They are not mentioned in the text, but I believe the title refers to the composition by that name by Edward Elgar, the late 19th-century English composer. Elgar's popular piece, it's been recorded over 60 times, consists of 13 variations on his original theme; each variation is supposed to be a portrait of someone known personally to Elgar. Several friends are rendered in the novel, but I take the enigma in the novel to be passionate infatuation.
This is a novel of twists and turns. Aciman is the novelist of crushes: “Will she/he, won’t he/she? Does she/he, doesn’t he/she? What did she/he mean by that? Am I attractive enough? Am I enough? Am I?” The protagonist is high on these questions. And, as with other highs, sometimes exhilarated, sometimes crushed.
I’m going to be explicit about the twists and turns below, so beware of spoilers.
His first novel, Call Me By Your Name, is about the summer homoerotic crush of an intellectual Italian teenager on an older student. His long and masterful novel Eight White Nights is about the coupling/failure to couple of a heterosexual pair in wealthy, intellectual circles in Manhattan who fail to go beyond falling in love for 368 pages. Like The Enigma Variations the book is related by title enigmatically to another work, Dostoevsky’s novella of the same name, but turning to the Dostoyevsky answers no questions.
As in Eight White Nights, the tension, what would be the plot tension in a mystery, in The Enigma Variations lies in the question of how or if the protagonist will resolve himself as a lover. Whom and how you love is central to his being a person and is always uncertain and anxiously immanent.
The book has five sections. In the first, as a young teen-ager he has an unconsummated crush on a local craftsman, who, after his father’s death he discovers to have been his father’s lover. In the second he is tormented and intoxicated by jealousy over the relation between the woman he is living with and an unknown man. It turns out the interloper is gay and interested in him. In the third section he is tormented by timidity over approaching a guy he sees on the tennis courts. He finally does. In the forth section he is living with his tennis friend, but it is no longer a crush. This section explores his history of desperately intense flinglets with a woman he knew in college. From time to time in life they meet, go off together, make love, but always clench away form one another. This is, so-to-say, a chronic crush. The last section advances the protagonist to middle age. He is in deep flirt with young writer, a mentee, but is as timorous as he was in the first section, unable to declare himself. In e-mail exchanges the guy he had been living with urges him to seize the moment (as the reader silently urges the protagonists to seize the moment in Eight White Nights), but he can’t. As in the fist section, their relationship is unconsummated. In the first section it was unconsummated because of the maturity and commitment of the craftsman, which is rooted in his affair with the protagonist’s father. In the last section it is rooted in the marriage of the protagonist to a woman who was a background character in earlier sections, which marriage is only uncovered at the end. We discover it only at the end because his agonies of eagerness and uncertainty remain so convincing; so much part of him even thought he is married.
The novel is in first person. The characterization of the protagonist is the vivid, tense experience of seeing the world though the details of his tremulous infatuations again and again in varying respects. We experience the other characters through dialogue and gesture, but we most of all know them through how they shape the fantasies of the protagonist, as if he were nervously writing and rewriting character sketches of them.
Aciman’s prose is thoughtful, supple, and suited to the readers' needs of the moment. A well-known scholar of Proust, he can thread meaning in long sentences:
“And there’s the bridge at last, vaulting the harbor under the shadow by the piers, the good, staunch, loyal bridge that understands and forgives and has always known, as I have always known, that what I really long for this evening is neither to be on this side of the river nor on the other bank but on the space and transit in between, the way after speaking of Russia’s White Nights it wasn’t of nightfall or daybreak that Gabi had sung but of that fleeting hour between dusk and daylight which we all longed for on our balcony on this undecided evening that wasn’t winter or summer or even just spring.
He can also apply the little, shaping hammer strikes of short sentences:
“I want you to know my name. I want you to know I’m five lockers down from yours. But as soon as I see you, I freeze. Should I look, or pretend not to? Should I speak, or say nothing? Better say nothing.”