Sunday, May 26, 2013

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

In Deborah Levy's Booker shortlisted "Swimming Home" nothing is quite as it seems on the surface. The poet Joe Jacobs ("JHJ") is in a villa near Nice with his wife and daughter and a couple of their friends. The sleepy village is one of bored intrigue, where a number of people have ended up drifting - the villas and cottages owned by an absentee landlady who apparently earned her money through high class prostitution. In some ways, this tableaux is one of the bored, classic tropes of the middle class English novel. It "Hotel du Lac" or "A Year in Provence" or "The Pregnant Widow" or "The Ebony Tower" or any number of Iris Murdochs. A retired doctor looks on curiously at the family in the neighbouring villa, and a German hippy acts as a reluctant concierge, but would rather smoke dope than do the odd jobs he's paid for.

Joe's wife Isabel is a war correspondant, and therefore they've reversed the usual patterns of family. He has stayed at home and looked after Nina, his fourteen year old daughter, whilst she has been away. They are, as always in the bourgeois  novel, more than comfortably off. The setting - in a not-so-distant 1994 gives the story distance, if not quite enough; for despite Levy being one of our more interesting contemporary stylists, the novel is defiantly old-fashioned in many ways. There are modernist echoes, of course, back to "Tender is the Night" or "The Good Soldier" where the ennui of the hot summer abroad seems to sap the characters nerve, and slowly strip them of the pretence in which they live their lives.

Yet, "Swimming Home" is very comfortably contemporary as well - in that the modern novel revels in surfaces uncovered, and secrets to be hidden and then revealed at the author's own time. Joe and Isabel's friends, the corpulent Mitchell and his wife Laura, are escaping their own disaster - their shop is going bankrupt - whilst for the poet and his wife, the tenuous tie of their marriage, almost always at risk from his affairs and her absences, is stretched taut ready for breaking. Into this walks disaster in the shape of Kitty Finch, a beautiful but painfully thin redhead, who is first seen naked in the pool, her body easily mistaken for a corpse. Finch has come over there for a purpose: to meet Joe, whose poetry she has found empathy in. Against all good sense, Isabelle carelessly invites her to stay, "buying" the clear lie of her story that she got the wrong dates for coming to the villa.

Rarely wearing any clothes, Kitty is a obviously a dangerous interloper into this fragile family tableau. The sensible 14-year old, who has done without a mother for so much of her life, is at first intrigued by this big sister, particular as she finally has first period.

So is this a coming of age novel? A family breakdown story? Or a tale of mental illness? A bit of all three it turns out. Kitty - known as "Kitty Ket" to the German who loves her - has been there before. A "botanist" and "poet" she has come to the apartment with a single poem in an envelope, entitled "Swimming Home" which she wants Joe to read. On such thin grounds is this novel of surfaces built, and part of her success, I think, is in keeping this fragile edifice upright. She does this through her writing which is careful, calibrated, and as shimmering as the French heat.

Yet this small group of people are thrown together not so much by circumstance as by wilfulness. This is the unfortunate dinner parties of the people-loving Divers in "Tender is the Night" but here it feels forced. Mitchell is a boorish Abe North type, drinking and eating too much, and not much liking (or at least resenting) his richer friends. JHJ is a poet like none that really exist, closer to the artist in Fowles' "The Ebony Tower" than any real writer; somehow living off his royalties. His own past is of the changeling. Born before the war he is a Polish Jew, whose own past and identity are pretty unknown to him. The novel starts with him in a car with Kitty, so the obviousness of their having an affair is flagged from the start, but when she takes her hands off the wheel, where will this riskiness take them? That in some ways is the novel's "tease." This group of people though don't really garner much of our sympathy. Its a short novel, and could easily have been called "dreadful people." Not a single character comes across as deserving our sympathy. They are selfish, and self-centred, and pulling those around them into their own self-absorbtion.

In some ways, the novels strength is this clinical characterisation. Everyone's actions, however well meaning are freighted with consequence. Isabel letting Kitty stay for instance (and why is it that Isabelle has the casting vote?) - is this because she really wants Kitty to have an affair with her husband? The retired doctor Sheridan is an accomplice in the melodrama from having called the paramedics to a crazed, naked Kitty Finch the previous summer. Sheridan is scared at what Kitty will then do as revenge. Yet what doctor wouldn't have take that decision? Claude the Mick-Jagger lookalike who runs the local bar is leching after the pre-pubescent Nina; whilst Jurgen is the classic unreliable servant, doing favours only where he feels it can give him some kind of an edge.

Into this appalling group, the damaged Kitty seems to swoop in to somehow be both angel and devil. Its not that she captivates the group so much  - she's too obviously mentally estranged and self-obsessed for that - more that she provides some kind of necessary grit in the unsaid seething politeness of this middle class cliche. Her own background is hardly mentioned - other than her time in hospital - but she swims in, literally, and everyone either falls in love with her, loathes her, or thinks she can be useful to them. We don't see the poem at the heart of things: and its a thin thing to hold things together. At one point the list of reasons that Joe Jacobs has come up with not to read a single poem becomes almost comical. I think the novel's small power is based upon its accumulation of little things: Nina's period; the growing tab that Mitchell has built up at the restaurant; Kitty's nakedness, Isabel's disappearance into town. They are staging their own drama (a melodrama in many ways), playing some kind of multi-dimensional chess game, the ending of which could go either way, but also feels inevitable.

This sort of fatalism is what drives the novel more than the characters - though the accumulation of detail, in small telling scenes is what Levy does best. There is not a chapter that is wasted. In many ways its a long short story. Apparently her first novel for 15 years, it doesn't feel like a book that was dying to be written. Its setting and characters are too familiar. There's little to make you think this is a parody of the bourgeois novel, instead it feels like it is the bourgeois  novel exactly, albeit with more than a frisson of existentialism. Kitty is the heart of the book, but she's a distant heart as well, and all too familiar - the broken girl, the beautiful but mentally unstable woman. She's there in Nicola Barker's "Clear" and Lee Rourke's "The Canal" and also in the TV series Luther; a brilliant, seductive, but damaged waif, almost a signifier for contemporary neuroses. As we reach the denoument - as, if you like, the novel's fatalism reaches its point of closure - I wondered again about its mid-90s setting. Its just pre-internet which helps (Jacobs having a fax machine in the villa seems a clumsy detail, for instance) but the timing seems more to do with how Jacobs is aged. It has to be set in the 1994 to enable Joe Jacobs to have been a Polish Jewish evacuee who never saw his parents after the war; yet this ghostly past is so lightly sketched I'm not sure it has any greater reality to it. Levy's interest is in the psychological deadness of her damaged characters, and that's inevitably focussed on their vulnerable present, rather than the demons of their past.

Outside of the tableaux the characters feel they don't exist - and that anti-realism just about gives the novel an intrigue that takes it away from its slightly characterless origins. Its symbols might be slight, but they are not without some intellectual weight.

No comments: