Swimming Home – Deborah Levy

30 April 2013
The first third – Saturday afternoon to Monday morning
This book, so far, seems to represent a lot of what I hate about English fiction in the 21st Century. In his Afterword – I had a glance – Tom McCarthy suggests that I should be looking beyond first impressions: ‘the setting and plot … are borrowed, almost ironically, from the staid-English-middle-class-on-holiday novel,’ he tells us. Well, maybe. But by the time I read that I’d already been compiling a list in my head of what I was going to call Man Booker Shortlist tropes. (I do this all the time, and I’m not proud of it. But I can’t see me giving up the habit any time soon.)

The recent novel this one shares most features with is Rose Tremain’s Trespass (2010): English middle class in the South of France; a big old house suffering from cracks that seem to be symbolic of something deeper, and that someone has tried to cover up; an adolescent girl unimpressed by her parents’ behaviour; a character trying to make a living through plants and constantly making reference to how things grow; a published author; at least one character who runs a business in London selling overpriced stuff; characters who suffer from depression and low self-esteem; and, most glaring of all, the outsider who arrives to shake up a set of relationships that are already problematical. How many is that? Who’s counting?

But this isn’t Trespass. It doesn’t feature French characters who feel that their heritage is being taken over by outsiders, so that the trespass is literal as well as metaphorical. What it does feature are two couples, the daughter of one of them, and a young woman who is going to have an affair with one of the men. It also features dreams that seem to fade into and out of reality and, at least once, an echo or pre-echo of a situation that might or might not ever happen. In other words, however hackneyed the basic situation, Levy is aiming to do something unusual with the narrative. I’ll come back to that.

Characters. There’s the famous poet, his successful but troubled war correspondent wife and their daughter. There are their friends, who run a shop selling goods imported mainly from the developing world. Among the four adults there are undercurrents of irritation and dislike; the men, in particular, need to let each other know how ‘up themselves’ they are – I wondered whether this was really a phrase from 1994 – and how ‘normal’ one another’s behaviour proves them to be. I can hardly stand it when either of these men open their mouths.

The outsider is Kitty, a self-styled botanist who might be anorexic, who seems to be swimming naked by accident in the pool of the villa they’re renting when they arrive back one Saturday. However, she soon tells the poet that she’s sought him out. He is Joe, aka Jozef Jacobs, born in Poland and considered by the other couple as something of a womaniser, and Kitty talks to him as he walks alone with her in an orchard near the villa. She tells him she has written a poem, and he plays the usual scenario in his mind: she will ask him to read it, tell him how important his work is to her, and so on. He turns out to be right, and we guess that he usually ends up in bed with these female fans. This hasn’t happened yet – but when he finds himself drifting into sleep, he plays out a scene of her driving him over a mountain pass, some time after an affair between them has begun. Bizarrely – it’s one of those narrative quirks – this same scene, with many of the same sentences, is presented as a kind of prologue to the novel, and it appears again later. Go figure.

There’s another dream. Mitchell, the shop owner, has a nightmare about a hideous centipede that multiplies as he tries to kill it by cutting it into pieces. He goes downstairs to find a rat-trap he has set, but Kitty, naked as she so often is, seems to have placed in it a cuddly toy animal of the daughter’s, and is herself eating the chocolate from the trap. We’re into the third day of the story by now, and Kitty seems to be having an unsettling effect on more or less everybody. Isabel, the war correspondent, has offered her a room after her supposed mistake in arriving on the wrong date at the villa, which is a holiday let. But, on the first night, she pretends she needs to visit Nice – to repair a shoe, of all things – and feels herself the outsider as she sits alone in a café.

And so on. Nina, the daughter, finds her father’s behaviour towards Kitty completely predictable, and is amused, in a bitter sort of way, that the adults don’t think she understands what he is doing. Laura, the other woman, dislikes Kitty. Maybe she can see how unsettling she is, especially to Joe and her husband. She can’t understand why Isabel is allowing her to stay.

Is that enough for a few short chapters? Obviously not: Nina is not in her bed in the morning, and her mother is almost speechless with distress. Or is she shrieking in panic? I forget. Does it matter anyway? I’ll come back to you when I’ve read a bit more.

