It’s wonderful watching the toxic posh get their comeuppance. Deborah Levy’s novel Swimming Home was shortlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize and is a masterwork of precision malice, a poisoned cocktail of high bourgeoisie, low motives, brittle manners and mean assumptions.
Swimming Home takes a series of cultural clichés and class, sex and national stereotypes and leaves them to fester in the summer sun until all the toxic matter oozes out. Nobody deserves this literary karma more than Levy’s cast of characters: an arrogant and sleazy poet, a desperately gauche pubescent daughter in a clangingly symbolic cherry print bikini, a bickering couple who own a boho antiques shop and a passive aggressive war reporter who’s traumatised from witnessing other people’s suffering. And there is no more apt place for them to confront their own and each other’s whiny demons than the kind of shabby chic villa you find littering the hills of Tuscany and the groves of Provence, full of braying British foodies.
Swimming Home is set in a Mediterranean village of international crapsters, pretentious bohemians, uptight Eurochic and hateful and hate-filled locals. All are provincial and parochial clichés and the general plot of the novel is a cliché too: a group of frenemies renting a holiday home, whose dynamics are disrupted by the arrival of a beautiful young woman of mysterious motive. Anyone who’s watched Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty or Ozon’s Swimming Pool will recognise this set-up instantly. And anyone who’s been to a place like that, on a holiday like that, with people like that, will know that clichés are sometimes true.
Levy is brilliant at taking this much-used template and examining its self-conscious constructions and falsities. All of the older characters are quite deliberately enacting roles, both as individuals and as parts of the group. Privately, they chafe against these fake and thin identities, wondering how they have become trapped inside them. They are appalled at how their past, immense but unspeakable, has ossified around them. Publicly, they express their discomfort through vicious power-plays, mental battles, verbal barbs over the dinner table, insults disguised as jokes, egotistical bluster and brittle, small, symbolic acts of unwillingness or resistance.
This collection of unlikeables and insufferables thoroughly deserves to be drawn into some summertime mind-games. Enter Kitty Finch, who is also at the villa due to an apparent mix-up in rental dates. Kitty is every poor-little-lost-girl cliché you can think of: skinny, sexy, tough-but-vulnerable, dim yet scheming, crackers, manipulative, deceitful, hot but demonic. Even her name is revoltingly, self-consciously fake and minor: a little scratchy cat and a flighty little bird. Through her, the reader can see every damaged ingénue of page and screen, yet in Levy’s expert hands this interloper is shot through with terrible fragility and a sinister edge. Kitty Finch is a good old-fashioned man-worshipper, a grovelling groupie and a coquette who pretends not to be.
I won’t reveal how the poison plays out once everyone’s in place. That would blunt the cold sharp steel of Levy’s story and undercut the effect of its beautiful language. There is one more thing to point out, and it shows Levy’s brilliance at finding a false idea and stabbing it: the trope of a beautiful young woman arriving to disrupt the social and sexual dynamics of a bunch of villa-renting olive-eaters with her untrammelled foxy moxy voodoo lady-mojo is itself a literary delusion. In reality, gamine young women do not have any sexual power, do not wield decisive influence in psychological games, do not and cannot manipulate other people and do not have events centring around them. They are, instead, treated as bimbos and objects: leered at, harassed, exploited, groomed, pimped, used, abused, raped, objectified and then passed off as teases, liars, hysterics, attention-seekers or mad when they speak up. Beauty and sexiness in very young women seem powerful but are not; instead of being wily minxes, these girls are disempowered, isolated and insecure. They have no power to compel, and are victims. Levy smartly, lightly layers all of these images into her construction of Kitty, whose grovelling submissiveness towards the poet is matched only by his sleazy, pathetic susceptibility.
All these nasty people get exactly what they deserve and Levy delivers them to their fates in frozen, perfect, precise prose. Swimming Home is a brilliant novel about awful people; an absorbing narrative about the self-absorbed, whose pain never loses its tinge of pretension.
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy is published by And Other Stories, a small and brilliant press producing gorgeous contemporary books by some of the world most gifted thinkers. And Other Stories, if you're reading this, I would love to make some gorgeous volume with you.