The Deeper End: Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home
By and with Gareth Evans
Deborah Levy’s writing sits hothouse and unsettlingly, provocatively at odds with its British surroundings. Internationally lensed in its lineage, looking, longing and latitudes – her prose, play-scripts, performance texts (different), puppet pitches, broadcast dispatches, poems and pieces in general convey versions of otherness with a sensual, exploratory, even uncanny tone and insight that is virulently absent elsewhere on these almost benighted islands.
A woman – no doubt at all of this – who would be extremely pleased to find herself at table with the likes of Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, H.D., Djuna Barnes, Jane Bowles, Lee Miller, Francesca Woodman and Angela Carter, Levy has, since the 1980s, delivered a series of fissure fables, parables of a fertile withholding, that speak to – and of – the always unstable terrain between the skin, the worn, the spoken (the public surface) and the altogether more unknowing, unknowable and finally unsayable pits, caves, abysses and marshes (land or water, who can say) of the sub- and un-conscious.
A poet of instincts and the insight that comes from reading objects, moments, moods, gazes and gauzes with the full and fully eroticised (far from merely sexual) spectrum awareness of a singular encounter in the colonnades of evening, Levy wanders nomadically across and into forms, a tactile tunesmith with a razor for a pitching-fork.
Her novel Swimming Home, the first long form prose work in a decade and a half, draws on long years’ reflection on how the dysfunction of the domestic dramatic – the ambiguously indexed, constantly shifting and coded spaces that host both action and the passive-aggressive interior pause – informs the most profound urgencies of the contemporary human being as they seek, often desperately (and more or less evidently) to become. This book is a volume on the valency of yearning, in all its rainbow hues.
You’ll have to read it for its plot – it’s not spoken of here – and plumb its opening paragraph for a glitteringly precise convocation of Levy’s strategic intentions. Before and after you read the book, however, please raise your full glass to collaborative publishers And Other Stories for their proud backing of this most definitely ‘other’ story.
Gareth Evans: I’m thinking first of the psycho-pathology of the swimming pool, and primarily in a filmic sense; your writing after all is inherently cinematic, where that means deep seeing, a rich mise-en-scene, the often unspoken, a precise point-of-view… So, Ozon’s Swimming Pool; The Swimmer (John Cheever’s story but, maybe even more, Frank Perry’s filmic adaptation); Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty; Lucrecia Martel’s stagnant drama La Cienaga; Deray’s La Piscine; Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated. What is your own sense of the importance of this primal (birthing) zone?
Deborah Levy: You are referring to the central metaphor in my book, which is set around a swimming pool in the south of France. Pools are a kind of theatre with exits and entrances. We do quite literally have ‘costumes’, but we are nearly naked too.
Pools are small societies and we are asked personally to define our place in them. We are streamed into lanes: slow, medium and fast. As it happens, I am quite a strong swimmer and belong in the fast lane, but I like to warm up in the slow lane and then cross over to the fast. Sometimes I can see that my fellow swimmers don’t approve of the kind of social mobility I have bestowed upon myself, especially in Britain, where the class system is very defined.
A pool is a public place but also a private place – we can always stick our head under water. When I swim under water (as I do every day) my body stretches, muscles relax, and I find that random thoughts surface and drift as I do the lengths. Swimming helps me get in to a way of thinking that is useful for writing a novel. But the main conceptual design in Swimming Home is that a swimming pool, no matter how posh, is just a hole in the ground and so, of course, in my book Joe points out that a pool resembles a grave. My title, Swimming Home, refers to this; also in part to the way we start life in water.
And cinema, yes; Frank Perry’s The Swimmer (from the Cheever), with an incandescent performance from an athletic, ageing Burt Lancaster, was a major inspiration. It is a bleak story told in a cunningly light-hearted tone…“The day was beautiful and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty.”
I noted the almost transcendental ways in which Cheever conceals and discreetly reveals Ned’s circumstances and state of mind as he tries to swim home through the glittering blue pools of suburban Connecticut. I wanted to have a go at this tone… Muriel Spark also has a breezy, light touch, but her heart of darkness casts a shadow across all her pages. It’s taken me a while to realize that Spark was a great writer.
I was also thinking about Godard’s Le Mépris / Contempt (1963), adapted from Alberto Moravia’s novel Il Disprezzo , published in English as The Ghost at Noon. This was an indirect influence, but I was intrigued by how, in it, Brigitte Bardot is directed to be almost angry about her beauty. Here, I was thinking about my character Kitty Finch, who is always being stared at and scrutinized by every character in my book.
Some of Le Mépris is set in a villa in Capri and it is here that the Bardot character accelerates the contempt she feels for her writer husband, who is using her physical beauty as bait to get himself a job. So there is a bit of Joe’s wife Isabel in there, because she uses Kitty’s beauty to attempt to free herself from her philandering husband.
