WHAT ENGLISH COMPOSER Edward Elgar’s orchestral Enigma Variations, composed in the last couple of years of the 19th century, was meant to represent — in each of its 14 variations of a single theme — was a musical picture of a friend or acquaintance of the composer; the addition of the word “enigma,” which Elgar himself added to his original simple “variations,” has never been properly explained, at least not to the complete satisfaction of classical music aficionados who may happen upon André Aciman’s new novel of the same name on a shelf, or table if he’s fortunate, in the few remaining bookstores in the country, and be forgiven for picking it up immediately in belief that it is perhaps the definitive document on the meaning of the musical piece.
If you like long sentences, you will like Aciman. I’ve been accused of using long sentences myself, although I take it as a compliment; some of them are paragraph length (which is my preference and which I was enthused to apply here), and there are a number of those in Enigma Variations (the novel). Being a novel, or better yet a collection of linked stories about love, that makes it all the more appealing — for love, that indescribable emotion we have all felt (and hopefully do still) but inevitably have difficulty expressing, whether in words or deed, lends itself to the long description that, when beautifully worded, one almost wants to never end.
The five stories that make up Enigma Variations are the first-person memoirs of Paul, a presumably Italian man (I say this because of the Italian words and places in his childhood, not because he identifies himself as such) of indeterminate age today, who is neither gay nor straight — but not bisexual either. He is at once gay, and at once straight, depending on a time of his life, but his sexual proclivities are less about sexual preference at any one time than about deep and passionate love. The first story, almost novella-length and aptly titled “First Love,” is a memoir of his childhood, as a 12-year-old, and of his return as an adult to the island where he spent his summers with his family, to satisfy a nostalgic curiosity but also to revisit the scene of his first crush as a boy. That crush, on a cabinet maker who repairs an ancient desk for his family, slowly reveals itself to be more than just a crush — it is the first time he has feelings that are at first recognizable as a schoolboy crush on an adult, no matter the gender, but that have become a sexual longing, too, and deep love, which is somewhat confusing to the boy and perhaps a little jarring to the reader. I once had dinner with two friends — both immensely successful in the entertainment and publishing fields — and I don’t remember how the subject came up, but both men confessed to schoolboy crushes on older boys. Neither had a sexual longing for the object of their crush, or at least that was what they claimed, but the crushes were nonetheless very real. They (and I, too) attended boarding schools, so I wasn’t particularly surprised to hear it, for in the gender-segregated English public schools that boys as young as six are sent to, it should come as no surprise to anyone that some boys will experience the pangs of love for another boy he lives with and who is admired for whatever attribute he may possess — athletic, academic, or mere good looks. And a few, of course, are gay, whether they know it yet or not, but not most, and for Paul, at the age of 12, he is far from identifying as such. He is merely in love.
Aciman’s description of that love is devastatingly, excruciatingly real. He exquisitely puts into language what we know of first love, whether we experience it early in life or later:
In a bus, on a busy street, in class, in a crowded concert hall, once or twice a year, whether for a man or a woman, my heart still jolts when I spot your look-alike. We love only once in our lives, my father had said, sometimes too early, sometimes too late, the other times are always a touch deliberate.
While some might argue with the narrator that his father was wrong about loving only once, who cannot identify with his subsequent jolts of the heart? The father in question, and not the mother (who is not entirely unaware), is the person for whom our narrator reserves his familial love, and he is a more than sympathetic figure, an idealized man. With Beethoven’s, and not Elgar’s, variations the soundtrack to Paul’s adult journey back to the island, he discovers one secret, in the course of talking to various characters from his youth, that finally makes more sense to him than he expects, and comes as a surprise, but an altogether pleasant one, that is again about love — yes, perhaps that one love his father claimed could only come once in a lifetime.
“Spring Fever,” which follows “First Love,” is set in the New York of Paul’s adulthood — here, he is living with a woman, Maud. Ah, we might say, could the schoolboy crush of “First Love” have been just that — a confused child confusing love, sex, longing, and lust — and not been love the way that we know love between two adults? That would be falling into a trap the author sets us — a way of thinking that I, who have always vaingloriously considered myself more enlightened or progressive on social issues than most of my peers now going into our 60s, have been guilty of. Why were the crushes my friends once described to me over dinner not actually love? Because they didn’t culminate in sex? And what if they had? Would that have made my friends gay? Or bisexual? What did it matter, when it comes to love?
