The Uncanny World of Deborah Levy

Beautiful Mutants

The uncanny world of Deborah Levy.


Never forget that you could go crazy: At parties, you could confess to strangers. At dinner, you could upend your plate. The English novelist and playwright Deborah Levy specializes in just this sort of domestic derangement. One of her characters plants pokers in the garden. Another leaves eggs to rot in the kitchen. A third plots to murder the rats that plague the pantry. Levy’s fiction usurps the most familiar furniture, haunting our houses with quiet horrors.

Levy herself is of uneasy origins. She was born in South Africa to a Lithuanian Jewish father and a “posh, English Colonial” mother, as she put it in an interview. Her father, a staunch opponent of apartheid and a member of the African National Congress, was briefly imprisoned for his political affiliations. He was released when his daughter turned 9, and the family immigrated to England shortly thereafter. When Levy made a name for herself in the early 1980s as an “experimental” playwright, she took up the questions of nationality implicit in her biography: In one of her most celebrated early pieces, The B-File: An Erotic Interrogation of Five Female Personas, a handful of women from different countries recite monologues in their native languages, dressed only in bikinis.

When Levy turned to fiction at the end of the 1980s, her novels were just as provocative and cacophonous—just as reminiscent of the jumpy, jumbled New Wave films and psychoanalytically charged surrealist art that she admired as a drama student. Like The B-File, her novels were populated by women who reveled in nudity, both figurative and literal. Her characters confessed their anguish out loud, making scenes that alarmed even the most polite company.

In Levy’s Swimming Home, published in the United States in 2012, the disturbed Kitty Finch rides a pony onto the balcony of a restaurant, where she startles the patrons by feeding her mount sugar cubes off the tables. Before this outburst, Kitty was institutionalized after she was found shivering naked in the streets, claiming she had lost her clothing. Both images are weird, and at once erotic and unsettling. The man Kitty loves obsessively “couldn’t work out why he thought someone as sad as she was might be dangerous.”

Kitty is as beautiful as she is scary, and the nudity in Levy’s writing doesn’t strip away the confusions. Her novels teem with non sequiturs as startling as a horse at a luncheon or a naked girl in the street. Sometimes they dip into verse or scripted fragments; often they veer from speaker to speaker or from reality to dream without warning or explanation. Narratives multiply to bewildering effect. Completely absent are the familiar garments of contextualization. But despite its difficulty, Levy’s work has developed a loyal following, and she has emerged as one of England’s best-loved authors: At 58, she has reached the apogee of mainstream recognition with two appearances on the Man Booker Prize shortlist, one for Swimming Home in 2012, and another in 2016 for Hot Milk, which came out in the United States that same year. Both works retain traces of Levy’s early rawness, but they go in for a more muted lyricism. Their oddity is subtle and slow to surface. Reading them is like walking off into the fog and getting lost there.

By contrast, the brazen sounds of the bizarre go unabated in Levy’s first three novels—Beautiful Mutants (1989), Swallowing Geography (1993), The Unloved (1994)—which have now been assembled in a single volume, The Early Novels, and published by Bloomsbury this year. All three of these earlier books are uneven and careening, and at her worst, the early Levy is unreadably messy. But at her best, she is a connoisseur of the ways that strangeness can start to take root. In none of her fiction do we ever find ourselves fully at home.

Vacations are a voluntary loss of home, and Levy is fascinated by them. She’s also often taking them. In Things I Don’t Want to Know, her monograph on writing and femininity, she jets off to Majorca as early as the third page. Her life is a place she no longer likes, so she reasons: “Why not book a flight to somewhere I actually did want to go?”

Many of her books begin in transit, and most of her characters are émigrés or exiles. Her most recent novel, Hot Milk, is set in Spain, where a half-British, half-Greek heroine named Sofia is always apologizing for the unpronounceability of her last name (Papastergiadis). Swimming Home takes place on the French Riviera, where two British families go on a joint holiday—and where one melancholy vacationer, a poet by the name of Joe Jacobs, represses memories of his escape from wartime Poland on the Kindertransport. Both novels center on characters whose “native” countries are not quite their homes; they are natives of nowhere.