The other film that kept returning to me while I was writing was Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, centered as it is around the absurd rituals of a group of middle-class people. Along with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, all of these contributed to the kind of melancholy and gently accumulating panic in the sunshine that I wanted to create for Swimming Home.
GE: Can you then consider Swimming Home’s relationship to cinema, in terms of both narrative space and screenwriting form?
DL: When I began writing Swimming Home, its structure began to unfold like a film. I saw it cinematically. I experienced it cinematically. Actually I was quite worried about this because some of the pleasures and challenges of writing fiction lie in playing around with time but, in Swimming Home, time is more or less chronological, except for one formal intervention it its design, which is when I repeat the moment of Kitty and Joe together in the car on a mountain road.
I certainly do have a cinematic, rather than literary, internal language when I am writing. I think in terms of close ups and wide shots; I construct scenes and light them, as it were. I arrange key objects in certain positions and return to them again for another view, but in the end I’m just a nerdy writer of fiction and want every sentence to do something exciting. I know how much it takes for a writer to snare my own attention and I am a brutal editor of my own work. I sometimes wonder if this is a gift or a fatal flaw.
As it happens, I have been commissioned to write my first feature film, and I find it is a language I can do very easily. I love it…and then, at the same time, I kind of miss language. Obviously, film is mostly a visual language, but that’s a whole other story.
GE: How much do you ventriloquise for, or are you are ventriloquised by, your characters?
DL: Characters. Their task is to think for me and to embody certain kinds of human behaviours. They are masks and, at the same time, there is a part of myself in all my characters in Swimming Home. I mean, I could write an academic essay on the ideas all my minor and major characters have to carry for me in a fiction, but that’s not what I have chosen to do.
On the other hand, there is some weird shamanistic stuff that goes on with writing characters and, I have to say, I don’t want to get too theoretical about this. Freud’s favourite quote was from the French neurologist Charcot, something like, “theory is good but it doesn’t stop things from happening.” I entirely agree.
Just to get some reality levels organized here; I am aware that my characters are doing and saying things for the plot and for poetry and comedy and politics; but God, it’s so exciting when they reveal something I did not know that I knew.
For example, when I first started to write Swimming Home, Kitty Finch was noisily a bit mad but I began to realize the old cliché was true. It’s the quiet ones we watch…and I began to understand that one of the central characters was too quiet about the things that hurt him most. It was his silence that kind of gave me the story.
You know, I quite miss hanging out with the characters in Swimming Home. I haven’t really separated from them yet. There are days I wake up and worry that there is more to do with Kitty Finch for example, and sometimes I wonder if there is a sequel…but then I think, no Deborah, you don’t write sequels. And then I wonder why I have cast myself in this way. Why not write a sequel?
I have stern conversations with myself about this and they go something like, well, if you think there’s more to do with Kitty Finch, why didn’t you do it; perhaps she is not explored sufficiently in the original? And then I understand, all over again, that she does what she needs to do in Swimming Home. If there were more for her to do, she would have done it. So there we go…you can hear me ventriloquising all over the place.
GE: In light of this, the qualities, possibilities and limits of ‘performance’ run through all your work. How do you think about this in Swimming Home?
DL: Well, I had theatre training, and avant-garde theatre training to boot (although I did not know it at the time) at Dartington College of Arts. I was a very bookish sort of young woman but, as well as reading Jane Austen in my first year, I was reading Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, and his rhapsodic, furious essays, in particular Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society, which is one of the most bruising and truthful stretches of writing ever produced.
Anyway, it was pretty strange that, for someone who wanted to be a writer, I was taught by the leading exponents of postmodern dance, Steve Paxton and Mary Faulkerson. I was just a lumpen know-nothing, a vaguely punkish 18 year old from West Finchley (punk singer Poly Styrene, whose real name was Marion Elliot Said, was my total heroine) but I was asked questions I had never considered before, and which I still regard as the most subversive of questions for a writer to consider; how is the human skeleton aligned; what are the mechanisms involved in standing and sitting and falling; is it possible to have a ‘neutral’ body; what is our relationship with gravity; how do we breathe; where are we looking; how are we looking; why are we looking; what part of the body do we lead with when we walk?
All of this was very useful when I was teaching animation script-writing at the Royal College of Art; and it is a useful forensic tool to look at how certain kinds of political values and psychologies are embodied too. There is that phrase for feeling superior: she had her ‘nose in the air.’ Well, it comes from somewhere concrete and real.
So, in a way, perhaps I do approach all my work ‘performatively’. That is to say, I am interested in behaviour, and writing is always a kind of behaviour.
GE: Do you feel you have a ‘project’, across all the media you work in?