At the beginning of the story, Paul sees Maud having lunch in a restaurant with another man. He assumes the worst and escapes, hoping he hasn’t been spotted:
It is only as I am rushing up Madison Avenue and putting as much distance between Renzo & Lucia’s and me that I notice I’m trembling. From shock, I think. No, from jealousy. Or anger. Then I correct myself: from fear. Actually, from shame. I, the wronged party, and ashamed of having caught them, while they, the guilty, couldn’t care less: no rush of adrenaline, no rattled frown on her face. From where she was seated in the middle of the restaurant, she would have stared me down, meaning, “So now you know.”
Paul imagines everything. Graphically. He is convinced Maud is cheating on him, and he imagines the man he saw doing everything with Maud that he has done, and more. But while we sympathize with what must be his insane jealousy, a madness that comes from betrayal, his concocting of stories about the couple that may or may not be true, we again confront “we love only once in our lives”:
Soon, I know, I’ll be rifling through the drawer where she keeps some of her things in my bedroom. I’ve done it with others, will do it again, though I already know that it’ll be out of principle, not because I need to know, or even care. I may end up being jealous because I have to be.
He does care. He is jealous. He imagines the conversations with her when he confronts her. He imagines, at a dinner party where she sits next to the same man from lunch, her masturbating him under the table, even wondering, “What will they do with the mess?” But Paul, a regular tennis player who has just started playing with a new partner, begins to think of him, Manfred, who he has quietly admired on the courts for two years, and “who comes out gleaming from the shower room every morning and who knows I’m looking because he is so hung.” So, is Paul gay? Or is he in love with both Maud and Manfred? Or neither? There is another twist at the end of “Spring Fever,” which I won’t give away except to say it is a less unexpected one than in the first story, but Aciman ends this chapter in Paul’s life with a satisfying tease for the reader.
The next story, devoted to the subsequent love of Paul’s life, is possibly the novel’s least satisfying, but that is not to say it is weak. Unlike the other episodes of love and the description of love, Aciman dwells a little longer on the graphic sex — all in Paul’s imagination — which to some might feel unnecessary because at the same time this chapter has the longest, most detailed and agonizing description of falling in love that I’ve read anywhere. The agony of love is what I imagine everyone, straight or gay, can identify with: the slow, developing obsession with another person, a longing and desire; an imperative that we describe as the “falling in” part of love. The longing, and then love, is now for Manfred, the tennis player who appears briefly in the previous story and who we already suspect will have to figure as one of the objects of Paul’s passion. “Manfred,” the story, is a little unsatisfying in the end only because we finish the chapter with unrequited love, but the all-too-apparent time shift — something that relates us back to the period of time in “Spring Fever” — is nonetheless a clever conceit that signals what is to come between Paul and Manfred without having to ever spell it out.
“Star Love,” which follows immediately, at first puts Paul back with a woman, Chloe, or more precisely, a woman he had once had a short — and I mean really short — fling with in college. They meet again at a party on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, the “unpaired two in a roomful of people who had stayed in touch since college and whose toddlers were now starting to attend the same schools.” Clearly, our protagonists eschew social media, or Facebook hasn’t been invented at the time of the story — it isn’t clear which. In short order, Paul and Chloe are naked in her apartment:
“Look at me,” she pleaded in bed. “Look me in my eyes and don’t let go.” At first, I didn’t know what “Stay with me, just stay with me” meant, but she gasped these words with the bruised sensuality of a turtledove that wanted nothing more than to have its crown soothed, and soothed again with gentle, reassuring motions. “Yes, just keep looking at me like this, just like this, and look at me when you come, because I want to see it in your eyes,” she said, as her eyes bore into me with a gaze that told me sex without staring was as paltry as love without sorrow or pleasure without shame. I wanted to see it in her eyes as well, I said. I’d never been like this with anyone before.