1 May
The middle third – early Monday to late Tuesday
One of the things I find unimpressive is how much telling goes on. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself, but in this novel, as the narrator yet again shifts the point of view to explain how another character is feeling (or what dreams they’ve been having, or what early memory is conjured up by something or other, or whatever), any sense of forward momentum is lost. And I’m catching so many fleeting glimpses of these inner lives that I’m not building up a real picture of any of them – or developing any sympathy.

Anyway, Nina’s disappearance is explained within minutes. Isabel finds her innocently (I think) in Kitty’s bed. She’d just started her first ever period, and Kitty is showing some female solidarity. And… Isabel is thrilled, sort of. Later, her father tries to congratulate her – he’s been congratulating himself on his success as a father, having had to bring her up for years on her own – and she tells him to fuck off. He isn’t anything like as close to his daughter as he thinks he is but, well, nobody in this novel has exactly the relationship with anybody else that they think they do.

Is this a devastating critique of how things are in the English-middle-class-on-holiday novel? Or is it the sort of thing that always comes out of the woodwork in this sort of novel? (Sigh.) I tell you what. I’m a bit too tired for this, so I’ll see if I can read the rest of it tomorrow and write at greater length then. But one last thing before I end. The arrival of Kitty is described by one character, probably Laura, as a ‘trespass’. Gotcha.

2 May
The last third – Wednesday to Saturday, plus a short chapter set in 2012
(Sigh.) This might or might not be an English-middle-class-on-holiday novel… but it definitely is an unendurable-depression-of-the-Holocaust-survivor novel. And to think that when I discovered early on about Joe’s Jewishness I mentioned his surname without comment. I also didn’t comment on the fact that the author is also Jewish, because… because I decided that when Jewish writers include Jewish characters they’re not necessarily making a big thing of it. Hah. When we discover who is floating in the pool at the end, it feels as though Levy has been teasing us all along. As Nina has been predicting ever since she read Kitty’s poem, she finds the inevitable body in the pool, weighed down with stones in the pockets of the dressing gown it wears. But the body isn’t Kitty’s, as she takes it to be for some sentences – Levy takes the tease right up to the wire – it’s her father’s. Kitty has helped him to realise that Holocaust survivors don’t need to struggle with their depression forever.

What disappoints me about this particular suicide is the glibness of it. Levy, a Jewish writer in the second decade of the 21st Century, sets a novel in the early 1990s mainly so that her troubled Jewish character can feasibly have been smuggled out of Poland in the early years of World War 2. His psychology is so complex he has become one of the greatest poets of his time – a fact that is presented as glibly as his back story because we never, ever, get to see any of his poems – and, it turns out, he’s spent his life hiding his true state of mind from everyone. At one point, somewhere in the middle of the novel, he complains about the depressed, how they wear their depression like an outfit, always choose to make it their main selling point. But he isn’t like that, no sirree Bob. He presents a brave face to the world, with his custom-made silk shirts and – I’m not making this up – his custom-made perfumes from an expert in Switzerland. It takes a Kitty Finch to point out to him, in a poem of her own that we never get to read, that none of this has been taking him to where he wants to go. He doesn’t know what it feels like to go home.

One of the not-quite peripheral characters asks Isabel a leading question: ‘Why did you invite a stranger into your home?’ (It’s that word again….) The reply that immediately went through my head was ‘Because I’m in a bloody novel.’ What Isabel actually says – ‘Because she needed somewhere to stay’ – is regarded with some suspicion by the other character, Madeleine. She’s the rather sinister retired doctor who lives next door, and has been observing the family for weeks before Kitty’s arrival. She knows Kitty, having had her committed to a mental hospital in the past. And… and I realise that this offers another reason for Levy having chosen the early 1990s: Kitty has been subjected to ECT or, as she puts it, they gave her electric shocks to burn her thoughts away. During the crucial night she spends with Joe before his suicide next morning, she lets him know that they didn’t succeed. The doctors in the hospital in Kent, whom she regards with the same hatred as she regards Madeleine, couldn’t stop her seeing the world as it really is.

