A peculiar, languid, summery short novel set in Nice. Did't convince me much.
A very peculiar book, summery, sad, languid and overall a bit too weird for me.
Deborah Levy is an interesting writer. There is a visual quality to her work that makes the reader blink. Is this a novel or a film, we ask ourselves? Are we reading or watching? We become immobile in front of the screen of her set pieces, watching passively as the events happen before our eyes, as if in a documentary or a piece of reality TV. But there is no voice over, little backstory, and no linking of scenes. What we see is all there is so we have to make of it what we can.
There is a baldness to the language that shakes us out of our passivity from time to time: “The truth was her husband had the final word because he wrote words and then he put full stops at the end of them.” Indeed, at times, I found that the language matched exactly the theme which predominated for me: the workings of fractured minds. There’s an absence of pronouns like ‘whom’ and ‘which’ and ‘that’ which make the sentences read as if there were an invisible twist in the middle somewhere but when you reread it, you can’t find where the disjunction lies. It is as if, although it is a third person narrative, the writing itself is the product of a splintered mind.
Levy likes symbols. The swimming pool is very present and we are reminded of its shape and other qualities frequently. This works well, but some other symbolic references are perhaps unnecessary: a character’s green nails are underlined too often. We didn’t need to know she wore green nail varnish to understand her connection to the earth and her love of botany.
For me, there were also too many hints dropped in relation to the outcome so that when it came, it was almost without a surprise element, but not quite...
Recently I've been suffering from a disease that will be familiar to most readers - post classic blues. In other words War and Peace is a hard act to follow. Whatever I picked up or considered as a next read seemed puny and insignificant. My scorn for what I began to sneeringly think of as contemptible fiction (rather than contemporary) swelled like a puss-filled boil until eventually, to my extreme relief, Deborah Levy burst it with Swimming Home.
The novel is published by And Other Stories Publishing - a new and exciting not for profit publisher dedicated to ensuring excellent books find readers in a heartless and increasingly risk averse commercial publishing environment. So far everything I have read on the list has been extraordinary. You can become a subscriber here and I urge you to do so. The benefits of membership extend far beyond the four books a year delivered to your door - you can get involved and actively help choose what they publish next.
Anyway, as the late night DJs say, let's get back to the records...
Swimming Home revolves around a black dog black hole. At first we think this is Kitty Finch found naked in the swimming pool in the holiday villa hired by a famous poet, his war-correspondent wife, their beautiful teenage daughter and their two Kings Cross shop-owning friends. Kitty's fragile "I stopped taking my pills" demeanour is simultaneously attractive and dangerous. Yet nothing in this surprising narrative can be judged according to the displayed surface.
The book is prefaced by a quote from La Revolution surrealiste:
"Each morning in every family, men, women and children, if they have nothing better to do, tell each other their dreams. We are at the mercy of the dream and we owe it to ourselves to submit its power to the waking state."
Dreams and novels share many things. I don't want to get bogged down in that now, neither do I want to talk about "dreamlike prose" or make any of the other worn out comments I could about dreams and fictional narratives - what should be made clear is that the experience of reading Swimming Home is more dreamlike than usual.
This quality is constantly expressed in Levy's prose:
"The young woman was a window waiting to be climbed through."
Descriptive images that appear to describe one thing actually reveal something else - a related quality perhaps but not what was expected. The effect is one of dislocation and confusion that does not muddle the reader - rather the writing forces further focus, closer reading and therefore intense engagement. Indeed it is hard to put the book down. Since it is relatively short I would recommend reading it in one sitting. Hours will pass. You will forget to eat. When you finish the novel there will be shock - the snap-back to attention of the floppy-headed evening commuter. Ah. Here I am. Here. The waking world has returned, familiar and yet subtly changed. It is impossible to say nothing happened while you were sleeping/reading.
The dark heart of the book is expressed with self-inflicted violence. Comforting her teenage daughter the war correspondant mother echoes the nihilistic lyrics of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain:
"Never mind, never mind."
The girl had built a shrine to Cobain when he killed himself and now, unconsciously, her mother soothes her with words that echo his refrain from Smells Like Teen Spirit - "Oh well, whatever never mind."
Thus the book weaves reality into the artificial - blurring, unsettling, wonderful stuff......Continua