Call Me By Your Name and The Folding Star by Jon Malysiak
Illustration by Fernando Monroy
Jon Malysiak is a writer, editor, and literary agent based in both Chicago and Northampton, England.
In 1994, the year Alan Hollinghurst wrote his second novel The Folding Star, I was a twenty-three year-old kid from the suburbs of Chicago living what I thought at the time was my dream. I had graduated from college the year before and had moved to New York to study musical theatre. I had always wanted to be on Broadway and, despite the very sensible misgivings of my loving and always supportive parents, I was determined to make it happen. And as a young man, gay though decidedly not out, having just left the stifling confines of a small Midwestern liberal arts college in the middle of a cornfield surrounded by pig farms and old rusty siloes, I longed to throw off the shackles of small-town, suburban repression and experience a true coming-of-age.
My college years had been rather fraught. My freshman year I’d fallen for an older frat boy who, it turned out, was experiencing his own sexual identity crisis. We “discovered” each other one night during our choir’s annual spring break tour. Needless to say, as a result, I fell hard but my frat boy wanted nothing more to do with me. If ever there was a reason to stay in the proverbial closet, it was to avoid the fish bowl scrutiny of a college whose total student population didn’t much exceed 800. This was also 1990 where there was very little in the way of LGBTQ campus support groups like there are now. I even had a psychiatrist at the time tell me my sexual confusion was merely a manifestation of my need to be the center of attention and that the best remedy for me was to just “grow up.”
That experience haunted me through the ensuing three years, during which time I was too afraid to pursue anything that might be called experimentation. It was as if I’d armored myself in a full-body chastity belt that no one could persuade me to unlock.
But there was more to it than fear of exposure on a Mid-western college campus. I was terrified of getting AIDS. I remember first hearing about HIV the summer of 1983, the year in which Andre Aciman’s novel Call Me By Your Name is set. And while I was only twelve at the time – five years younger than Elio, CMBYN’s protagonist – after years of being called a “fag” and “gay” on the school playground, I was convinced that by default I was destined to die of AIDS, for wasn’t it the gay man’s disease and if everyone at school said I was gay then logic dictated that this was to eventually be my fate.
So flash forward eleven years to 1994. There I was, living where I’d always wanted to live, pursuing my dreams of stardom on the Great White Way. But there was a problem. I wasn’t really free. And while I certainly had relationships, my fear of rejection, illness, and subsequent death was too strong for me to overcome. I envied those friends of mine who were out and proud and falling in and out of each other’s beds and hooking up and breaking up and going crazy on Thursday nights at Splash and Webster Hall and the other gay bars and clubs in Chelsea. But it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t a prude. I was just…detached. To me, it was self-preservation.
Now here I am, twenty-four years later, in my forties and amazed at how much has changed, and yet, how little in some ways I myself have changed. And while in my own writing I find myself gravitating to gay characters, I’ve never particularly been drawn to exploring gay themes in literature. But then late last year I read Call Me By Your Name and The Folding Star, more-or-less back-to-back, and while I hate cliché, the only way I can describe what happened to me is that through these novels I found myself transformed.
I’d never identified with a literary character as much as I found myself identifying with the seventeen year-old Elio. His longing for the older and one assumes more experienced Oliver reminded me of similar longings I’d had throughout my life: from my hunky middle school gym teacher whose unexpected presence as a life guard one summer at my family’s country club both horrified and excited me, to other crushes and infatuations I’ve had in subsequent years. The love story of Elio and Oliver, while fleeting, became the coming-of-age story that I myself had wanted. And while I sensed that theirs was to be ephemeral, that was okay with me because at least it was rooted in a kind love and acceptance that was completely removed from the realities of the flip side of love, or perhaps more specifically sex, which I’d come to identify as death.
Having devoured CMBYN I dove straight into the Hollinghurst, which proved an altogether different kind of reading experience. Set in 1994 in an unnamed Flemish city, The Folding Star portrays the sexual entanglements of the thirty-three year-old Edward Manners, an Englishman working as an English language tutor for the seventeen year-old Luc, a child of privilege expelled from his private school for shenanigans that included a boat and lots of horny sailors. Edward falls madly, hopelessly, obsessively in love with Luc. Their consummation results in Luc’s disappearance and other revelations about the young Luc’s sexual peccadillos. By novel’s end, Edward is left alone and utterly bereft.
Unlike the comparatively peachy (pun intended) atmosphere of CMBYN, the spectre of AIDS hangs heavy over The Folding Star. The novel’s haunting final image is of a missing persons photograph of Luc, and the language Hollinghurst uses to evoke the effect of Luc’s disappearance on Edward calls to mind the sadness of those whose loved ones passed away from AIDS long before their time:
“I stood in front of him and repeated his name, though I knew he couldn’t see me, or recall the night he had taken my life in his arms. He gazed past me, as if in a truer kinship with the shiftless sea. A few late walkers passed us, and saw me vigilant in my huge unhappy overcoat; they didn’t know if it was the charts of tides and sunsets I was studying, or the named photos of the disappeared.”
In the case of The Folding Star, I found myself extremely moved but also feeling somewhat vindicated. It was like Hollinghurst was affirming my own antiquated fears – developed in those formative years from 1983 to 1994 – that had in essence blocked me from ever fully celebrating or experiencing what it means to live and love as a gay man. The effect of this upon me was profound. And while CMBYN filled me with an unabashed joy, The Folding Star had the opposite though equally powerful effect.
However, considering them in conjunction I am left with a genuine sense of pride, relief even. The pop culture acceptance and recent acclaim of Luca Guadagnino’s film adaptation of CMBYN shows how far the world has come in terms of accepting and embracing gay themes, for CMBYN is nothing if not a celebration. The Folding Star, on the other hand, represents the dark place from whence we’ve come. It cannot and should not be forgotten. It is, after all, a part of our collective history, our identity.
This journey then represents evolution: both of a society and, certainly as I reflect upon my own life, of the individual. The effect on me has been liberating. And while friends and close family have known and accepted my sexual identity for years, I feel that it has only been in the past few months where I have been fully able to embrace myself for myself without fear, much of which I now realize had been self-imposed.
Ultimately, this is a testament to the power of literature and its ability (and some might say, obligation) to both educate and transform the reader. These two novels – both products of the very different years (2011 and 1994 respectively) in which they were written – represent the best of what “gay literature” has to offer us. They serve as reminders that love and death are all a part of the circle of life that, regardless of who we are or where we live, we will all experience. However traumatic some of these experiences might be, they are not unique. It is in this realization that literature can bring us together and create a community to which we are all invited. It only takes some of us a little bit longer to get there.
Fernando Monroy is a Mexican illustrator currently studying in México city. His work references pop culture, reflecting the work of photographers, designers and fashion. Out Magazine named him one of twenty young queer artists to watch.