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.

Who or what is really harming literature?

All the hoopla created by Booker judge and TLS Editor Peter Stothard’s untimely comments in The Independent suggesting that book bloggers are harming literature, reminded me that I have yet to post a review of Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, which I finished a short while ago and shall rectify shortly. (now done)

While posting a rant isn’t one of the objectives of this blog, since I’ve been commenting on the issue elsewhere, I decided to do something a little different and turn our eyes away from the culpability of book bloggers for a moment – who if you’ve read anything I’ve written in the last 24 hours you will know I think do a marvellous job – and instead suggest some other groups or individuals who it might also be said are harming literature today.

Voila, the list:

  1. Governments – I’m referring more to the British government whose budget cuts in the culture sector have had a crushing effect on many cultural and literary organisations (and libraries!!) who relied on funding to keep their operations and artists/writers supported. Sadly, either the government doesn’t appreciate the cultural value and importance of the Arts or hopes it will turn itself into a more commercial business model, if it can’t earn a living, either the private sector will save it, or it will cease to exist.
  2. Literacy – there had been a significant increase in the percentage of non-readers, an alarming trend and certainly harmful to all literature however, a recent survey in the US has shown that for the first time in a quarter century, literary reading has increased among American adults.

    A decline in both reading and reading ability was clearly documented in the first generation of teenagers and young adults raised in a society full of videogames, cell phones, iPods, laptops, and other electronic devices.

  3. Technology – the quote above says it all; technology has affected the leisure and entertainment options of children and young people, who might otherwise have picked up a book. However, this cloud may have a silver lining if the same people then hear about books via social networks and get reading on their gadgets. The book industry is going to have to get pretty creative to capture the attention of young people. Bloggers are the first step in that direction, right?
  4. Parents – Yes. Parents. Are we encouraging our kids to read by reading to them, taking them to the library, buying books or engaging in animated storytelling? All kids love being read to or told made-up stories and while they are young, books also assist them to undercover their passions and interests! Not a new problem, but one that can be detrimental to our beloved literature.
  5. Artists and Book Sculptors – Well, really this is an excuse to show you the extraordinary, exquisite, mysterious sculptures created by an unknown sculptor in Edinburgh late last year, which also sets out to prove that sometimes great literature actually needs to be harmed in order to generate support, awareness and appreciation.
  6. Libraries – both a victim and a culprit, the poor old library is being phased out in many cities, but libraries have also been known to be engaged in selling off and destroying the old to make room for the shiny new things that want to steal the limelight!

    Cité du livre Bibliothèque Méjanes Aix-en-Provence

  7. Social Networking – it may be having an adverse effect on some writers as they navigate the fine line between having a public profile to assist with promotion of their titles and the distraction of random communications and information that keeps them from writing. Not surprising that some enterprising company has come up with an app you pay for that restricts your internet access, we can now purchase discipline for the undisciplined!
  8. E-books – so you think e-books are good for literature? I’m not so sure, I think that e-books have turned literature into a much more accessible and easy to purchase commodity, with an associated risk that many people are consuming books and not actually reading them. So good for the writer’s pocket and for the estates of classics and at least the bookshelves aren’t suffering, but are we at risk of becoming collectors rather than readers.
  9. Telephones – I’ve mentioned technology already, but I have to register my concern at lugging my brick of a book, Murakami’s 1Q84 on holiday and a quick glance around the beach suggested I was one the very few doing that old fashioned thing, reading a book. Everyone else was doing the finger tapping dance on their teeny gadgets – alas, the mobile telephone has replaced the beach read, at least in St Tropez this summer!
  10. Steve Jobs & the Apple team – when computer hard drives required an entire office to house them and technology was beige, boring and you had to be a geek to operate it, literature was in no way threatened – now that it’s sleek, sexy and can facilitate a music, film, or other visual experience, a whole new level of entertainment has captured our imaginations, to the detriment of the more passive, noiseless book.
  11. The iGen – the baby boomers are becoming grandparents, the X generation are coping with being older parents and the new generation have been dubbed the iGen. They are going to create and imagine a whole new way of doing things. We don’t yet know what kind of literature they will want to read or create and they will decide which of our contemporary writers become future classics. Perhaps books are going to become more of an interactive experience?

The point being, there are a good many things out there and I am sure you can think up more of them, that could be said to be harming literature. But at least it stimulates a good debate and brings out those who are passionate about reading, writing, reviewing, critiquing.

Ok, back to writing that review then.