In your novel Swimming Home (2011), we have a narrative build in on the edge of water – or, more precisely, a plot permanently on the brink of chaos: in fast and alternating bursts, there is always someone who disappears, something that breaks, or a meaning that is later subverted. Rain, sea, pool, storm: crying is your characters’ way of belonging in this water-permeated scenario. Each character writes with water, this element that runs through their hands, through their crooked path to a home that, at the slightest contact with the sand, recoils itself.
Despite summer and sun, the novel’s atmosphere is sombre and – as in the film Swimming Pool (2003, IMDb), by François Ozon – somewhat uncomfortable. We have the feeling, from the beginning, that something is going to go wrong, and that the bonds between the characters will go through some sort of test – or they will be completely ruined. In the summer of 1994, two couples decide to spend the holidays together, and rent a house on the French Riviera. When they arrive, they encounter a naked body floating in the pool. Kitty Finch, a redheaded girl who suddenly emerges from the water, is the stranger who will disturb the fragile – or false – balance of their lives.
Joe Jacobs (or J.H.J., or Jozef Nowogrodzki) is a relatively famous Jewish poet, plagued by the past. When he was only five years old, in 1942, his father ordered him never to return home, and left him in a forest in his native Poland to save him from being sent to a concentration camp. Since then, Joe always seems to permanently find himself – either through his poetry or in his life – in the process of desperately – and unsuccessfully – pursuing a home. This space of belonging does not even exist in the relations that Joe maintains with his wife, Isabel, a war reporter, nor with his 14-year-old daughter Nina. Poetry, for its part, seems to be for him not a house, but a course of permanent exodus, something that always sends him back to the confrontation with a home to which he cannot return.
The poet, his wife and his daughter are accompanied by a couple of friends, Mitchell and Laura, whose business of selling exotic objects is bankrupt. While Mitchell, a hunter who kills as a form of escapism, shoots rabbits in the neighborhood, his wife Laura spends her time drinking, plotting an escape from this failed marriage, and learning the Yoruba language. When the two couples encounter Kitty, the naked girl in the pool of the rented house, Isabel, contrary to the expectations of the others, invites her to stay with them.
The redheaded girl who emerges from the pool is not there by chance: she has been interned in psychiatric hospitals, and seems to suffer from anorexia. She is also a poet obsessed, of course, with Joe Jacobs. Kitty is the catalysing element that will turn these somewhat uncomfortable summer vacations into something weird – and perhaps dangerous. The girl brought with her a poem she wrote, entitled Swimming Home, and wishes to show it to the famous poet. These mysterious verses are never fully revealed to readers; we only perceive their meaning in pieces, here and there, in drops. “My poem is a conversation with you and no one else,” Kitty tells Joe. Ironically, the verses pass, from hand to hand, to all the central characters. The poem is a dialogue with each of them, and also with the reader. Kitty is not, however, the classic character who transforms others: she only brings them back to their original place; back to what they really are. To their home.
In a fragmented narrative, you mix different genres and formats (theatre, novel, poetry), and, from potentially worn structures, you create something strange and new. The book is structured as a play, where the pool of the rented house is the main stage, under whose waters – the platform of arrivals and departures – run, as undercurrents, multiple desires, betrayals, and deep pains. The scene is permeated by the sexual tension between the characters. In third-person narration, you alternate viewpoints as one who projects lights and shadows on the different actors who share the stage. To the two couples that form the central group around Kitty, you added a few secondary characters: the janitor of the house, Jurgen, a German hippie; Claude, the owner of a local cafe; and the misanthropic neighbour, an old English lady who watches, from her terrace, the strange events that take place in the house next door. Your book unfolds in many small acts, like a play; it is read as a novel; and it is permeated by excerpts of poetic prose and perverted by a poem that all the characters have read – except, of course, the reader, to whom you leave the consolation of the in-between the lines.
All characters are haunted by the past, by remorse, or by the loss of some significant bond in which they could find their home in the world. Everyone finds themselves in some form of exile. Your writing is sparse, economical and enigmatic. You do sketches of the characters with simple, quick, but evocative strokes. In a somewhat hallucinatory prose, the facts seem to float from the minds of the characters, like disconnected bits of dream mixed with visions, reflections, and memories. Each character constructs their reality with small doses of hallucination, lies or imagination, just as you yourself build the plot. At times, the characters are unable to distinguish fiction and reality; also for the reader, these threads are entangled and, like a Penelope’s web, they weave and unravel themselves continuously.
You move the characters in and out of focus, structuring the plot either as a mosaic, or as an image that is seen under the distorted filter of a thick layer of water: short scenes are ensnared in themselves, and the characters’ inner lives are exploited to pieces. The use of ellipses and repetitions, in a constant game, hides and reveals the plot slowly. You write this book as a small reliquary: a collection of objects and details that, in counterpoint, reveal about the characters more than they want or are able to tell us about themselves. Apparently minor details (an anecdote about a bear, a poem by Apollinaire, a stone with a hole in the middle, an amount of water) are revealed to be essential elements – they interpenetrate one another, in successive layers of meaning.
In this novel, home and meaning are places that dodge as we approach. “Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely,” Kitty repeatedly tells Joe. “But you did not get home safely. You do not get home at all.” Many of the most important plot events happen in the spaces between chapters, almost invisibly, between the lines, in this non-space. A plot in the form of rain, each letter a drop on the skin, like a split, a crack, something tearing, a tear. Like crying, something that traces a script on the face, but with no definite point of arrival – as an arrow which is either pointing home, or signalling the absence of it.
“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.”
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.”
– Deborah Levy, Swimming Home
“We’re kissing in the rain.’ Her voice was hard and soft at the same time. Like the velvet armchairs. Like the black rain inked on his hand.”
― Deborah Levy,
“He lifted his arm that had been resting on her shoulders and gazed at the words she had written on his hand. He had been branded as cattle are branded to show whom they belong to. The cold mountain air stung his lips. She was driving too fast on this road that had once been a forest. Early humans had lived in it. They studied fire and the movement of the sun. They read the clouds and the moon and tried to understand the human mind His father had tried to melt him into a Polish forest when he was five years old. He knew he must leave no trace or trail of his existence because he must never find his way home. That was what his father had told him. You cannot come home. This was not something possible to know but he had to know it all the same”
― Deborah Levy,
About the book
- And Other Stories, 2011, 165 p. Goodreads
- Faber and Faber, 2012, 157 p. Goodreads
- Bloomsbury, 2012, 157 p. Goodreads
- First published in 2011
- My rating: 4,5 stars