Deborah Levy writes like a dream and I mean that quite literally. I know of few other authors who can capture an atmosphere of the eerie and the bizarre as well as she does. Her novels have a strange clarity and precision about being nebulous and shifting, and there are details, just as in a vivid dream – here, they would include sea urchins, tomatillos, buckles, Isadora Duncan and a golden cigarette lighter, but what they mean is elusive and evasive. That perhaps is key: as in dreams, meaning is always just out of reach. It makes Levy’s work far more true to reality than any kind of stodgy realism.
The opening has all her trademark wrong-footing. Elsa M Anderson is an acclaimed concert pianist, whose recent performance of Rachmaninov became off-kilter, then weird, then a shambles and was possibly genius. She is grieving in a way, and is in Athens as we start. There, she sees some mechanical dancing horses in a junk stall, but before she can buy them another woman, who not only looks like her but seems to know of her, buys them. As retaliation, she picks up the woman’s dropped felt fedora hat, intent on only returning it in exchange for the toy horses. Although we move to London, Paris and Sardinia, where her mentor and surrogate father, Arthur Goldstein, is dying, Elsa (whose name of course is not Elsa) is constantly shadowed by her doppelganger.
Levy came to prominence when both Swimming Home and Hot Milk were shortlisted for the Booker Prize (The Man Who Saw Everything was also longlisted), though she already had an extensive corpus of both fiction and drama. More recently she has published three volumes of “living autobiography” that merge observation, speculation and polemic. Parts of that project almost seep in here – the pandemic seethes beneath the surface throughout the book. It does not read as expedient “scene setting”, since mortality, morality and barely contained crisis are among its predominant themes.
The pandemic plays into one of the leitmotifs in the novel: it is not for nothing called August Blue. Face masks, Mediterranean skies, eyes, even Elsa’s hair dye which Arthur says makes her a “natural blue” are poetically placed throughout the narrative. It seems apposite that Rebecca Solnit wrote a book, The Blue of Distance, which made clear how multi-faceted the meanings we ascribe to blue are: horizons, melancholy, sublimity, pornography, breathless death; all of which have their place in Levy’s novel.
Although the novel does provide a final reveal about the particular meaning of the toy horses, their thematic importance is signalled at the outset. “It seemed the horses were not the instrument”, Elsa muses, “it was the longing for magic and flight that was the instrument”. This finds a recapitulation in a comment by Arthur – a man who gnomically advises his ward and pupil that she must “detach her mind from commonplace things” – when he says that the piano is not the instrument, the player is. In which case, who is playing Elsa? Arthur, whom few people seem to like? Or the uncanny double?
Levy’s protagonists are often psychologically fragile and fractured. In this novel we get the most explicit statement of her ideas about the problem of being human. “I let the stars enter my body and realized that I had become porous. Everything that I was had started to unravel. I was living precariously in my own body; that is to say, I had to fallen into who I was, or who I was becoming. What I wanted for myself was a new composition”.
This sense of dissolution and friability is played out on a grammatical level. Were this book a musical score rather than a novel, there are parts that would clearly be marked with the notation for a fermata. Elsa is relentless in her self interrogation. This is just a sample: “Maybe I am? Maybe you are what?”; “I was a natural blue. I am a natural blue. I was, I am,”; “If you are not you, who? If she was not there, where?” Of another character, Elsa realises that her father-figure had “encourage[d] me to make something of her that was my own. After all, she had already been written by everyone else”.
Part of the novel’s power is that it is oblique but not opaque. Although it is a work of scathing (to use a word used here) intelligence, it packs a pianissimo emotional punch at the end. Its sharpness is not without absurdity, as in a description of a sharing plate for two all-English breakfast with three eggs, or seeing in Paris “a small yellow car stopped at the traffic lights. Standing in the back were four llamas. I checked to see if this could be true. The red lights took a long time to change and it was true”. That kind of nuance makes the reader wonder, can that possibly be made up, an act of fiction at all? Surely only life itself can be so surreal? Levy’s writing may be – to switch metaphors – more art-house than IMAX, but give me her cold, clear gaze over 3D glasses any day.
August Blue, by Deborah Levy, Hamish Hamilton, £18.99