A Movement Toward Embodiment: On Deborah Levy’s “August Blue”
By Madeleine CrumJuly 7, 2023
August Blue by Deborah Levy
“[E]veryone wants you to play again,” Elsa’s friend insists. Instead, Elsa retreats to Greece, where she teaches music to a child who is less prodigious than she once was. Conformity to the composer’s intent isn’t part of Elsa’s teaching style; she’s more interested in fine-tuning her student’s intuition. She works in modern dance lessons and instruction on the weirdness of living in a body, which leads to candid discussions about gender fluidity, a concept Elsa embraces, though her student’s father doesn’t. When he catches Elsa in the throes of a less conventional lesson, he fires her on the spot.
The delicate balance of making a living and making art—living, in other words, within physical constraints while trying, meanwhile, to make room for the spontaneity needed for true expression—is the subject of Levy’s recent work, which includes a trilogy of memoirs—Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013), The Cost of Living (2018), and Real Estate (2021)—detailing her coming of age as a writer, her life as a mother, her divorce, and her attempt to fund a room of her own. These books are the latest in her decades-long exploration of form, beginning with playwriting and fiction and detouring into poetry. She’s traveled widely, and her current style and themes feel like the result of accretion, with flourishes picked up here and there. In August Blue, the characters have the gauzy abstractness of a poem speaker while the scenes themselves have the schematic tautness of a play.
There’s also an echo of Levy’s memoirs, which are frankly feminist. Over the course of August Blue, Elsa fends off domineering guys of all types. There’s her student’s bullying father, who is at best incurious about his child’s inner life, and there’s Arthur, whose main interest as a parent is in Elsa’s ability to play challenging work accurately, under his direction. This is true of the minor male characters too: Arthur’s partner who, when Arthur gets sick, resents Elsa for receiving an inheritance equal to his; a documentary filmmaker who gets salty when Elsa doesn’t want to sleep with him; and a stranger who whispers in her ear, “I want to lick you.”
The roundest of these characters aren’t especially villainous. Although Arthur is cast as a narcissist (“He wants to see his reflection in the river one last time,” Elsa’s imagined double says of Arthur’s request to hear her play before he dies), he apologizes to Elsa on his deathbed. And, though his lover puts pressure on Elsa to pay for Arthur’s care (“I wondered how he earned his living,” she thinks. “I had earned all my own money”), he clearly loves Arthur deeply, and encourages Elsa to read the documents Arthur has been holding on to; they reveal the identity of her biological mother, a fact she has avoided, burdening both herself and Arthur with her suppressed sadness and rage.
The men who do threaten violence—who oppress through sheer force—don’t have much to do with the story’s long arc. Their acts are sudden, sometimes shocking, and then they dissipate; they make up the climate of Elsa’s world but aren’t major events. These encounters make for an eerie atmosphere and a thrumming tension, yet the book’s plot centers mostly on Elsa’s relationship with her own body, her own art, her own buried memories, and her own ability to see beyond a thick miasma.
It would be natural, if somewhat superficial, to compare Elsa to Lydia Tár, the fictional composer who covered up her working-class childhood in order to make expeditious use of her talents in an industry traditionally dominated by men. Like Lydia, Elsa’s body, which she has trained to will classics forth, acts out in fits. Her mind is hazy too; she wonders if she’s seeing things, hearing things. But while Lydia’s suppression of her past is an active effort serving her ambitions, Elsa stumbles towards illumination, feeling around in the dark. Lydia is eventually canceled, but Elsa, as her friend noted, cancels herself. For her entire musical career, she expressed herself through the learned performance of a piece written by somebody else, long dead. What could she express without sheet music? Was it even possible to shirk off such an encompassing influence?
Elsa didn’t choose to play in the first place, after all; she was pushed by her adopted parent. As a teacher, she encourages play, not perfection, unlike Lydia, who’s more like Arthur, preaching—and living in keeping with—the classics. She and Elsa might be seen as representing forking paths for ambitious women artists: conforming to masculine constraints, or else turning inward or away, quitting altogether.
It wouldn’t be a Deborah Levy novel if it weren’t a little weirder than all that. Her fiction has a few trademarks: it usually spans European locales, where time and space contract, fugue-like, modernism made more minimal; and it digs beneath some strict social constraint, often patriarchal, under which surreality reaches out, blooming. In The Man Who Saw Everything (2019), a historian remembers falling in love with his translator in East Germany the year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, his fractured personal life and sense of time reflected in the continent’s state of disunion. In Swimming Home (2011), a middle-class family retreats to their summer home, itself a claustrophobic trope, and their hope of finding peace in this conformity is haunted by a disturbed visitor.
