The brief and intense novel Swimming Home, shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, promises to make Deborah Levy’s name in America: it was so in-demand that I had to wait almost a year before it became available through the public library’s request system. Had I known what a great novel it was, I would have simply purchased it. On the other hand, it is a deeply disturbing novel, and I am in some sense relieved to be getting it out of my living space. (I mean this as nothing but a compliment to Deborah Levy—axe, sea, etc.)
Swimming Home takes place over the course of a week in Nice in the summer of 1994, during the vacation of an “English” family (the reason for the scare quotes will be explained)—Joe, the poet father (JHJ to his readers, Jozef to his wife); Isabel, the war correspondent mother; and Nina, the fourteen-year-old daughter; as well as Isabel’s old friend Laura and her husband Mitchell, who run a shop together. But when the family arrives, they find an unannounced visitor in the swimming pool: the disturbed young botanist, Kitty Finch, a devotee of Joe’s poetry. From this premise, the novel traces the dissolution of the family as Joe and Kitty are inexorably drawn together. But that blurb-verbiage makes it sound like any other novel, when it’s not in the least. Swimming Home is distinguished by Levy’s light but compressed narrative method: the chapters and indeed the sentences are short, and reading them does not feel like labor, but they contain more narrative information—and thus emotional potency—than is at first obvious. The effect is, if I had to venture a rash metaphor, like skipping stones over a mined harbor.
One of the blurbs on the back of my library copy of the US edition likens Swimming Home to Mrs. Dalloway. I balked at this at first, but it makes a certain sense: like Mrs. Dalloway, Swimming Home derives its narrative energy from the unspoken—and not only the sexual unspoken, but the political as well. Just as Mrs. Dalloway‘s upper-crust party conceals in its recesses the Great War and the Armenian genocide, so too does Swimming Home‘s conventional family-dysfunction-and-adultery plot have trap-doors into the Holocaust and other historical atrocities. It takes place in July 1994, just after the suicide of Kurt Cobain (which Nina, in mourning, references overtly) and the Rwandan genocide (which Isabel, traumatized by her work, has just missed covering for television). While public discourse will not unreasonably consider this an obscene juxtaposition, the necessarily half-private language of the novel nevertheless delicately asks us to consider the connections between mass political violence and the traumata of the modern artist. Under the reign of scientism, the modern artist is the only social agent remaining who is permitted to perceive and to articulate what mass political violence, among other phenomena, attests to—the inhuman void at the heart of what’s called reality. Thus he or she is necessarily isolated, unsupported, and vulnerable to madness.
Tom McCarthy writes, informatively if misleadingly, in his introduction to Swimming Home:
She’d read her Lacan and Deleuze, her Barthes, Marguerite Duras, Gertrude Stein, and Ballard, not to mention Kafka and Robbe-Grillet…
He makes his point in service to a familiar polemic: Levy is not beholden to the English canon—her touchstones are not Dickens and Hardy, Leavis and Larkin, but rather Continental and American modernism. Anticipating McCarthy’s argument, Levy places an avatar of English provincialism in the text, in the form of Mitchell, the fat, complacent, and gun-obsessed small shopkeeper, who dislikes Joe the poet: “As far as Mitchell was concerned, it was very, very hard to get the arsehole poet known to his readers as JHJ (Joe to everyone else except his wife) to shut the fuck up.” Mitchell is one potential reader surrogate: the self-satisfied man of “common sense,” the homme moyen sensuel who probably reads the Daily Mail. He is impatient with the various displays of unorthodox behavior that the novel depicts, having nothing in common with the poet or his family, so the Nice vacation gives him only nightmares: nightmares of being attacked by centipedes, which is to say bad dreams of the inhuman forces that his appetites allow to him to evade in the day.
A more attractive surrogate for the unsatisfied reader of this oblique type of novel is Madeline Sheridan, who lives next door to the vacation villa. A former doctor approaching eighty, she stands in the narrative for certain kinds of exceedingly ordered discourses: medicine, psychiatry, second-wave feminism. It is Madeline who once got Kitty Finch committed to a mental hospital in Kent where nurses from Odessa administered shock treatment; according to Kitty, “THEY BURNED MY THOUGHTS TO MAKE THEM GO AWAY.” Levy, schooled in psychoanalysis, knows that this is not a solution, but for Madeline Sheridan, “It was impossible to believe that someone did not want to be saved from their incoherence.”
What forms do incoherence take in the text? There is Kitty Finch’s erratic behavior; almost always naked, indecently obsessed with the old poet, she screams obscenities at Madeline and insults Mitchell. Her body seems only partially under her control; she moves like someone in a strange ritual:
Kitty did something so spooky that Nina told herself she hadn’t seen it properly. She leaned backwards so that her copper hair rippled down the back of her knees and shook her head from side to side very fast while her hands jerked and flailed over her head.
And there is Nina’s own inchoate sexuality, opening her to devouring forces, like the besotted adult male who approaches her:
She was kissing Mick Jagger and he was devouring her like a wolf or something fierce but soft as well and definitely not calm. He was telling her she was so so everything.
We also perceive the incoherence in the horror Isabel has seen in her job as correspondent, a horror no one else seems to understand as they ascribe far more simplistic motives to her in her seeming attempts to flee her marriage, perhaps by driving her husband to Kitty Finch:
Yet even without witnessing first-hand the terrors of Rwanda, she had gone too far into the unhappiness of the world to start all over again. If she could choose to unlearn everything that was supposed to have made her wise, she would start all over again.
