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Must Read Voraciously to Improve Style: Is Elio and Oliver’s leisure idleness or Proustian introspection?

Illustration by Loveday Pride

Hello, I’m Sophie (she/her), a soon-to-be third year French and Russian undergraduate student at New College, and I’m a bookaholic. Usually, you’d find me traipsing about with a canvas bag containing at least one book and on the hunt for many more… but now I’m stuck behind a laptop, desperately trying to make my big escape to Moscow for the first leg of my year abroad. Bookworm that I am, my column – “Must Read Voraciously to Improve Style” – is inspired by a *particularly* encouraging comment from my tutor’s report (I’m over it, I swear). Every week I will write about the real-life applications we can draw from books and how our style can be improved with a little nudge from them. Expect some Austen, some Bronte, some Proust and Tolstoy (pending the arrival of my academic brain), and some other modern authors. It will be fun, it will be books galore, and the ultimate proof of why, as Lemony Snicket once said, you should never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.


The second-best advent of the year has come and gone and now the season we have all been waiting for has finally arrived: SUMMER. Yes, cue the awkward oxymoron of torrential rain and sunburnt shoulders! Will the British sun ever truly be out? We know not, for she is a mysterious enigma. But as your resident book columnist, you may have guessed that I couldn’t give two figs about the weather. Why? Because with the escapism of André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name, all I need to do is start reading to be transported to 1980s Italy and live a life of Mediterranean idyll and tortuous romance with Elio and Oliver.

I’m almost certain Call Me By Your Name doesn’t need an introduction, especially after the famous 2017 film adaptation starring Timothée Chalamet. However, in reading the book it was adapted from, that age-old saying reigns true again: the book is better than the film. Aciman’s novel is, quite simply, beautiful. His prose is elegant and poised, and the protagonist is effortlessly both introspective and keenly aware of his surroundings. For me, the most striking moments were the ones where Aciman focuses Elio’s thoughts, and subsequently the reader’s attention, on the sensorial: the feel of the cool water of the swimming pool on his skin, the significance behind the colours of Oliver’s swimming trunks. When reading, the very structure of this chapter-less book makes you remember events as a series of vignettes, sensory snapshots of the now middle-aged Elio’s adolescence.

Summer is, of course, a time of tranquillity and serenity. There is no prescribed work, no set plans or expectations other than to live a life full of leisure and sloth. Accordingly, leisure features heavily in Call Me By Your Name whether it’s the atmosphere Aciman creates for Elio’s parents’ house or Elio and Oliver’s daily activities. Despite the powerful academic undertones that linger in the house and pervade a substantial number of conversations, they are all conducted with an air of relaxation. Oliver’s debate with Elio’s father about the etymology of the word “apricot” is casual, Oliver and Elio’s chats about Heraclitus are almost nonchalant.

Rest assured this is not normal youthful behaviour. I, for one, can vouch with brutal honesty that I have never once had conversations such as these with my friends. Then again, I’ve never had a six-week long sojourn in an Italian villa, so maybe therein lies the problem. (If anyone’s offering, yes, I gladly accept your invitation.) Elio’s transposing of Bach and Haydn never made my measly Grade 6 piano certificate feel so insignificant. Whereas we, mere peasants among intellectuals, enjoy summer and relaxation as lazily as possible, any example of their leisure seems to be more profound.

Elio remembers how Oliver, articulate genius that he is, would call ‘lying on his back along the edge of the pool with one leg dangling in the water, wearing his headphones and his straw hat flat on his face’ going to the ‘orle of paradise’. What’s an ‘orle’ I hear you ask. I had no clue before last week: ‘orle, /ɔːl/, noun: HERALDRY, a narrow border inset from the edge of a shield’. Elevated vocabulary aside, Oliver’s choice of words demonstrates that he sees beyond the mere physical structure of the pool to the metaphorical – perhaps then his leisure transcends the limits of the physical world, then, also?

Aciman, besides being an author, is a professor of the history of literary theory and teaches the works of none other than Marcel Proust, the French novelist, critic, and essayist known for his mammoth seven-part novel In Search of Lost Time. Now, I do not profess to be an expert in Proust; don’t let those two years of undergraduate French fool you. All I remember of him is some frantic reading at 3am for an essay due at 9. However, certain elements of his writing have stayed with me – namely, the focus on memory and the senses. Proustian influences certainly are noticeable when reading Aciman’s prose, which brings me to a key consideration.

What if Elio is the modern-day equivalent of Proust’s narrator from In Search of Lost Time, specifically from his first volume Swann’s Way? The lunches and dinners that Elio’s parents host are reminiscent of the ones the young narrator observes his parents having in Swann’s Way. But the most striking point of comparison for me is the great self-awareness and capacity for inner reflection that each have despite their young age. And when we have a meeting of the minds and souls such as between Elio and Oliver then the runs, swims, and bike rides that the two enjoyed are not just sports because they are all imbued with recollections and emotion that will remain untouched by the passage of time.

And so, as summer continues to roll on and some restrictions begin to be lifted, we too can all look forward to another couple of months of leisure, and idleness, and lazing about irrespective of our setting. As we pray for some sunshine, or as you lucky ones soak up some rays abroad, maybe we too should embrace our inner Elio and Proust. Mum told you to do some chores while she’s at work but all you did was lie on the sofa eating Mini Cheddars and watching TV all day? No problem! No, mum, I’m not lazy. I was doing some Proustian introspection into why our reality does not match the archetype of six f.r.i.e.n.d.s. living in New York City. Dad told you to walk the dog, but you couldn’t be bothered? No, you’re not lazy – you were doing some Proustian introspection into whether it’s right in this day and age to impose a routine onto animals. Is the animal you or the dog? That remains to be seen.

Am I talking absolute rubbish? Quite possibly. But as students enduring under/graduate academia in this busy fast-paced world, there is no reason why our leisure this summer, much like Elio and Oliver’s, shouldn’t be a combination of total idleness and deeper self-reflection. Embrace your inner geek and engage in debates about etymology… I know I will. Spend as many days as possible biking, running, swimming, walking through nature. Rediscover that old hobby of yours (but let’s leave the transposing of Haydn to the professionals). Read poetry, eat delicious food, love, do all these things and imagine that you are the one waking up in the morning in an Italian idyll and live as such. And who cares if your leisure is lazy or Proustian? It’s whatever you want it to be. So, find your orle of paradise, go there, and stay there until October rolls around again.