T S Eliot:
I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I will never read those lines again without thinking instead of Call Me By Your Name — 2017 movie (directed by Luca Guadagnino, written by James Ivory) and 2007 novel (Andre Aciman). Here’s a hint:
The peach scene is tastefully but faithfully transferred to the movie, as is much from the novel. So curious was I after seeing the movie on Saturday night on SBS that I visited Wollongong Library on Monday:
I read the novel with considerable pleasure. While there are major differences, particularly towards the end, James Ivory’s screenplay is remarkably faithful in many details, and well in tune with the spirit of the novel where it departs. A US novelist born in Egypt, Aciman was very much involved in the movie; indeed he actually appears in a cameo role.
For more details on all this I highly recommend Wikipedia. There is also much of interest in Cal McGhee, “Ten Things in Call Me By Your Name You May Have Missed.” One of the ten concerns the change in Elio’s father’s occupation in the movie, where he is an archaeologist, not a language scholar. So the movie opens with a montage of Greco-Roman statues of beautiful youths, including (if I recall correctly) Hadrian’s favourite Antinous. In the movie Elio, Elio’s father and the visiting US post-doctoral student Oliver visit Sirmio. Instantly an oldie like me — or more particularly as one who did Latin for the Leaving in 1959 when Catullus was a set text — pricked up my ears. Way back in 1959 I could translate — had to in fact — this:
Paeninsularum, Sirmio, insularumque
Ocelle, quascumque in liquentibus stagnis
Marique vasto fert uterque Neptunus,
Quam te libenter quamque laetus inviso,
Vix mi ipse credens Thyniam atque Bithynos
Liquisse campos et videre te in tuto.
O quid solutis est beatius curis,
Cum mens onus reponit, ac peregrino
Labore fessi venimus larem ad nostrum
Desideratoque acquiescimus lecto.
O what is happier than worries released,
when the mind sets aside its burden, and we
having been exhausted from foreign labor, have come to our home,
and we rest in our longed for bed?
Our selection did not include lyrics like this one:
Hunc lucum tibi dedico, consecroque, Priape,
Qua domus tua Lampsaci est, quaque silva, Priape,
Nam te praecipue in suis urbibus colit ora
Hellespontia, caeteris ostreosior oris.
If you are curious.
But the movie probably would have. See this lovely moment, of which Cal McGhee writes:
The eroticism derived from ancient nude sculptures has a lasting presence in the first act. Oliver’s purpose in Italy is to study these subjects and develop his academic paperwork with Elio’s father, but notice the way he admires the washed-up figure on the beach mirrors his later fascination with Elio’s similar chiseled and statuesque beauty. His reverence and gestures are one in the same, setting up a comparison to both characters as works of art.
Elio is pictured in several poses mirroring that of the washed-up statue, and it is undeniable that Timothée Chalamet himself bears an uncanny resemblance to figures frequently sculpted in ancient Greece, from the tight curls of his hair to his striking jawline and bone structure.
One of my initial reflections then is that while I loved every moment there is also something old-fashioned about the movie, harking back to the late 19th century, the world of such as John Addington Symonds. I commend “Hellenism and the History of Homosexuality” by Emily Rutherford.
If you were a boy who lived in Britain before around 1890, and if your parents were from the upper or middle class or had aspirations thereto, you would have begun to learn to read Latin in elementary school — perhaps even before you learned to read English. From the 1830s it became increasingly common for middle-class boys in particular to attend secondary school away from home, at one of the “public schools” formative of a social and professional elite. Until the Second World War, if you were expected to go to university, you probably began Greek by thirteen, and your education would have upheld classical languages as a form of knowledge that surpassed math, science, and certainly modern history and literature in importance. You would have read epics, tragedies, histories, and maybe some poetry, though this was strictly controlled to ensure that boys did not encounter any content that was too sexually suggestive…
Yet a certain frisson centered on the homoerotic — as one eighteen-year-old discovered in 1858, when he encountered in a family friend’s house copies of Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus, far outside the bounds of his public school’s curriculum. As he recalled in an autobiography:
I read on and on, till I reached the end… and the sun was shining on the shrubs outside the ground-floor room in which I slept, before I shut the book up.
I have related these insignificant details because that night was one of the most important nights of my life…. I discovered the true liber amoris at last, the revelation I had been waiting for, the consecration of a long-cherished idealism. It was just as though the voice of my own soul spoke to me through Plato…. For the first time I saw the possibility of resolving in a practical harmony the discords of my instincts.
This boy, John Addington Symonds, grew up to cement the connection between a certain Hellenic tradition and what he called “eros ton adunaton,” the love of impossible things. He found in Plato and other classical describers of a “heavenly,” pure form of same-sex love between an older and a younger man a way of acting upon one’s desires that could be rendered compatible with Victorian ethical norms. ….
Timothée Chalamet is perfect as 17-year old Elio. (He was 21 at the time of filming.)
You know my favourite scene? The seven minute close-up that forms the film’s end. I found that so powerful, different and all as it is from the way the novel ends. Aciman says:
When you first saw Luca Guadagnino’s film, was it what you’d pictured?
“Yes and no. I was worried about the ending because I had been told it was going to be a shot of Elio’s face crying, and I said ‘Oh my god, this is going to be sentimental.’ Of course it wasn’t. He was learning this wonderful lesson, which was how do you accept pain and how do you resign yourself to the end of the relationship? I thought that was so beautifully done. I told the director, ‘Your end of the film is better than the end of my book.’”