Not only is it impossible for her to start again, it is likewise impossible for her husband, sent to England in childhood from western Poland in 1942, of which fact the cruelly obtuse Mitchell does not grasp the implications:
[Kitty said,] ‘Of course he was born in Poland. It’s on all his book jackets. Josef Nowogrodski was born in western Poland in 1937. He arrived in Whitechapel, east London, when he was five years old.’
‘Right.’ Mitchell looked confused again. ‘So how come you’re Joe Jacobs, then?’
Kitty once again took charge. She might as well have pinged her wine glass three times to create an expectant silence. ‘The teachers at his boarding school changed his name so they could spell it.’
‘Boarding school? Where were your parents, then?’
This is early in the novel, so it left to the reader to fill in the gap of historical understanding that the text leaves gaping like a wound. Not until the end do we get Joe’s full biography. But before that, we glimpse the principle underlying the incoherencies the text precisely arrays for us when Joe and Nina bring back from the river some kind of mysterious unspecified animal, referred to as “The Thing” in the chapter heading:
They crowded around the bucket, which was half full of muddy water. A slimy grey creature with a red stripe down its spine clung to a clump of weed. It was as thick as Mitchell’s thumb and seemed to have some sort of pulse because the water trembled above it. Every now and then it curled into a ball and slowly straightened out again.
Levy knows Lacan, says McCarthy—much better than I do, I suspect!—so I guess we could identify this “thing” neatly with an irruption of the unrepresentable Real into the orderly symbolic: the beyond of incoherence against which all constructions of meaning and identity strive. But the artist, Levy hints, can’t only resist this alien force beyond meaning: later, Joe wears a pin-striped suit with “a vertical red stripe that was not unlike the centipede he had caught in the river.” While they’re still looking into the bucket where The Thing resides, this exchange occurs:
‘What exactly is it you are looking for when you go fishing?’ Kitty lowered her voice, as if the creature might hear her. ‘Do you find the things you want to find?’
‘What are you talking about?’ Mitchell sounded like a schoolteacher irritated with a child.
The Thing is what the poet searches for, and even what the poet must make a part of his or her daily life, as common as dressing. The Thing is also a threat, however; The Thing may hear you and turn on you and get you sent to the mental hospital where the schoolteachers impatient for coherence will try to burn your thoughts away—or to history’s abattoirs, whose schoolteachers burned away the very persons of those they thought bore The Thing on their bodies and in their lifeworlds. The lesson Levy comes to teach the schoolteachers, if it’s possible to speak of a novel as bearing a lesson, is that we all carry The Thing, and that coherence is always a fiction, and that life might be a lot more tolerable if everyone would just admit it, admit—switching now from Lacan to Deleuze, whom I understand no better than I understand Lacan—that the face we wear is meaning barely affixed over some holes. Mitchell learns this at the end, after the novel’s catastrophe, the details of which I won’t reveal:
Something was happening to his eyes, nostrils, mouth. Tears and snot and saliva were pouring out of the holes in his face. Without shot being fired, his face had five holes in it.
Swimming Home too is full of holes, holes into the immeasurable sufferings of history that underlie even the paradisal vacation in Nice, even the stellar career of the great poet:
Nor did she tell him that her husband had many other names: JHJ, Joe, Jozef, the famous poet, the British poet, the arsehole poet, the Jewish poet, the atheist poet, the modernist poet, the post-Holocaust poet, the philandering poet. […] Her husband was five years old when he was smuggled into Britain in 1942, half starved and with forged documents. Three days after he arrived his mother and father were deported along with his two-year-old sister to the Chelmno death camp in western Poland.
This brief against simplicity—whether national (he is British, Polish, Jewish) or moral (he is a victim, he is a cheater)—converges in aesthetic terms on the word “modernist.” To the extent that Swimming Home is a work on modernism as well as of it, a reclamation of the modernist legacy, it asks us to remember that modernism in England has always been a matter of outsiders, whether refugees from the nightmare of European history (from Conrad to Josipovici) or else inner emigrants like Woolf, madmen and madwomen, children of Blake, the prey of normalizing and moralizing physicians unless, like Lawrence, they managed to get out.* The point is not to romanticize genocide and imperialism and madness as conditions of authenticity (leave this to American identity politics), but to understand that they are what is, that they moreover are—thus far, as long as the imperfect is our paradise—the condition of possibility for that narrow area of “what is” demarcated as normalcy. The unknowable, unutterable thing is the enabling boundary of coherence—and is therefore what the artist, who more than any other social actor labors on the border between formlessness and form, is obligated to attend to, despite its dangers.
Late in Swimming Home, Joe and Kitty go out to dinner; a performer in the restaurant plays “Eleanor Rigby.” This tells us, I gather, that in the novel, just as in the song, “no one was saved”—but then Kitty does write a poem, just as Levy writes a novel, called “Swimming Home.” The title’s second word remains a legitimate destination, even if one endlessly deferred, put out of reach by the title’s first word, its denotation of ongoing and unending activity. As long as home is out of sight, we have to swim over the void. Denying that we are at sea, even in a swimming pool, is not an option.
*As an American, I can only observe this conflict from the outside. In the U.S., as in some other countries, modernism seems to have had a somewhat higher degree of autochthony than in England—no doubt because, as Lawrence was early to observe, our major nineteenth-century writers were so overtly weird and consequently influential even to modernisms elsewhere (e.g., Poe, Melville, Whitman). I sometimes wonder if the debate in England really needs to be as stark as it is (I think of Josipovici’s routine—but, to my mind, untenable—dismissals of Tolstoy and George Eliot), but, as I’m an outsider, it probably doesn’t matter what I think.