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.