Black Vodka by Deborah Levy

In Deborah Levy’s latest collection, Black Vodka, are ten stories which open up her world. They are stories about trying to find out who we are in the course of our everyday lives, and about how we can remain deeply imprinted by those who are close to us. Here, as in her previous plays, stories and novels, her writing exhibits a rhetorical severity which, at its best, has a mythic, lullaby quality, experimental and at the same time simple and beautiful.

It is difficult to say what the collection is about, for two reasons. Firstly, to tell you the conceit of each story would, more often than not, misrepresent the experience of reading them (on which, more later). Secondly, as with many of the best writers, one can’t help but feel that, somewhere, Levy must be holding onto an ur-story from which all her others digress or refract. For Haruki Murakami, the received wisdom has it, this story would almost definitely involve cats, a haunting song, a bizarre sexual encounter, a dream sequence. So too in Black Vodka we glimpse, from time to time, the story that Deborah Levy is compelled to tell and re-tell. A rich creative figure, not quite clear of the (social or military) conflict in his past; a geographical foreigner who has become foreign to themselves; a young lady in a light dress who loves swans or their feathers; inward conflict blossoming into eczema; water and the danger, or perhaps the thrill, of investigating below its surface. If you have read Swimming Home, this may all have a ring of familiarity.

I have had trouble convincing people to read Swimming Home, even since its Booker nomination this year, because – and I feel this is a problem specific to Levy – the plot itself, which people tend to use as an indicator of what a book is ‘about’, is no more than an arbitrary vessel for her ideas. A middle class family goes on holiday to France, and a kooky ginger girl turns up to make trouble. It is almost as if someone has picked the idea out of a list of rejected film plots and challenged Levy to turn it into something interesting. It is a tightrope walk, a daredevil stunt. Part of the pleasure of watching her do it is that you don’t believe she or anyone can pull it off. But the writing is incisive and mercurial, the characters somehow depart from their archetypes to become unique, their experience of the world vivid and layered. As the main character from Black Vodka‘s title story puts it, ‘Better slowly to prove more interesting than I first appear.’

And so it proves. In Levy’s hands, the world of advertising, normally so glib and reductive and lacking in its capacity to really attach itself to human experience, transforms into a research centre for the exploration of the unconscious. Someone laughs uneasily when our hero insists that Vodka Noir has high cheekbones, but why not? He wakes from dreams of Warsaw with tears on his cheeks, ‘transparent as vodka but warm as rain.’ Rain is traditionally cold, but Levy has a Symbolist poet’s eye for telling substitutions. In a description from the story ‘Vienna’, a man muses on his lover:

She is middle Europe, he thinks. She is Vienna. She is Austria. She is a silver teaspoon. She is cream. She is schnapps. She is strudel dusted with white icing sugar. She is the sound of polite applause.

The description goes on, and we are carried with it. It is exhaustive and we never feel she is running out of steam. In these moments it is impossible not to believe in the sheer power of Levy’s imagination and the easy way she renders it in prose. Who cares what she is writing about? She is doing it so well.

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The only time that the collection falters is when the narrative voice strays too far from Levy’s own. ‘Cave Girl’ is the runt of the litter, and will very likely get beaten up by the other stories when you close the cover. In this story, a boy rhapsodises about his sister, who has had a dramatic makeover. There is still a lot of observant detail which carries the narrative forward, but I just don’t believe the voice. Levy can only do one voice – it is her own, and it is exquisite. But I don’t believe in a young boy who would talk in well turned out prose about Ancients, and condensing ‘them’ to ‘em’ or spelling stupid with two Os won’t change my mind. I’m not sure I would even wish to meet a boy who comes out with asides like, ‘Mr Lewinstein, who is quite good-looking I suppose (everyone knows he’s got a mistress in Malta).’ It would be like having to talk to a society girl without the anaesthetic of champagne.

‘Stardust Nation’, on the other hand, is Levy at her best. A strange, dreamlike atmosphere pervades this story about a man and his overly empathetic employee, who becomes confused and begins to tell the story of the protagonist’s life back to him. New information strings the reader along while incantations are introduced, repeated, mutated. What starts as a baffling unreality begins to seem dizzyingly inevitable. Levy writes the story of a man’s breakdown as a kind of thriller, borrowing technically from the genre without bowing to its overworked content. It is like reading an update of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘William Wilson’. The story challenges the myth that only literary realism can speak deeply of people’s inner lives, perhaps even challenges the myth of the inner life as something we create without the collaboration of others.

You should read these stories – nine out of ten, anyway – for their ideas, and the sheer quotability of her writing. Levy puts poetry in her prose, and has the rare ability to make us see our familiar world afresh, ‘like new paint and old pain.’ I will be pressing my copy into the hands of my friends, and I will enjoy talking over the questions they raise about how we construct our selves and whether we can ever outmanoeuvre our past.

 

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