Sun, Suffering and Savagery

Jenny Turner

  • Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
    Faber/And Other Stories, second edition, 160 pp, £7.99, September 2012, ISBN 978 0 571 29960 7

The swimming pool we all know, blue and rectangular. And the body, ‘floating near the deep end, where a line of pine trees kept the water cool in their shade’. The family around it, Joe Jacobs the father, Isabel the mother and Nina the teenage daughter; Mitchell and Laura, the family friends invited on holiday with them. ‘Is it a bear?’ Joe asks, half-jokingly; the party has been discussing a news story about a bear that walked down from the hills one day to take a dip in a Hollywood actor’s pool. But Nina can see that it’s ‘a woman swimming naked … on her stomach, both arms stretched out like a starfish, her long hair floating like seaweed at the sides of her body’. So far, so calm and regular. And yet, I can already feel panic rising in me. Always, already and for ever, events have slipped completely out of control.

If you’ve already read this novel you’ll know that a terrible undertow slowly reveals itself. You’ll know it now, but probably you missed it, as I did, the first time, as you missed the heavy winter suit Joe was wearing when he dropped in at the house of the woman next door. The sugar mice, the cherry print on Nina’s new bikini. The ball of hair in the Andalusian almond soup. The impact on everybody of Isabel’s cool job as a television war correspondent ‘up close to the suffering world’: ‘She was in the middle of her life, she was nearly fifty years old and had witnessed countless massacres and conflicts … She had gone too far into the unhappiness of the world to start all over again.’ The impact of Joe’s profession as a Polish émigré confessional poet. Of Mitchell and Laura, antique dealers from North London, boring, rather foodie, with an interest in old guns.

The swimming pool, Levy warns us, is ‘more like a pond’ than pools usually look like in shiny brochures. But still, we think we understand what we’re seeing: the villa, the pool, the white recliners on the hot, dry terrace; ‘the bittersweet smell of lavender’; the family and their auditors, ‘light-headed in the fierce heat’. And then, the woman emerging, like a mermaid, ‘with dripping waist-length hair’: is this not a story we’ve all heard and seen before? You think of other suns, other pools with baking terraces, the ancient pines behind: Betty Blue, The Birth of Venus, Bardot on the roof of the Casa Malaparte in Godard’s Le Mépris. You think about the sorts of thing that happen to the English gone to the sunny south for their holidays, light and wine melting together dream and waking life, the ‘early humans’ living in the mountains all around. Is this stereotype, is it cliché, is it a truth so old and unchanging it has taken on the force of myth? The trouble is, all these questions head in completely the wrong direction, missing the real focus of the action. Life, as usual, is happening somewhere else.

Who is this naked young woman, this Kitty Finch? Levy certainly lays on the symbolic apparatus: as well as having a ‘wealth of hair’ she’s a ‘sort of’ botanist, and has dark green fingernails, and is often seen trailing her latest weedy trophies. (There’s also, in the outfit Kitty wears in the novel’s culminating scene, what must be a deliberate allusion to Phaedra, the girl with the fairy wings in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem – Levy has worked in theatre and film, and the acute sense of dramatic structure in this novel is one of the things that makes it seem so familiar and yet so fresh.)

Kitty is quickly revealed to know more than the others do about many things. She knows the house and its environs well, her mother is friends with the owner and she has stayed there loads of times. She pretends her visit is an accident but she is lying. She’s an obsessive fan of Joe’s poetry and wants him to read a poem she has written for him. The 14-year-old Nina in particular can’t get over how much she seems to know about ‘everything’: plants, bugs, ‘the right sort of plaster’ for walls, beach etiquette on the Baie des Anges, the filtration mechanisms of swimming pools. She knows about Jurgen, the hippy German handyman, who is in love with her and whose ‘special name’ for her is Kitty Ket, and Madeleine, the bitter English doctor who watches and judges and ekes out her miserable retirement from the Villa Rose next door, and is, in Kitty’s words, an ‘evil old witch’.

And yet the hint of magic turns out to be quite misleading, and Kitty’s early advantages are quickly cancelled out. Yes, it’s true, she does know the villa well, but her mother is not so much a friend of the owner as her cleaner; and yes, she is ‘sort of’ a botanist, in that she used to have a job ‘clearing leaves and cutting grass in Victoria Park in Hackney’. It’s true that she set out with an idea of stalking Joe Jacobs. But she could not have predicted that his wife would invite her to stay with them at the villa, lugging a heavy wooden chair past the usual obstacles – ‘a red bucket. A broken plant pot. Two canvas umbrellas wedged into lumps of concrete’ – for her to sit on, placing it with deliberation between her husband’s recliner and her own.