So who is Kitty? Do we ever really find out? It must be significant, surely, that once her work is done, and vain attempts are being made to resuscitate Joe, she fades away into the background. In addition to being a flesh-and-blood character with human needs and flaws, isn’t she also (sigh) an entirely symbolic figure, there only to reveal to Joe what he has been hiding from himself all his life? In this last part of the novel, I don’t see that she can be anything else. It offers a (kind of) explanation of those dark prefigurings of that fateful night on the mountain road that have been flitting in and out of Joe’s consciousness since page 1. She is here to bring him home. Ok. But…

…but, as with most other things in this novel, I find it glib. Or muddled. Or both. There’s a lot of background noise surrounding this central storyline, and none of it feels resolved by the end of the novel. Some of it is to do with mental health, a strand I find highly suspect. Depression is presented almost as a philosophical position with its own adherents, like Kitty, for whom a refusal to take the medication – I didn’t mention that – becomes part of a wider manifesto. I simply don’t buy this, and would prefer an interpretation in which Kitty is simply a destructive force. She has unleashed herself on a family which already has enough problems – a lot of the background noise is to do with their own demons – and, through her own manipulation of a fellow-sufferer, devastates all of them.

Is this a viable reading? I don’t actually think so, because Levy ascribes so much significance to her arrival. When the other characters first see her she is a foreign body floating in the water, or she is drowned or, in an attempt at a joke, she is a bear. She turns out to be none of these but, like a witch or spirit from folk mythology, she is naked and can only come into their house if invited. She also seems to represent a life force, at home – like the wise women of folk myth – with the plant world and constantly protesting against unnecessary killing.

But to be honest, I’m past caring. Like all the other characters, Kitty is ultimately fixated on doing whatever is necessary to satisfy her own needs. Her apparent anorexia is, like everything about her, presented as something significant: people keep finding uneaten food that she’s hidden and, we discover near the end, Joe has never seen her eat. But then – cue dramatic music – she does, as soon as she has got what she seeks from Joe. These are, in no particular order, his acknowledgment that her poem contains a great truth that is highly relevant to him; and his willingness to be seduced by her into the deep and satisfying sex he has been denying himself all along because he had wanted to save his marriage. I don’t see how is this any different from any other middle-class-on-holiday novel, in which deeply penetrating fissures are always uncovered and deeply satisfying but highly ill-advised adultery usually takes place. Tom McCarthy, in that Afterword of his, is forced to suggest that the features we recognise are ‘borrowed, almost ironically’. I didn’t believe it at the beginning, and I don’t believe it now.

And what about the other characters? From the start I’ve been remarking on how nobody knows each other, and Levy – what? – wants to show us how this is simply a given in any human relationship. Her characters are all alone in what often seems a confusing universe – and maybe I find it so annoying because Levy isn’t doing anything very new with this idea of existential angst. (Even the most significant revelation of all – the one that leads to the dénouement that isn’t nearly as surprising as I suspect Levy wants it to be – seems to be taken from stock. A recent Man Booker winner by a Jewish writer, Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, features the suicide of one of its main Jewish protagonists near the end. But I said I’d had enough of that thread.)

In the end, we’re left with loose threads. Nothing is resolved for Isabel after years of trying to reconcile her foreign-correspondent life to the needs of her husband and daughter. She seems to have seen Kitty as a sort of extra daughter rather than what she really is, a rival. But we don’t get enough of Isabel’s internal life to know whether she considers that she has learnt anything. Alongside her story is that of Nina, another character who never comes to life. She is confused by her mother’s absences and her father’s enigmatic ways, and is just beginning to understand what sex might really be about. There’s the obligatory kiss with the French boy she fancies nearly as much as he fancies himself – ho-ho – but things are so unresolved for her at the end that Levy has to give her a little add-on chapter in which, as an adult, she says some glib things about children and their dreams. (Don’t ask.)

And there are the other adults. Alongside the apparently successful ones – Isabel and Joe – are the ones, we hear near the end, whose shop is about to bankrupt them. But, reader, don’t be fooled by silk shirts and a glamorous lifestyle. However successful you might be… etc. Mitchell and Laura might be about to lose their house, but at least they aren’t trying to top themselves.

Glib? You decide.

One Response to Swimming Home – Deborah Levy

  1. choconutmeg says:

    I really enjoyed reading your take on this, in particular your thoughts on the suicide, as well as on Kitty’s role in the novel.

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