You’re just a totalitarian angel

AmorousDiscourseSuburbsHellAn Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell
by Deborah Levy

This is a long poem (ish – it’s no Faerie Queen) in the form of a dialogue between a couple, “He” and “she”, alternating having their say in this argument/conversation. It’s different from anything else I’ve read, wonderfully surreal and packed with references to everything from Shakespeare to pop songs. I read it in one sitting and immediately wanted to read it again.

The poem works so well because it could be read in many ways. Is this an ordinary human couple living in suburbia? Or are they angels fallen to hell? Is one of them fallen and the other trying to save them? Is one human and one God? The many religious references (to the Bible, to Dante, to the language of faith) are woven in such a way that they could just possibly be the twee fondnesses of a couple in love, or they could be wholly serious.

Best of all, it’s funny. Genuinely, laugh-out-loud but also cleverly, funny. It’s profound and profane, full of meaning and simple, pure entertainment.

“i try to introduce you
to the way i see things
and all you want is a wife
a wife and a second-class stamp and a bath
a bath and a donut and a product to kill moths

“You’re just a totalitarian angel
Full of self-rapture
I thought you were a divine messenger
In fact you’re a glutton
With wings”

First published 1990 by Jonathan Cape.
This edition, with revisions, published 2014 by And Other Stories.

Source: I subscribe to the publisher.

Spectral shadows across the tamed gardens

Black Vodka

Black Vodka: Ten Stories
by Deborah Levy

I loved Levy’s novel Swimming Home, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year and Levy was the National Book Awards Author of the Year 2012, so I was pretty excited when I found out this would be the first book in my subscription to And Other Stories.

These are very modern short stories, zipping around different European locations and ethnicities, and incorporating modern technology reasonably well (which is something I basically never say, so kudos to Levy on that). But they’re not about story or location, they’re about emotions and characters and relationships.

“I was instructed in the art of Not Belonging from a very tender age. Deformed. Different. Strange. Go Ho-me Ali, Go Ho-me. In fact I was born in Southend-on-Sea, and so were those boys, but I was exiled to the Arabian Desert and not allowed to smoke with them behind the cockle sheds.”

Most of the stories might be better described as sketches or scenes, which I think I’ve also said about Haruki Murakami’s short stories and I loved both, and I do see some similarities. Both are modern and city-centric, and sometimes the central character can be a little mysterious and cold. But more often, Levy’s characters are warm and racked with emotion.

“At night the satellite dishes on the roofs and walls throw spectral shadows across the tamed gardens. I have grown to love the bronze doorknobs in the shape of jungle beasts: a lion’s head, a tiger, a snake…It gives me a thrill because I know the world is very old.”

Both the characters and the events tend to be oblique, not straightforward. As with Swimming Home there are subtleties at work that mean a few different things could be happening. Sometimes details or even names of characters overlap between stories. I wanted to re-read some of them right away.

My favourite is one of the shortest in the collection, “Placing a call”. It uses the second person and repetition and it’s immediately apparent that the narrator is unreliable. I also loved “Pillow talk”, which is at once a sweet love story and brutally honest.

My only tiny gripe would be that none of these stories is new, they have all been previously published, which smacks a little of cashing in on last year’s award wins, but on the other hand it gives us Levy newcomers a chance to discover more of her great work, and it has definitely solidified my interest in her writing.

Published February 2013 by And Other Stories.

Source: I am a subscriber to And Other Stories.

Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better

Swimming Home
by Deborah Levy

I had heard quite mixed reviews of this novel but it was on the staff picks shelf at the very lovely Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath so I took a chance. I can see why it has divided people. As the blurb says, “it wears its darkness lightly”.

The set-up is that familiar one of the middle-class English family holidaying in a villa on the French Riviera when a stranger intrudes. Or is it? There are clues throughout that things are not what they seem and to the last page I was not sure if all or any of the events recounted had actually happened.

“He leaned his head out of the window and felt the cold mountain air sting his lips…They knew the past lived in rocks and trees and they knew desire made them awkward, mad, mysterious, messed up…He asked her again to please, please, please drive him safely home to his wife and daughter.
“‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely.'”

What it appears to be is the story of famous poet Joe Jacobs and his absent war correspondent wife Isabel, whose marriage is breaking down. But there’s also their teenage daughter Nina, childlike for her 14 years but trying to be one of the adults. And there’s family friends Laura and Mitchell, a couple who run a boutique shop in London and who never seem comfortable in this holiday setting. And then there’s Kitty Finch, the stranger who turns up floating naked in their outdoor swimming pool, unembarrassed by her nakedness or the apparent mix-up that has brought her there.

There are some plot threads that seem so inevitable that Levy has put their conclusions on the first page to save the reader wondering. Yes, we do have a philandering husband and a beautiful, strange young woman thrown in his path. Yes, we do have characters dealing with depression and thoughts of death. And if you take it all at face value then you might say that what happens is no more than the sum of these parts. But I think that the writing demands more of its reader.

There are two obfuscating themes: identity and fiction. Joe, we learn early on, is Jozef to his wife, JHJ to his readers. Everyone lies or withholds information or tells different versions of the truth. Not only is Joe a poet, but Kitty is an aspiring writer eager for his opinion of her work, and then later in a section told from Nina’s perspective there are short poems thrown into the narrative as if she, too, is a poet, an inventor of fictions. Characters seem to repeat each other’s words or actions as if the novel is being rewritten even as you read it.

“No one dared say they minded, because the war correspondent was controlling them all. Like she had the final word or was daring them to contradict her. The truth was her husband had the final word because he wrote words and then he put full stops at the end of them.”

Add to all this that two characters have a history of depression and related illnesses and a third character is constantly stoned, and you have yourself a thoroughly unreliable narrative. What seems like a quick, easy, fluid read becomes so much more than the sum of its parts.

Published 2011 by And Other Stories.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012.