August Blue begins with a moment of disorientation. Before delving into Elsa’s psychology or the particulars of her life, the novel lingers in Athens, at a tourist stall selling battery-operated animals, where Elsa is overcome with covetousness. Her object? A pair of dancing mechanical horses. Her desire is mysterious but overpowering, thwarted when a woman whom Elsa comes to think of as her double snatches them first. The woman leaves behind her trilby, which Elsa grabs as retribution and continues to wear on her travels.
When she’s fired from her gig in Greece, Elsa spends time in Paris considering a romance with her friend Rajesh. She takes on another student and is nearly attacked by a man from Dresden, all with the hat in tow, and all while imagining that her double is lurking nearby. Elsa begins talking with her double in her head, the woman’s imagined voice giving voice to her own self-doubt.
Meanwhile, images—are they memories?—come to her in fragments. Horses pulling a grand piano slowly across a field. A white dress on a clothesline. It’s the stuff of a horror film, the subconscious rendered as supernatural, unknowable mystery. Elsa suspects that it must have to do with what she’s avoiding: her birth mother’s identity. As Arthur nears the end of his life, she wonders how she came to be in his care; she’s afraid to know the answer. Her freedom to express herself spontaneously, which she’s only just learning about after her unceremonious exit from the stage, depends on suppressing a neat origin story. A foil to Arthur’s Lydia Tár–like reliance on—and passion for—what’s come before, she preserves her ability to follow her impulses, to know herself in the context of her immediate desires. She wants a pair of mechanical horses. She dyes her hair blue.
At times, Elsa’s narration of her wants feels a little thematic, a little writerly: “I wanted the old world to melt like winter snow,” she thinks, sounding like a convenient mouthpiece for Levy. In her subtler moments, Levy puts the novel’s most morally charged sentiments in the mouths of minor characters, like Elsa’s friend’s lover, whom Elsa speaks with briefly on a Zoom call. Her friend’s lover was there on the night of Elsa’s slip-up, and she feels strongly that Arthur’s ego interfered with history in the making, a moment when Elsa wrestled free from the constraints of the learned song and let something new emerge from her body. “He could have made a space for us to hear you,” she says. “[W]e were there for you, not him.”
Elsa’s summer of freedom—of twee-punk hairstyles, failed impulse buys, and light stalking of her imagined double—puts her more in touch with the physical world, with things she can touch. She begins to neglect the state of her hands, which are insured for millions of dollars. In the sun, she gathers materials from which she can make meaning. Her hands are “scratched, blistered.”
Her movement toward embodiment is, of course, a feminist plot; it is also a plot that places the novel in a particular moment in time. It’s easy to forget while reading that the events of August Blue take place during lockdown, because Elsa is sequestered for much of it in various pleasant destinations, a luxury afforded by her career. Away from public life, it is, for Elsa, a time of “rewilding,” where answers are found not in the script of the social but in deductions drawn from the present, the material realm. When she and her friend Marie forget the code to a place where Elsa is staying, they try to crack it using Marie’s math skills. But what helps them out in the end is something simpler and more tactile: the right numbers have been worn down from use. Rooting the novel in the present—albeit a present haunted by eerie memories—allows Levy to create a character for whom immediacy is a radical escape from history’s prescriptions.
In the end, Elsa finds her way back to a context, to public life, and to history (who can escape it for long?) when she finally meets her imagined double. The woman doesn’t look as much like her as she imagined—the narcissism of erotic fantasy had distorted things some—but there’s a deeper pleasure found in knowing her in particular: her voice and her narrative and her upbringing. The tiny holes in her silk collar. Her wet coat. The learned way in which she gives care, different from Elsa’s and Arthur’s: to care, actually, for her loved one’s bodies. Like Arthur, the double instructs Elsa to take care of her insured hands.
Through knowing her double’s particular self in a particular moment, Elsa can no longer rely on the story she had fashioned about her—a predetermined narrative having mostly to do with herself. She can think, now, about her mother’s life, and about why, exactly, she “had ceased to inhabit Rachmaninov’s sadness” on stage in Vienna. Reentering public life, the pair walk together to pick up a coat from the dry cleaner. There is no intimation of what might happen then.
Madeleine Crum is a writer and editor living in New York by way of Texas and the Gulf Coast. You can read her work online in The Baffler, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, Joyland, Triangle House, Vulture, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. She teaches writing at Brooklyn College, where she studied fiction.
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