Kitty stammers, she talks to herself, she hides her food – the observant Nina has noticed that she’s a ‘starver’, ribs like trap-wires, bones ‘like beads’. She has a mad fantasy that Joe’s poetry is ‘inside her. He had trance-journeyed into her mind.’ She’s troubled by hallucinations about ‘a black-haired boy’ coming at her out of her bedroom wall. She tells Joe that she’s having a go at coming off Seroxat, the ‘really strong anti-depressant’ known as Paxil in the US, which she has, she says, been on ‘for years’. She has a past with hospitalisation in it, and sectioning, and ECT.

So a girl, a beautiful mad girl, who knows a lot, and is often naked: it’s obvious to everybody from the start that Kitty is ‘a window waiting to be climbed through’, and that Joe almost immediately has ‘wedged his foot into the crack’. Besides which, the novel has a prologue that becomes a Muriel Sparkish chorus, repeated with variations, making it clear that the deed has been done. But why does everybody make the seduction so very easy? Who is on which side of the broken window, at the beginning and at the end?

Isabel, groomed and clever, feels like ‘a kind of ghost in her London home’. Success and brains have disqualified her, like Medea, from the family hearth:

To do the things she had chosen to do in the world, she risked forfeiting her place as a wife and mother, a bewildering place haunted by all that had been imagined for her if she chose to sit in it. She had attempted to be someone she didn’t really understand. A powerful but fragile female character. If she knew that to be forceful was not the same as being powerful and to be gentle was not the same as being fragile, she did not know how to use this knowledge in her own life or what it added up to.

The suspicion has to be that she has set up the seduction to give herself an excuse to get rid of her husband; but there’s a terrible warning in the figure of Madeleine, the next-door neighbour, who flew from her marriage a long time ago and has been desperate ever since. Besides, Nina saw her parents only the other day, ‘kissing in the hallway like something out of a film … They seemed to understand each other in a way that left her out.’ Isabel is the only person who gets to call her husband by the name he was born with, Jozef.

Joe, meanwhile, has been the perfect househusband, sewing buttons on Nina’s cardigans, searching for missing socks. His philandering is in a way a reward for having been stalwart, keeping ‘his family intact, flawed and hostile but still a family’; and yet he knows his betrayals drove his wife away in the first place, that she would rather ‘lie in a tent crawling with scorpions’ than be lied to by him again. As a character, a mask, a nest of conflict, Joe is so tense it’s almost easier not to watch him, as Mitchell at one point attests: ‘Whatever it was he was supposed to know about Joe had totally gone from his mind.’ Most of the time, Joe prefers not to think about it either: ‘I’ve got an FFF inside,’ he says. ‘A fucking funny feeling.’ And that is all he wants to say.

But what of Nina, stuck between these crazy parents, like one of those spinning buttons on a string? ‘When she thought about her parents, which was most of the time, she was always trying to fit the pieces together.’ Nina likes ponies and fishing and the toe-rings she has been given by Jurgen. She is, in other words, right on that ritual summer-holiday cusp. For Nina, being with Kitty is ‘like being near a cork that had just popped out of a bottle’, except that the figure is really about Nina herself. The question is only in what shape she will shoot forward into adulthood from this summer.

Deborah Levy was born in South Africa in 1959 and moved to London as a child. She studied drama at Dartington and started publishing plays, poems and stories in her twenties, with a first novel, Beautiful Mutants, in 1989. Most of her early work has been out of print for years, but I got a second-hand copy of Beautiful Mutants off the internet, along with a novel called Billy and Girl (1996) and the early short story collection Ophelia and the Great Idea (1989). This early work is interestingly different from the style Levy has developed in her present novel. It’s done in voices for the most part, big, chunky arrays of dramatic monologue, and in a cluttered, maximalist surrealism, like those shops that sell 1950s American kitchenalia next to Mexican skulls and bleeding hearts: ‘The Poet smells of cashew nuts and cologne. She drinks tea from a plastic cup of cheap rose-coloured glass and says, “This is the age of the migrant and the missile, Lapinski. In some ways you could say our time has come”’ – this is from Beautiful Mutants. ‘Mom is like the phantom limb of an amputee. It tingles in the stump where she once was. Pain is not just in the body. It is in the mind and soul. Call Himmler. Call Dr Ruth and Oprah. Call Oscar Wilde and Descartes. Most importantly, call Freezer World Louise’ (Billy and Girl). Swimming Home is the first novel she has written in 15 years.

