I promised another book response today. Luckily, I had written some notes a couple of weeks ago for this very purpose.
Last week was meant to be the other Deborah Levy novel, Swimming Home, but I did Eileen. Next week is Nutshell. Then we will be up against Christmas and almost time for my end of year wrap, like every blogger in the world.
Swimming Home was more realist than Hot Milk, and the premise I really liked – a family arrive for their holiday at a villa in France, and there’s a girl there, a young woman, swimming naked in the pool when they arrive. She is not a usual girl (and while in my memory she climbs out of the pool and stands casually chatting to them naked, I just checked and she frantically looks for her dress and pulls it on. Why did I change it in my recollection?) It’s a brisk read, and again, so tightly written. It spans a week and even though a slender book, is super dense and like Hot Milk, packed with meaning, much of which I couldn’t understand. But no matter, I enjoyed it. For me this is a successful book. That you can enjoy it and appreciate it on a number of levels.
It has an arresting opening scene (well, second-opening scene) where the family see something in the pool. One of them suggests it might be a bear:
The swimming pool in the grounds of the tourist villa was more like a pond than the languid blue pools in holiday brochures. A pond in the shape of a rectangle, cared from stone by a family of Italian stonecutters living in Antibes. The body was floating near the deep end, where a line of pine trees kept the water cool in their shade.
‘Is it a bear?’ Joe Jacobs waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the water. He could feel the sun burning into the shirt his Hindu tailor had made for him from a roll of raw silk. His back was on fire. Even the roads were melting in the July heatwave.
His daughter, Nina Jacobs, fourteen years old, standing at the edge of the pool in her new cherry-print bikini, glanced anxiously at her mother. Isabel Jacobs was unzipping her jeans as if she was about to dive in. At the same time she could see Mitchell and Laura, the two family friends sharing the villa with them for the summer, put down their mugs of tea and walk towards the stone steps that led to the shallow end. Laura, a slender giantess at six foot three, kicked off her sandals and waded in up to her knees. A battered yellow lilo knocked against the mossy sides, scattering the bees that were in various stages of dying in the water.
‘What do you think it is, Isabel?’
Nine could see from where she was standing that it was a woman swimming naked under the water. She was on her stomach, both arms stretched out like a starfish, her long hair floating like seaweed at the sides of her body.
‘Jozef thinks she’s a bear,’ Isabel Jacobs replied in her detached war-correspondent voice.
‘If it’s a bear I’m going to have to shoot it.’ Mitchell had recently purchased two antique Persian handguns at the flea market in Nice and shooting things was on his mind.
[An aside here, and then…]
A woman with dripping waist-length hair climbed out of the pool and ran to one of the plastic recliners. She looked like she might be in her early twenties, but it was hard to tell because she was frantically skipping from one chair to another, searching for her dress. It had fallen on to the paving stones but no one helped her because they were staring at her naked body. Nina felt light-headed in the fierce heat. The bitter-sweet smell of lavender drifted towards her, suffocating her as the sound of the woman’s panting breath mingled with the drone of the bees in the wilting flowers. It occurred to her that she might be sun-sick, because she felt as if she was going to faint. In a blur she could see the woman’s breasts were surprisingly full and round for someone so thin. Her long thighs were joined to the jutting hinges of her hips like the legs of the dolls she used to bend and twist as a child. The only thing that seemed real about the woman was the triangle of golden public hair glinting in the sun. The sight of it made Nina fold her arms across her chest and hunch her back in an effort to make her own body disappear.
A description of Kitty Finch – the woman swimming naked in the pool – comes a few pages later, through the eyes of the daughter, Nina:
Standing next to Kitty Finch was like being near a cork that had just popped out of a bottle. The first pop when gasses seem to escape and everything is sprinkled for one second with something intoxicating.
And a bit later, a description of a young man in a cafe:
Claude… had only just turned twenty-three and knew he looked like Mick Jagger.
To be honest, while I enjoyed both Levy’s books I think I have finally decided I prefer Hot Milk. The way she describes the landscapes, the characters, the interiority and psychology of a difficult, stifling, co-dependent mother and daughter relationship is fantastic. Levy is a very restrained writer; she seems to set things up, or indicate certain turns that might follow, which draw you on as reader. Here’s an example that I’ve noted from Swimming Home, on page 53, where the two cafe men, the one who knows he looks like Mick Jagger and another one, are talking about the family on holiday and the unusual Kitty Finch:
No. He [the writer in the family group] is just avoiding Kitty Ket. He has not read Ket’s thing and he is avoiding her. [Kitty has slipped a poem under the writer’s door, hoping for feedback.] The Ket is like ET. She thinks she has a mental connection with the poet. He has not read her thing and she will be sad and her blood pressure will go up and she will murder them all with the fat man’s guns.
Actually, I’ve just read the last few pages of this book and maybe I like this one best. I DON’T KNOW. I can’t decide, they are both great. I do know that approximately half the readers I’ve spoken to prefer one while half prefer the other.
The afterword mentions all sorts of social theorists: Lacan, Barthes, Duras, Stein, also Kafka (yes, makes sense, there is an overlay of surrealism in both novels). And here’s a fascinating sentence, talking about Levy’s early work in the mid-nineties:
… her fiction seemed less concerned about the stories it narrated than about the interzone (to borrow Burroughs’s term) it set up in which desire and speculation, fantasy and symbols circulated.
Right then. I need to re-read this.
‘If the setting and plot of Swimming Home are borrowed, almost ironically, from the staid English-middle-class-on-holiday novel, all similarities end there. The book’s real drama plays out through blue sugar mice who scuttle from candy stalls into nightmares; or stones with holes that turn into voyeuristic (or myopic) telescopes, then lethal weights, then, simply, holes. What holds this kaleidoscopic narrative together, even as it tears its characters apart, is – in classical Freudian fashion – desire: desire and its inseparable flip side, the death drive. This comes embodied – nakedly, almost primordially, floating in the water to which it will return – in the figure of Kitty Finch, half doomed and daddy-obsessed Sylvia Plath, half post-breakdown Edie Sedgwick…: volatile, imploding around a swimming pool.’
I recommend and have found a new author to love. Excellent.