She was not a poet. She was a poem.
It is a simple coincidence that I read Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home in the same week that I commenced Ali Smith’s The Accidental. Toothache condemned me to blankets, books and the bedroom, and as my And Other Stories subscription dropped on the doorstep, so did Penguin publish a timely new edition of Smith’s novel, to coincide with the recent publication of her latest: There but for the. I cannot imagine the timing was intentional, it was merely, without wishing to sound trite, accidental.
Accidental, and yet incidental, for the reading of each novel served to illuminate and open up the reading of the other. Not only can one draw parallels between the storylines: the appearance/apparition of an apparently vagrant girl, whose entrance into a household renders the (dis)functioning of a family transparent.
The young woman was a window waiting to be climbed through. A window that she guessed was a little broken anyway. She couldn’t be sure of this, but it seemed to her that Joe Jacobs had already wedged his foot into the crack and his wife had helped him.
But, more interestingly, Smith’s and Levy’s narrative voices and textual innovations echo one another, not in imitation, almost in call-and-response, as musical phrases singing-out, challenging and commenting. Every writer creates his own precursors, wrote Borges. So, the voices of Ali Smith and Deborah Levy conjure and create one another, both writers exploring and crafting some of the most experimental contemporary English-language fiction, both exploding the often staid notions around literature and its role in the world.
I shall leave the concurrence with Ali Smith there; here wishing to concentrate on Levy’sSwimming Home, one of And Other Stories 2011 titles. This small press aims to open a space and a place in the literary world for that literature that slips slightly outside of the mainstream. Based on subscriptions and run by a handful of literary translators it is carving a passage into contemporary literary parlance independent of bestseller lists and bookseller magazines. In a world where literature is so governed by those, by money and the mass-market, it is a delight to come across a publishers dedicated to other literature, other stories. Let’s hope And Other Stories heralds the possibility of more such small presses, vital for the diversification and vivacity of contemporary literature.
There is no way you can send a fierce, exotic and brutally truthful hot head novel out into the British rain in a recession and expect a deal to be on the table with the scones, tea and Daily Mail. Editors are struggling with a toxic, cynical market of celebrity best sellers and even the braver ones are nervous. Contemporary readers are much more sophisticated than the whole mainstream publishing scene right now. There is a big counter-culture in the UK but it’s in the visual arts, music and performance, not in literature. There is a huge untapped market for experimental literary fiction.
What And Other Stories stands for in the publishing world, Levy stands for in the literary world. Brave, inventive, original, her written tongue is raw and unrehearsed. Her writing, refusing conventional plot and character development, has the marks of thenouveau-roman, seen in the shattered characters, the deconstructed spaces and the flawlines rendered evident. In these flaws and edges, in the seams, lies something inherently human, rippling with nerves, tender and hard-hitting. Levy’s writing teeters on the brink of life, dreamy, dark, unnerving, it is literature à vif.
Thus: Swimming Home, Deborah Levy’s new novel.
As each of us might quest, crave a meeting with that other, interlocutor, mirror… As in poetry, art and literature, one might, in a voice, a gathering of words, an image, come upon one’s self and one’s own experience… As a written voice can nudge up to us, so close… As through reading one can meet, commune with that other… So Kitty Finch arrives at the house where poet Joe Jacobs is holidaying with his family and some friends. Kitty’s arrival, at first disguised as an error of double-booking, is in fact a contrived meeting with the poet.
So you’ve read all my books and now you’ve followed me to France.
The title of the novel is the title of the poem Kitty, botanist of green-painted-nails offers, in conversation, with poet Joe Jacobs. We never read the poem, backbone of the novel, but understand from the poet that:
Her words were all over the place, swimming round the edges of the rectangle of paper, sometimes disappearing altogether, but coming back to the centre of the lined page with its sad and final message.
Indeed, same words could be used to describe the touch with which the book itself is crafted.
The poet’s daughter, Nina, sneaks a read of the poem herself and concludes: Kitty is going to drown herself in our pool. The first image of Kitty Finch in the pool, floating, swimming naked underwater, her long hair floating like seaweed at the sides of her body, thus becomes a premonition of what will likely be the final image, swimming home. And yet what is written in the poem is unwritten and the final passages defy both the readers’ and the characters’ expectations. As Nina looks closer at the body in the pool:
All the noise that was her father, all the words and spluttering utterances inside him, had disappeared into the water.
As Kitty Finch’s arrival amongst this group of characters reveals their inner-workings to themselves, and breaks through the eminently human falsehoods woven into life, thus Levy’s narrative voice affects literature. The marginal figure of Kitty Finch, impossible to ignore, echoes Levy’s style of writing which renders transparent, challenges complacency and refuses comfort. Replete with repeating images and ideas echoing, mirroring one another, with those coincidences, those accidents that make up the thread of life, entwined with humour and poignancy, Levy writes the frail complexity of human-nature with visionary insight and literary innovation.
I know what you’re thinking. 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 is why I am here Jozef. I have come to France to save you from your thoughts.
Published by And Other Stories, 2011 (NYP)