Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home (2012)

This is Sandra’s third post here, joining in the celebration of 45 days of House of Anansi; I introduced her, here, briefly, and she is now full-on in the process of organizing her own website/blog (not sure which will better characterize it). You may have had a hand in encouraging her in this madness!

Please say hello (if you haven’t already), and join her in discussing Deborah Levy’s Booker-Prize nominated novel, Swimming Home.  

*** *** ***

Imagine yourself moving too fast at midnight on a mountain road in France’s Alpes-Maritimes, car window open, the smell of petrol and cold mountain air invading the interior.

You have just realized that an intimate encounter you had two hours ago was “a pleasure, a pain, a shock, an experiment, but most of all it had been a mistake.”

All you want to do is get home safely.

It all begins in a swimming pool at a tourist villa: “The swimming pool was more like a pond than the languid blue pools in holiday brochures. A pond in the shape of a rectangle, carved 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.”

“Who made the mistake? Whose body was it? Who lives at the villa?”

Well, there is the Jacobs family: Isabel, mother and foreign correspondent; Joe (Jozef to his wife), father and poet whose “most famous poem” had been “translated into twenty-three languages”; Nina, daughter, fourteen years old and who, when faced with the naked body in the pool folds “her arms across her chest and hunch[es] her back in an effort to make her own body disappear”.

And there is Kitty Finch: early twenties and the body in the pool.

And the villa’s caretaker: “Jurgen was a German hippy who was never exact about anything.”

Also, Mitchell and Laura who are sharing the villa with the Jacobs family. They have an antique shop in Euston that has been “smashed at least three times by thieves and drug addicts”. Mitchell likes food and guns and drives a rented Mercedes.

Plus Madeleine Sheridan, almost 80, retired from the medical profession, living next to the villa, and who met Kitty Finch four months before this story begins. In Madeleine’s view, Kitty had been “suffering from psychic anxiety, loss of weight, reduced sleep, agitation, suicidal thoughts, pessimism about the future, impaired concentration” when she met her on that earlier occasion.

How do all the pieces fit together?

Kitty Finch has come to the villa to bring a poem to Joe and she tells him: “It is a conversation with you really.” Earlier, she had told him: “When I write poems I always think you can hear them.” Joe “told her he would read her poem that evening and waited for her to thank him”:

“He waited for her thank-yous. For his time. For his attention. For his generosity. For defending her against Mitchell. For his company and for his words, the poetry that had her more or less stalk him on a family holiday. Her thank-yous did not arrive.”

In his temporary study “through the cypress trees to the garden”, he “found himself about to fall asleep…as if he could find himself anywhere at any time. Best to make the anywhere a good place to be, then, a place without anguish or impending threat…watching a film in an empty cinema with a can of lager between his knees. In a car on a mountain road at midnight after making love to Kitty Finch.”

Simultaneously, in Nice, supposedly at the shoemakers, Isabel Jacobs stops to help a blind woman find her doctor’s/teacher’s apartment. Isabel wants to be more like the playful, flirtatious doctor. She wanted to “fool around and play with whatever the day brought in. What had led her to where she was now? Where was she now? As usual she was running away from Jozef. This thought made her eyes sting with tears she resented.” Isabel “had gone too far into the unhappiness of the world to start all over again.” “She had attempted to be someone she didn’t really understand. A powerful but fragile female character.”

While her mother contemplated bringing Nina to the restaurant in which she sat puzzling over her life, Nina contemplated Kitty Finch. For Nina, “standing next to Kitty Finch was like being near a cork that had just popped out of a bottle. The first pop when gases seem to escape and everything is sprinkled for one second with something intoxicating.”

Kitty Finch slips her poem, in a brown envelope, under Joe’s door. The poem is entitled “Swimming Home”. Joe does not read it immediately. Nina reads it before her father: she tells both MItchell and Madeleine Sheridan that “Kitty is going to drown herself”.

Several years later, Nina has a daughter of her own. While riding across London on a bus she muses about what it means when she wishes her daughter sweet dreams: “it’s impossible to be told by our parents what our dreams are supposed to be like. They [children] know they have to dream themselves out of life and back into it, because life must always win us back. All the same I always say it.”

The story takes place between two Saturdays in the mid-nineties and has as many twists and turns as we imagine on the mountain road in the Alpes-Maritimes.

Deborah Levy plays and flirts with us and distracts us with botanical lessons, pebbles with holes in them, Jurgen’s addiction to mint syrup and Kitty Ket, Mitchell’s rat traps, accordion players from Marseilles and plans for a reading in Krakow.

She disturbs us, raises our awareness, questions our perceptions of reality.

To quote Kitty Finch: “Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely.”

*** *** ***

Do you usually following the doings of the Booker Prize? Or have you found your way to this novel for another reason entirely?

Project Notes:
Day 27 of 45: This theme could have stretched twice as long: lots of big life questions in this backlist. And, yet, the number of books in my Anansi stack is steadily dwindling as I read my way through these days. Last night, I finished Roch Carrier’s collection of short stories, and I’m now concentrating on Lisa Moore’s (some of which I’ve read before, some of which are fresh for me) and Rawi Hage’s debut novel. Such good reading. And you?

2 comments to Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home (2012)

  • I don’t usually follow the Booker prize actively though I do end up wanting to read many of the shortlisted titles. This one however, is high up on my list. It sounds pretty intriguing!

  • Sandra

    Yes, Athira, it is definitely intriguing and it reads quickly although I found there were sections that called me back to reread to catch the layers that Levy is so good at constructing and which are subtle and therefore easily missed. Thanks for responding.

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