DEBORAH LEVY’S NEW BOOK Swimming Home is constructed like a play — with a central stage and a cast of characters, and it unfolds like a drama in hot short vignettes — but it reads like a novel, and Levy jumps in and out of her character’s heads with such ferocious abandon that the story becomes a sun-splashed psychotic episode, an exploration of desire turned masochistic and lives propelled by the arrhythmic pulse of insanity.
That there is an inherent theatricality to the presentation shouldn’t be surprising. Levy is a noted playwright, the author of Macbeth — False Memories and Honey Baby Middle England, among others. The swimming pool serves as the main stage — a platform for arrivals and departures, bee stings, skinny dipping, misunderstandings, and menstruations — and there is a French country house attached to the pool where more intimate moments unravel.
The cast of characters lounging around these locations would be at home in the plays of Richard Greenberg, the works of Patricia Highsmith, or say, one of those “English abroad” comedies starring Dame Judy Dench and Dame Maggie Smith. On one side is Joe Jacobs or J.H.J. or Jozef Nowogrodzki, a famous philandering poet, Isabel, his nomadic war correspondent wife, and their 14-year-old daughter, Nina. On the other side is Isabel’s longtime friend Laura and her porcine husband Matthew, a hunter who kills because “It takes my mind off things.” To say that Joe and Matthew dislike each other would be an understatement. But then Joe and Isabel are grappling with a marriage in free fall and Nina is, well, a teenager.
Like the jesters and gravediggers in the plays of Shakespeare, local bumblers provide the comic relief; in this case it arrives in the form of a pair of hashish besotted locals, the caretaker of the house, Jurgen, "a German hippie who was never exact about anything,” and Claude, the owner of a local café “who had only just turned 23 and knew he looked like Mick Jagger.” Overlooking it all is a misanthropic neighbor who spies on them from her terrace.
Swimming Home has the hallmarks of a conventional bourgeois drama about bickering spouses and their torpid love lives, but Levy isn’t interested in convention. She’s interested in something much darker, and so she turns this setup on its head by introducing Kitty Finch, a bolt of sexual methamphetamine.
Much like in a play, Levy doesn’t gently introduce the characters or the setting, instead she stomps on the gas, peels out, and sets everything in motion in one of the first scenes as the cast discover Kitty skinnydipping in the pool. At first they think she might be a bear, but it soon becomes apparent that she is a young woman in her 20s. “In a blur she could see the woman’s breasts were surpringly round and full for someone so thin.” It is a grand entrance and sets the tone for the sexual tension that underscores the novel like a throbbing techno track. Kitty claims to be in their pool due to a mix up in the rental schedule. Since Kitty has nowhere to stay, Isabel offers her a spare room in the house.
It soon turns out that Kitty is not just a mental patient who has gone off her meds, but an aspiring poet and obsessive fan of Joe’s. She has in fact stalked him to the south of France in the hopes that he’ll read one of her poems. Like a lot of stalkers, she feels a special connection to her quarry. As she tells Isabel, “Joe’s poetry is more like a conversation with me than anything else. He writes about things I often think. We are in nerve contact.” Isabel, who has foreseen that her husband will bed Kitty and who may or may not hope that this will be the last straw for their marriage, can only ask “What does ‘nerve contact’ with Jozef mean?”
Joe is suffering his own torments. When he was only five years old, to save him from the Polish concentration camps, Joe’s father left him in a forest and told him he could never go home. “He knew he must leave no trace or trail of his existence because he must never find his way home.” This early trauma has made Joe a successful poet, but a distinctly unsuccessful husband. He is struggling to figure out how to form an emotional bond with another human, any human, and it’s turning out to be trickier than he thought. In fact, he might not be up to it.
Matthew, meanwhile, is trying to come to terms with the collapse of his business and the vast mountain of debts he’s left behind in London, and yet he still has outsized appetites, running up a huge tab at Claude’s café while being unable to afford gas for the Mercedes-Benz he had “foolishly hired at the airport.” Matthew and Laura are blowing what’s left of their credit cards on this last hurrah before they return to London, sell their home, and possibly divorce. While Matthew shoots rabbits — and Kitty saws off their tails and arranges them in a vase — Laura spends her time drinking and plotting her escape from their failed marriage by learning the Yoruba language.
Nina is stuck in that awkward teenage moment between sexual awakening and the brazen sexuality represented by Kitty. Nina flirts with Claude, the Jaggeresque café owner, while trying to come to grips with the fact that her parents are way more fucked up than she realized.
The redheaded naturist and poet stalker, Kitty Finch is the catalyst that turns an uncomfortable summer vacation with friends into something weird and, perhaps, dangerous.
The writing in Swimming Home is lean and enigmatic, and Levy sketches the characters with simple, evocative gestures, like a David Hockney line drawing. The short scenes pop and sear, each one telling a part of the story, allowing the reader to piece together the whole. As she explores the interior lives of her characters, Levy mixes in dreams and visions and memories until it is sometimes difficult to tell these apart from reality. Or maybe it’s just difficult for the characters themselves to draw this distinction. This is not experimental fiction, but it is a peculiar novel at play with the idea of what it means to be one, and it is a lot of fun to read. It looks like a story we’ve seen before and yet it isn’t. This might explain why the book was rejected by so many English publishers before it found a home at a small subscriber-supported press called And Other Stories. That it was subsequently and deservedly short listed for the Man Booker Prize is sweet vindication.
As the story nears its conclusion, Kitty uses Joe’s favorite fountain pen to crudely scratch the words “It’s Raining” lengthwise on Joe’s hand. It’s the title of one of the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes and, even though the incision of the pen is painful, Joe can’t or won’t pull his hand away.
He stared at his smarting hand. “Why do you like it so much?”
She lifted the champagne flute up to her lips and stuck her tongue inside it, licking the last dregs of strawberry pulp.
“Because it’s always raining.”
“Yeah. You know it is.”
Here are a couple lines from Roger Shattuck’s linear translation:
Listen if it rains while regret and disdain weep to an ancient music
Listen to the bonds fall off which hold you above and below
It’s unclear if Joe remembers the poem, but as a foreplay for adultery, it is an excellent choice. Joe tries to resist this “impossible flirtation with catastophe” but knows that he has started something that he cannot stop. “He stared at the black rain she had inked on his hand and told himself it was there to soften his resolve to fight. She was clever. She knew what rain does. It softens hard things.”
I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that it is not what we expect. It’s a thrilling twist, and one that resonates throughout the book in a way that is surprisingly, and satisfyingly, disturbing. The poem is a key to the ending, or to the decisions that lead up to it, as the characters are haunted by their past, by regret and missed opportunities to find connection, to find their proverbial home in the world. In a haunting, reckless midnight drive through the winding roads of the French countryside, a scene which appears repeatedly, Kitty tells Joe:
Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely. But you tried and you did not get home safely. You did not get home at all. That’s why I’m here, Jozef. I have come to France to save you from your thoughts.