I expect that many of you know the happy success story behind Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, but here it is for those who don’t.
Rejected by traditional publishers, on the grounds of it being ‘too literary to prosper in a tough economy’ (as Levy told the LRB), Swimming Home was taken up by And Other Stories, a fantastic new indie publisher which operates on a subscription basis. I have written about them at length for the Spectator here, but essentially, you pay them fifty pounds a year, which they pool together with everyone else’s fifty pounds to produce six brilliant books, which you receive as they’re published, with your name pleasingly printed in the back. (You can also pledge thirty-five pounds for four books, or twenty for two.) I urge you to subscribe!
Rescued from rejection, Swimming Home was longlisted, and then shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Faber helped And Other Stories publish a cheaper, mass-market edition, and so Swimming Home has became the book that everyone is reading and talking about. Even after Hilary Mantel’s historical second win of the Booker, we are still selling more copies of Swimming Home in my bookshop than Bring up the Bodies.
Swimming Home is an exceptional novel. Philip Womack in the Daily Telegraph called it ‘stealthily devastating’, which is spot on. So is Kate Kellaway, who called it in ‘a shining splinter, hard to dislodge’ in the Observer. I thought the atmosphere was similar to that of Michael Haneke’s film Hidden – the surface is smooth and normal, but underneath this veneer of calm lies gasping, destructive violence.
Joe Jacobs is a famous poet, who is on holiday in the South of France. With him is his wife Isobel, a war correspondent who wishes she could unsee all the terrible things she’s seen; his daughter Nina, on the cusp of puberty; and two friends Mitchell and Laura. Enter Kitty Finch, swimming naked in their pool, thin, ragged, beautiful, crazy, a botanist with wild red hair. There is also the elderly neighbour, doctor Madeleine Sheridan; the lazy caretaker Jurgen, infatuated with Kitty Finch; and Claude, ‘with his Mick Jagger looks’, who owns the café.
This set up reminds me of Ali Smith’s The Accidental (see this post about it) – which tells the story of another dysfunctional family on holiday, when their lives are disrupted by an exotic stranger. But whereas Ali Smith keeps the characters’ viewpoints resolutely separate, taking it in turns to move between them, chapter by chapter, Deborah Levy slides between them more fluidly (fitting, given the title), building up a tangled, intricate web of different characters’ thoughts, feelings and impressions.
It is a novel about poets, about poems – one poem in particular, Kitty’s poem, which she asks Joe to read, titled ‘Swimming Home’. Perhaps this sharing of a title is a clue, for the novel itself is not unlike a poem. The language is beautiful, images echo through the pages, and the slim volume is dense, heavy with meaning.
For instance, Kitty is furious that Jurgen has got the pool chemicals wrong and made the water ‘actually CLOUDY’. Madeleine Sheridan, the elderly doctor who prides herself on seeing through things, seeing a situation clearly, in actual fact has ‘cloudy, short-sighted eyes’. And, best of all, when she gives Joe some of her Andalucian almond soup and he finds a clump of her silver hair in it and pushes it away, spilling it all over his suit, she wishes he had said, ‘Your soup was like drinking a cloud.’ Of course the one place where there should be clouds, there aren’t any – in the searing hot blue cloudless sky.
But there is a point behind these neat, clever echoes of clouds. Clouds hide things, we long for them to disappear, and yet when we are exposed to the full heat of the sun (this is the South of France in July, not London in late October), it is too intense, too much, and we long for the cool relief of a cloud. Likewise, with the truth – so often we must resort to cloudy lies.
Levy writes about the necessary cloudiness of language when Joe reads Kitty’s poem:
The poem, ‘Swimming Home’, was mostly made up of etcs; he had counted seven of them in one half of the page alone. What kind of language was this?
My mother says I’m the only jewel in her crown
But I’ve made her tired with all my etc,
So now she walks with sticks
To accept her language was to accept that she held him, her reader, in great esteem. He was being asked to make something of it and what he made of it was that every etc concealed some thing that could not be said.
‘Etc’ is a kind of cloud, a means of concealing something else, ‘some thing that could not be said’. Using ‘etc’ makes this explicit, jolts us into thinking about what it covers, but really as Iris Murdoch pointed out in Under the Net (see last week’s post), this is not so different from the rest of our language – it is all a cloud, veiling what is unsaid, what can’t be said, the unspeakable truth.
This idea echoes throughout the novel. Joe Jacobs has several different names – Joe, Jozef, JHJ, the English poet, the Jewish poet – the multiplicity of them pointing out how inadequate they all are to truly sum him up. Isabel thinks back to her time at school, where the motto was ‘Let Knowledge Serve the World’:
Now she thought she would change the school motto to something that warned the girls that knowledge would not necessarily serve them, nor would it make them happy. There was a chance it would instead throw light on visions they did not want to see.
Again there is that image of light being unwelcome, the suggestion that clear vision isn’t always good, that hiding behind a cloud can be a blessing.
Swimming Home is a remarkable novel. I raced through most of it in the bath one chilly autumnal morning. But like many slim novels, it begs to be reread, to let your thoughts meander their way around the allusive words and elusive truth again. It clings to you, embeds itself into your thoughts – indeed it is a ‘shining splinter’, one which I’ve found very hard to dislodge from my mind.