DL: No, not really; I have no comfort-zone as a writer. Perhaps I should settle into one and have an easier life? Ok; I do have a project across all the media I work in, these being fiction, theatre, film, poetry. One of the things writers are supposed cleverly to chase is coherence. Coherence is the bloody mauled fox, the trophy the author proudly brings to the table for her readers.
And yet we do not have coherent desires, and our most confronting thoughts do not come out in articulate, clever sentences. We say things we do not mean, do things we do not understand, slam doors for reasons we do not entirely comprehend. We love things that are not good for us. As a writer, when I get near to the things I cannot articulate, and then a bit closer, the work starts to roar. It might be that my project is to find a language that does not sanitize and flatten and fix the more fragile, strange, incomprehensible ways in which we experience being alive, or half dead, or whatever.
GE; Indeed, in that regard, I was struck by an observation made about your book by Laura Elkin. She wrote that “the point isn’t the plot, or Levy’s language, or the deliberate yet casual strokes drawn between the characters that delineate their relationships and needs. What Swimming Home points to is the insufficiencies and failures of language and storytelling to get across what we really mean: our urgencies, our worries, our fears” (read the full assessment at http://maitresse.typepad.com/maitresse/2012/01/swimming-home-by-deborah-levy.html).
DL:Yes, the story is about all of this. And at the same time is a highly plotted story.
GE: What then do you feel your creative ‘purpose’ is? I don’t mean message, but perhaps your own ‘desire’…
DL: My creative purpose is to be alert to the things that interest me and to work out how to link one thing to another in mind-blowing ways. How things connect with other things is what I want to know more about, and that’s most of the pleasure of writing and reading.
My desire in Swimming Home was to give all the characters existential equality. That is not a very English thing to say, but what I mean is that there is not much sly moral judging going on in Swimming Home. I am not encouraging the reader to hate the hyper-realism of Madeleine Sheridan and love Kitty Finch, who has to put up a fight for the way she exists in the world, well documented by R.D. Laing for example.
More generally, my desire is not to have a writing mind that is ‘made up’, which is not to pretend that I don’t have opinions and affinities and arguments to chase. I think most people would agree that it is sometimes agonising to feel things; and we spend quite a lot of energy trying not to feel things. Well, I am interested in what we replace not feeling things with. That is my subject and in a way it was a writer like Alain Robbe-Grillet’s subject too.
So we can replace our desire not to feel with heroin or ideology or train-spotting or the way we hold a knife and fork, or with the design of a building or with various mysterious symptoms that make us suffer when we walk to the bus stop. If all this sounds like I have mostly been reading Freud – which I have – I am dramatizing two of his most iconic case histories it’s a massive, subtle, very hard job in the end, I’m with Henry James most of the way: “it is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance… and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.”
It’s a bit pathetic probably, but I don’t know of any substitute either. There are nice things like sex and swimming and drinking wine with friends, but in the end my desire is to be alone writing again. It is the way I feel less alone actually, and that’s all messed up too, but it’s how it is.
GE: Finally, could you talk a little about your being part of And Other Stories,in terms of it being a reader-active, translation-central operation?
DL: And Other Stories historically represents exactly the right literary provocation at the right time. What they have achieved is extraordinary in such a cynical publishing atmosphere. We know that to make something innovative and substantial happen in art or science or education – or human rights for that matter – always comes down to a few remarkable and driven people.
Stefan Tobler is a passionate publisher with great tastes and instincts. He is serene, astute and he is using everything the 21st Century offers to introduce readers to the blazing international literature he and the highly skilled AOS core team champion.
It’s quite sad to see how decent people involved in mainstream literary publishing have become toadies to the perceived tastes of the ‘market’. This is all due for a change and everyone knows it. The international Occupy movement has so astutely chimed with popular disgust at an exhausted and failing corporate culture. If I let ‘the market’ write my books for me and tell me what I think and how you think and what we are like, what kind of conversation would I be having with my readers? What kind of conversation would they be having with me?
Furthermore, the reading groups that AOS are in conversation with have read lots of international literature and presumably speak quite a few languages- they represent a big exciting world. I will never forget the shock of reading an article in a respected broadsheet newspaper in which Ian Jack laid in to the distinguished academic Gabriel Josipovici, author of Whatever Happened to Modernism, and then he somehow felt entitled enough to take the piss out of what he saw as his foreign name. In this context the reading groups are essential.
Deborah Levy’s work can be very helpfully encountered at www.deborahlevy.co.uk
Swimming Home will be BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime (10.45pm) from Monday 27th February.
Thanks to all at And Other Stories.
Gareth Evans is a writer, curator and editor (www.gotogetherpress.com; www.artevents.info). He is Adjunct Film Curator at the Whitechapel Gallery, current Writer-in-Residence for Jerwood Visual Arts and the Co-Producer of the essay film Patience (after Sebald), currently on UK release with Soda Pictures (www.nbcq.co.uk; www.sodapictures.com).