Swimming Home

Author, Deborah Levy

This is my first read from the Booker Prize shortlist, a book that fell into my hands during a recent visit to London. I have been aware of Deborah Levy’s work for some years, though outside the mainstream, so seeing it being nominated in the Booker list, it was one title I felt a definite connection to, there being only two degrees of separation between Deborah and I.

Hers is an interesting story in light of recent perceptions that much literary fiction is or has fallen out of favour now with pressure on publishers to go with titles that are likely to make significant if not mass profits. Her previous publishers neglected to take on this title because, as she said:

‘the fear among those who admired it was that Swimming Home was too literary to prosper in a tough economy … to be fair, there was quite a bit of agonising, but in the end Marketing and Sales won the argument.’

Titles published by ‘And Other Stories’

In my earlier post What is Really Harming Literature, I mention the commodification of literature, something the publisher of Levy’s latest book And Other Stories developed in response to. For a set fee, members subscribe to the publisher, kind of like a club and elect whether to receive two or all four of the titles they will publish during the year. You won’t know who the authors or the books are until published, except that they are international fiction, either in English or translated, and of the type the publisher believes is being ignored by mainstream corporations.

The selection of titles passes through an open consultative process which agents, interested members of the public, writers, friends, colleagues contribute to, so as a subscriber you are invited to contribute to the choice of future books to be published. The first copies are limited edition, so all subscribers receive not only a potentially excellent book, but something of a collector’s item as well.

Swimming Home for all that, I found a relatively easy, medium paced accessible read, with enough story to keep the reader intrigued, while delving into the various characters, two families staying in a French villa on holiday; Joe the home based poet, his war reporting and frequently absent wife Isabel, their teenage daughter Nina and their friends who own a struggling shop in Euston, Mitchell and Laura.

Their relative tranquillity is disturbed by the unexpected arrival of Kitty Finch, a young woman due to rent the villa a week later, whom they allow to stay, despite her collection of Joe’s poetry books on display in her room, her tendency for skinny dipping and resistance to taking a prescribed medicine.

It’s a story of repression and denial, all the characters appear to be hiding something, carrying unspoken baggage, whether a problem, resentment or obsession which Levy somehow with her brilliant but sparse use of language gifts the reader with an understanding that is more than the sum of words on the page.

I was struck on the very first page by an example of this and realised this was a book I would likely need to read twice, because there is much to discover in the way she is able to capture so much in one sentence.  Here is the opening line of the book and the second sentence from the third paragraph. We already have a strong sense of Kitty, who though perhaps the least repressed character, is the most dangerous.

When Kitty Finch took her hand off the steering wheel and told him she loved him, he no longer knew if she was threatening him or having a conversation…

She asked him to open his window so she could hear the insects calling to each other in the forest. He wound down the window and asked her, gently, to keep her eyes on the road.

Even the author herself only shares parts of conversations in dialogue, the rest narrated by a character adding an element of unreliability as we dip into multiple perspectives and have to rely on the thoughts of characters all of whom have some kind of hidden agenda.

During seven days we learn more about each of the characters as we watch them interact and ponder the significance of that body found floating in the pool at the beginning of the story and wonder how all this silent yet volcanic like tension is going to erupt.

*

Yesterday he had watched her free some bees trapped in the glass of a lantern as if it were she who was held captive. She was as receptive as it was possible to be, an explorer, an adventurer, a nightmare. Every moment with her was a kind of emergency, her words always too direct, too raw, too truthful.

There was nothing for it but to lie.

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25 thoughts on “Swimming Home

    • I am looking forward to hearing not just the winner, but who else is going to come out and make interesting comments in the lead up to the announcement. This is a nice short read, so you should be able to get through it before the winner is announced.

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  1. Thank you for a good and honest review. I nearly thought you had taken a picture of my kitchen there – as we have those pegs with the days hanging on the window there!
    I do actually really like the system you describe above, of subscribing to a publisher and receiving 2-4 books a year. I have done that with Peirene Press and I find the quality of their selections and the presentation impeccable. Perhaps that is the future of traditional publishing – a bit of a collectors’ item? Maybe we are moving more to the medieval model of illuminated manuscripts?

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    • It’s an interesting concept isn’t it, actually I am quite tempted by their offer, particularly because they don’t seem to shy away from translated fiction, unlike many publishers.

      Must look up Peirene Press, what do they tend to publish?

      Love your kitchen already!

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  2. I am really delighted with Peirene Press so far – each year they publish three books, around a different them each year. First year was the Female Voice and included Olmi’s ‘Beside the Sea’, last year was Male Dilemma, and this year was Unravelling Secrets and included ‘The Murder of Halland’ by Pia Juul and ‘The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg. Highly recommended!

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    • Thank you so much for bringing this press to my attention, I love the concept and the titles all look really interesting. Totally support the idea of bringing more translated fiction into the English language, so much of the literature read in France is translated fiction and I really feel we miss out by not having a significant number of titles available. Also love that they are promoting the novella, get a bit tired of the number of 400+ page books when its not really necessary. Might have to start with the female series and work my way through.

      http://www.peirenepress.com/

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  3. We seem to be very much of the same mind on this one: I too find it a shame that so little literature is available in translation in the UK (aside from certain ‘bandwagons’, such as Scandinavian crime fiction). And I do think brevity can be such a virtue!

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  4. Your quotes made the book sound fascinating… a really thoughtful intelligent review which made me want to read the book, and also value the writer, thank you.
    Back to your opening paras. I’ve always suffered from the sales people at publishers, though the editor may be enthusiastic. That’;s why i self published my last book. – freedom.!..

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  5. Pingback: Who or what is really harming literature? « Word by Word

  6. I have been so lazy where the Booker is concerned, this year. I have read nothing. I defend myself by saying that it is so difficult to get them from the library who buy fewer and fewer copies while the waiting lists grow longer and longer, but that is no excuse not to be on those waiting lists. You shame me Calire and I must do something about it.

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  7. When I saw the mention about Levy in one of the “Stothard” posts, I’d thought she hadn’t met mainstream ideas, so it’s sort of sad to hear that a somewhat standard method, literary fiction, wasn’t taken on because of marketing and sales. I suppose it’s ironic, but still sad. I love the structure and story you descibe in this book. I’m assuming you can buy the book as a one-off without subscribing?

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    • Yes, I believe that’s part of the prize in getting on the shortlist. I just checked and see that Swimming Home is now co-published by And Other Stories and Faber & Faber, following a collaboration on a mass-market edition after Levy was longlisted.

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  8. Nelle, It’s always been that way, but we (living now) feel the uncertainty of rapidly changing everything. Gutenberg did the same thing but his motives were possibly purer than that of Amazon. I’m very happy to hear of Levy’s success, and, Claire, thanks for reporting on the subscription model. It was new to me.

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  9. Brilliant review. It’s refreshing, I don’t think it’s amateur at all. I read an article in The London Evening Standard about Will Self’s novel. They said Will Self makes the reader work too hard… What do you think?

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    • I think it’s likely he makes many readers work hard, but from what I have read across the board, enough have appreciated his oeuvre to make it one of the leading contenders. But they are perhaps a group of readers who like a challenge, Will Self admits in his interview with the Guardian, that he doesn’t write for the audience, a bit of a readers dare, one that intellectuals love to rise up to.

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  10. Pingback: Man Booker Prize Winner 2012 « Word by Word

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