Levy has combed her early style into spareness, the structure is classical, the unities of time and place rigorously maintained. No prop, no object, makes the cut unless it is simple, sculptural, dynamic: a pebble with a hole in it, a slug, a recording of a cow mooing, ‘an inflatable three-foot rubber alien with a wrinkled neck’ bought by Jurgen at the flea market because, he says, ‘the Ket is like ET.’ The pool, the swimmer, the gun, the swimming home.

But not even a holiday poolside tragedy can be entirely mythical and timeless. Novels are historical documents, that’s just part of what they are, and Levy’s handling of this aspect of her story is less sure. Right at the beginning, she sets the time and place of the main action: Alpes-Maritimes, France, July 1994 – then backs up the dateline later with mentions of the genocide in Rwanda, the suicide of Kurt Cobain, both of which happened earlier that year (the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind: that baby, another creature intent on swimming home). The mooing cow turns out to have been recorded by Claude the café-owner on his mobile phone: was it easy to record stuff on mobile phones in the mid-1990s? I’m not saying it was impossible, but was it the sort of thing that café-owners in the foothills above Nice were likely to do?

I have a doubt, too, about the Seroxat, the ‘really strong anti-depressant’ Kitty says she’s been taking ‘for years’, and which becomes the agent of an early, momentous exchange between herself and her hero. Mostly, Seroxat works great. Like Prozac, it’s one of the most popular and widely used current anti-depressants, but unlike Prozac and its less proverbial cognates, it has picked up a scary press. In 2003, the UK regulatory body advised against its being prescribed to under-18s because of concerns about ‘self-harm and suicidal thoughts’, adding that its use in young adults over 18 should be ‘closely monitored’ and that Seroxat was associated with unusually unpleasant withdrawal reactions in patients of all ages. So yes, it’s more than plausible that, in the early 1990s, a young woman was prescribed a drug later established to have an unacceptably high risk of bad side effects for those in her age group. But Seroxat didn’t come on the market until 1990. So why is Kitty so sure that Joe is lying when he claims he’s never heard of it? And why does Joe – famous for having written poems about his own teenage brush with the psychiatric medications of the 1950s – seem to agree with her that he was? Is Levy using the brand name Seroxat loosely, to indicate any anti-depressant medication that might have been prescribed in Britain over the past half-century, and if she is, what does this mean for the effectiveness of the moment?

It’s possible I’m being unreasonable on this point. The history of Seroxat in the 1990s is a topic close to my heart. I had a brother who had a bad time with it, so naturally I’ve followed every scrap of news about it since, and about anti-depressant medication in general. Lots of other readers will have done the same, I’m sure, for reasons as ordinary and painful. We’re a captive audience. But for her tragedy completely to embrace us, Levy would have to delineate her medication as firmly as she does any other object in her novel: the broken plant pot, the umbrellas stuck in concrete, the pebble with the hole. And on the question of why Joe should know about Seroxat – not a contingent matter, like a flavour of ice cream, but an active ingredient of this story, a substance sold to block despair – I felt her firmness, under the ferocity of my personal interest, momentarily give way.

‘Campaign launched to warn young holidaymakers over balcony fall deaths,’ I read the other day in the Daily Mail. There are so many ways a dream holiday can turn to nightmare: the family stuck round the pool in the sunshine, passing unhappiness from one member to another. The intellectuals, too clever to care about the perfect Christmas, putting all their longing into the fantasy of the simple life in France. The ordinarily crazy, the sane and normal, to each his own delusional system. The bourgeois Brits, in search of sun and southern savagery – as if they don’t bring it on holiday with them, in their own stories, only a generation or two away from some atrocity of ‘the suffering world’.

Swimming Home was originally published last year – its third ever title – by And Other Stories, the clever new British independent that Jenny Diski wrote about in the LRB in January, and became one of the fiction hits of the summer after its surprise inclusion on the Booker longlist in July. The mass-market paperback has been copublished by And Other Stories and Faber, in time for its inclusion on the Booker shortlist too, though a bit late for the holiday-reading market, which is a shame. You could have read it while lying on your beach towel, ‘the pink dome of the Hotel Negresco with a French flag flying into the towelly blue sky’. You could have thought about the swimming pool as ‘a hole in the ground’, ‘a floating open coffin’, ‘a grave filled with water’, like in Sunset Boulevard or The Great Gatsby. You could float and bake and doze again, thinking, perhaps, of the odd way that Fitzgerald is echoed by the grown-up Nina at the end of Levy’s novel: ‘I have never got a grip on when the past begins or where it ends, but if cities map the past with statues made from bronze forever frozen in one dignified position, as much as I try to make the past keep still and mind its manners, it moves and murmurs with me through every day.’