The Unloved, by far the best of Levy’s early novels, unfolds at a château in Normandy, where a diverse roster of international travelers find themselves caught up in a murder. Luciana, a glamorous Italian housewife and clandestine heroin addict, resents her fat German husband, Wilheim; Philippe, a flamboyant Frenchman, dotes on his wife Nancy, who is a suspiciously jovial American and whose mother shot herself when Nancy was a child. Monika, a Pole who is deserted by her aristocratic lover, mopes around the château, while Yasmina, an elderly Algerian woman, sustains a taciturn silence. Two little girls squeal and scamper at the margins. And Mary, pale and English, wanders fully clothed into the freezing winter ocean, from which her concerned boyfriend struggles to extract her. Everyone plays parlor games and makes polite conversation, ignoring how badly the sad, maimed Mary wants to die. At the end of The Unloved, she’s finally gratified—and during a game of Murder in the Dark, no less.

Vacations are supposed to be breaks from normalcy, but all too often they reinforce our habits. Levy is bent on exposing the hypocrisy of holidays that are mere continuations of the lives we left behind. In Swimming Home, the Jacobs family shares a villa with Mitchell and Laura, a feverishly cheerful couple who devote themselves to sunbathing and learning about the local cuisine. The melancholy poet Joe Jacobs eventually snaps: “It’s rude to be so normal, Mitchell. Even you must have been a child once. Even you might have thought there were monsters lurking under your bed.”

The same sorts of niceties intrude and prevail at the château in The Unloved, where life retains its anesthetizing rhythms. Lullingly, Levy outlines the shape of the days there:

There are baths and the cleaning of the bath. Shopping and the carrying of shopping back home. Meals and the preparation of meals, washing up and putting away. The keeping of the fire going, the sweeping of the floor, the washing down of the plastic table-cloth, the pouring of oil into the central-heating system, the rinsing of clothes, the reading of books, the changing into walking boots. The quiet times of people alone, thinking, sleeping, peeling apples, gutting fish.

The setup is comforting: Even the promise of murder evokes the old trope of the detective novel, where the culprit is always the butler and the weapon is always the candlestick. The Unloved embraces and exaggerates this canned theatricality. At times, the scenes are literally scripted. When Monika’s ex-lover comes to dinner with his too-young new girlfriend, dialogue in script form is interspersed among the stage directions and scene-setting. Monika’s face “is powdered into a paler version of herself” so that it “looks like a Noh mask,” for she is “the star player in a drama.” But the script exists only to advertise its own limitations. Monika is “badly, fatally hurt.” Levy knows that “there is no love without rage, that is why the script is ridiculous.”

One of the choreographies that crumple most frequently in the château is that of femininity. During police interrogations with the sadistic Inspector Blanc, Luciana explains that heroin addiction abounds in Frankfurt’s “Hausfrau” circles. What starts out as a standard interview becomes more and more like therapy or confession. When the detective asks if she considers herself a housewife, Luciana gazes off into the distance and replies:

There are days…when I stare into the carpet. We have a lot of carpet in our house in Frankfurt because it is very big. I imported it from Rome. It is blue, the blue of the Mediterranean…. There are days…when I do nothing but stare into the carpet. There are places, near the television set for example, where the blue deepens and I am sucked, abducted, into its dark centre. I am an alien in my own home, floating through the hyperspace of one hundred per cent wool.

The usual questions about alibis and motives yield philosophical meditations on the nature of love and loneliness. When Inspector Blanc asks if Mary’s boyfriend loved her and Luciana responds that “he was attentive,” the policeman “smiles bitterly” and asks, “All of us can imitate love, don’t you agree?” The Unloved delivers a true vacation. But it is also a failed escape, for its characters cannot avoid the traumas they left their homes to outrun.

For many of Levy’s characters, homelessness is a state so familiar that it becomes a kind of home. Lapinski, the protagonist of Beautiful Mutants, is shipped off to London when her parents die in a freak accident in her native Russia. In her new country, she befriends other estranged expats, including the Poet, who speaks in verse, and Martha, whose hand is severed in the machinery at the hamburger factory where she works. “A whole batch of hamburgers will consist of me,” she muses as her blood trickles into the patties.

Beautiful Mutants is a tangled and largely plotless patchwork of voices. It swerves from Lapinski to her faithless lover Freddie, to her bawdy, unnamed male neighbor, to a prostitute who calls herself Tremor, to a heartless female financier known only as the Banker, who proclaims herself “witch, mother, sister, mistress, maiden, whore, nun, princess.” The Banker is one of Levy’s least believable conceits, a screeching effort to capture the manic pitch of the 1980s. She languishes in a blizzard of cocaine and sets fire to the London Zoo, killing the animals in a murderous blaze. “In my prestige apartment,” she proclaims, “I am Madame de Sade.”

