back to attention with Luca Guadagnino’s recent (and superb) film adaptation; it was widely praised at publication, and I think correctly. Like Aristotle and Dante, it’s back-dated to the nineteen-eighties, but it takes cunning advantage of the frankness of physical description that has become permissible in the twenty-first century. We know the details of the two young men’s sexuality—who does what to whom, precious bodily fluids and all—but without a moment of exploitation or salacity. The story is simple: an adolescent’s academic family, summering in northern Italy, invites a young grad student to be a working guest for six weeks, and the two young men work slowly through the high walls of their hesitation and shyness to intimacy; at the end of the summer, they are separated. The setting, the characters’ natural knack for allusion, make the classical themes which grace through the prose—the lovers reaching a point of intimacy where they exchange identities—seem entirely unforced. The book has obvious resemblances to Forster, but in final effect it's closer to the devastating force of Annie Proulx’s story “Brokeback Mountain.” The intimacy Elio and Oliver achieve haunts them for the rest of their lives; the book has an epilogue that the movie perforce omits, and that only twists the knife still further and which is part of its accomplishment, its vision. Aciman succeeds remarkably in conveying the glorious intensity of the romantic connection; he also conveys, harrowingly well, the long years of pain at the connection’s loss, and leaves you with it without excuse or palliation. This is love, Aciman says, and this is loss; this is how it happens. As Proulx says at the end of “Brokeback Mountain,” “If you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.”