Perhaps the father’s declaration, all those years ago, that there is only one real love in one’s life was simply his experience, and not the son’s. Despite its descriptions, it is not sex that Aciman is describing in this story, but rather the longing his character has for another human being. It is obsessive longing by them both, but as with their college fling, something breaks too often for it to last. It is, while it lasts, a full-time, all-encompassing love, the kind that makes you want to do nothing but just be with the person of your affections, the world and ordinary life be damned — but then eventually just stops. Love that intense, perhaps, just cannot burn forever. I wondered, while reading this chapter, whether Paul had the Bob Marley and the Wailers song “Is This Love” in his head, or whether Aciman did as he wrote his character, for I couldn’t get these lyrics out of my own head:
Is this love, is this love, is this love
Is this love that I’m feelin’?
Is this love, is this love, is this love
Is this love that I’m feelin’?
I want to know, want to know, want to know now
I got to know, got to know, got to know now
I, I’m willing and able
So I throw my cards on your table
I want to love you, I want to love and treat, love and treat you right
I want to love you every day and every night.
Four years after the break, Paul and Chloe run into each other again at a party. And here, Chloe is married, and Paul is with Manfred. Is this love, is this love, is this love, is this love that I’m feelin’? It doesn’t appear it is between Chloe and her husband. Within minutes of reuniting with Paul, this: “But I’ll tell you all the same, because you’re the only one on this fucking planet who’ll understand. I may love him. But I’ve never been in love with him, not once, not ever.” She also declares that she’s only ever loved him, and he’s only ever loved her, despite Manfred: “Because I’m always thinking of you. Because I think of you every day, all the time. As I know you think of me every day, all the time. Don’t bother denying it. I just know.” The realization hits Paul, describing it perfectly as “stillborn love” — how many of us haven’t experienced that? “It wasn’t going to kill me, but I wanted to find a corner somewhere in this large apartment where I could be alone and hate myself.”
Yes. But Paul and Chloe, perhaps finally unable to shake what never left them, see each other as a foursome at first, but then together. And together they are in love; they make love, they talk, they do what lovers, especially adulterous lovers who love each other, do. Both in life and in literature, love often conquers all: long lost lovers reunite, despite years apart and lives with others, loveless marriages give way to loving ones, but it is not to be for Paul or Chloe. They love, but will not love together. Their last break is not a tragedy, but perhaps it is a regret for them both, Paul imagines. As he closes this chapter, he imagines running into Chloe, inevitably at a party: “‘This never ends, does it?’ I say. ‘Star love, my love, star love. It may not live, but it never dies. It’s the only thing I’m taking with me, and when the time comes, so will you.’” Those words would devastate me, making me want to find a corner in a room where I could be alone and hate myself. I suspect that’s what Paul does in his imagination, too, but it is left unsaid.
The final story in Paul’s life of loves is “Abingdon Square,” the shortest of the five but no less satisfying. This time, Paul appears to be alone, much older. Manfred is back in Germany, where he’s originally from, and Chloe is presumably surviving in her loveless marriage. Paul has fallen for a younger woman — a writer who he thinks may be interested in him. He’s not sure, but the more he suspects she is, the more he wants her. Although old enough to be her father, he nonetheless behaves like a teenager — one too shy to ask the popular girl out, even though he caught her staring at him in class. He writes to Manfred, anguished, and Manfred writes back, encouraging him: “Find the opening. Make the opening. Life throws thousands of them — you just don’t see them. It took two years with me. Don’t make the same mistake.” Aciman beautifully evokes that love, that obsessive love a man will have for a woman he’s not sure will, or can, reciprocate. More often than not, it is in our younger years; it’s oddly refreshing to read Paul’s struggles with it in middle age. Perhaps we all, boys and girls, want to be that teenager one more time in our lives. The end of the story, and the end of the novel, is a surprise that brings a sort of sadness to the end, to the life and loves of Paul. I won’t give it away here.
André Aciman writes authoritatively about love, the title and theme of his most recent work that appropriately includes “variations” in its title, which love inevitably, and almost by definition, encompasses. While each of Elgar’s “variations on a theme” is based on an acquaintance, and includes musical references to a particular quirk (such as a stammer), and each variation is labeled with the initials of the friend, Aciman’s variations on the theme of love are all one person’s, no initials necessary. And while Elgar labeled his variations an enigma, perhaps because the theme of the variations is the enigma itself, Aciman’s only point to the paradoxes that exist in both our definition(s) of love, and, of course, in love itself.