Beautiful Mutants trades in interpersonal evictions—intimacies that shade into estrangements. In one striking scene, Lapinski lets Freddie streak her body with pepper: “I begin to sting and smart. The red hot pepper on his fingers and the possibility of love, yearned and dreamt for, the possibility of great love for ever and ever two inches away from my roaring heart.” But Freddie cannot muster up a love that will function as a homecoming for the displaced Lapinski, and he leaves her soon after he seduces her. Beautiful Mutants is likewise disappointing: The tumble of its prose can grow unkempt. The Poet “held onto the bloody threads of each day,” and Levy would do well to emulate her creation; her writing is best when it tracks the strangeness of our world, rather than spinning off into the almost unrecognizable.

But even in her first splintered effort, Levy occasionally achieves beautifully subdued disorientations. The most captivating scene in the early novels appears in Beautiful Mutants, when the Banker and her economist husband are at dinner with a famous pianist and his socialite grandmother. The elderly woman attempts to relate an anecdote about her morning commute but drifts off into reminiscence. It’s as though she’s forgotten that she isn’t talking to herself: “Of the world I grew up in,” she recalls.

The woods a haze of bluebells, oh they looked like a Monet, and the light…if you appreciate light…early-morning mists, cuckoos in spring, the woodpecker, pheasants, wild rabbits. That rose made me think of my own mother in her gardening gloves, pruning her rose bushes; she planned her roses every year and people who visited from the city always took one or two back with them….

Such sincerity is sweet, wincing, and softening, and Levy forces us to wonder what would happen if we allowed ourselves such tender evocations in the presence of near strangers. Would we dissolve into each other? Would the usual borders collapse?

At one of the group dinners in The Unloved, someone casually asks Monika if she has children. Yes, Monika replies, “In Gdansk, I worked in the shipyard…. I was not happy but this is normal. It is normal to be unhappy.” She goes on to recount her brutal rape at the hands of one of her co-workers, as impersonally and matter-of-factly as if she were discussing the weather: “He pulled up my dress and overalls and I knew it was a man. He raped me.” The scene is bracing; it is difficult to read about someone telling the truth in all the ways she isn’t supposed to. And yet the truth that surfaces in Monika’s story doesn’t discomfit her audience because it is unexpected, but because they know it all too well. Of course it’s normal to be unhappy—most of us are. This is what our homes are supposed to protect us from.

In his iconic 1919 essay on the uncanny, Sigmund Freud emphasized that there is a close relationship between possession and dispossession: “the uncanny is that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once known and had long been familiar.” In German, the word for “uncanniness” is Unheimlichkeit, literally “un-at-home-ness”—but the uncanny is an extreme brand of un-at-home-ness, one that assails us at home and makes us un-at-home even there. Its power comes from its repetition, that sense of inescapability we experience in nightmares where we pass through a door only to enter, sickened, into the same room we just left. It makes our closest comforts unsafe again.

Levy, who has adapted two of Freud’s case studies into radio plays for the BBC, trades in this kind of uncanniness: She roots us to her worlds by uprooting us, converting our homes into unfamiliar houses. When, in Swimming Home, the troubled Kitty Finch appears at the Jacobs family’s villa, she disrupts their seaside holiday and seems to invent a new place. In the guest room, she makes “a small, hot, chaotic world, full of books and fruits and flowers.” It quickly emerges that she is mad, that she has followed Joe and his family to the beach because she’s convinced that his poems were intended for her alone. Kitty’s passion is unbearable: “Every moment with her was a kind of emergency, her words always too direct, too raw, too truthful.”

But with her shaky hands and her courageous capacity for suffering, Kitty reminds Joe of his own sadness. In his essay on the uncanny, Freud half-mockingly quotes the popular maxim that love is “a longing for home,” and the new place that Kitty constructs turns out to be a place that Joe already knows: “to have been so intimate with her had brought him to the edge of something truthful and dangerous.” For her part, Kitty resists the comforts of homecoming and opts for the precariousness of Joe’s homesick poems. And she reads Joe the way we should read Levy: as a call to disorientation, and a reminder that when we return from vacation we will always find the old house altered, the windows a little wider, and our tired lives at least a little different.

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